Robert Gilman is an astrophysicist turned thinker. He founded The Context Institute with his wife in the 1970s, and has recently revitalised it. He calls himself a planetary midwife, aiming to ease the birthing of the new era of human culture, which has been on its way since the Renaissance.
I’m studying harmony at the moment, which is a brand new field for me. I have been listening to and playing classical music in one form or another for most of my life, but I’d never gone beyond a cursory study of ABRSM Grade 5, and I’d never seriously considered the question of how composers compose. I suppose I’d always assumed it was 99% inspiration and left it at that. But inspiration can’t speak to you unless you know its language, and I now realise that harmony is the language of musical inspiration. Obvious really. But then I’ve always found that the most important and transformative truths seem blindingly obvious once they’ve revealed themselves.
Studying harmony feels a bit like code-breaking. Previously hidden universal truths gradually reveal themselves as you learn to hear in a new way, and I’m really looking forward to finding out where this journey will take me over the next months, years and decades.
In particular, I hope I will find the beginning of an answer to a question that is conspicuously absent from the books I’ve read so far, whether written in 1932 or 2009. Namely, why is one person’s harmony everyone else’s harmony? Why do we universally agree that some chords are happy and others are sad? What makes some chord progressions resolve to a musical full stop, others ask a question, and others leave you feeling uncomfortable? So far it’s an elephant in the room, a glossed-over simply-stated fact which on the face of it really doesn’t seem to have any business being a fact at all.
Having watched and listened to Alma Deutscher recently it is clear that she is connected to the ‘truth’ of music somehow – whether she’s Mozart reincarnated, or ‘just’ a prodigy, she is tapping freely into knowledge that the rest of us have to fight to access.
The reasons for that are fascinating to think about, but what specifically strikes me today is that all children are probably born with that connection to a greater or lesser degree, but we lose it as we grow. We become human, in other words. Even Alma Deutscher has to study music theory – but when she ‘learns’ something she perhaps feels that she is really being reminded of what she already knew… And perhaps that’s the same reason that as a child I always expected myself to know things, and mum had to explain that teachers were there to teach you things you didn’t already know, not just to give you practice with what you already knew… And perhaps children with dyslexia or Aspergers have been cut off from this source either at birth or from some other trauma, perhaps in this life, perhaps brought with them…