Literary Review: The Musical Human by Michael Spitzer; A Life in Music by Nicholas Kenyon

The first note known to have sounded on Earth was an E natural. It was produced some 165 million years ago by a katydid, a kind of cricket, rubbing its wings together – a fact deduced by scientists from the insect’s remains, preserved in amber. Consider too the love life of the mosquito. When a male mosquito wishes to attract a mate, his wings buzz at a frequency of 600Hz, which is a D natural. The female’s normal pitch is a G natural. Just prior to sex, however, male and female modulate together to harmonise at 1200Hz, which is – as Michael Spitzer notes in The Musical Human, his extraordinary new book – another D, “an ecstatic octave above” the male’s first speculative note. “Everything we sing,” Spitzer adds, “is just a footnote to that.”

Humans may be the supremely musical animal, but, with or without us, this is a musical planet. What makes us special? The answer is complex, including physiological factors, such as the development of a vocal tract that is distinct among primates; our unique ability to comprehend and copy rhythm, which, Spitzer argues, derives from our bipedal posture; and vocal learning, the skill of mimicking and adapting new sounds to new environments and contexts, something which is beyond all but a few species of birds, for example.

Then there is tool-making. The earliest known purpose-built musical instrument is some 40,000 years old. Found at Hohle Fels in what is now south-eastern Germany, it is a flute made from the radial bone of a vulture. Remarkably, the five holes bored into the bone create a five-note, or pentatonic, scale. Which is to say, before agriculture, religion, settlement – all the things we might think of as early signs of civilisation – Paleolithic men and women were already familiar with the concept of pitch.

Pitch is an abstraction: any given note doesn’t have a real-world referent, it is a pure idea of sound. Flutes that produce a family of fixed notes imply an already developed tonal system of patterns and scales, a sense of right notes and wrong notes, a cultural and musical identity. Studies have shown that playing the music of Bach, for instance, retunes musician’s brains. More than that, when a musician listens to their instrument – that is, when a flautist listens to a flute – it activates the part of the brain that relates to the sense of self. Given that the human brain hasn’t changed in 40,000 years it isn’t hard – or far-fetched – to extrapolate a critical role for music in the development of human life.

A few years ago the linguist Stephen Pinker suggested that, in evolutionary terms, music is merely “auditory cheesecake” – that is, a pleasant, but trivial, addendum to human development. The Musical Human is, among other things, a comprehensive refutation of that idea. Spitzer, who is professor of music at Liverpool University, has arranged the book into three sections, exploring the centrality of music to human existence in the context of, in turn, a human life, human history, and evolution. Across all three a range of themes emerge: music’s ability to express the inexpressible; the extent to which the development of music – particularly in the West – represents a rupture with nature; how we use music to order and explain our lives and our societies; and much more. It is peppered with fascinating thoughts, questions and insights, all pungently expressed. Ranging from Hohle Fels to KPop, from the lost music of the Aztecs to the role of song in hunter-gatherer societies – and drawing on expertise in a vast array of specialisations, from archaeoacoustics to ornithology – Spitzer’s breadth of reference is breathtaking.

But what did our ancestors use music for? One answer can be found deep underground. “A musical tone instantly communicates its sense of the numinous,” Spitzer says. The flute gave sensory form to something that had no physical presence; it summoned the invisible and the immanent. Shards of such flutes have been found at the feet of cave art – created to communicate with, or perhaps simply express, the divine – and itself clustered at the points of maximum resonance in their subterranean complexes. If these sites have the same acoustic principles as church vaulting, he asks, might it be fruitful to consider today’s cathedrals and concert halls as latter-day caves of worship and sound?

There are other ancestral ghosts hidden in the Western canon, too. When Bach set lines from the Song of Songs in his cantata Wachet auf, he drew on a tradition that goes back at least as far as the Sumerian hymns written by the world’s first known composer, Enheduanna, in the third millennium BC. Likewise, the 6/8 time of the final movement of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony is African in origin, brought into Europe through popular dances in the sixteenth century.

The Musical Human is predicated on the idea that the history of music is neither linear, nor circular, but fractal, endlessly recapitulating and repeating itself, always the same, always different. It is an idea borne out, in different ways, in Nicholas Kenyon’s The Life of Music, a survey of the classical repertoire from the 12th century to the present day. One aspect of Kenyon’s story is surely that the tradition is in part a centuries-long musical conversation through which composers far distant in time speak to each other. Examples might include the way what Kenyon calls the “excessive ingenuity” of 15th-century Franco-Flemish composer Johannes Ockeghem looks forward to the serial music of the 20th century, or the influence of French Baroque composer François Couperin on Thomas Adés.

Kenyon is managing director of London’s Barbican Centre. He has spent a lifetime steeped in the world of orchestral music – inspired by seeing Jacqueline du Pré rehearse Elgar’s Cello Concerto when he was just 13 – and his expertise illuminates every page. As you would expect, the writing reflects the author’s own tastes and preferences. The early 20th-century Spanish composer Manuel de Falla has never found the place in the canon that Kenyon thinks he deserves; did Beethoven really write “more second-rate music than many great composers”? But everywhere, Kenyon’s judgement is generous, his deep love of the music infectious. He wants you to enjoy each piece as much as he does.

Throughout Kenyon is alert to how contemporaries heard the music of their peers, and how they thought about it – and to how that music is received today. This is always a book about music-in-performance, and about the art of listening. I can think of no higher praise than, at almost every turn, this reviewer wanted to stop reading and listen to the music Kenyon described – and consistently felt enriched and rewarded for doing so.

While these two books do cover a little of the same ground, they complement each other well. Kenyon’s is the perfect companion for anyone wanting an introduction to the glories of the Western classical canon. Spitzer’s will make you think differently about music, about its place in your life and its importance to human life tout court. Both, in their different ways, make the case for music as a tool to think with, as a wordless articulation of our deepest feelings about our brief, precarious, contingent lives, about time and transience – and about what might be called God but might also be called an infinite, oceanic sense of wonder, grace and love. As Kenyon says: “It is one of the essential, elemental things that makes us what we are.”

This review first appeared in the April 2021 issue of Literary Review.

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