“Music can name the unnamable,” the composer Leonard Bernstein once said, "and communicate the unknowable." The shamanic power of music hit home recently when a friend introduced me to the indescribable Ryuichi Sakamoto, whose compositions, whether starkly minimal or ponderously layered, seem designed to rouse long-forgotten memories and hidden emotions. It’s easy to take music for granted these days, to forget that it can conjure the very demons it seems meant to exorcise.
Music was not always the stealth force it has become, but a funny thing happened on the way to modernity. In Paris along about 1917 early avant-garde composer Eric Satie (best known for his haunting, minimalist “Gymnopédies”) invented something he called “musique d’ameublement,” furniture music. One composition in this category was called “Wall-lining in a chief officer's office.” A couple years later, an enterprising Michigan entrepreneur, George O. Squier, patented “musak.” The rest is history.
Whether driving around in your automotive ambient environment or plugged into your ‘pod, music, like St. Augustine’s God, is everywhere—and nowhere—nowadays. Like the air we breathe, it usually goes unnoticed unless there’s too much or too little of it. Once in a while, though, you find yourself captured by a song in the oddest places—in the condiment aisle at the supermarket, say. Suddenly choosing between peppercorn ranch and creamy parmesan while the Fifth Dimension’s “One Less Bell to Answer” plays in the background is frighteningly poignant. You’re having an existential moment. Yes, music is as powerful as ever.
I’ve been thinking about the power of music and poetry since visiting Project: Think Different last week to see what they’ve been up to since the release of their locally produced hip-hop CD, “Empowerment,” late last year. “Entertaining Change” is both the means and the end at Project: Think Different, a media nonprofit that seeks to entice, encourage, and empower marginalized communities using music, film and video. It’s one of those organizations that is making a real difference in the lives of at-risk youths and communities in and around Boston by inspiring them to engage and create, rather than drop out and destroy. Project: Think Different helps young people who might otherwise not find their voice, and teaches them how to use it for good.
Which, at a time when so much music is borne of nihilism and preaches violence, borders on revolutionary. There is truth in the nihilism and violence, of course, but it’s superficial. It’s the easy truth. And as the poet Rilke once wrote to an apprentice: “we must hold to what is difficult.” Telling unnamable truths—the deeper truth of our humanity, the mystery of all those category-defying unknowables we contain—is at times a political act. Curiously, the less explicitly political art is, the more political it becomes. That’s because art is its own empire. Art defies subjugation, demands transcendence. The Hungarian poet Miklos Radnoti continued to write poetry in Auschwitz. Politics will always be a necessary evil. Art, now as always, is a necessary good.