The music in my head

Published: May 23, 2020, 04:24 IST | Lindsay Pereira | Mumbai

Millions of us turn to specific sounds in times of crisis because of how they soothe and help us cope in inexplicable ways

An illustration of Ludwig van Beethoven during his piano performance in 1896.Pic /Getty Images
An illustration of Ludwig van Beethoven during his piano performance in 1896.Pic /Getty Images

picI dealt with the start of our global lockdown by turning to Bach. This wasn't unusual, given that music by this German who passed away centuries ago still has tremendous power to heal. And so, I turned to what has become more important for me as I grow older: the Goldberg Variations and Cello Suites, concertos and cantatas that I glossed over in my youth only to rediscover what they had to offer when I needed them most.

Most of us have these soundtracks to our lives, which change radically depending upon how we evolve. I often find it strange to hang around with old friends who still listen to rock music, not because I don't like the songs anymore, but because I question why they continue to be a part of their lives.

I recognise the comfort they offer, and the feeling of slipping into a warm security blanket that comes from singing Sweet Child O' Mine with people you have sung it with for decades. I no longer get that sense of ease though, presumably because I no longer think of myself as part of any group made up of school or collegemates. They seem to have retained parts of themselves under amber, while I have failed.

As my personal lockdown stretched into weeks, I found myself turning away from the calm of Bach towards the more intriguing quartets by Beethoven.

The one that occupied me most, as I looked out my window onto streets where nothing moved, was Op. 131, his String Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp minor, composed a year before he passed in 1827. This is the kind of work that can occupy one for a lifetime, and the late quartets have routinely been described as the summit of the repertory that reveals nuances as one spends more time with them.

I found myself drawn to it again and again, not because it helped me feel better, but because it started to accurately mirror the in-between land in which I and the rest of our planet had inadvertently found ourselves in.

I can't describe Op. 131 because words seem superfluous to the task. The music sounds eerie and otherworldly. It flits across emotional states and appears to be sending us a complicated message that will be revealed only after we have spent decades incorporating its mysterious shape into our routines.

I like listening to how musicians describe it though because they are usually equipped with the requisite tools. The book 'Beethoven for a Later Age: Living with the String Quartets', by Edward Dusinberre of the Takács Quartet, tries to explain what it means to grapple with something so monumental, as four individuals try and bring it to life together, every time they sit down to play.

The saddest thing about classical music is how it is so easily dismissed as elitist and ignored in favour of tunes that rarely live beyond a summer.

Part of this can be blamed on the curators of the music themselves, who often go out of their way to erect artificial barriers between the works and the enjoyment of it. The expensive clothing and rarefied atmosphere of concert halls do little to make listeners of music feel welcome the way a sports arena does.

Another part of the difficulty lies in the music itself, which isn't inscrutable as much as it requires us to listen. We are now human beings with short attention spans, captivated by TikTok videos and three-minute comedy routines, our entertainment content dumbed down and forgettable. To stop what we are doing, then, and pay attention to someone playing the clarinet, often seems less like a luxury than a pointless exercise. The loss is always our own though.

I don't recommend Beethoven, Bach, or any music that moves me, to friends and family, because so much of it is personal. Our private soundtracks belong to us alone and should stay that way until we find someone special worth sharing them with. Once upon a time, we used to create mixtapes for the people we loved, as a way of giving them a peek into what moved us and made us. Today, a Spotify playlist doesn't seem half as evocative.

One of my favourite questions whenever I am introduced to someone I would like to know better, is always 'What music do you listen to?' I have repeatedly found that people who respond with the bland 'All kinds of music' are almost never worth getting to know.

When he isn't ranting about all things Mumbai, Lindsay Pereira can be almost sweet. He tweets @lindsaypereira
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