Music is not mere "auditory cheesecake"—it tunes the engines of self-awareness. That's why I ration my intake of Arvo Pärt and drive to the Small Facesby Paul Broks / June 19, 2005 / Leave a comment
A gust of wind. The woman’s wig flies off and spins across the supermarket car park like a cartwheeling cat. The man gives chase. Ha ha. Funny. Except that I am the man and the woman is my wife, and she is crushed. She stands, rooted, hands on her baby-bald head, eyes welling. “Don’t worry, Mum,” my son reassures. “No one saw.” Later, in the middle of the night, I lie suspended between resolve and despair. My wife is asleep. Her skin smells faintly of chemotherapy. I am listening, through earphones, to music so simple and profound that resolve and despair dissolve away. Now, more than two years later, we smile at the image of the cartwheeling cat. I can re-run the scene with relative detachment, but I can’t listen to Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel without a ghostly lightening of my bones.
I came to know Pärt’s music through Fraser, a rock climber who liked to climb solo without a rope. “Deathbed music,” he grinned, handing me a recording of Tabula Rasa. It was, he claimed, popular with the dying. I listened and saw why. The simple patterns and progressions, the mysterious tones, and the perfect, unresolved silence at the end of the second movement seemed to lead close to the edge of being. This was solvent for the soul. Since falling from the great limestone wall at Malham Cove, dropping among the Sunday strollers on a summer’s afternoon, Fraser had journeyed in and out of existence. His current self was not the original. His employer didn’t think so, and nor did his wife, but he was doing fine with a part-time job and a new girlfriend. The brain injury had dislocated him physically, mentally and socially, but he had reassembled himself in modified form and was happy enough with the new configuration. Music had been the blueprint and the glue. Through music he found connection with his old self, and reconciliation with the new. He gave me a cassette—a quasi-random compilation of musical flotsam drifting from the wreckage of his brain: Bach, I remember; Rautavaara, I think; Coltrane; Led Zeppelin (“Nobody’s Fault but Mine”); and the deathbed music of Arvo Pärt. Of course, it was anything but random. It charted the journey from Fraser one to Fraser two.
Ethnomusicologists point to the collective functions of music: its use in ritual and ceremony; its contribution to the continuity and…