Music: Get Connected

This month, the Applause blog will feature Associate Professor of music Ryan Nielsen, whose work as a musician and music instructor has been instrumental in the department.

Music is an art of human connection: connection to our resilience, to our shared empathy, to bringing down the walls that divide us, to each other, and to a celebration of living.

 Music can connect us to that thing inside that gives us the strength to handle the darkest and most painful parts of being human. Boris Cyrulnik writes beautifully about our capacity for resilience in the face of trauma. He argues that survivors must find a place where we can tell our stories – with complete honesty – in a way that is both safe and accepted by their community in some way.

 Because music is an abstract language, it is a safe one through which we can share our stories.  That is to say, only those who have experienced something similar in their lives will be able to hear what we are really saying as we perform or compose. Music is a language through which we can pour our lived experience, trusting that only those who are fully trust-able will even understand us. And when we find those people, we experience our connection; we realize we aren’t as isolated as we may have felt.

 In performance, the presence of a few connected listeners in the audience changes everything. How the music lives, breaths, and finds voice depends on this energy. When the audience is really present, the music flows differently through all of us. It is a communal experience. As a performer, the more I offer my presence and attention to those I am performing with, the more vibrant and alive the music becomes. It doesn’t matter how many people are offering that energy. Some of my most memorable performances have been to audiences 3 or less. What matters is connecting.

 Music can connect us by affirming our humanity and dissolving our biases.  I was raised in a culture that, out of fear, gave me many tools to dehumanize the “other.” (This was not all that it gave me, to be sure, but such fear of the “other” was inextricably woven into the fabric of my cultural upbringing.) Because of the color of my skin, my gender, my sexual orientation, and my propensity for intense loyalty, I was embraced by the epicenter of my culture growing up. And so, I inherited a lot of those fears.

 For the last 20 years, I have spent every day working to untie those harmful assumptions inside myself; and music has often been my guide. Like Virgil guiding Dante through the Inferno, music pointed me to the suffering caused by the fears I inherited; and it nudged me to experience a larger, more connected world. How could I continue to nurture my fears of the LGBTQ+ community after being moved, to my very core, by the music of Billy Strayhorn or Fred Hersch? (I highly recommend listening to “Lush Life” and “The Ballad of the Very Sad and Very Lonely Lotus Eaters.” Those tunes could have been written yesterday, they are so prescient.) Duke Ellington said that he and Billy Strayhorn were so connected, that if presented with the same unfinished piece of music at the same juncture, nine times out of ten they would write the same thing. What does that mean about our shared humanity? Or how could I hold onto fears of those whose skin is a different shade than my own when faced with the fierce compassion and joyful wisdom of Louis Armstrong? (One listen to the St. Louis Blues will change you forever. Saint Louis indeed.) Or the sophisticated genius of Duke Ellington? (I think of Chinoserie or Mood Indigo.) Or the heartbreaking empathic-fiery-truth-telling of Billie Holiday? (Of course, her seminal performance of Strange Fruit comes to mind.)

 I remember, as a teenager, sitting in the back seat of the family car on a road trip, listening to jazz, and crying because of the sheer beauty and power I sensed in it. I was left to resolve the dissonance between having been taught by some that “those people” were somehow inherently inferior, and the stark reality of genius, strength, and seemingly infinite adaptability to do what Ralph Ellison called, “Humanizing the chaos of living.”

 This process hasn’t stopped for me. Music continues to take down the walls and barriers within me; those I inherited, and those I constructed myself. Sometimes it does so suddenly, shattering a previously held way of seeing my human family; other times it does so gently, almost imperceptibly guiding me to understand just how absurd a view of mine may be.

 Finally, music can connect us through the ritual of celebration in dance. When we create or discover a shared groove, we connect to each other in time and in space. Our separateness seems to dissolve (which is not to say that our individuality disappears; just that the illusion of separateness becomes apparent), and we literally experience the passing of time in the same way together. What kind of magic is that? Connecting us to the same experience of passing time?! Amazing. . . .  How is it that something can simultaneously connect us to our past, immerse us in a shared experience of our present, and open us up to the future? Like I said; magic. Even after 30 years studying music, if I’m performing with musicians whose goal is to connect through dance and groove (in any genre), I cannot help but smile or even laugh out loud from the sheer joy of dancing together.

You can hear Dr. Ryan Nielsen smiling and laughing in dance on his latest project with the Kobie Watkins Grouptet, Movement, available now on Origin Records.