12 September 2013

Music in Microcosm

“Music is life in microcosm”.  So begins a student’s essay submitted to a written English language competition.  We are told that it is written by a girl of 11 whose first language is Cantonese, so we might forgive the fact that the whole essay seems to be made up of bite-sized aphorisms which rehearse rather a lot of clichéd ideas but clearly express some emotional longing buried beneath a mixture of linguistic impotence and youthful inexperience.  Reading on, the first sentence seems to lead nowhere and, to be frank, I quickly lose the plot amidst a dazzling assortment of stock phrases and half-baked ideas.  However, there is no doubting the ability of this girl to summon up a good range of English phrases and pad them out with some nicely-constructed sentences, and the fact that the competition is seeking good written English rather than coherent intellectual thought warrants the essay’s selection as one chosen to be put on public display in a shopping centre.

How, though, I yearn to engage in discussion both the author and those around me reading her enlarged essay.  What does she mean?  Can this terse statement be justified?  Can music ever be described as a microcosm of anything? Can life itself exist in microcosm?  So many questions from so little a sentence.  Much as we might bandy about that old cliché about “not being able to live without music” (yes, it appeared in the essay), we can and we do.  I could survive quite comfortably on a diet of carrots, water, bread and Pinotage and never hear a note of music; I would quickly die on an undiluted diet of Chopin, Wagner, Bach and Poulenc.  Music can no more replace basic human needs as be “life in microcosm”.  Music can certainly enrich some lives; but for nobody can it be the be-all and end-all of existence.  Perhaps the essay writer meant that music could be A Small Part of Some Peoples’ Lives in Microcosm, but that doesn’t have the same pithy ring to it.

There again, what does the essayist (or might not the correct word be essayess – that has a certain aggressive tinge to it, don’t you think?) mean by “music”?  If she is referring to the lyrics of the popular songs of the day, she is probably thinking somewhere along the right lines; these lyrics do seem to encompass most basic human needs. (I’m sure someone could do a PhD on why those who write rap songs seem intent on human reproduction while opera composers are more concerned with nutrition.)  But even then, how can this be a “microcosm” rather than a reflection of life?

The problem I have with this seemingly innocuous phrase is that to describe anything as a “microcosm” is to imply it is small.  One definition given in my dictionary is; “a miniature representation of something, especially a unit, group, or place regarded as a copy of a larger one”.  While other definitions vary, the essence of the word seems to be that it is a miniature representation.  If music is, to cite a favourite definition of mine, something which expresses thoughts which words cannot, then far from being miniature, music is actually something which expands human thought, opens perceptions to an altogether wider consciousness and, not to put too fine a point on it, enlarges life.  In short, music is anything but a miniaturisation, even if it does not encompass every aspect of our daily lives.

It is unfair, and probably a little unkind, to castigate an 11-year-old girl for one (presumably) thoughtless sentence in an essay intended simply to impress her teachers with her command of English.  But, there again, are you ever too young to learn that it is wrong to belittle one of the great civilizing influences over mankind?  Music can never be life in microcosm. 

Now, had she written “Life is music in microcosm”, we might have a more valid topic to discuss.

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