Shaped by Music

First Aid Kit performing at the Cochella Festival 2018-04-14 (Photo: Raph PH/ Creative Commons by)

Rather than subjecting readers to Derek Parfit’s (1942-2017) Reasons and Persons (1984) or three volumes of On What Matters (2011), one can read a Nautilus article by Alisa Opar, or the following summary, if that is still too long: a human being is not a consistent identity moving through time, but a chain of successive selves, each linked to, but distinct from previous and subsequent ones. Procrastination is a mechanism to postpone a jump into a new state, with its new self identity.

One of the major problems with visiting previous selves, is that one is dependent on memory. Daniel Schacter (1952 – ) asserts in The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers (2001) that “memory’s malfunctions can be divided into seven fundamental transgressions or ‘sins’.” Sins of omission are the result of a failure to recall an idea, fact or event. They involve transience, absent-mindedness and blocking. With sins of commission, there is a form of memory present, but lacking the desired fidelity. These involve misattribution, suggestibility, bias and persistence.

Because of these sins, I cannot revisit my self of, for example, 1962. In terms of musical taste, I suspect it involved The Highwaymen, not the later supergroup, but a Wesleyan University group that came to prominence with their 1961 hit, Michael Row the Boat Ashore. This music was melodic. Conveniently, I try to forget that I also listened to assorted LPs of Scottish music, bought by my father, Edgar McLellan (1906 – 1991), or that I attended ballroom dancing lessons that same year, that featured the forgettable Twist. Unfortunately, I have been unable to morph my memories of the Twist into a more socially acceptable Tango. Since then, and in different ways, I have sought out non-melodious music. This does not mean that music has to be discordant or grating.

First Aid Kit = Johanna (1990 – ) and Klara Söderberg (1993 – ), produce and perform melodic music, with Emmylou (2012) a typical example. In addition to the musical attributes they demonstrate, their stage presence also projects an assortment of conservative Scandinavian values. Fast forward from 2012 to 2021, and one finds a very different pair of sisters in an interview with Alexandra Pollard. It begins with a comment about their Women’s Day (2017-03-08) “three-and-a-half minute cry of pure rage.” It is still far too melodic for my current musical taste, but at least it is political. In both this track and the interview, they tell the world they are no longer conforming, polite girls, but – to use their term – angry, feminist bitches. In both forums, they display their ability to swear. They are doing what people do, inventing new selves.

The First Aid Kit album Who by Fire (2017) is a tribute to Leonard Cohen (1934 – 2016). Commenting on Cohen’s relationship with his Norwegian born muse Marianne Ihlen (1935 – 2016), they began to realised how problematic the ‘muse’ concept is. Being a muse is much like being a housekeeper. They further note that women are generally expected to be role models – princesses and angels, whose jagged edges have been sanded smooth. They, themselves, are expected to be accommodating and nice, even if it comes at the expense of their own comfort.

Unlike the 400 m long container ship Ever Given (completed 2018 – ), First Aid Kit may find it hard to change direction in mid-channel. Listeners have expectations and the music they choose represents part of their current identity. A musician cannot expect their listeners, sometimes known as fans, to shift direction in tact with themselves. However, they may attract new listeners, with different values and expectations.

Greta Thunberg (2003 – ), with her autism diagnosis, may experience less of a need to reinvent herself than the Söderberg sisters. Her diagnosis probably means that she finds it more difficult to hide her current personality behind a veil of politeness. If she decides that she is not going to fly, she is not going to fly. One can argue that sailing across the Atlantic is at least as environmentally damaging as flying across. She will express her truths, as she experiences them.

This weblog post started out very differently. It was initially about Virginia Woolf (1882 – 1941), who died eighty years before the date of publication (1941-03-28). In an article about Woolf and music, Emma Sutton writes: “… [Woolf’s] extraordinary experimental uses of narrative perspective, repetition and variation derive from her close study of particular musical works and specific musical forms. Music provided Woolf (and other modernists including James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein and Katherine Mansfield) with a vocabulary to imagine and describe their creative practice and formal innovations. Woolf, for instance, compares her diary writing to a pianist practising their scales. She describes her reading as a process of “tuning up” for her writing ….”

Sutton also states that the creativity of composers has also benefited from the reading of Woolf, and refers specifically to Dominick Argento’s (1927 – 2019) song cycle, From the Diary of Virginia Woolf (1974), Max Richter’s (1966 – ) music for the 2015 ballet Woolf Works, as well as a recent announcement that composer Thea Musgrave (1928 – ) is writing an Orlando inspired opera.

I am still unable to know the frequency at which new selves emerge, or the degree to which music inspires the creation of new selves. While music is influential in my life, technological innovations are even more important, especially miniaturization, but that will have to be a topic for yet another weblog post.

3 Replies to “Shaped by Music”

  1. I think all my life music has been therapeutic for me. I started out as a pre-teen, building conga drums from soy sauce barrels. In adolescence I tried and failed to master making a steel pan, which I later discovered is something you have to apprentice for years to get right. I did summer work for “Children’s Spontaneous Music Workshop” a proto-music therapy group around 1970. When I was between schools in particularly down time I found it therapeutic to spend six months building chimes, marimbas, and tubaphones from discarded beds and chairs I found in the back alleys of Montreal. Then, in the late 00’s, in the last five years of my nursing career, I established a drum circle for nursing home seniors, which continued on after I retired. Another form of music therapy. That was interrupted by the pandemic. Now in year two of the pandemic, I have decided to learn sight reading, and for the first time, to master a melodic percussive instrument – the marimba. I’m presently finding both Bach and the Blues particularly therapeutic. So music and recovery, music as a kind of therapy have been a thread that runs through my life.

    1. Is it possible to present instructions that would be suitable for different groups of people, on your weblog? Perhaps many more pre-teens would appreciate learning how to build conga drums, either from soy sauce barrels, or other components. Insights into making a steel pan could also be of interest to many, even if this is beyond the capabilities of the majority. You also mention a Children’s Spontaneous Music Workshop. Perhaps you could also publish information about these. You further mention proto-music therapy, something everyone could probably benefit from. People could benefit from your advice about chimes, marimbas, tubaphones and more from all sorts of discarded products.

      You further note that there is an ongoing need/ benefit from a drum circle for nursing home seniors. Perhaps you could provide advice as to how to get one started.

      While there are lots of resources, both in terms of weblogs and YouTube videos, it can be difficult for people to separate the wheat from the chaff. So even pointing out some of the better links could be beneficial.

      1. Dear Brock,
        Since just about everything I did concerning music therapy was off-line, eg, before internet. I don’t really have any internet resources, to share with people. I’m happy to discuss specific questions re drum circles, musical instrument making, etc. but at this point I prefer just kind of relating my personal experience. But actually I’m remembering a few more therapeutic things I’ve done. Three years ago I participated in an Indonesian Gamelon orchestra at U.B.C. This was a real highlight for me. It was totally percussion, including gongs, and many different kinds of idiophones, but the thing that was amazing about it, was how it was taught verbally and by example, with no written music, and how unlike Western music the experience. The Indonesians use non-Western pentatonic scales, and the drummer isn’t an accompanist, he is the conductor. It was a fantastic experience. I also forgot that about ten years ago I made about thirty “hank drums” about which one can find info on the internet. (look up hank drums in Wikipedia – I started that article). They are beautiful instruments made from used propane tanks, I would recommend buying them but not making them. Using a grinder on the curved surface of an empty propane tank is too dangerous, because of the chance of the blade skipping off the metal and slicing into your hand. Probably too much detail already here.

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