Saturday, March 5, 2016

Universal Treasures

Music is ubiquitous. It accompanies the celebration of a baptism, a birthday, a wedding, an anniversary, a march into battle. It also sustains us as we grieve at funerals. And beyond the decisive moments, music is also with us in the everyday moments. It is part of worship in churches, mosques and temples. It is the lifeblood of a carnival, it is that ‘very personal’ song between lovers, it is the throbbing beat from spectators at a sporting event, the anthem we sing, the background score to the films we watch, the insidious, and sometimes, irritating ambient tracks in a lift or lobby, the live music in a concert hall, at a party or from a busker on the street, the bedtime song we sing our children, the whistling in the dark, the singing in the shower, the aerobics accompaniment, on the car radio, on home stereos, on personal headphones; in fact you can think of hundreds of different scenarios where music is part of our lives.

Music is also universal in that in some form or the other, it is created, performed and enjoyed across races and cultures. Afro, bhangra, bel canto, boogie, bolero, calypso, carnatic, celtic, cha-cha, flamenco, ghazal, hillybilly, hindustani, jazz, polka, qawwali, rumba, salsa, samba, swing…the exercise of simply listing out some music styles throws up a rainbow of impressions of each culture and geography that gave birth to each of these genres.

Researchers from McGill University and University of Montreal in Canada and Technische Universität Berlin in Germany played specific musical compositions to two extremely different groups - first, to forty Mebenzélé Pygmies in the Congolese rainforest and second to forty Canadians. The findings (published in the journal 'Frontiers in Psychology', 07 January 2015) showed that the music (including both western pieces and Mbenzélé melodies) elicited similar types of responses in both groups for key musical characteristics such as tempo, pitch and timbre.

If I were to briefly list a few of the memorable moments in cinema that I recall involving some form of appreciation of music, it becomes clear to me that art is indeed a universal language:

In ‘The Mission’, Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) scales the mighty Iguazu Falls in South America and, reaching the jungle above the Falls, he sits down and plays his oboe. The fearsome Guarani warriors who emerge from the jungle, ready to strike down the intruder, are instinctively captivated by the music and let him live.

In ‘The Shawshank Redemption’, prison inmate Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) (wrongly convicted of murder and serving time at Shawshank State Penitentiary, managed by a cold and brutal warden) does the unexpected when he locks himself in the room in which the warden’s LP record player is located. He then plays a recording of Mozart's ‘Le nozze di Figaro’ over the prison P.A. system. In a prison where not even basic human rights are honoured, the divine music wafting out to all the prisoners is a lifeline for many (although it results in Andy being mercilessly beaten by the prison guards after they break down the locked door).

In 'The Prince of Tides', football coach, Tom Wingo (Nick Nolte) is saying his farewell to the young violinist and football beginner, Bernard Woodruff (Jason Gould) at the train station. He makes a final request to the boy before the train arrives. He asks him to play the violin for him. The boy promptly opens his violin case, takes up his violin and plays with astounding passion and artistry in the midst of the bustling station. The coach is moved and says something to the effect that if he could play the violin like that, he would never touch a football.

In the end, when we respond instinctively to music, we are giving ourselves the opportunity of shared experiences with people who we may never have engaged with otherwise. This video of two strangers improvising together on a piano at a train station in France reiterates this truth in a disarmingly effective manner. Enjoy!

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