Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Unfinished Symphony

"If music be the food of love play on." This is the famous quote from Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. Seldom has a wiser phrase been uttered. Music is indeed the universal language and although all of us can think of times when we have  heard something that really grated on our ears, I have never met anyone who doesn't like music of some kind. Everybody has at least one piece of music that they love. That song or instrumental interlude which we would wish to have with us if we were stranded on a desert island.

Your taste in music is governed by many things. Where you were born or brought up; what you were exposed to as a youth; what your peers listened to; what your family, school, church or community taught you was good and wholesome. In addition to that there are always the intangibles, maybe just something in the genes that causes you to move instinctively or get goosepimples every time you hear certain compositions. Of course, in growing up in the Caribbean , no response to music could ever be seen as having its basis in physiology. It was always something in the "spirit" that moved you whether it was God in the case of church music or the devil if it was something in the secular world that caused you to shake your waist a little.

When we look  through history, we can see that music has changed with the times, it has been a continuous evolution. Similarly, I see the scientific developments in our world as progressing like a symphony; where instruments come in on cue then drift out sometimes unnoticed having played their respective parts. It is a  flowing piece being composed as it goes along. The universe is an "Unfinished Symphony" and  like Schubert's famous work in B minor,  it is no less beautiful because of its incompleteness.

There is an important lesson we can learn from all this because classical music is generally not as well loved when it  isn't clearly defined. I play music myself and from the time I started out as a a child , my teachers told me that the two most important notes were the first and the last. You had to be emphatic at the beginning so that the audience knew you were starting and not just fumbling about or trying to tune your instrument. You had to grab their attention right away. You also needed a big finish whether it be the high note held out at the end to leave the crowd enthralled or a distinctive slowing down and diminishing of volume before an emotional finale. Yes, get those two parts right and you were almost bound to make a great impression. What happened in between you could often cover up if you were spectacular enough at the two " ends".

I think the believer in God is like the traditional classical music enthusiast. For them the universe just needs a  clear beginning, a definite note to start on, maybe a thunderous strike of the timpani at  the moment of the big bang.  They insist that God has left his time signature there for all to see and if we don't recognise it we are just not looking hard enough. To tell them there was no time before the big bang and that therefore there was no beginning, sounds like noise rather than music, it just doesn't make sense. Similarly, for them the end of time must be triumphant. We cannot reach the finish without the blast of the trumpet when Jesus returns. To say that it all ends suddenly, often  well before the expected fanfare is too depressing for them to contemplate. For them it would make the whole symphony not worth listening to at all and they would be screaming for a refund before they left the concert hall.

We have to admit that all of us have a natural desire to wait for that moment of resolution of a piece of music. Hearing a note that doesn't fit the chord at the end of a piece is off-putting, it makes it sound unfinished. You feel cheated as a listener on those occasions,  it's just not fair to leave you hanging. I remember , listening to the priest chant the liturgy when I used to go to church. It was tedium listening  to things like the "Te Deum" but one thing you could always look forward to was the unmistakable " Awwww- Men" at the end where everybody joined in. This ending is actually very famous in music, the Imperfect cadence." It is so common it is often  referred to as the "Amen" cadence. Could this be the first time religious language has been used to describe something imperfect? I wonder.

It is lovely to have that simplicity and comfort of familiarity in music that things such as the "Amen" cadence bring. The problem is that when it comes to the composition of the universe, rarely do such simple motifs exist. This is because the universe has no composer, arranger or conductor to produce the music in the way we would like. We have to read the music in the way it has evolved in nature. Patterns have definitely emerged but it is by no means as perfectly crafted as the classical score. Indeed, going with the classical when it comes to physics does not always produce "music" that stands the test of time. Newton's Laws to explain  gravity and  the orbits of the planets had  the symmetry and simplicity of patterns that can be seen in Handel's Messiah or a Prelude by Bach. His theory was easy to understand and to apply but in the long run it proved to be an oversimplification and didn't quite represent what was happening in reality. Einstein came later to describe these phenomena using the concept of space-time and general relativity. A far more difficult theory to wrap your head around but it explained everything that Newton did and solved many more mysteries. Today the prevailing " string theory" has echoes of music in its root, but due to the lack of confirming evidence, remains on the fringes of science.

In science unlike music we look for what is real rather than what sounds good. The scientist is more like the jazz musician or the free style improviser. A fiddler rather than a first chair violinist. In jazz there is no manuscript to tell you what note to play but you just groove on the natural flow of  the music emanating around you. As a jazz musician you have to be able to listen rather than read from a piece of parchment. You must hear what the other musicians are " saying" and try to build on what they are doing.  I have had the pleasure of playing in a number of jam sessions of this type and they never fail to enthral me. I enjoy more structured  playing as well but probably not quite as much. Indeed, I always feel more comfortable playing on stage when there is no stand with music in front of me. Maybe this indicates that  freethinking was in my musical  nature long before it took root in a religious sense. It would  be an interesting study to compare the types of music that people of faith prefer compared to the free thinkers. I heard in a recent talk that psychologists have found that persons that are more dogmatic tend to prefer poems that rhyme.

In the Caribbean, classical music may not be the dominant type of music in the evangelical churches but there is still a degree of simplicity to the music that is sung. A few weeks ago I gave an example of one popular one when I adapted the words to the "Shine the Light Medley." The melody is sweet, the lyrics are simple with a repeated chorus that you can grab onto and sing along. It is a "feel good "type of music and with the predictability it is easy to just take part without too much thinking or even close listening.

The contrast to this is the music of the  atheist rapper Greydon Square. What impresses me about Greydon is his use of language and metaphors and how easily it flows on top of the music. Here is where freestyling meets freethinking and the result is a treat to listen to.  The song  "Extain"  above is one of my favourites from him. In the free form structure there is a continuous flow with no clear breaks. No verses and choruses, no sing along call and response, there is a lack of predictability and that makes you listen to the message all the more. What's more is that often you will hear that the last word of one line flows directly   into the line that follows, with lines regularly finishing with unfinished sentences, occasionally the last word of a line is simultaneously the first word of the line following.This is so much what science development is about the end of one line of research provides the start for something new to follow and there are always open ends.

There is no natural end or break  in Greydon's music as there is no natural end or break in the world of scientific discovery. In both cases we are listening to an unfinished symphony. It is great that we never get an "Amen" cadence because it means that we haven't reached the end of the line and there is more to hear and learn.  So, unlike what I was taught at the beginning of my music career I now accept that the beginning and endings are not so important. The movements in the grand unified symphony are what matter. The movement and transitions from one phase of revelation to another.

I remember one morning in Barbados when I went "toe to toe" in discussion which some Jehovah Witnesses that were going house to house. I was telling them how for me the important thing was to read widely, investigate and just keep learning, reevaluating my position all the time. I will never forget the response one of the guys gave me. He said, "But where will it end?" I looked at him incredulously " End? Why would investigation need to end?" I told him. I could see he was equally perplexed by my response. That day I realised that the Christian mindset was very keen on eternal life. I discovered that I, on the other hand, preferred eternal learning. Christians are scared of physical death being the end but I am far more worried of the prospect of the death of  new things to learn about. I guess either way, ends can be scary, but  I will try not to concentrate on them, because you quite simply can't predict them. We all know they must come and quite often when we least

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