Baroque music seems to make the most potent repellant. “[D]espite a few assertive, late-Romantic exceptions like Mussorgsky and Rachmaninoff,” notes critic Scott Timberg, “the music used to scatter hoodlums is pre-Romantic, by Baroque or Classical-era composers such as Vivaldi or Mozart.” Public administrators seldom speculate on the underlying reasons why the music is so effective but often tout the results with a certain pugnacious pride. As a Cleveland official explained, “There’s something about Baroque music that macho wannabe-gangster types hate.” The police chief of Tacoma, Washington, echoed the same logic (and the same phrasing): “By playing classical music, we hope to create an unpleasant environment for criminals and gangster-wannabes.” One London subway observer voiced the punitive mindset behind the strategy in bluntest terms: “These juvenile delinquents are saying ‘Well, we can either stand here and listen to what we regard as this absolute rubbish, or our alternative — we can, you know, take our delinquency elsewhere.’”
When music is applied to warlike ends, we tend to believe that it has been turned against its innocent nature. To quote the standard platitudes, it has charms to soothe a savage breast; it is the food of love; it brings us together and sets us free. We resist evidence suggesting that music can cloud reason, stir rage, cause pain, even kill. Footnoted treatises on the dark side of music are unlikely to sell as well as the cheery pop-science books that tout music’s ability to make us smarter, happier, and more productive. Yet they probably bring us closer to the true function of music in the evolution of human civilization.
A striking passage in J. Martin Daughtry’s “Listening to War: Sound, Music, Trauma, and Survival in Wartime Iraq” (Oxford) evokes the sound of the battlefield in the most recent Iraq war:
The growl of the Humvee engine. The thump-thump-thump of the approaching helicopter. The drone of the generator. Human voices shouting, crying, asking questions in a foreign tongue. “Allahu akbar!”: the call to prayer. “Down on the ground!”: the shouted command. The dadadadadada of automatic weapon fire. The shhhhhhhhhhhhh of the rocket in flight. The fffft of the bullet displacing air. The sharp k-k-k-k-r-boom of the mortar. The rolling BOOM of the I.E.D.
Daughtry underscores something crucial about the nature of sound and, by extension, of music: we listen not only with our ears but also with our body. We flinch against loud sounds before the conscious brain begins to try to understand them. It is therefore a mistake to place “music” and “violence” in separate categories; as Daughtry writes, sound itself can be a form of violence. Detonating shells set off supersonic blast waves that slow down and become sound waves; such waves have been linked to traumatic brain injury, once known as shell shock. Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder are often triggered by sonic signals; New York residents experienced this after September 11th, when a popped tire would make everyone jump.
The right relationships here are simple. When properly aligned, Science and Technology are in service to Religion and Spirituality. For their part, Religion and Spirituality provide the context and meaning to both empower and boundary Science and Technology. After all, what is the point of better models of the world and increasing capacity to act in the world other than coherent, thriving Communities and integrated, realized, thriving Selves?
Things go wrong in these relationships principally when domains are crossed. When Religion endeavors to dominate Spirituality, we end up with a tyranny of the soul (inquisitions and purges). When Spirituality comes to dominate Religion, individuality can become corrosive to Community (to the ultimate detriment of both). When Religion endeavors to dominate Science, we end up with superstition and mass delusion.
And, as we have fully witnessed in the 20th Century, when Science endeavors to dominate Religion, we can end up with the breakdown of coherent community that results from the effort to apply models of the world top down on complex humanity. Breakdowns of the sort that we have witnessed with both Communism and Naziism (and, perhaps, are witnessing broadly throughout the West).
If upon reading this last sentence, you found yourself contracting and reacting to this proposition, perhaps it is worth recalling that by Religion here, I am referring to “the domain of how we enter into relationships with each-other so as to form a community that is both coherent and thriving in the world.”
Science can provide excellent insight into these kinds of questions. But it cannot live them. Simply put, there is a world of difference between knowing how to live well and actually living well. Science can provide knowledge and insight. But Religion is the domain that brings knowledge and insight into lived community. And Spirituality is the domain that brings knowledge and insight into lived individuality.
As humans, we are defined by, among other things, our desire to transcend our humanity. Mythology, religion, fiction and science offer different versions of this dream. Transhumanism – a social movement predicated on the belief that we can and should leave behind our biological condition by merging with technology – is a kind of feverish amalgamation of all four. Though it’s oriented toward the future, and is fuelled by excitable speculation about the implications of the latest science and technology, its roots can be glimpsed in ancient stories like that of the Sumerian king Gilgamesh and his quest for immortality.
“Vincent (Starry Starry Night)” — Don McClean cover by Brett Van Donsel