Sunday, 29 January 2012

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

In Cuba we used to call her "La Dama de Hierro" and not precisely because of a particular leaning towards watercress and its benefits. The English "th" sound of her surname was pronounced as a Spanish "t". Aged ten or eleven, I remember being given a badge that read "Las Malvinas son Argentinas". At the time I didn't know that Las Malvinas were a group of islands off the coast of Argentina, nor that the English translation was Falklands. And stories abounded - apocryphal, probably - that she urinated whilst standing.

It's hard to find a more polarising historical and political figure than Margaret Thatcher in recent times. The middle ground is usually vacated when previous cabinet members, union leaders and analysts sit down to talk about her legacy. The Marmite effect could well be applied to this grocer's daughter who rose through the ranks of the Conservative party to become Britain's first female Prime Minister. You either love her or hate her.

It would be hypocritical of me, however, to say that she awakens those same kinds of sentiments in me. I was eight when she came to power and nineteen when she resigned. Her name and role were as alien to me during my childhood and adolescence as freedom of speech was in 1980s Cuba. Fidel didn't like her for obvious reasons: Maggie was a close ally of Ronald Reagan, the actor-turned-president who, according to Gil Scott-Heron's song "B" Movie, 'acted like an actor...Hollyweird' and tightened the screws on the economic embargo against Cuba during his administration.

But now, The Iron Lady is back in fashion, courtesy of Meryl Streep, who gives a tour de force in a film based on Thatcher's twilight years, more specifically her battle with dementia.
To an outsider like me, this fixation with the former PM is both fascinating and frustrating. The former, because it's one of those rare moments when the famous British upper lip disappears, only to be replaced by a passion hard to match. The latter because, argumentative as I can be sometimes, I have hardly any grounds to debate her premiership or her legacy. All I'm left with is the immigrant's perennial companion: the "what ifs". So, today, this will be a "what if" column.

In my time in the UK, I have met people who have either praised Thatcher for the direct benefit her policies brought them, or slagged her off for the havoc she allegedly wreaked. The first group is usually made up of rightwing politicians, businesspeople who took advantage of Thatcher's deregulation of the economy in the 80s and landlords who started their lives as working-class, council house dwellers but who managed to buy their own property after Thatcher relaxed the rules on social housing. I sometimes wonder whether, had I been born in 1961 instead of '71, I would have reaped the same rewards for becoming one of Britain's many entrepeneurs at the time. This idea is often offset against what I've learned from people living at the time in what they describe as a very volatile atmosphere full of riots and strikes.

The second group, those who criticise Thatcher, is composed for the most part of union leaders, public sector workers, left-leaning intellectuals and feminists. Given my political views, it's the sector of British society with which I feel more attuned. Would I have found the same common ground with them back in the 80s? I don't know, possibly. But then, again, possibly not.

There is, however, a third group that could be seen as a spin-off from the second one to which I referred above. It consists mainly of women who are not afraid of using the "f" word to explain their philosophy and creed : feminism. To them, Mrs T represented the ultimate betrayal of the principles of feminism.

Several questions arise from this attitude, though: are there any grounds for considering Margaret Thatcher a feminist? Did she ever ask to be addressed as one? Could she, perhaps, have been an unintentional one? If no to the previous three questions, why the fixation with Mrs T's lack of feminist credentials when she didn't run (and this, I know for sure) on a feminist ticket during the 1979 general election (or any election thereafter)?

The answers don't come easily. Yet, even the most hardcore Thatcher critic must acknowledge that by breaking through the political, gender and class glass ceiling she, unwittingly, paved the way for other women to, if not join the political arena, at least try to see female success in politics as an achievable goal.

On the economy, one of Thatcher's most contentious areas, she even clashed with her own party over certain policies whose aim was supposedly to level the playing field for the less well-off. I mentioned council tenants before. By being allowed to buy their own property they were also creating wealth. This had two effects: one was the emergence of a new middle-class and the other the privatisation of accommodation that had hitherto been government-run. The former didn't please the politicians occupying the upper echelons of the Conservative Party, especially the old fogeys who wanted to keep the status quo the way it had always been and who were not interested in consorting with people who until then had been seen as nothing more than plebs. The latter element widened the gap between rich and poor and had a knock-on effect on the UK property market in years to come. Still, I imagine that if I'd been a council tenant in the early 80s with enough cash to buy my own house, I would have probably taken a dim view of the criticism heaped on the person making my purchase possible.

This is one of the reasons why I think it's mistaken to lambast Maggie for her lack of feminist credentials. I don't think she ever set out to have any. It's a similar situation to what we've seen with Obama and issues affecting African-Americans. Narrow down your policies to just address problems within your own gender or ethnic group and you won't make it past the primaries.

There's been, however, an ironic twist of fate of late. Currently a group of female Tory MPs are trying to adopt the "f" word as part of their political raison d'être. All of a sudden what drives Louise Mensch, Theresa May et al is the need to tackle gender inequality. A laudable position indeed, until you scratch the surface and realise that their agenda is led by a firm belief that the free market is and will always be the great economic leveller. And yet, it was the unchallenged power of the free market that's took us down the path of financial crisis in 2008. Which culminated with Labour out of office, a coalition moving into Number 10 and the worst cuts ever to sweep through the public, statutory and voluntary sectors in living memory. And the most affected section of society? Women.

There is, I'm sure, much to complain about Margaret Thatcher's time in office. There was, as I understand, a lot of unemployment and social unrest throughout most of her premiership. Her Friedmanite approach to the economy, pioneered by her goverment in the 80s and supported by New Labour in the 90s and noughties, have left the UK dependent on investment banks and hedge-fund managers who hold everyone, including Westminster, to ramson. Not a lot is manufactured in the UK nowadays and the country has gone from being a major producer to being a major consumer.

Still, everytime I see a red bus with Meryl Streep's mug beaming down on me I can't stop thinking about the "what ifs" scenarios.Enough to make me feel frustrated, I can assure you.


Next Post: “Killer Opening Songs”, to be published on Wednesday 1st February at 11:59m (GMT)

Photo taken from The Iron Lady movie blog.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Urban Diary

I got to the high street and looked both ways. The newsagents was still there. The Jamaican takeaway was open for business. The pound shop was busy as usual. And the new bus depot kept swallowing buses up at one end and throwing them up at the other. Yet, there was a detail missing from this urban landscape.

I should have known. The death knell had been tolling for some time and after several painful months the long, slow-moving red monster let out its last gasp. I already miss it. And so will thousands of Londoners, who, like me, came to appreciate its functional and practical design.

The bendy buses, introduced by the previous Mayor, Ken Livingstone, in 2001, made the lives of many people in the British capital easier. Shoppers dragging heavy trollies loved the fact that they could go in through any of its three doors. Wheelchair-users found them disabled-friendly, not a word you can use about transport in London very often. I frequently carried my own daughter's pram when she was little. in one of them. They could fit more people than a double-decker.

There were downsides, too. The easy access was manna from heaven for fare-dodgers. The way bendy buses slithered around corners posed a threat to cyclists who risked the possibility of being crushed to death by one of these metallic beasts.

But in their own, unique London way, bendy buses were beautiful. Seeing passengers boarding the three doors was like witnessing little brooks joining a snaking, long river. The zigzagging movement reminded me of a gigantic, red Chinese dragon parading through the capital's streets.

There's another reason for this trip down memory lane (on a bendy bus, naturally). When my mum first came to visit me in 2003, we both boarded one and immediately she uttered the words I knew she would: "It's like the acordiones in Cuba! Remember?" Of course, mum, I do remember. Route 222 to La Lisa, route 76 to Santiago de las Vegas. We had our own bendy buses, too, our acordiones (literally, "accordion", after the musical instrument).

But this strange synchronicity between the city where I was born and the one where I now live will never be relived again. I mourn the passing of the bendy buses and with it, the disappearance of a practical, beautiful and polarising landmark of London life.

Photo taken from the BBC

© 2012

Next post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on SuTnday 29th January at 10am (GMT)

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

It's been a strange few weeks for race, and all matters to do with it, in the UK. We've gone from the very ugly to the very absurd. An example of the former was the horrible murder of the Indian student Anuj Bidve in Salford on Boxing Day. We've also seen justice partially done at last in the Stephen Lawrence case, the black teenager killed in 1993 by a bunch of white thugs. At the other end of the racial spectrum, we've had the odd spectacle of Liverpool Football Club players wearing T-shirts with the image of the Uruguayan striker Luis Suárez on the front in support of their teammate, who was accused of racially abusing Manchester Uniterd defender Patrice Evra. It was a scene so absurd that I thought I was watching a movie by Luis Buñuel instead.

Underlying these events there are two questions on many people's lips: Is Britan still racist? And if so, how racist? Sometimes the latter is the only question that is asked, as if assuming ipso facto that the UK is still a hostile place to newcomers, especially if their skins are dark.

From my experience as a black immigrant in GB, I tend to answer with a yes and no to the first question. Is Britain still racist? Well, no. But also, yes.

The negative response is based on what doesn't happen on a regular basis. Racist attacks like the one that ultimately took Stephen Lawrence's life are a rarity. Racist language against black or Asian people is not the norm. Likewise, we tend to celebrate our diversity nowadays, rather than slag it off. When I speak to people who were either born here or who have lived for a considerable amount of time in this country, they tell me scary stories of times gone by that would have probably planted doubts in my mind about relocating to London from Havana. These are tales about deeply prejudiced police officers bent on making black people's lives as difficult as possible for no reason. They recount stories about discrimination in the job market in the past. Yet, I think that we've moved a long way away from those kinds of attitudes.

So, then, if this panacea is commonplace in the UK why the "yes" to the question of whether Britain is racist or not?

Because the racial intolerance I have seen and felt is not of the jackbooted type but of the kind I call "polite racism" (©, ). It's not the racism that leads a group of xenophobes to firebomb a house just because black immigrants live in it. It's the type that is delicately expressed in civilised circles. And it respects no political allegiances or geography. From the right we get condemnation, from the left patronising. This happens in London and Miami. In Hong Kong and Havana. The result is the same. We have been allocated a place in society and we'd better not forget it. You can raise your head high and proud as much as you like, but be careful, dear, you might bang it against the glass ceiling right above you. And if you dare to protest against this type of subtle, racial bigotry, you'll be labelled an "angry black woman". Or man. There are various ways in which "polite racism" manifests itself.

One is to overlook black people because of a - false - assumption that we're not capable of performing certain tasks, especially if the job at hand demands the use of one's brain. You see, we're sporty and physical by nature, but brainy? Nah, we'll leave that to those who know, usually of a lighter shade of pale.

Even in the sports arena where we're supposed to shine, stereotypes are plentiful. If I go back to football for a moment, we see how Chelsea's black Ivorian striker Didier Drogba is often referred to in terms of his muscular prowess and his bull-like strength, whereas an equally talented centre-forward like Arsenal's Dutchman Robin van Persie (a white player), is spoken of in terms of his clever technique. However, anyone who follows the English Premier League knows that Drogba's knack for outplaying defenders is rooted in his technical abilites as well as his physical ones. As for van Persie and the way he outmuscles centre-backs, any Chelsea fan, like me, experienced, sadly, a fine display of top-rate brawny power recently when the Gunners beat the Blues 5-3 at Stamford Bridge. The Dutchman scored a hat-trick and used every single fibre in his body to achieve his feat.

The other way in which "polite racism" shows its ugly, but ever so subtle, face is by denying us opportunities. I remember applying for a job in Havana as a tour guide. I not only spoke English, one of the main prerequisites, but also French and German. My interview took place whilst doing a mock tour with one of the guides. The one who normally dealt with French-speaking tourists and by the end of my dress rehearsal she said to me: "I cannot see you not getting this job!" Well, I didn't. Instead the vacancy was filled up by a blue-eyed, blond lady who, according to the same tour guide who had praised me during my trial, could hardly put two words in English together.

Whilst racist violence is more lethal, in the long term polite racism hurts deeper and its effects are longer-lasting. It erodes our confidence, it creates an unreal image of black and Asian people and it triggers off conflicts between generations.

However, I cannot and do not want to play the victim card. Because for polite racism to exist, there has to be very often a collusion between the executer and the executed. This sometimes takes the form of "impostor syndrome" with the tacit approval of the person on whom the label is foisted. There seems to be almost a universal understanding amongst black people of what a black person is, or should be. Or the type of music to which he/she should listen. Or the kind of literature he/she should read (that is, supposing that they're allowed to read). Sorry, peeps, I never got the memo.

For instance, I remember going to see the Azerbi pianist Aziza Mustafa Zadeh a couple of years ago at the Cadogan Hall. I've championed her music on this blog several times. That night the theatre, though not packed, was certainly almost full. At the end of the concert as my wife and I were getting ready to go out, I caught sight of a black woman in the audience. Until then it hadn't occurred to me that there were any other black people in the theatre. That was because I wasn't thinking of myself of anything other than a human being enjoying one of the most beautiful sounds to ever come out of a piano. For a fleeting second the woman and I stared at each other and in that brief instant a multitude of questions ping-ponged between us. Did you see anyone else like us? You mean who looked like us? Yes. As in black? Yes. No, and you? No, me neither. What did you think of the concert? It was marvellous. Why do you think we were the only... You mean the only black people? Well, she's Azerbi, isn't she? So, she caters to that group. And maybe to Georgians and Armenians, too. So, what about you? What's your story? Why, if you're not Azerbi, are you here? And what about them?

Them. "Them" was the ubiquitous chattering classes, the "alternative" middle-class for whom there are no colour, gender, nationality or any other kind of barriers. They were also in attendance that night, and why shouldn't they have been? You might think that my conclusion at the time was to blame this forward-thinking group for the absence of other minorities in the auditorium. You're wrong. I didn't blame them at all. I blamed us. You see, in more than fourteen years in the UK, I've never seen a sign reading: "No blacks", or "No Asians". Were I to see one, I would contest it straight away. And I would use the law if I had to. In the same way that the - usually - well-off, metropolitan, middle-class doesn't deny themselves any pleasures because they don't think in terms of colour, gender, or nationality, neither should we. Culture is universal.

This attitude, which I call "racial self-mutilation" is prevalent in black, Asian and other minority communities in contemporary western societies. It ignores the radical changes that have occurred in the last couple of decades. The danger is that whilst the top echelons of our political, economic and social hierarchy continue to be occupied by the well-heeled, middle-/upper-class, middle-aged and often male members of our nation, we're locked, meanwhile, into a self-hatred cycle from which it's very difficult to break. I think that the first course of action should be to look at ourselves in the mirror and say: "You're going in the wrong direction! Stop saying, gimme, gimme, gimme, and start taking instead and believing that you're entitled to what you're taking, without telling a soul". By the way, that was a metaphore, not a call to looting. Just in case.

When I first heard of Stephen Lawrence's murder, one element caught my attention. He wanted to be an architect. Neither a rapper, nor a footballer, but a person who designed buildings, who injected life into inanimate objects. He wanted to be part of London, or by default, the UK's burgeoning, creative industries. Not that there's anything wrong with being a rapper or footballer, but when every other black child tells you that that's what they want to do when they grow up, you start wondering about horizons, mind, expansion, aspirations, stereotypes and predictability. And you can't blame racism for that. Or at least not directly. Of course, there's a history behind it and colonialism and slavery are still fresh in the mind. But where's our individual power? Where are our future Stephen Lawrences?

Cases like Stephen and Anuj Bidve are clear-cut as to how the public react to them. I would dare to say, or would like to believe, rather, that 99.9% of the population in the UK condemned the actions that took the lives of these two young men and they will condemn similar actions were they to happen again. That's one reason to feel optimistic. It's also the main reason why, come the summer, we'll be welcoming visitors from all over the globe during the Olympic Games. However, when it comes to polite racism, there's much more to be done and at times it feels like a Sisyphean task for those of us who have the responsibility of educating younger minds. And it's not just down to one side. Because at the end of the day, the problem is not just external, but also intermal. And that, my peeps, it's a harder truth to swallow.

© 2012

Next Post: “Urban Diary”, to be published on Wednesday 25th January at 11:59pm (GMT)

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts

"The traffic grew worse by the day. There seemed to more cars every evening. As the jams grew worse, so did Pinky Madam's temper. One evening, when we were just crawling down M.G. Road into Gurgaon, she lost it completely. She began screaming.

'Why can't we go back, Ashoky? Look at this fucking traffic jam. It's like this every other day now.'

'Please, don't begin that again. Please. '
'Why not? You promised me, Ashoky, we'll be in Delhi just three months and get some paperwork and go back. But I'm starting to think that... that bastard today who overtook me... Jesus, I can't believe the way some people drive! At first I thought "All right, all right, he's got a kid in the back, maybe he's running late for school, you know, the usual, I can sympathise, I also do the school run, but the way he cut in in front of me... Man, I would have skinned the little bugger if I'd laid my hands on him!

The mind wanders sometimes. My mind, I mean. It's a funny process how my eyes wander off the page and my subsconscious takes over. I imagine my brain as a hunter, sitting down, waiting patiently, stalking and waiting some more. Until the precise moment when my guard is down and it can send all kinds of unrelated thoughts and images into my head. Usually, when I'm reading a book.

I'm not one of those readers who get distracted easily. Having been born and raised in Cuba, I'm almost totally inured to external influences. Try preparing for a dissertations whilst waiting for route 98, destination La Lisa, or reading Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest on board of an M1 (that's a camel, by the way, not a real one, c'mon, Cuba, tropical island, you know, but a bus that resembles one). Pressed against someone else's armpit or smelling someone's foul breath after they've just had a cigarette, that was me, book in hand, and the other hand in my pocket. Wallets and purses had a habit of going walkies in those days. I could tell you stories that would make you laugh... or cry.

But, no, I don't get distracted easily. Why, then, does my mind occasionally wander off the page, leaving me with images and words that are completely unrelated to the text I'm reading? It's not that the picture in my head and the subsequent narrative are non-sequiturs; they're indeed a follow-through to the previous idea. But still, they're neither part of the plot, nor conducive to the enactment of a situation belonging to the book in which I'm immersed.

An explanation beckons, of course, and I think that there are a few elements to consider. First of all, this phenomenon doesn't occur with just any book, but with special ones. The fragment with which I opened this post belongs to The White Tiger, a novel that had me under its spell from the word go. Aravind Adiga's story about Balram Halwai and his unorthodox approach to business  is raw. His voice is original and his vision unique. The plot is strong and well-constructed and the characters believable. Therefore my short mental "excursions" were not caused by tedium but by the rich narrative to which I unconsciously added my own intricate stream of quotidianness. Which leads me to the second factor. By linking, unintentionally, recent or past experiences of my existence to passages in books, that text (whether it be a novel, poem or short story) is contributing to my own personal development. This is probably the sine qua non of literature: not just a pastime, but also, a pathway down which we commence our very own journey in life. A journey that will take us through a landscape of emotional peaks and troughs. And along the way, this literary see-saw helps us form our own identity. My mental escapades are part of that process and may they continue.

© 2012

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 22nd January at 10am (GMT)

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

A syllogism is an argument in which the conclusion is supported by two premises, of which one (major premise) contains the term (major term) that is the predicate of the conclusion, and the other (minor premise) contains the term (minor term) that is the subject of the conclusion; common to both premises is a term (middle term) that is excluded from the conclusion. A typical example is “All A is C; all B is A; therefore all B is C.”

Could someone, please, explain the above formula to Barclays bank's new boss, Bob Diamond?

After having the cheek to tell MPs last year that the "period of remorse and apology for banks … needs to be over" the head honcho came out recently all guns blazing against some of his own staff because they showed off too much of their wealth. Apparently some bankers thought it a good idea to splash out more than forty thousand quid on wine. Bob wasn't a happy bunny about it and he let his feelings be known.

But Mr Diamond, don't you get it? If the bankers have that much money to begin with, they'll use it. It's their dosh. The better solution would be not to allow them to have that much cash, thus, avoiding that kind of crass display. As Mr Penguin tells you below (even if it makes a hash of it), the 1% is too rich, there's a market for that one percent, so it's totally logical that that 1% willl gravitate towards that market. And stitch up the remaining 99% in the process.

You might think that my first column this year is an idealistic, albeit very reality-based, rant against the banking system. Well, yes, it is somewhat. But it's also a reaction towards so much hipocrisy and bare-faced mendacity. On the one hand we have the Prime Minister David Cameron telling us to tighten our belts in 2012 because the ride ahead is about to get rougher, whilst on the other hand he wants to press on with the reform of public services, i.e., cut as many as he can. I don't think he has understood that if he doesn't fix C, he will have to contend with a malfunctioning B because all B is C, too. For a good example, look at the summer riots. Q.E.D.

In the meantime, the likes of Bob Diamond keep giving mixed messages. One minute, they say, bankers are untouchable, they have the Midas touch without which the economy will stop and we won't even be able to buy loo paper. The next minute, they are as disposable as a pack of "use'n'chuck" Gillette razor blades. Has Bob got any children? Who teaches them in school? Has he ever fallen ill? Who looked after him then? Maybe he went private. After all he's Barclay's chief executive so he can afford it. But still, that doctor had to go to a school to learn his or her trade. And as far as I know the average teacher or doctor doesn't splash out forty grand on a bottle of bubbly.

I strongly dislike scaremongering, I leave that to The Daily Hate, otherwise known as The Daily Mail, but 2012 doesn't augur well. No, if the likes of Bob Diamond, Cameron and co. don't get it into their heads that one of the keys to fixing the economy without causing too much damage in the process is to learn your A, B, C.

© 2012

Next Post: “Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts”, to be posted on Wednesday 18th January at 11:59pm (GMT)

Sunday, 8 January 2012

From Here, There and Everywhere...

If you're a regular of this blog, then you know how important music is to me. The essay below, first published in The New Statesman, throws new light into the relationship between music and science. Great, entertaining and though-provoking holiday read. I hope you enjoy it. I'm back from my cy-bernation and will resume blogging duties next week. I hope you all had a nice, restful time off.

"Birds whistle, man alone sings, and one cannot hear either a song or an instrumental piece without immediately saying to oneself: another sensitive being is present." The author of this sentence, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, remains best known for his political and moral philosophy that later inspired a revolution. But his thoughts on music were just as prescient of an aesthetic revolution that would lead to music being raised from the lowly place it occupied during his lifetime - that of poetry's "handmaiden" - to the position it took during the 19th century, as the highest, most noble, most humane of the fine arts.

Rousseau was preoccupied with the encroaching materialism of his age, which sought, as he saw it, to diminish human beings to the status of slavish automatons. He wanted to show that music could not be reduced to a mere play of the senses, but rather that its power derived from the way it could answer and reflect the unbounded desire which measures man's difference from his animal ancestors. But his great adversary, the composer and theorist Jean-Philippe Rameau, had already demonstrated that our innate attraction was a simple matter of physics. Hailed as the "Newton of music", Rameau managed to bypass millennia of Pythagorean number-crunching with proof that the rudiments of the western harmonic system could be found resonating as upper partials - harmonic overtones - in a vibrating body. The power of music, argued Rameau, comes from the resonance between the instruments we hear and the naturally formed "instruments" of our bodies.

Modern science, unsurprisingly, comes down squarely on Rameau's side, finding that our seemingly innate sense of musical harmony - as well as our awareness of pulse and rhythm - provides an important reason why we find pleasure in the apparently purposeless activity of playing and listening to music.

This was one of the findings from a recent collaboration between the University of Edinburgh's Institute for Music in Human and Social Development and the Nash Ensemble, a London-based chamber group. In a programme planned as a residency during which musicians and scientists could exchange and deepen ideas, delegates were treated to a series of concerts and lectures under the rubric "Great music and why we love it".

The Nash Ensemble is among the world's great chamber groups, capable of giving its core repertoire the level of grace and insight one more usually associates with excellent string quartets such as the Amadeus or the Budapest. With the ensemble given a chance to play Beethoven's Septet and Schumann's Piano Quintet, among others, to an intimate group of attentive aficionados, there was little risk of disappointment.

So much for the great music, but what about why we love it? Do recent advances in cognitive neuroscience really allow us, as the organisers claim, to give a satisfactory explanation for music's mysterious charms?

Many of the recent findings of research into the neuroscience of music are extremely compelling. It has become clear, for example, that musical experience provides a crucial and not necessarily replaceable stimulus to our cognitive development, and forges links between the different areas of our brain responsible for hearing and movement.

Much fuss was made some years ago about the so-called "Mozart effect", and the idea that listening to Mozart's music could lead to lasting improvements in our memory and other cognitive powers. While this remains unproven, and numerous doubts have been cast over the validity of the original experiments, evidence does suggest that attending to music can result in temporary improvements to our short-term memory.

More importantly, the ways we process larger-scale musical events - such as phrase repetition and developments, modulations and unexpected turns - all rely on activity in the same part of the brain we use for decoding syntax in ordinary language. It remains unclear what, if anything, is being communicated, but the old adage that music is a universal language is nonetheless shown to have some grounding in scientific fact.

On a deeper level, musical activity also affects the small area of the brain called the amygdala, which is primarily responsible for generating the danger signals that prompt us, in evolutionary terms, to take extraordinary measures to guarantee our survival. According to Stefan Koelsch of the University of Sussex, this suggests that the commonly assumed link between music and emotion is a matter of quantifiable fact. The key here may lie in the way that music, in both its small-scale and large-scale processes, typically involves movement between tension and resolution, dissonance and consonance - and that it is our awareness of the disharmony in our auditory environment which triggers our emotional responses to music.

Yet the observation that music moves us, central to the accounts of the art in both Plato and Aristotle and more or less continuously ever since, hardly seems groundbreaking. Koelsch readily admits that if there is an advance in knowledge here - which clearly there is - then the progress relates to neuroscience more than to music. To the layman, the idea of neuroscience conjures up an almost mythical understanding of the brain, in which all its perceptions, emotions and thoughts can be accounted for in terms of minute, lightning-fast electrical signals between synapses, cortexes and mysteriously named regions such as the nucleus accumbens and the corpus callosum.

In reality, despite the advanced technological wizardry of the equipment this area of research uses to measure and analyse brain activity, the state of cognitive neuroscience is still at a basic level. Think of those satellite images of Planet Earth that show human distribution and activity through the levels of artificial light generated. You can do a great deal with such a map in the way of geo-economic analysis. But when it comes to discovering what is being read, eaten and thought under those lights, you will most likely find the satellite map a somewhat rudimentary tool.

This is not to say that neuroscience has no uses in explaining music and the value we attach to it. On the contrary, the link between the way we experience musical structure and the way our ears were originally conditioned to monitor our environment for danger and desire should certainly have an important role to play in our understanding of how and why the musical practices we now encounter (in the form of sound waves, radio waves and hexadecimal numerical systems) originally evolved.

Oddly, Rousseau was one of the first to posit the idea that music plays a critical role in our evolutionary development, arguing that music and language arose as affective signifiers in response to our awareness of and desire for other individuals. Far more than a meaningless play of the senses, the significance of musical sound derives from the representation of that most elusive of all structures: the human subject itself.

Ultimately, a mixture of evolutionary and cognitive science will be able to explain the entire range of human striving in terms of sublimation of our need to sustain and reproduce ourselves. The important thing, however, is not that our lives permit reduction into such terms so much as that our values, desires and subjective identities take the qualitative forms they do. Part of the advantages of an aesthetic account of music such as Rousseau's is that the value of music can be related not to our animal nature, but to the entire history of subjectivity. Music affects us so strongly, in other words, because it quite literally lends form to our lived experience, answering to our desires in their most sublimated, socialised state, while seeking out our most visceral, primordial responses.

When we hear music, we hear that another sensitive being is present. The proof of this is, in the best tradition, strictly empirical: people have been discerning this in the music they love for centuries. Whether we will eventually be able to see this process happening on a magnetic resonance imaging scan, however, is another question entirely.

Photo taken from The Nash Ensemble website.

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 15th January at 10am (GMT)


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