Hearing about the concert to be held for Ukraine led me on to think how music can be not only a response to troubled times (as here) but can also itself be born out of troubles, inspired by pain, forged through struggle. This is so true across musical genres and styles, and across time and place. So this is less about how music can be used to respond, and more about where music can come from in the first place.
Music can emerge from personal pain. So many songs openly focus on pain and heartbreak, and may or may not draw on lived experience. Many do express actual memory or present struggle. This might most commonly be the breakdown of a relationship – but could also be illness, bereavement or depression. And music can also become a mask, as many musicians will have hidden troubles. One way or another, a long line of musicians have sung, played or composed while struggling in different ways. Blues singer Bessie Smith’s personal life was troubled, while jazz musician Charlie Parker experienced long periods of addiction and mental health issues. Yet these two performers alone still have a major legacy.
One question I’m going to ask is which comes first, the music or the pain? It’s a bitter irony that music – so liberating and enriching – can also ruin lives. Fame can lead to unbearable pressures. The opposite – failure or a slow journey to fame – can also be painful. The music world’s party scene can lead to substance misuse, addiction and extreme behaviours. These experiences might seem to fuel music making for a time, but also limit productivity, and end lives. Some of Amy Winehouse’s great songs were born out of emotional pain, but addiction gradually tightened its hold.
And music can also emerge from shared pain, shared experience: maybe traditional music like South Africa’s isicathamiya. These were songs sung by black miners travelling far away from home to work in coal mines, songs that expressed all they endured. Isicathamiya has become widely known more recently through the music of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, which has its roots in this tradition.
Music that is inspired by shared trauma can become, in time, a way to look back, to commemorate and to lament. You could think of pieces like John Williams’ film score for Schindler’s List, Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, or Karl Jenkins’ recent music to commemorate the Aberfan disaster.
Sometimes, of course, pain does not allow music making. It may be too deep for any music to come. Led Zeppelin withdrew from performing in 1977 when Robert Plant was bereaved – and three years later disbanded altogether when drummer John Bonham died suddenly. Sometimes silence says more.
Yet sometimes music won’t be silenced. Franz Schubert died at the age of 31. For the last six years of hid brief life he was seriously ill and living in poverty. But he went on composing, and some of his most famous music was created during those years, such as his Winterreise. Would he have composed like this if he’d been healthy and wealthy? Maybe and maybe not.
Do you have other examples or thoughts you’d like to share? It would be great to hear any responses in Medley’s Facebook group https://www.facebook.com/groups/359291215486002