I don’t want to sound like a broken record here, I’ve rephrased, reiterated and reframed this idea in almost every post I’ve written so far, but music has the power to affect us emotionally like no other art form. It’s been with us throughout our evolutionary history, in every culture, in every individual. It’s part of what makes us human. There’s even some research to suggest it’s part of what made us intelligent (Huron, Sacks). It can cut to the core of us in a single spine-tingling, heart-wrenching, gut-punching moment.
The development of a musical idea through time, whether ingeniously intricate or relatively simple, is like a language that speaks to our emotions more so than to our conscious minds. It’s a sublime plane of communication entirely separate from the blunt instruments of our mind’s inadequate vocabulary. The mathematical complexity that underlies harmonic interplay is something we interpret instinctively. The movement of waves through the air can sweep us up in its emotional current. We can be moved to tears, we can become merry, we can feel wonder and joy. It puts us in touch with ourselves in a way that nothing else can, helps us connect with parts of ourselves we may not have known existed. It’s a translation from those invisible waves in the air, through the miraculously complex human hearing system, to neurons firing in our brains.
When these neurons fire, it’s mainly in the limbic system and the frontal lobes, the regions of the brain primarily associated with emotion and intelligence, respectively. When listening to music, we are being communicated with by the composer and the performer. Our minds process a message that can be articulated in no other way. Our centre of intelligence is not performing calculations and analysing mathematically the frequencies and properties of the music we’re listening to. Instead it is often stirred into deep thought, self-reflection, or unbridled creativity. Our limbic system, the centre of emotion, is also responding to the message received from this composer or performer, this fellow human being. Our emotional response to music is often imbued with a kind of empathy. Music has the power to bring out the best in us.
As a musician myself, perhaps I’m compelled to overstate the importance of music. I was surely dismissive of language when I called it an inadequate blunt instrument. I was, in fact, ironically demonstrating its power. Language is something I also love, speech and the written word, sound and the imagination of sound, delighting us and enlightening us as our neurons light up and dance. Music with lyrics then, the form of the song, is a most potent thing. It is a communication on many levels, with the range of our entire emotional spectrum and any thought we are capable of having. Again, maybe I’m overselling it, but I think there are plenty of people who’ll agree with me. The popular song is, for me, a key part of human culture.
Most modern commercial music seems far too cynical for my liking. Mainstream music has been infiltrated, manipulated and hijacked by marketeers and sloganeers, puppet-masters behind the scenes and their vapid rag dolls in the spotlight. Of course, there’s still great music being made, probably more than ever before. But you have to seek it out for yourself, you never find it in the charts any more. The commercial juggernauts have all the momentum and they can craft the illusion of sincerity. While my neurons still fire, this music isn’t eliciting the same response as before. How can anyone of substance truly empathise with the Justin Biebers and Lady Gagas of this world? Let me rephrase that in terms of their music. It’s awful. As human beings, we seem to value one thing above all else… truth. The problem is, everybody sees the truth differently. My passionate love of music might be something you completely relate to, though your personal tastes might find mine appalling. Or perhaps music doesn’t mean that much to you, in which case, you have my sympathy. But you’re right, there’s more to life.
There are other key elements in human culture. There has always been the compulsion to search for meaning, going back to this human idea, this nebulous notion of ‘truth’. We search for it in the world, we search for it in ourselves, we search for it in music and literature and history. We created religions and cultural movements in attempts to understand the world and how we fit into it. Theology and mythology have been with us for as long as we have been able to communicate with each other, for the hundreds of thousands of years we’ve been on this planet. These things, like music, cut to the very centre of our being. They profoundly inform our emotional connection with humanity. They are part of us. Likewise our history is part of us. Our parents, their parents, tracing the line back, ancestry, patriotism, identification with groups (ethnic and geographical), these things are second nature to us. These things make us who we are. Religion and history are touchy subjects, instantly triggering emotionally volatile responses. If my truth differs from yours on these matters, that may feel disrespectful or threatening to you. But there’s a reason I feel it necessary to discuss this, all these topics are due to intersect in a very complex and personal way.
I’ve mentioned the individual’s feeling of connection with ancestral history. For me, that’s the history of Ireland, a history fraught with occupation, disenfranchisement, slavery, slaughter, persecution and dispossession. Ireland’s history is also inextricably linked to that other hot potato, religion. My connection with the religion of my Catholic ancestors (right up to my own parents) is an uneasy one. I was raised Catholic, went to Catholic schools, received the sacraments, but came to maturity in the cultural landscape of repeated scandals and revelations about the level of dysfunction and abuse in the Church. I stopped going to mass in my mid-teens, went rogue, entertained a vague half-hearted agnosticism for a time and ultimately became a vehement atheist. I remain so to this day. But the child is still the father of the man, and being raised Catholic will forever be a part of my psyche. This isn’t necessarily a terrible thing for me, as I was never subjected to abuse. I still carry the memory of the child I was, I still remember the kind of fear and wonder and awe that belief can instill in you. I also remember trying to be good, feeling it was important to be a good person. Though my belief in God didn’t survive the awakening of my critical faculties, my sense of morality remained with me. I suspect it would have been there anyway, to the extent that I now resent being denied the chance to discover all that for myself. Like I said, these issues run very deep in people. Complex thoughts arise, thoughts that seek expression and reinforcement in that sublime plane of communication, music.
In 1914, religious music was very popular. As I trawled the archives for this project, I tried to avoid it at first. But religious overtones were impossible to escape. As those waves in the air were transmogrified into neurons firing in my brain, the kinds of deep thoughts that assailed me were forcing me to face my history, both my personal history and that of my ancestors before me. The spiritual music of the Tuskegee Institute Singers prompted limbic fireworks, my heart overflowing with empathy. I found myself contemplating the historical context of these singers from this black university in Alabama in 1914, the slavery of their parents still a fresh memory, their continued disenfranchisement, their unwavering religious faith and the inhuman persecution they endured. There are many parallels with Irish history. There are many reasons for me to identify with them. Not least of these reasons is the beauty of their music, their harmony singing was breathtakingly good. And though I don’t share their religious beliefs, I sense their sincerity coming through as an undeniable truth – that thing we tirelessly seek. I have a physical reaction, feeling connected with all that is divine about being human. Divine, miraculous, these words are too expressive to be off-limits for an atheist. I use them advisedly.
And so, all the threads of these thoughts intersect in the song ‘I Want to Be Like Jesus’. Music, to me, is alive. I’m not content just to listen. I am a musician, I’m compelled to play songs for myself, learn the chords and lyrics, adapt them to my own peculiar gifts and sensibilities. I try to find another kind of truth there, explore another kind of story there. When Tuskegee Institute Singers sang ‘I Want to Be Like Jesus’ in 1914, it came from that religious part of them. Though I have no faith, this part of me still exists. This part of me still seeks expression. The reflective thoughts and empathy that this song invoked in me found expression in playing the song for myself. Rather than attempting to recreate the beautiful harmonies of the Tuskegee Institute Singers, my own version is more simplistic. But I tried to make it sound really big. I want you to hear fireworks when those neurons of yours are lighting up.
The lyrics are simple. I want to be a Christian in my heart. I want to be more loving. I don’t want to be like Judas, Lord, I want to be like Jesus. In my heart. In my heart. In my heart. I remember the faith of my childhood and the innocently idealistic desire to be a good person. I’m reminded of all that is commendable and moral and upright about the simple genuine faith of normal people. The institutional dysfunction, hypocrisy and moral corruptness of organised religion has shaped my modern and secular disdain for it. And yet I sing this song completely unironically and genuinely, challenging myself to empathise unreservedly, to examine my history, to make peace with myself and the world and attempt to be a good moral upright person in an age of unparalleled commercialism, cynicism and endless distraction. Mainstream music today has largely become a commodity, a triviality, a sideshow. It has the potential to be so much more, it has the potential to tell us something more about ourselves.