Tuesday 13 May 2014

Music and War

These are the opening paragraphs of my chapter from Left Field on the work of the Pavarotti Music Centre.

The Bible says, ‘In the beginning was the word’. Wrong. First there was the rhythm. From the time of the Big Bang, it is the beat that gives the cosmos its pulse. All else may be chaos, but it is there, in mathematical time, something primordial. In one sense, however, the Bible was right. Man’s first attempt to communicate involved rhythm, movement and dance which represented the first language, the first word.

At the time of what Engels called ‘primitive communism’, when homo sapiens were hunter-gatherers, humans signalled to each other by beating stick on stick, stone on stone. The first vocal syllables were whistles and calls based on rhythmic patterns which allowed human communication to take place.

Rhythm was there, at the start of everything. It was there at the start of our species and at the start of our individual lives. Whether or not we evolved from the sea, we all emerged from the waters of our mothers and water is a perfect transmitter of sound. Try placing a waterproof watch at one end of a swimming pool. Get there early in the morning, when no one else is around, and ask a friend to swim underwater to the far end of the pool and ask them what they can hear.

Both the heart of the foetus and that of the mother beat to a time cycle of three/four: dash dash, dum dum, dum dum, dum dum. Mother and baby are in syncopated rhythm. They have individual rhythms which meet to form a third. Sounds exterior to the womb may also be heard and absorbed. Many pregnant women will tell you that they are aware their babies react to external sounds.

So music and rhythm, or rhythm and music to be chronologically correct, are central to our lives. It is a physical and emotional link, both to something in us and beyond us, linking us to the music of the spheres. Music can move us to extremes of joy or sadness, elation or depression. Perhaps it is a piece we associate with some event in our life: when we first kissed, when we went to our first teenage party, when we first made love. This musical association is strong in all of us. Perhaps it is with Albinoni’s “Adagio”, Mozart’s “Clarinet Concerto”, Ali Farka Toure, blues, a song sung by Ella Fitzgerald or John Lee Hooker, an Indian raga, hip hop or drum and bass. In all of types of music, we can be emotionally, and even physically, moved.

If you project sound waves at piles of sand, iron filings, water or mercury, you can create varied patterns, from spirals to grids. Given the sound conductivity of water and its high level in the human body, it is hardly surprising that our cells react to sound vibrations, even those at the far end of the spectrum which we are unable to hear. With this knowledge, holistic healers place vibrating forks close to the energy field of the human body and hospitals use high-pitched sound to shatter kidney and gall stones. Conversely, the negative side of the use of sound are experiments undertaken by the US military and other governments, utilizing sound waves as a weapon of war. Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo have shown us that music itself can be a weapon.

It has been argued that the vibrational energies of different notes affect different areas of the body. For instance, C major affects the bones, lower back, legs and feet. D major transmits energy waves to the kidneys and bladder, lymphatic and reproductive systems and skin and A major is related to pain and pain control.

Perhaps it is for this reason that in ancient Egypt, the hieroglyph for music was also that for well-being and joy. But what about music in negative, non-joyful situations, in war? When the lights go out, leaving hunger and the threat of death, you will still find music.

In 1993 and 1994, I was in cellars in Sarajevo and Mostar. Shells were exploding, the snipers were at work, but people, particularly young people, gathered together and, if they could not listen to music, as there was often no power, they played it. The louder the shelling, the louder their music. It was an expression of defiance, a testament to the survival of the one thing that kept them human in an inhuman situation—the primordial language of rhythm and music which connected them to their essence.

A young soldier in Mostar visited me after his time on the front line, a Kalashnikov on one shoulder and a guitar on the other. He tapped the guitar and told me, ‘A much better weapon’. . . . . .