Every decade or so we discover a new way of listening to music. From vinyl to cassette to CD and mp3, the format is constantly changing, but the fundamental substance is not. It is, in all its varied forms, universally appealing. Whether we’re listening socially or solitarily, whilst doing nothing or whilst getting everything done, music communicates to every situation. It is the universal language that we all understand, but ‘can music save the world?’ questions the current exhibition at the Festival Museum in the Royal Festival Hall, London (closing on 9th September). As part of the Southbank’s summer-long Festival of the World, it urges visitors to think of themselves as citizens of the world, re-asserting the idea of the global community in the face of the escalating individualisation of modern life.
The exhibition suggests that this citizenship involves looking beyond our own needs to improve the lot of others by using the skills we already have. It focuses largely on the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra,Venezuela’s primary youth orchestra, based in Caracas. Even the building it calls home, the Centre for Social Action Through Music, tells of its vision as being a social agency for the positive transformation of the lives of some of Venezuela’s poorest children. It is part of the ever-expanding international network of youth orchestras that come under the umbrella of ‘El Sistema’. By enabling children living with the deprivations of poverty to learn loaned musical instruments and play together in an orchestra, the initiative is transforming entire communities by introducing children one by one to music. Wherever it has been implemented, including several British cities, marked improvements in community cohesion and educational attainment have been seen.
Clearly more is required of the human life than just physical survival – our ability to enjoy and appreciate things that aren’t necessary to survival tells us so. The great art critic and social reformer, John Ruskin felt that all humans should have access not only to food enough and clothes enough, but also jewels, music, paintings and books enough. Not that the possession of such things is required for a full life, but that access to them nourishes and grows the soul just as bread does the body.
The video that plays on a cardboard mock-television box in the exhibition tells the story of the orchestra, including interviews with artistic director Gustavo Dudamel and the children involved. The most striking and repeated expression is of the joy and satisfaction that playing music in unity brings. Dudamel describes a choir singing as “the perfect sound of unity”, and an orchestra playing as “the perfect image of unity”. No matter how musically (un)able we are, we can all relate to either listening or taking part and the sense of there being something slightly magical happening.
If this transcendent experience is actively being made available to the marginalised and deprived, and the result of this is the brightening of the whole of community life, then perhaps music holds more power than we realise when we’re humming along to Bon Iver on the bus. Music cannot offer salvation to the world, but it is an extraordinary gift that can be used for extraordinary change.