It’s a little bit depressing how efficiently the patterns play out now. Part of that is technology. I was idly refreshing on my browser, waiting for news of this year’s Pulitzer Prizes, when word began to filter through that two bombs had exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Online, I could see, in real time, the familiar responses to tragedy promulgate within an hour or two, both the positive—the coordination of charitable efforts, the “#prayforboston” hashtags, the scheduling of candlelight vigils—and the negative—the scam charities, the conspiracy theories, the racism. The common thread is agency: the need for a reason, a narrative, or an action that might dignify the dead and the wounded and the maimed with something other than randomness and chance. Most try to channel it, a few try to prey on it, but we all feel it.
The Bernstein quote first popped up in my Twitter feed about forty minutes after the bombs went off—ironically, only a couple of tweets after someone hoping that, this time, it wouldn’t pop up. We all know it by now, the peroration of remarks Leonard Bernstein made at a United Jewish Appeal benefit in New York, three days after John F. Kennedy was assassinated. “This will be our reply to violence,” Bernstein pronounced, “to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than before.” To any somewhat cynical person—and I very much fall into that category—the sentiment seems more than a little vacuous. But it is also an irresistibly direct statement of agency in the face of horror. It is something to do. It’s what musicians know how to do. (It is, conveniently—as the cynic in my head reminds me—what musicians would do anyway.) Does it really do anything, though?
There is a story about Abu Yūsuf Yaʻqūb ibn ʼIsḥāq al-Kindī, the 9th-century Arab philosopher. Much of al-Kindī’s extensive scholarship concerned music—legend has it that he was the one who added a fifth string to the oud. His knowledge of the therapeutic qualities of music was such that, according to the chronicler Ibn al-Qifti, al-Kindī was once summoned to the home of a wealthy merchant whose son had been seized with a paralytic apoplexy. Al-Kindī brought with him four of his musical pupils, “who knew the melodic modes that sadden, gladden or strengthen the heart and soul,” as scholar Fadlou Shehadi tells the tale. The pupils began to play right next to the boy’s head, as al-Kindī monitored the patient. “Kindi kept his hand on the pulse, and as the playing proceeded he could feel the pulse strengthen. Gradually the boy began to regain consciousness. He even sat up and was able to speak.” But “the players became remiss and strayed from the melodic mode they were in. Upon this the boy fell back into the apoplexic state.” The father ordered the musicians to go back to their original song, but it was too late. “The boy had now used up in full the gift that God had given him.” What are we supposed to make of such a fable? The music did something, but it wasn’t enough. Then again, the music wasn’t enough, but it did something.
The medical context of the story is not insignificant. Sometimes I think that the best one can say about music’s benefit is a riff on Hippocrates: it does no harm. At the very least, you would have to really, really work at it. Given how easy harm has become, I suppose that’s something. Whether music can keep pace with our capacity for violence? That I don’t know. (The pace is terrific: the same day as the attack in Boston, for instance, a wave of bombings in Iraq killed over thirty people.)
The Facebook/Twitter/Tumblr version of the Bernstein quote invariably leaves out the sentence preceding it. “Our music,” Bernstein said, “will never again be quite the same.” Ever willing himself to cultural optimism, Bernstein probably meant that our music would be better, but I wonder. The thing about attacks like the one on Monday is how they yank at the thread of the social fabric. The Boston Marathon route runs through Framingham, about a 15-minute walk from my house. The downtown district is not without its frictions—mostly working- to middle-class whites and South American immigrants, jostling for position in a neighborhood where economic traction has been pretty tenuous. For the marathon, though, that all fades to the background. The kids are out of school, the lawn chairs are lined up along Route 135. The crowd is a cheerful mixture of family-gathering chaotic and ballpark drunk. The elite runners get applause, but it’s the amateurs—the costumes, the charity runners, the old guys—that get the biggest response. For a day, everyone’s on common ground. Next year, almost certainly, that footprint will shrink. One more civic forum, however informal, will be circumscribed by fear and caution.
I think musicians have a feel for such vandalism to civic society. Music is at once the most anti-social and social of the arts, the solitary pursuit of proficiency—practice, composition, study—only manifested in extroverted gestures directed towards and among collaborators and audience. Trust and generosity are, in music, not really sentimental qualities. They’re the currency, the supply chain, the raw materials. If music is being made, then some sort of social connection is being forged; if the social fabric is damaged, the connection requires that much more effort. Is that connection the benefit? I’m more skeptical than I used to be as to just how much of it can be transferred out of the hall. But connections are there, if only for a little while.
The most dismissive analysis of the power of music that I know of comes from an actual, Classical, 2nd-century, capital-S Skeptic, Sextus Empiricus. In his treatise Adversus musicos (“Against the Musicians”), Sextus sets up all the traditional benefits of music—inspiring courage, soothing anger, “a consolation to those who are grief-stricken”—only to knock them down. Even if the mele, the melodies of music, can affect the emotions in this way, “music has not been established as useful for life because of this. It is not because it has the power of discretion that it restrains the heart, but rather because it has the power of distraction. Consequently, when such mele are silenced in any way, the mind, as if it were not treated by them, reverts again to the former heart.”
But Sextus isn’t finished; his argument leads him past a discussion of music’s usefulness to a questioning of its very being. Music is, at its core, merely a theory of notes, of their qualities, their character, their color. “Every theory of melody according to the musicians does not have its substance in any other thing except the notes. And because of this, if they are abolished, music will be nothing.” But, Sextus argues, sound is already nothing, substanceless, forever either coming into being or fading away—and notes are nothing but sound. In a similar way, rhythm is nothing, since it is nothing but time, and time, “since it is composed from what is past and no longer is and from what is future and is not yet, will be nonexistent.” Music, Sextus concludes, doesn’t actually exist.
This is, of course, a ridiculous argument—which, in a weird way, is unfortunate. Sextus reasoned away sound, time, and music, but he could also reason away the pain and hurt of life. Especially at these sorts of times, we can’t do that; the pain and the hurt exist. But the music does, too. Music will be made in response to this tragedy, and many more tragedies to come. Maybe it will do some lasting good or maybe, as Sextus insisted, it will just be a temporary distraction. In the immediate aftermath, the power of music in the face of violence doesn’t seem to come near even al-Kindī’s brief melioration. But there is one claim—contra Sextus—that anyone can hold on to: music is something that happens. And it’s better than a lot of other things that happen.