Some months ago Salzburg, Austria, the birth place of Mozart, and the city of churches and bell-towers, was chosen to showcase a 10 day Spiritual Overture. Zubin Mehta, the celebrated Indian conductor, led the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in a symphony centering on the Holocaust, and appropriately titled “Revival of the Dead”. In the coming year the focus will switch to Buddhism and then in the years ahead to other religions. This particular spiritual musical ensemble, we learn, was based on artistic director Alexander Pereira’s belief that humanity is reaching out beyond rationalism to an idealism best articulated through aesthetics in general, and music in particular. And he’s not alone. Jane Moss, vice president for Programming at New York City’s Lincoln Center and self-described ‘secular mystic’ believes people are ‘looking for larger experiences in a cyber-world’. Humanity, Moss argues, is becoming desensitized by the surrealistic tendencies of modern technology. And in the absence of organized religion—which many in the industrialized world now turn their backs on—only music remains, she says, as humanity’s “live experience left in the world.”
The Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival, which enters its third season, is a spiritual ensemble that brings together somewhat disparate performances from around the globe. Together, they celebrate what only music is able to confer on this secular world: a moment in which people of dissimilar views and beliefs become one to appreciate everything melodic from Brahms to Beethoven, from the Latvian National Choir to the Westminster Choir, from the Hilliard Ensemble and the Tallis Scholars to the Manganiyar Seduction. Only in such a setting are Hindus and Muslims able to listen to 16th century Croatian poetry, and dance in step with Chinese monks to the music of the martial arts inspired Sutra. Music then, would seem to fill in secular society’s widening social cracks, and cement bonds between people otherwise divided by language, race, and of course religion.
In addition to harmonizing our disparate humanities music also seems to be making inroads into mental health and philanthropy. That aesthetics in general, and music in particular, influences human psychology, changes moods, and may even cure certain forms of dementia was known even to Muslim physicians as far back as the 11th century c.e. Abu al-Faraj ibn al-Hindu (d.1019) considered music almost as essential to the practice of medicine as say, pharmacy. We know too that Avicenna, who was skilled not just in medicine but also music, spoke of treating some mental ailments with music. Less well known are his pedagogical views on the subliminal effects of musical chords that instill in the developing child an appreciation of harmony and discord, happiness and joy, and rhythm and cadence.
Recent observations would seem to confirm these ancient opinions. Alive Inside a recent documentary on the impact of music on minds affected by Alzheimer’s and other degenerative diseases found that patients who remained unresponsive to human interactions—in some cases, for years—suddenly began dancing to tunes they were exposed to, and even engaged in healthy conversations long after the music had stopped. A recent symposium at Stanford’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics discussed evidence of music not just changing brain function but also treating actual neurological conditions such as attention deficit disorder and depression. Scholars are cautiously optimistic that scientific scrutiny at some point in the future will concur that just as music enhances mental health, so too is it able to fulfill our spiritual needs outside religion. Already, music through its ability to transcend faith and ethnic barriers is proving almost indispensable to cross-cultural and cross-denominational interactions.
Music’s power to exert influence over both musicians and patrons and to decisively influence their moral judgments is almost indisputable today. Take philanthropy for example: there is today, a growing tendency to be charitable through aesthetics rather than creed, through performances in music more so than through the visual or the applied arts. Giving is actually easier today, and this because philanthropy has for the most part been detached from religion and grafted on to the secular lyrics of Geldof, Bono and Aretha Franklin. This detachment gives citizens of an ever expanding global village the opportunity to follow their consciences, rather than their dogmas, and it allows them the freedom to avoid picking sides in sectarian conflicts and address deprivation more evenhandedly.
The fact that faith based philanthropists are too often forced to take sides, between Hindus and Sinhalese in Sri Lanka, for example, or Sunnis and Shiites in Syria, or Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland means that in matters of charity religion almost always pits one against the other. This encroachment into what traditionally was considered the work of the church is clear evidence that religion’s influence in the public square grows ever more tenuous. In America, music has long been more than just entertainment. As far back as the 19th century musical performances raised not just money for the underprivileged, but also public awareness of the role civil society played in poverty alleviation. Music, as one study out of Indianapolis points out, “was a participatory activity, its performers and audiences drawn from the entire community without distinctions of class, wealth, or education”. For its performers in particular, organized as they were in voluntary associations, music provided practical training in democracy.
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