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In the Beginning was Sound

The title is not a gloss on the Gospel of John but the title of the first Reith Lecture in May this year of the celebrated pianist and conductor, Daniel Barenboim. You may have listened to it and found, as I did, the extraordinary depth of his vision. Music can open up for us the meaning of life, of relationships, of politics, of the mystery of the human personality, he said. But one of his particular concerns for music is that he considers that visual images today, while necesaary for daily life, have taken over from the paramount importance of the ear, of listening. He has, it is well known, pioneered an orchestra in Ramalla composed of Israeli and Palestinian young musicians where, in the context of making music, they can at least begin to hear the voice of the 'enemy', even if they disagree.

We may find his personal remarks on the 'production' of music even more interesting. Taken with his horror of 'muzac' which can be the background to any and all of our daily work and shopping, one can see the depth of his understanding that music comes out of the preceding silence.

'The physical aspect that we notice first is that sound does not exist by itself, but has a permanent constant and unavoidable relation with silence. And therefore the music does not start from the first note and goes onto the second note, etc., etc., but the first note already determines the music itself, because it comes out of the silence that precedes it.'

The complete opposite of that understanding is what one can only call the depraved idea that the greater rhythmical noise that you can produce from your car radio on the roads is somehow a version of 'music'. Noise as compared with true music, classical or jazz, is perhaps one of the most destroying elements in our society. At least that is how this person hears it, living next to a main road in Cambridge where the only silence is between 1 and 5 in the morning!

Music Heading (from Vol. 1 of J.S. Bach's 48 Preludes and Fugues, No. 1 in C major) and quotation, from the BBC web site at, Reith lectures.

© Aelred Arnesen

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