Sunday, May 15, 2011

Music Is the Sex of Community


Now that I’ve quadrupled my readership by that cleverly chosen title, I’m obliged to explain what I mean (even though I’ll lose all those new readers). This line of inquiry has to do with thinking more precisely about what our music program gives to the greater community of the school, exploring where it is at the center of community bonding and equally noting where it cannot reach. Music is often lauded as the highest peak of community-building, requiring a cooperation, listening, responding and working together that few other human endeavors achieve. Only in music can two or more voices talk at the same time and create confluence instead of conflict, bring their opposing notes into a counterpoint of accord that creates something larger than both of them. Only in music can 3 and 2 exist in the same space without litigation about who is correct and create a delicious multi-modal polyrhythmic dynamic. Only in music can tension be welcomed as it navigates towards resolution, not dismissed as undesirable stress. (Well, probably other art forms as well, but let’s stick with music for now.)

My vision, coupled now with decades of experience to back it up, is simple: playing, singing, dancing, acting, making art, writing poetry, etc. are necessary to a healthy, authentic community. Not a radical new thought and one well understood by every traditional culture since humans appeared on this planet. My hope and work is to help restore that simple practice in schools of all sizes and shapes and where that work has succeeded, the results are impressive: schools that have a song for every occasion, where kids see teachers dance and sing and dance with them, where parent choirs join the kids, where ceremonies have music, song and dance at the center, experience a type of community markedly different from those that neglect the arts. Simply put, one definition of community is a group of people who know the same songs, stories and dances.

But singing Kumbaya with arms wrapped around each other, as lovely as that may be, is not enough. It can’t reach into the other real issues of community, those nitty-gritty details of power and representation and voice and shared space and schedules.

So I’ve been looking for the analogy that neither promises too much from music nor fails to recognize its importance. And hence the title: music is the sex of community. That is to say, music’s role in community is analogous to good sex in relationship. When done well (both the music and the sex), it is the physical and concrete manifestation of intimacy. It requires vulnerability, works from a series of tensions and releases, asks for calls and responses, depends on a quality of rhythm that moves towards climax (same terms in both fields), changes the heartbeat and breathing, connects the strings in each other’s hearts, and leaves you a different person at the end than you were at the beginning.
A community without music is like a marriage without sex—possible, but black and white and grey instead of vibrantly colorful, dull and pedestrian instead of dynamic and alive, distant and removed more than intimate and connected.

At the same time, no matter how good the sexual relationship with the partner, the percentage of time spent making love compared to cooking, cleaning, driving, shopping, working, talking, is a pretty darn small part of the whole relationship. We may feel united as one for a brief ecstatic moment of union, but after that, it’s the thousands of hours of sharing the work, taking care of the home, continuing the necessary conversations, figuring out who cooks, who cleans, who washes, who dries— in short, the whole 99-plus yards of both the gritty and pleasurable details of living together with another. 

Just as sex alone is not enough to sustain relationship, so is music alone insufficient to hold community together. Simply resolving chords or dancing together is not enough to solve issues of representation, voice and shared power. We have to roll up our sleeves and sort through the tedious “he said, she said” drama, dig down to some basic procedures for decision-making, enlarge the conversations, welcome dissent, say what we mean and mean what we say, stand firm and trust our intuition to be wholly ourselves in a world that wants us to be like everyone else.

And then we’ll be ready for some great make-up sex…er, I mean, music. 

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