Age of information
Greek & Latin
Mind & Brain
Science & Art
☞ A Box Of Stories
I’m sure when the first abstract paintings appeared, people said, “No figure, no structure,” etc… The point about melody and beat and lyric is that they exist to engage you in a very particular way. They want to occupy your attention.
I wanted to hear a music that could create an atmosphere that would support your attention but still let you decide where it was directed.”
“The result of the struggle between the thought and the ability to express it, between dream and reality, is seldom more than a compromise or an approximation. Thus there is little chance that we will succeed in getting through to a large audience, and on the whole we are quite satisfied if we are understood and appreciated by a small number of sensitive, receptive people.”
This is the seat of the creativity that we channel into discovery and expression: looking out and looking in. For Ma, the work of neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, a professor at the University of Southern California, reveals something of where these creative impulses come from. Damasio is interested in homeostasis – the tendency of all living things to maintain the internal conditions necessary for their continuation. He considers all non-conscious aspects of this self-preservation to be forms of emotion, whether they are basic reflexes, immune responses or feelings such as joy. “Life forms are always looking for homeostasis, equilibrium,” says Ma.
Ma’s experiences among the Kalahari bushmen of southern Africa, who he visited for a documentary 15 years after he had studied them in his anthropology courses, convinced him that music can perform that stabilising function. “They do these trance dances that are for spiritual and religious purposes, it’s for medicine, it’s their art form, it’s everything. That matches all I’ve learnt about what music should be or could do.”
But how does that magic work? I suggest that music is exploiting our instincts to make sense of our environment, to look for patterns, to develop hypotheses about our environment. It’s setting us puzzles. (…)
I mention Damasio’s insistence, in Descartes’ Error (1994), that the self cannot be meaningfully imagined without being embedded in a body. This must be resonant for a musician? He concurs and suggests that the role of tactility in our mental wellbeing is under-appreciated: “That’s our largest organ.” Ma sees this separation of intellect and mechanism, of the self and the body, as pernicious. “We’ve based our educational system on it. At the music conservatory there’s a focus on the plumbing, not [on the] psychology. It’s about the engineering of sound, how to play accurately. But then, going to university, the music professor would say ‘you can play very well, but why do you want to do it?’ Music is powered by ideas. If you don’t have clarity of ideas, you’re just communicating sheer sound.” (…)
How can music be made central to education, rather than an option at the periphery? His response makes the vision he has hinted at already a little more concrete: it is about finding ways to communicate ideas in a manner that yields the greatest harvest of creativity. “There is nothing more important today than to find a way to be knowledge-based creative societies. My job as a performer is to make sure that whatever happens in a performance lives in somebody else, that it’s memorable… If you forget tomorrow what you heard yesterday, there’s really not much point in you having been there – or me, for that matter. Now, isn’t that the purpose of education too? That’s when I realised that education and culture are the same. Once something is memorable, it’s living and you’re using it. That to me is the foundation of a creative society.”
— “Art without knowledge is nothing.”
“The truly creative mind in any field is no more than this: a human creature born abnormally, inhumanly sensitive. (…)
Without the creating of music or poetry or books or buildings or something of meaning, his very breath is cut off from him. He must create, must pour creation. By some strange, unknown, inward urgency he is not really alive unless creating.”