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Point of View 

Eminent Australian jazz composer/pianist, Bill Risby
ponders the intrinsic worth of music...

Bill Risby

October 2012

The Question:
What Does It Matter?

by Bill Risby share this - email, favourites, social bookmarks and more

In 1983 I was lying in a tent in Esperance, Western Australia, looking up at a sky thick with stars - so thick that they mimicked clouds. That night could easily have been erased from my memory were it not for the good fortune of having a ghetto blaster playing a cassette of Windham Hills artist Will Ackerman. The album was called “Past Light”, and the sound was completely engulfed into the environment. Never before (at the ripe old age of 15) had I been witness to the unity of the universe being demonstrated by multifarious vibrations, and those represented by so many different mediums - music, light, smell, touch... They all seemed one, and I was but a child. The sound and the stars.... the sounds were the stars.

Thirty odd years later I find myself sitting on my back deck in the bush eating dinner with my beautiful wife and Will Ackerman starts to play on my stereo. This time I’m laying back on my chair looking through this huge white gum tree at the moon while eating dark chocolate ice cream soaked in Norfolk Island Sambucca, and suddenly the sound has completely erased the last thirty years. I’m a child lying on my back with my head in the dirt sticking out of a tent flap completely lost in the universe, in my thoughts, and in the vibrations of his guitar. Not till tonight had I been so palpably aware of music’s ability to carry a memory as though a vessel through a dark passage, emerging unscathed at the other end.

I met Will Ackerman once. He was neat, meticulous and fairly quiet, but he was nothing as I imagined him. Similar to when you form a visual impression of a radio personality from their voice alone, and on first sight their persona creates a great dissonance with your virtual brain manifested creation. He quite frankly could have been anybody and nobody, and I was immediately challenged with whether meeting him would take from me an illusion greater than reality.

We shared a few stories about his life around the time he recorded those albums - his divorce, and a funny misunderstanding he experienced when he was spotted having breakfast soon afterward with a male friend. “No we are not a couple...”. He was in San Francisco, so the miscomprehension was understandable. When I was 15 I never thought in my wildest dreams that I would ever meet or speak honestly and “normally” with someone who had meant so much to me for so long, and I told him as much - which brings me to the point, What does it matter? When you’re in your room writing a song, or a poem, or painting, what does it matter? If you work in an office in a qualitative job, you may have the luxury or knowing that what you do matters, but for us artists, what does what we do matter?

The great Salman Rushdie when interviewed on love, was asked “What is the use of stories - what’s it for?” (feel free here to replace “stories” and literature” with “compositions”, “songs”, “music”, “lyrics” etc..) He answered by saying that the point about literature is that it is useless, that is, it shouldn’t be seen functionally. In his words, “What’s the use of Alice In Wonderland? It doesn’t help you fix the fridge... firstly, ‘use’ is the wrong thing to be talking about when you’re talking about stories.”

He goes on to say, “It seems to me the relationship between imagination and actuality is much much closer than we think. Things are imagined before they come into being. You have to imagine a motor car before you make a motor car. The imagination is the place where we bring the world into being, and always has been, and always will be. So the imaginative world, the imagined world inside our head is that place where we make the world outside our head. It’s not a kind of frivolous spare time activity. It’s not just a pastime or a means of relaxation. Whether we are writers or not, it is the thing we ALL use to make our lives..... We are creatures defined by our imaginative capacity, and that capacity has allowed us to become the species that we are.” (from Salman Rushdie and Friends in Conversation: The Only Subject is Love. © Emory University)

In the same way as literature, music is one of the elements that defines who we are, and is the salt that grounds our culture, and I would contest that music, art and literature are the only things that matter as they are the elements that define our species and set us apart from all the other species.

It is not for no reason that the nobel prize for literature is generally awarded to a work of fiction, and is a work that elevates the general discourse of life to a higher level.

Will Ackerman matters. He matters to me even though he never knew I would be born, or that he would ever meet me and be told by me that he mattered to me. He matters whether I think he matters or not. After all he is made of “matter”. He created a world for me that didn’t exist, and a “place” I went to as often as I could (and still do) - where music inhabited my dreams, and became part of the world around me - a dreamlike state that only he could have given me.


© 2012 Bill Risby

Have Your Say
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I agree with Louise (below) regarding the importance of music to humanity and particularly to the development of human communication. In fact I wrote an article on this very subject in July 2007, Is music essential or just an optional extra? I realise Bill touches more on the evocative nature of music and how, though it could be thought of as frivolous, it can be a very powerful, even formative force in our lives. An interesting, and well written piece. Thanks Bill.

Posted by Greg Foster on Monday 15 October 2012

If music didn't matter, how could we explain the fact that it appears to have been a part of human interaction since prior to the dawn of recorded time? Researchers believe that it evolved simultaneously with, or even before language. See for example http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=129155123

Posted by Louise Denson on Monday 15 October 2012
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