Inside Music and the Collective Breath

In the big picture for us fancy-schmancy monkeys, music is something much like howling is for wolves—a group activity initiated by social animals expressly to create group coherence. Looking more deeply, music for humans seems to come in two basic kinds: music that people move to, and music that people are moved by.

The first is directly related to dance and other forms of social physical movement. This is music with an overt beat of some kind, intended to get a group of listeners physically moving together as one. Most popular music seems to serve this kind of function. You might call it Outside Music. 

The other kind of music articulates an overt expressive affect or emotional progression intended to get a group of listeners simultaneously feeling as one. This is music related to a kind of communal meditation historically connected to various religious rituals. A good deal of classical music seems to serve this kind of function. You might call it Inside Music.

There is a further distinction to be made. Human groups tend to develop themselves through social rituals that involve elements of either exclusivity or inclusivity. Exclusive rituals are the ones that require special knowledge or status to be a part of. For access to those, you need to know the Secret Handshake. With exclusive rituals related to music, if you hear the references, youre in. If you dont, you’re out. Most utilitarian music works in this way, serving as aural cues for when to sit, stand, or sacrifice a chicken. A lot of court and church music from the Middle Ages and the Baroque—hauntingly beautiful though it may be—is nonetheless Secret Handshake music.

Inclusive rituals are the ones that dont require any special knowledge or status to be a part of. They bring people together directly by tapping into the more basic primal instincts shared by everyone. The “mob feel” of sports events works this way. The peripherals of knowledge about the game at hand, or even the game itself, are really secondary to the “mob feel” thats palpable in the stadium. Rituals involving music can work this way too, only with music—and especially with classical music—that mob feel is more about subtle contemplation on human vulnerability than a tribalistic roar of “Were number one!” or “Kill the Ump!” Often classical musics communal contemplation can lead to something I call the Collective Breath. This is a name for that indescribable feeling experienced at the ends of significant public emotional statements articulated abstractly in music. In such moments there is a kind of communal arousal in the charged silences between and after moments of inspired ritualistic musical activity. Gathering moments like these is fundamentally the social purpose of music.

What I see in much of the music of the classical repertoire is Inclusive Inside Music—social music intended for communal contemplation on the human condition. It is basically a form of expressive research, and encoded in it is emotional understanding that transcends time and place somewhat in the same way scientific knowledge does.

Music, because of its abstract nature, has the capability to engage our emotions directly in ways that other arts cannot. It is (as previously stated) our fancy-schmancy monkey “howling”—an essential cultural tool for creating group coherence. Of course different individuals have different expressive tastes. And yet, while emotional reactions to reactive responses might vary from person to person or culture to culture, human reactive responses to emotional stimuli are on average quite similar. And because of this, the music of the classical repertoire has been and remains capable of embodying emotional understanding that is broad-based and universal to some degree. It is indeed remarkable that the power of this expression and meaning can connect beyond time and place and continues to do so even now as part of our understanding of who we are as humans.

The classical canon ultimately serves as a talisman that connects us to a collective expressive experience, and, in doing so, helps us imagine our future together. Western classical music certainly isn’t the only talisman of this kind. It is a good and important one, though. For it to remain vital it will need to keep growing.

New England Philharmonic Performs Goodnight Moon at Boston Children’s Museum

On Sunday, November 10, the New England Philharmonic Chamber Players performed Goodnight Moon at the Boston Children’s Museum as part of their Meet the Instruments Chamber Players Series. The piece, inspired by the children’s book by Margret Wise Brown, was commissioned for chamber orchestra by the Andover Chamber Players (Mistral Music) in 1998 and commissioned in an arrangement for string quintet by the New England Philharmonic in 2019.

WordSong Celebrates 10 Years with “Tyger Circus”

WordSong, co-founded by composers Howard Frazin and Tom Schnauber, has spent the last 10 years exploring the idea that all listeners have an intuitive musical understanding. The unique concert format presents a collection of new settings of the same poem, usually something well-known to the general public, and performs each piece in tandem with a conversation that has the audience telling musicians and composers what they hear.

On April 26, WordSong celebrated its 10th anniversary with “Tyger Circus,” a concert featuring 18 musical settings of William Blake’s poem “The Tyger,” including Frazin’s 2008 setting. Mezzo-soprano Krista River, baritone Keith Phares, and pianist Linda Osborn performed the songs at First Church Boston.

Circuses are supposed to be fun, but they’re a little scary too. They present life at its contorted extremes. Maybe all art does that in some way. Eighteen expressive reflections on one thing is was probably a little extreme. WordSong and its composers and performers are nonetheless trying to honestly reflect on complicated realities in meaningful ways.

The Arts in our Lives: An Enduring Beacon in a Complex World The Boston Globe, February 15, 2009

I am all for defeating an amendment that prohibits museums, theaters, arts centers, and zoos from receiving federal stimulus money, but an argument that somehow connects the arts with job creation is beside the point, and problematic.

We need the arts now more than ever not to help create jobs, but to help everyone deal with an emotionally complex world. True artists have the ability and moral obligation to serve as facilitators for emotional argument and to create the resonant environments where such personal and social reflection can take place. There is no more effective cultural tool than the arts for doing this. This is the argument the arts community should be making for funding the arts.

But it is a difficult argument for many current arts institutions to make after they have spent so many years cultivating what is most narcissistic in our culture.

The arts have become, and continue to be, obsessed with the “mirror” for its own sake rather than using it to help us imagine more fully our own sense of common humanity.

If we, as a society, don’t get the argument right, not only will we lose funding for the arts now, we will lose some of our sense of community and human dignity in the future.

Political leaders think they lead. But they don’t really, not in the big picture. It is human emotion, good and bad, that has always shaped our past and will shape our future.

Now is a time of uncertainty, fraught with both fear and hope. But at times like these, we artists don’t need government handouts – we need to be culturally relevant, and, honestly, that is our responsibility.

Our 24-seven culture doesn’t need the ephemeral from us—rather, we have a moral responsibility to be better than that if we wish to be considered artists in any meaningful sense.

Where are the artists daring enough to take up the call? When are we going to start the work of earning our keep as true artists again?

Howard Frazin

The writer is a composer at the Longy School of Music and a former president of Composers in Red Sneakers.