May 8, 2016 Commencement Address, UNC-Chapel Hill Department of Music
Thank you to Chair Toppin, eminent faculty, families – especially moms – graduates, and the many friends who have given their support and encouragement to one and all to pursue their passions at UNC’s Department of Music. I am more honored than you know to have been invited to give this commencement address.
A few years ago, nobody seriously questioned why UNC’s School of Information and Library Science would invite a pioneer in the field of free and open source software to give a commencement address to the graduating class. The open source paradigm inspired not only the free sharing of program code in use throughout the school, but also the free sharing of information, metadata, and ontological structures. Translation: the world wide web, Wikipedia, open data, the creative commons, and the public library of science all sprang from the source of open source. And they all relate directly to the curriculum, the research, and the job opportunities of SILS students, faculty, and graduates. So you might well wonder, what does somebody with a history and a legacy like that have to say to the Department of Music on a day like today? If that is what you are wondering, let me invite you to relax and to expand your appreciation for just how universal is the subject of…music.
Early in my relationship with UNC, which began shortly after I moved to Chapel Hill in 2000, I found myself in a strategic planning session confronting the question: from a competitive standpoint, why do students really come to UNC? Is it the faculty? The campus? The reputation? The beautiful color of Carolina Blue? The more ideas we generated, the more the answer seemed to diffuse. Then one idea crystallized everything: you come to UNC because you want to have an impact, to change the world. And this is what I believe the University has done for you: to prepare you to change the world. It is my privilege to give you that last little encouragement to actually now go and do just that.
To those of you who have already figured out what and how you are going to accomplish such a monumental task, I say to you godspeed. I look forward to hearing from you soon! To the rest of you, I have some simple, but powerful advice: listen.
Rabindranath Tagore was a great writer of music, literature, and poetry. He was also a great friend, muse, and sounding board of the Great One, Mahatma Gandhi. The first Asian to win the Nobel Prize, he composed, among other things, national anthems for India and Bangladesh and even, according to some, Sri Lanka as well. Impressive. Tagore lays out the paradox of music in these verses of his poem Broken Song.
“The singer alone does not make a song, there has to be someone who hears:
One man opens his throat to sing, the other sings in his mind.
Only when waves fall on the shore do they make a harmonious sound;
Only when breezes shake the woods do we hear a rustling in the leaves.
Only from a marriage of two forces does music arise in the world.
Where there is no love, where listeners are dumb, there never can be song.”
This idea that the singer alone does not make the song struck me as a profound insight, something which I have witnessed and heard echoed many times by illustrious musicians I have met since coming to Chapel Hill.
I have heard this teaching from Branford Marsalis, who has remarked that up-and-coming players these days have mastered levels of virtuosity he could not have imagined, but he won’t play with them if they don’t listen as well as they play. Last night at the Essentially Ellington awards ceremony, Wynton Marsalis recognized first the talents of a musician who “didn’t play a lot of notes,” but he celebrated his listening ability before giving out any awards for playing.
I have heard this teaching from violinist Johnny Gandelsman, who helped Bela Fleck and Brooklyn Rider navigate a passage of Bela’s quintet for Banjo and String Quartet, “Night Flight Over Water,” when they were recording tracks for his 2013 album The Imposter at Manifold Recording. In a particularly complicated passage, each take the recorded sounds as if there were wrong notes in the score, because it didn’t sound right, but none could identify that they played other that the notes that were written. Bela checked the score and confirmed the notes, assuring them that the real problem was a subtle timing issue. He promised that if they could just get the rhythm correct, the notes would line up and the result would sound right. But how to do this when each part is managing its own polyrhythm across constantly changing meters? Johnny suggested that instead of listening to themselves, each player should play against what they hear the musician to their right was playing. He said “let’s play it like we’re playing a game of tag.” The next take, the notes lined up perfectly and it sounded brilliant.
I have heard this teaching from John McLaughlin, who explains that every note he plays comes from his own experiences and his own thoughts. To make beautiful music, he must first construct beautiful thoughts, which he does by meditating. His music is thus a listening to and of his self.
And if you were a member of the UNC Symphony Orchestra and played with Gil Shaham, or if you attended those amazing concerts, you would have both seen and heard how he listened as he walked throughout the orchestra before playing up a storm. And this went both ways: I saw and heard how brilliantly the orchestra played as they listened to Gil Shaham. The lesson I took from those masterclasses was that listening was the key to unlocking the transformative power of music.
The importance of listening is not limited to performance. In the essay The Participant Listener, Glenn Gould argues that the one who listens to recorded music is every bit as important as the role of the composer, conductor, or performing artist.
In his words: At the center of the technological debate, then, is a new kind of listener – a listener more participant in the musical experience. The emergence of this mid-20th century phenomenon is the greatest achievement of the record industry. For this listener is no longer passively analytical; he is an associate whose tastes, preferences, and inclinations even now alter peripherally the experiences to which he gives his attention, and upon whose fuller participation the future of the art of music waits.
He is also, of course, a threat, a potential usurper of power, an uninvited guest at the banquet of the arts, one whose presence threatens the familiar hierarchical setting of the musical establishment. Is it not, then, inopportune to venture that this participant public could emerge untutored from that servile posture with which it paid homage to the status structure of the concert world and, overnight, assume decision-making capacities which were specialists’ concerns heretofore?
Listening as the future of the art of music. What an audacious proposition! What a pleasant prospect for all of us! But it is not a passive role – it is one that depends upon decision-making, transformation, and participation.
And what of the concert world? The word concert came to the English language in the late 16th century with the meaning ‘unite, cause to agree.’ Let’s look at a modern return to those roots, as explained on the pages of UNC’s Beat Making Lab:
Music is a tool to build dialogue, amplify voice and strengthen solidarity [aka concert]. As hip-hop and electronic music have developed into global culture, there is a growing need for resources, education and software to help youth express themselves in these genres.
Beat Making Lab does not require students to be able to read standard music notation, or play a traditional instrument. The participants learn the techniques of beat making through composition, sampling, and songwriting on the most powerful instrument of the 21st century: a laptop.
The results are computer-based electronic dance music and hip-hop songs. This approach and pedagogy radically broadens the population that can be served through modern music education.
Dialogue. Amplification. Participation. Inclusion. Agreement. There cannot be agreement without responsive listening. Let’s take that to the cosmic realm.
Resonance is nature’s amplifier. It’s true, and when I said that to Yo-Yo Ma at a CPA Gala dinner a few years ago, I could feel all of his attention suddenly focused on me. He looked at me and said “Tell me more!” So I did. Resonance is nature’s amplifier. It is more than just what makes a Stradivarius sound so beautiful. Resonance operates at every scale of the Universe, from the subatomic to the intergalactic. Resonance can turn a signal into power. It can organize chaos into patterns. Lasers use resonance to power nuclear fusion reactions burning hotter than 2 million degrees Celsius. Lasers also use resonance to cool atoms to less than a billionth of a degree above absolute zero – so cold that all their quantum states collapse into one amorphous Bose-Einstein condensate. Talk about agreement – everything is one at that temperature.
But resonance also affects the movement of moons, planets, and stars. Jupiter’s moons Io, Europa, and Ganymede orbit with a resonance of 1:2:4, or Ta Ta Ta-ka Ta-ka Ta-Ka-Di-Mi Ta-Ka-Di-Mi for those of you who have studied carnatic music. Pluto and Neptune swing with a rhythm of 2 against 3 while Saturn’s moons Titan and Hyperion play 3 against 4. You can almost hear Hyperion say “PASS the MIGH-TY TI-tan. PASS the MIGH-TY TI-tan.” Earth and Venus resonate with a golden ratio of 8:13. Four of Pluto’s moons rock a 3:4:5:6 beat (clearly too out there for the 4/4 squares claiming the final say-so of what is, or is not, a proper planet). None of this is random. It represents agreements worked out over hundreds of millions of years.
There you have it: the resonant universe is eternally striving to bring itself into agreement with itself. Even at a cosmic scale, there is a kind of listening, through resonance, that seeks agreement. And this should be a great encouragement to you, because it provides a clue about how you can not only tune in to the forces that steer the world, but you can become a part of that force. When I graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1986, the dominant chorus of the day was “Greed is Good!”, conducted in the meter of a zero-sum game. That was never my preference and most certainly not my choice. But to play otherwise often meant playing alone, which was also no fun. It made me feel lost.
Over time, I began to notice patterns: sometimes great effort would yield no rewards, and other times slight efforts would yield great rewards. As I paid more attention, I could distinguish when the winds were at my back and when they were blowing straight in my face. That doesn’t mean I abandoned my goals and went wherever the going was easiest. But I did learn the equivalent of tacking upwind when necessary, and I did learn that harnessing unfavorable winds is still a lot more efficient than merely lowering one’s shoulder to try to fight them. Learning to listen, I also learned how to leap ahead, and ultimately how to lead. This is the teaching I offer to you.
I now study To Shin Do Ninjitsu, the fighting art of the Ninja. At the beginning of every Black Belt class we chant “Shinken Haramitsu Daikoumyo.” It means “Every moment is an opportunity to receive the enlightenment I seek.” Slowly but surely I have been retraining my body to respond to adversity by listening first, acknowledging the attack instead of reflexively fighting it, then adjusting my stance – my Kamae – so that I am in proper balance, while further unbalancing my adversary. I have been amazed at how this physical process of listening gives tactical advantage in the martial arts, but it also reinforces and informs actions in other contexts, be they political, social, or personal. And especially, the artistic.
Charles Osborne, an alumni from one of your sister schools – UNC School of the Arts – recently wrote to me, saying “Our time there taught us that, as artists, we are enough, and that listening is the most important work one can do.” Listening to resonate, resonating to amplify, amplifying so that the whole world can come to understand what the artist alone can see and hear. Which is their gift.
Listening can be a great way to lead, and it can be a great way to help others lead, too. You have been developing the skill of listening the whole time you have been at UNC. It is not just the means by which you gain the knowledge necessary to advance in your field, but the means to help others find greater agreement and thus bring greater gains to the larger world. The potential impact of such purposeful listening is virtually unlimited.
Remember, The Universe is listening. Make it your soundboard. Find those resonances that amplify and strengthen your solidarities, your concerts. By coming into agreement with it, you will find that it responds by trying to come into agreement with you. That’s listening with a purpose. And that will create a concert we all want to hear. For real. So go, live, love, and perhaps learn some more. But whatever you do, please do come back from time to time so we can all listen to what you alone can teach us.