The power of music

By Anna Artioli, photos by Guki Giunashvili

“For now, just listen”.
These are the first words Dr. Jessica Wiskus tells her audience. She is about to play a part of “Istanbul”, a recording by Jordi Savall and Hespèrion XXI based on “Cartea Stiintei Muzicii” a collection of Ottoman music by Dimitrie Cantemir, renowned 18th century Moldavian ruler and thinker. Dr. Wiskus will use the composition multiple times – once even asking the audience to sing it, in order to discuss if and how much the listeners remember of it. This piece of music is the beating heart of the speech, to which Dr. Wiskus keeps returning as a means to explore art, philosophy, the difference between memory and retention, and, most of all, what is “perception of time” and how it influences us.

Dr. Jessica Wiskus is working on the project “Rhythmical Ethics on Music and the Performance of Philosophy (photo: Guki Giunashvili)

Dr. Wiskus, Professor of Music at Duquesne University in Pennsylvania, arrived in February at The Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies (AIAS) for her 18-months project researching the relationship between consciousness and world. During the seminar “Rhythm and Recognition: Exploring Music, Time, and the Self” which took place on October 23rd, she presented some of the results of her research.

Music, a way of living our lives

Certainly, some of the practical applications of this research project are significant and far-reaching: “Of course I’m still at the beginning of my research, but I will mention music therapy, which is not only effective for cases like trauma, depression, and mania, but also for physical movement: music has proven an effective therapy for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, retraining the body after a stroke or an illness” Dr. Wiskus elaborates, adding: “The range and applicability of music is astonishing, but we don’t really understand how can this one thing pertain to the physical, and the psychological, and the social, and the rituals… that’s what interests me! Time-consciousness is at the centre of the musical experience, and that’s how music reaches into all these different arenas.”

Given this extent of manifold knowledge underlying the study, Dr. Wiskus explains in what way everyone can still access its content: “Although what I speak about ranges across many different subjects, fundamentally it’s united by our experience of music – and that is something that everyone has. Music is something that we have in the most important moments of our lives: births, rites of passage, celebrations such as weddings or funerals, great political ambitions. Music is part of our way of being social, so I think that, although what I try to speak about is wide-ranging, it comes down to this central experience that we all share. Music is a way of living our lives, and it’s ever-present for us: that’s how I see the way to pull together as a whole the various disciplines.”

“I am interested in how music can shape who we are”

Listening to sad music in times of strife is, argues Dr. Wiskus, “a way of constructing wholes, reconnecting the trauma with the rest of your life, gluing together the pieces in which you’ve been broken”, the process being possible through the structures provided by time-consciousness.

“Rhythm and emotion are not independent parts,” Dr. Wiskus states during her lecture, and this is the premise that allows the investigation of musical time-consciousness also as a framework for ethics: “I’m interested in the way music can shape who we are: it can be an effective tool for developing ourselves and our empathy so that we are better able to relate to others”.

The seminar “Rhythm and Recognition: Exploring Music, Time, and the Self” took place at The (AIAS) (photo: Guki Giunashvili)

The possible application of music as a way to connect with something “other” are not limited only to human society: “We tend to see the world as a mechanistic construction, particularly the natural world, and it seems our relationship to the natural environment is in a crisis, and as much as it seems silly to say ‘We need more music!’ I’m interested in the way that the cultivation of music can lead us to reconsider our relationship to the environment, of which we are a part, and how we understand it through the time-consciousness.”

This research will not be able to answer all the possibilities regarding the function and roles of music but it will, hopefully, pave the way for further investigations: “I really hope to be able to articulate a beginning for this: it’s beyond me to do it all, but perhaps others will be able to take it up and develop it.”


For more information about the AIAS Fellows’ Seminar, please visit: http://aias.au.dk/aias-fellows-seminar/

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