Martha Nussbaum's talk

Martha Nussbaum spoke to Chorale and friends last Thursday evening at the University of Chicago’s Quadrangle Club, about the nature of music—particularly vocal music. What a topic. Does music mean anything? How does it mean? How do language and music work together? Is music moral? Can one describe, verbally, the effect music has on us? And why should we make music? Do we need it? Can we get along without it? Several in the crowd had questions and comments following Martha’s talk; many were excited, puzzled, disturbed, stimulated. The questions, and the stimulation, continue now, a week later. Martha not only thinks more deeply and comprehensively than most of us; she presents her thoughts so effectively, that her influence continues after she herself has moved on to other things.

One of Chorale’s long-time supporters, stimulated by the talk and by Chorale’s performance afterward, spoke with me at the close of the evening. She was particularly intrigued by the discussion about the physical sensations that accompany the performance of music-- how music makes one feel, and how these sensations differ from normal experience. Building on Martha’s observation that Hyde Park and the University of Chicago is one of the most verbal places on earth, this listener commented that life in general was pretty tight, pretty dry, pretty competitive in these environs-- that one is always braced to be faulted, to find fault, to both apply and resist pressure. That one feels rather small and hard in the process of living ones life and functioning professionally. And that suddenly, on the radio, in the concert hall, sitting at the piano, one hears, experiences, something that causes ones insides to open up, ones juices to flow—at times, causes one to burst into tears without warning or provocation. I do so understand what she was saying. After years of living and functioning in this community—and more broadly, in the community of educated, privileged people who would seem to be more than adequately served by their culture—I deal daily with the fact that this group of people, as profoundly as any underserved, underprivileged community, needs music. Good music. And needs to experience the making of music themselves. We need not just the communal, cooperative, sharing experience of combining our talents toward a common end; we need MUSIC. And the more profoundly we involve ourselves with it, the more graciously, fairly, generously, we will function in our professional lives, our family lives, the many roles we all take in our cultural milieu. Music may be the only thing that fosters whatever we experience of peace on earth. How important it is, that those who lead us, those in positions of power and influence, those protect and promote us, live in a world in which music plays a dominant role.

Yes, music can be entertainment. It can be background to a pleasant evening. It can brighten the office environment and aid in our grocery shopping. It may even sharpen our intellects. But far more profoundly, it is the matrix in which other things make sense. I believe we CANNOT get along without it.