The Death of Music

by Philip Lefebvre (“The Composer of Space”)

Is it possible that music has fallen so far?

For years I have been ostracized from the scene of respectable classical music, and so I have retreated and withdrawn into my own world and my own dream of an eternal sound.

But new events compel me, compel me to break my silence, compel me to address you yet again, compel me to break through the armour of self-deception that surrounds the life-denying and soul-sucking world that is classical music today. Musicians, composers, musicologists, instrument-makers, music lovers, hear me! You are embarking on a path that will be the death of music itself; and if we kill music we kill the melody that moves the human body and soul…

The residents of Cremona are under a gag order: they must be silent for the sake of some trivial recording project, not worthy of the name of music.  Yes, some fool has decided that he will capture for all posterity the comprehensive “sound” of the Stradivarius. And to have this perfect noise, this mighty recording engineer tells a city that they must be silent, must get out of the way. Need I elaborate on the desolation of this musical solipsism, this insult to the creative soul, this abomination of the very nature of sound?... It appears I must, if no one else will pick up this foul gauntlet.

Do you not see? Music is not something that exists without bodies. Music is a body, always and forever a collision, an interference, and a collaboration of bodies. Music has its origin, its life,  its end, and its rebirth in the body of the earth, the great bodies of nature, the bodies of our buildings, the great and sonorous acoustics that we discover and construct, the clunky and clashing and irremediably physical bodies of instruments, and, yes, in that marvelous wellspring of musical expression that is the fragility of the constantly morphing human body.

What do you think sound is, you pretenders of preservation, you who attempt to capture once and for all the isolated thing in-and-of-itself? Do you not know that there is no such thing as a note in isolation, let alone the ecstasy of a musical phrase? There is no sound in a vacuum! Sound is the clashing, colliding, and colluding of physical particles. And the originary friction that is sound is the composition of the universe!

Music, my friends, is essentially a matter of interference. And this is not something to be embarrassed about, to try to hide and minimize. No! That music is interference is the source and condition of its glory. It is because music is part of the same physical fabric of our embodied souls that it is able to open us to the transcendent and transport us into the eternal. The musical vacuum you dream of, on the other hand, represents the black hole of the human soul.

I will say it again: music only ever exists in the world. This means that music is woven into our experience of it; our response to music is part of the music itself. Music itself is from the beginning a response, which is why playing a piece of music well is always such a powerful experience, such a powerful way of entering into the music. Our dance to a tune weaves into that tune itself, as embodied melodies meet and intertwine and ascend higher and higher in the embodied ecstasy of love.

So I plead with you: do not take the city out of music, do not take the human out of music, do not take the melody out of music, do not take the sound out of music. For then you take the life out of music as well. No amount of recording time can comprehensively capture an instrument, let alone replace it. Petrified scales and arpeggios sitting lifeless in a vault are incapable of participating in the ever changing life of the timeless and timely music of the spirit.

 If we construct a picture of music as something that happens in a pure space “out there,” separate from us, isolated note by isolated note, then we cut out also the possibility of our joining with the music in our experience of it. Ultimately we divorce ourselves from the possibility of making music at all, human bodies that we are. Art anxiously encased in glass. We fear that we might “impact” it; but if we cannot touch it, then how can it touch us? Culture preserved in an archive, subject to the objectifying gaze. A dead culture, all the easier to preserve. The death of music. The death of everything. Dissection works best on dead bodies.

The city, the pasture, the town, the forest; a cry of fright, a moan of pleasure, a wail of grief, a child’s laughter, hidden in a garden and revealed with birdsong. Here we find the lifeblood of music. Engaging us! And we engage with it! Musical dialectics, endlessly responsive dance, the musical dance by which we enter into the heights and depths of reality.

 It is true that “humankind cannot bear very much reality,” but this is not something to consign ourselves to; it is a challenge to endure more and more reality until the weight of it breaks open both body and soul to the aching beauty of existence.[1] This is the challenge of being human.

When we look for true music in the illusory quest for an objective sound that we might catalogue, we renounce even that little bit of reality that we can bear. Based off of the headlines and interest this project has generated, it seems that we are only too keen to turn away from the music that makes us human. It seems that we desire the end of our humanity not in a divine apotheosis of eternal sound but in the damnation of a noisome vacuum of chattel slavery.

There is hope, I fear, only in that the work of the eternal sound goes on. Forget my concert hall you young musician; find any way you can to weave your way into this sound.

[1] T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets.

Essay by Gerald Ens


Gerald Ens is a PhD student in Religious Studies at McMaster University under the supervision of Dr. P. Travis Kroeker. His primary research interests include Christian ecclesiology, Christian ethics, philosophical theology, Mennonite theology, phenomenology, and political theology. His current work brings together theological, ethnographic, and sociological research to examine and constructively engage trends in Mennonite churches from lay to professional leadership models.

Ens’s publications include “Boundaries Thick and Permeable” (Zwickau Press), an examination and constructive proposal for ecclesial boundaries. Ens holds a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Doctoral Fellowship and a Harry Lyman Hooker Senior Fellowship.

Ens holds an MA from McMaster University and a BA (Hons) in Theology and Philosophy from Canadian Mennonite University. He has many years of ministry experience in Mennonite Church Manitoba’s camping ministries and will probably preach a sermon if you ask him to.

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