Music matters when we hear it. Music especially matters when we hear it together, in the same room, when we can see each other’s reactions, when we can pattern our own reactions on the reactions of our peers, when we can see how our bodies are enlivened in the same basic way. Music matters when it brings energy to our blood. Music matters when it unifies a crowd of thousands of strangers.
Music also matters in solitude. Liturgical music, or music that spills out of an open wound, or music that intends to connect the stars, or music that sounds the way the wrinkles in tree bark look; this kind of music also matters. Music matters when it makes solitude feel like a blessing and not a curse. I’ve spent more time alone than I’ve spent with other people — most people probably have. The music that mattered to me first, most, was the music that made solitude good.
The pandemic has sentenced all of us to solitude. Many people have defied the sentence, living like they did before an airborne virus made every public space a potential killer. It’s heavy mental lifting to invert your conception of what it means to be with people, to accept that, the moment you walk into the supermarket, your friend’s living room, the bus, a train, a waiting room, you’re putting your life at risk. Something you can’t see may or may not be saturating the air, infiltrating your body, and doing its best to kill you. No one wants that to be how life is now, and so lots of people have lived as if it isn’t. But it is.
What does that mean for music? Indeed, there’s an element of music that was never born and can never die; it’s the way our music connects to birdsong, or to the crashing of ocean waves, or to the roar that radiates from the surface of the sun. Or the vibrations that result as quantum fields collide and produce existence as we know it (supposedly). This is the vibration at the core of being, the offshoot of a desire native to all matter, the reason why any atoms ever moved in the first place (supposedly). The presence or absence of humanity won’t impact this element of music. The presence or absence of COVID-19 won’t do anything to this side of things.
But it changes us. Many people still go to shows; let them. Many more people don’t. I don’t. When I picture a roomful of strangers, strangers whose habits and social involvements are unknown, whose lungs are therefore full of unvetted air, I think of dying. The fact that a musician may be the reason the people have gathered in that room means that, when it comes to socializing, human beings are like moths to a flame — we are so compelled by the luminous feeling we get from each other that we’ll die for it.
That’s a mental image; the image that I live every day is an image of relative solitude. I’m lucky to live with my family. My mother, father, stepmother, and two brothers have acted as precious social lifelines through the pandemic, other human beings in whom my thoughts can resonate and fly back altered. My regular social world has narrowed to five people who have known me for decades. Most people’s social worlds have narrowed squarely to them.
What music exists for us?
What music was written to address this level of solitude? What music was ever composed without the idea that it would someday illuminate a crowd of thousands? Newly written music is a composite of previously written music. Music is an intergenerational conversation designed to link people, to provoke their intermingling. What music was ever composed for a people whose mere intermingling could signal death?
When I think about it, I know that music has been born in comparable conditions. I think of slave chants, composed by people whose days were death, whose lives were non-lives in the eyes of their captors, whose every minute could mean the end, for no reason. I think of “Amazing Grace,” composed by a man — a slaveowner — in a death-level storm, depicting the peace that dawned in the specter of death. I think of soldiers’ songs, songs by suicidal artists, songs by people looking for God and not finding Him, songs that, in all likelihood, people wrote in Europe during the bubonic plague.
These songs were all driven by the imminence of death, the presence of death, the scent and the smell and the spirit of death. In the case of the bubonic plague, they were written about the invisible tyrant, the unseeable disease that laid so many low. Similar to COVID. When I think about it, I know how likely it is that songs were written by people who could not or would not go outside — who, because of danger or fear or weakness or disease or crime or punishment, were confined to a single space forever.
When I think about it, I can see how this moment is not unique, not unprecedented in the span of human history. There are historical and musical artifacts that arose from similar conditions and may tell us something about ours. Regardless, most of the people living today have never endured anything like this. Most of us have always known that seeing each other as possible, at least, and many of us are lucky enough to have had vibrant social lives which pivoted around our music. Relatively few of us have ever had to endure enforced solitude, have ever had to conceive of our friends and family as potential, unwitting killers.
This psychological event is not new for humans, but for new humans, this psychological event is new.
We need every kind of music because music is spiritual sustenance. Music doesn’t feed you, clothe you, or house you, true, but food, money, and shelter don’t have any impact on your soul. Too much of one kind of music is like giving the plant too much water and too little sunlight. Too much solitude gives us a gulf of communal need; it’s a collective loneliness no music is fit to address.
Overloaded by solitude, music’s blade is blunted.
I don’t doubt that the vaccinated world will come, and with it, bring music in a role that closely resembles its old role. Music will be our communal nexus again. Music will be written and performed that executes this purpose. It’ll be the same, yet different, yet the same, yet the memory of having lost it for a year, two years, however long, will color it a different shade. That’s the shade that defines our days now; a shadow, indeed, that seems inescapable. Some people died, did not escape it. Millions. Those of us who didn’t die will know that music matters most when it speaks equally for the living and the dead.