William Kent

A half bottle of red wine with some chicken cacciatore, then a long feast on Beethoven’s Ninth served up by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra in white tie and tails. The music has a life of its own, an aura of energy and flow and motion which lives above the heads of the performers who are its limbs. They are no longer separate people, but fused into the higher intelligence of Arthur Clarke’s "Childhood’s End", or one of Lewis Thomas’ essays. They are the hooves and flanks and eyes and mane and tail of one thundering flowing race horse.

The conductor’s genius (and the composer’s vision) is to fuse this grab-bag of disparate uncoordinated hands, eyes, voices, and machines into one unified whole, far greater than the sum of its parts. Who’s really sitting there? A dozen grandfathers, three grandmothers, six divorcees and one couple engaged. A tough-looking street-wise punk, a sleek socialite, a haggard drunk, a dowdy spinster, a bawdy chick, a smug intellectual, an Afro’d liberal. A draft resister, an investor, a gambler, a school teacher, a mail man, a part time grocery clerk. What a rag-tag motley crew, but we can’t see them. They are uniformed, and fused, and busy being part of something else.

The same miracle, much smaller, happens in the public schools. A rag-tag bunch of urchins, rowdy, selfish, brawling, is transformed by some minor visionary who can see something of Mozart or Brahms beneath their scruffy hides. They sit together, on a stage, for the annual recital, and the same whole wondrous stuff flows out of them, too.

There is a unifying magic in this music, a whole other dimension to life and existence, to which my technological life is often blind. My own heritage seems to have evolved a view of music which expects it to come out of an electronic box. My senses have always informed me that the box is the source and creator of the music. I have seen live performances all too rarely. When I do (I have just suddenly realized), it is as though these were people making an imitation of the real electronic thing, much as an impersonator mimics waterfalls and thunder, or a mime imitates a tree swaying in the wind, or a horse running. It always comes as a minor surprise to me to perceive music as an essentially and primarily human thing.

Being in this way a stranger to the authentic nature of music also brings a benefit of awareness. It is like walking into a strange room full of the most bizarre sights and objects. I am aware of all of them, take none of them for granted as a familiar part of the context.

I can wonder about the whole business of why this noise in the air is music. It is more than a technologist’s question. There are profound depths here which I can’t even begin to articulate, about the nature of our minds and our lives, and about the essential character of intellect. Something is being communicated, more an evocation than a message. It means so much, evokes so much, in so many people, yet no one can precisely paraphrase its import in words or any other medium, and its import is surely different to each and every hearer. What other level of humanness does this appeal to, these inexplicable but urgent messages? How much do we miss of the whole spectrum of human interaction, if we tend to think of communication as primarily verbal?

It’s also more than communication and evocation. It does unify. An orchestra or a band is an organism, whose very life the music is. To be involved is to perceive higher human endeavors, to be immersed in a cooperative venture. Simultaneously, and also wondrously, it can elevate the individual to higher planes as soloist, and private performer. It can be a most solitary and personal experience...

But enough. The choral fourth movement rages about my ears, with the massive substance of an enormous mountain range. How permanent, how enduring! I do not often encounter things a hundred or two hundred years old in my daily life. When I do they are mostly physical objects like buildings. But here is this most ephemeral of stuff, a sound in the air, an idea, and look how permanent it is in our own social environment.

There was a moment in time when this was all nothing but unheard imaginings inside the head of one unfortunate man. How is that transformed into something...