In Defence of Classical Music
(ABC Books 2005)
Music, we are always told, is an international language. The people who insist on this seem very sure they are defining a positive condition. Sometimes, in a distant echo of Gertrude Stein, we hear that 'music is music', which I suppose amounts to the same thing. Apparently it does not matter where on this planet one travels, music will open those doors that remain stubbornly barred to mere verbal languages.
I do not believe that music is an international language. To be precise, I don't believe it is either international or a language. If music were a language, then as the composer Luciano Berio once pointed out, it ought to be possible to say something very precise in it, something like: 'I'm sorry', or 'Would you please pass the butter?'. It also be ought to be possible to translate a spoken language into music and music into a spoken language, doubtless with the same difficulties over semantic nuance encountered in any other translation, but full of confidence, nonetheless, that one's apology will be registered and that one will be handed the butter, not the salt. Nobody seriously believes that this is how music works. With some justification we might describe all or most pieces of music as the products of organisational systems, but certainly not of a single, international system.
If music were genuinely international, it would be possible for people in Nagasaki, Nairobi and Noosa equally to appreciate a raga from northern India, mouth music from the Outer Hebrides and Brahms's German Requiem; the singing of Kiri Te Kanawa and Tom Waits would both be immediately understood in Sarawak; the intricacies of Chinese opera would be readily comprehended by all sensitive Belgians. I suppose there must be Belgians passionate about Chinese opera, but my hunch is that there are not many of them. And among the citizens of Antwerp and Ghent who do stay home of an evening with their DVDs of The Peony Pavilion, there can surely be very few who catch the musical nuances in the same way that an audience in Shaanxi would catch them.
It is possible to find oneself inexplicably moved by all manner of music. I expect that most people have had the experience of being stopped in their tracks by music the like of which they had never before heard. But the key word here is 'inexplicably'. Music—like language—is full of sounds and signs that are culturally specific; even if you understand the words in a foreign language, you will not necessarily catch the subtleties of meaning. For that matter, speaking the same language is itself no guarantee of ready comprehension. I once eavesdropped while someone from Glasgow attempted communication with someone from Birmingham, Alabama. George Bernard Shaw's remark about two countries divided by a common language formed an insistent mental counterpoint to the whole bizarre catastrophe.
Most of those who like to believe that music is an international language know, in fact, that it is nothing of the sort. They are reminded of this every day, because, while wishing music to be pleasant, predictable and reassuring—healing, even—or morally uplifting and inspiring, or at the very least something they can follow and recognise as music, they are always running up against sounds that confound their expectations. Most people can name at least some music that baffles them entirely. Finding themselves in such a situation, some will take offence, going so far as to deny, and vigorously, that what they are listening to is music at all. 'You call that music? That's not music.'
There is no reason why one person should not appreciate all types of music equally, but there is also no very good reason why this should be a common achievement. Most of all, an appreciation of music depends upon experience. If one hears a lot of a particular sort of music, one will very likely come to appreciate it (liking it is another matter). But if one is deprived of the opportunity to listen to it in the first place, then obviously there is no reason why one would appreciate it at all. In the context of this wider discussion, Western art music—classical music, the music of the concert hall and the opera house—is a special and urgent case. It is becoming harder and harder to hear this music, and yet I am starting to believe that we need it more and more.