The Powers of Music

I’ve long enjoyed reading restaurant reviews and recipe articles in The New York Times’ food section, but since much of the world began locking down, there have been no Hungry City reviews of New York’s under-the-radar ethnic food joints or measured evaluations by Pete Wells. Instead, I keep stumbling upon Sam Sifton’s What to Cook newsletter, whose tone of late I feel can be summed up by sometimes you just want to eat meatballs/mac and cheese/insert comfort food here, and you know what, that’s okay, just go ahead and do it. Actually, maybe that goes for all the current food coverage.

Anyway. You thought this post was about music. Sifton has also been appending some non-food recommendations to his newsletters, and on Sunday he asked his readers to please read Alex Ross’s article in The New Yorker on grieving and Brahms. I dutifully clicked on the link (was I procrastinating? I mean, what do you think I was doing reading The New York Times food section in the first place?), and I was intrigued by the subhead about the “enormous sadness” “that glows with understanding” in Brahms. I’m not particularly into Brahms, but as I read the article I had a vague recollection that I liked his first symphony. I started listening to a recording of it, and while I recognized snatches of the first movement, it wasn’t until I got to the fourth movement that I thought, Ah, yes, this. I remembered that grand, noble theme, and I thought I’d studied the symphony in music listening (could we have only paid attention to the fourth movement?!).

While I was taken by Ross’s characterization of Bach as “music’s supreme companion of extreme distress” and Brahms as “the great poet of the ambiguous, in-between, nameless emotions” (including “pervasive wistfulness”), my favorite parts of his article were his quotes from Philip Kennicott’s book Counterpoint: A Memoir of Bach and Mourning (which sounds intriguing too). The first was “I bristle at the idea that music is consoling or has healing power,” and when I read it, I thought, But wait, music is totally consoling! After all, hadn’t I turned to Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 when Osmo Vänskä resigned as director of the Minnesota Orchestra during the 2013 musicians’ lockout and on the morning after the 2016 U.S. presidential election?

But the next quote was, “Music, if anything, makes us raw, more susceptible to pain, nostalgia, and memory.” And this resonated. I don’t think it’s either/or: music can both console and make us more vulnerable, awakening and amplifying latent emotions. It can do one or the other and probably both together. Likely there’s some argument to be made about how music consoles precisely by “guid[ing us] through the complexity of [our] feelings,” as Ross put it.

Something made me remember MILCK‘s EP This Is Not The End and how I’d liked it, and so after Brahms’s Symphony No. 1 I went back to listen to it. I’m listening to it as I write this post too. I don’t know enough about Music These Days to know what genre MILCK sings (okay, Wikipedia says “pop,” which is what I would’ve guessed if pressed), but she’s best known for her song “Quiet,” which has a special place in my heart. I’m capricious in my non-classical (and non-folk/trad) musical tastes, and it usually takes special circumstances for me to like something in the pop/rock sphere. In MILCK’s case, those special circumstances exist (I mean, I saw her on a panel). Most of the time, I’d probably say a bit cynically that the reason pop songs seem to speak to your exact feelings and situation is because their lyrics are so vague as to be applicable to practically any situation, but honestly, when it works, it really does work. Some of the songs on This Is Not The End do that for me, and others I like for other reasons (like maybe they remind me of someone else). Maybe something music does is give us space to settle into complex feelings.

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