About a month ago, the New York Times Book Review inexplicably selected Leon Wieseltier to review Daniel Dennett's book Breaking the Spell, which explores the human tendency to form religious beliefs in evolutionary terms. I'm probably oversimplifying a bit, not having read the book, but it's not like you'd get any fair sense of Dennett's argument from the review, either.
Anyway, in last week's issue of the Review, who should pop up in the letters section but Scott Johnson, who made a piece of music called “John Somebody,” which I think is one of the more listenable and interesting sample/speech-based works that didn't get filed under Pop. (That is, it came out on Nonesuch instead of Mute.) The letter is a great retort to those who think understanding something ruins the mystery and thus the value of the thing itself. But this sort of thought has more credibility coming from a supposedly annointed Receiver of the Muses than a soulless techno-dweeb such as yours truly:
In his review of "Breaking the Spell," Leon Wieseltier couldn't resist the reflexive accusation that building a worldview on a scientific base is reductive, and as is often the case, he trotted out the existence of art to capture our sympathies. As a composer, I am weary of being commandeered as evidence of supernatural forces. Unlike Wieseltier, I do not find it difficult to "envisage the biological utilities" of the "Missa Solemnis"; it merely requires a chain with more than one link. Art, particularly religious and nationalistic art, has powerful social effects. Human beings have achieved their stunning success by becoming master cooperators, and emotions that drive us toward shared experience are prominent among the inspirations and outcomes of everything from grand public art to intimate love songs. Our emotion-filled social lives are the direct result of biologically endowed capacities for communication, from language to the delicate network of expressive muscles in our faces, and even our private imaginations bear the imprint. Awareness that I'm participating in this chain of capabilities in no way deprives music of its wonder; it enhances it.