Counterpoint as Utopia?
“We should be too big to take offense and too noble to give it.”
– Abraham Lincoln
My morning ritual involves checking on the world news after listening to some Mozart and drinking tea. Today, I was reminded that it has been just over a week since the anti-Islam film riots began. The protests still continue. Yes, sadly we live in a world in which a deliberately disrespectful film can elicit violent reactions; where ‘freedom of speech’ is practised more than ‘freedom from speech’; in which the tyranny of our own egos can obstruct us from our tolerance of others.
I find the nature of conflict in human behaviour endlessly fascinating. Certainly many of the world’s greatest scientific minds grapple with the question: “are we innately aggressive?” In the meantime, resolving the inevitable conflicts in our daily lives is an ongoing, active, and multi-faceted process that we all struggle with to varying degrees. Music, however, is quite different. It can well be filled with a multitude of voices, each with its own valid opinion, the totality simultaneously expressing both tension and resolution, conflict and reconciliation. This phenomenon – a powerful metaphor for peace – is rather miraculous when you think about it. As such, it offers an explanation for music’s ability to be transcendent, whichever way you wish to describe a ‘spiritual’ experience.
The musical term counterpoint refers to the art of combining different melodic lines in a musical composition. This term is admittedly rather Western-classical-centric, so to think more broadly: when anything in music makes a ‘point’, a ‘counterpoint’ can be defined as ‘an argument, idea, or theme used to create a contrast with the former’. I find there to be extraordinary beauty and inspiration in the fact that music allows us to either compose, play, or listen to ideas that can coexist with other ideas….frankly in a way that they tend not to coexist in society. We have the tremendous privilege, then, that music can be our Utopia. Despite the fact that music is both ephemeral and incorporeal (transient and without a physical body), it is still gratifyingly a realm in which all conflict plays out in harmony.
I was planning to embed an audio file but instead found a great example of Bach’s supreme counterpoint, synced in video to a terrific little computer-generated animation! (Warped though it is that this little gem of a YouTube clip is from the very same website that hosts the infamous anti-Islam film. By the way, if you’ve seen the trailer, like me you might find that even in artistic and production value is it utterly distasteful). In the video below however, you can actually follow the unfolding of a discourse of six voices (yes, six, Bach was a genius). There is an ever-changing hierarchy: some are dominant, some are submissive, some propose, some subvert. Yet somehow everyone is still embraced in mutual respect for their differences. Even the subversive voices – the dissenting opinions – find a comfortable place for expression in a musical Utopia.