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The Breath of Music

[A version of this essay first appeared in when Kennedy served as President of the American Music Center.]

In my formative years, I became deeply concerned about and involved in environmental issues, and thought that my life’s work would be in the environmental sciences. Influenced by Wendell Berry’s 1969 book The Long-Legged House - which seems even more prescient today in its warnings and wisdoms - I also became a believer in James Lovelock’s Gaia theory, which views all life on earth as a larger organism. But then in my musical pursuits, I began to see synergy with the new ecology movements: there was John Cage (“imitating nature in its manner of operation”), and Morton Feldman (“There was a Deity in my life, and it was sound.”) And from Cage I began to read Buckminster Fuller, and I saw that his Omni-Directional Halo resonated with Lovelock. Soon, I began to view music as one of the environmental sciences, and music as an area where I could perhaps funnel these perspectives - especially in the realm of influencing audiences and musicians, as a kind of cultural ecology.

Over time as I have pursued this path, the synergies I saw between music and environmentalism have fed my ongoing wonder regarding what we know and describe as “music”. Culturally, we are conditioned to think of music as a human endeavor, and to think of "nature" as something exterior. But the more we perceive the interdependency of all things, the more we might hear music as a form of environmental consciousness.

Sound is one of the original, magical elements of the Earth’s ecosystem. And where there is no air for soundwaves to travel, there is no auditory resonance or music of any kind. From the perspective of the Gaian worldview, music is thus an element of the Earth's ecosystem, and like other lifeforms it is dependent on air. Music breathes – and the rituals of giving it breath and beauty that we call music-making, are magnificent triumphs of nature and sentient lifeforms.

Being an unseen waveform, music lives in a place that we endeavor to understand – the space between matter. To physicists, space remains an unquantifiable coefficient in the equation of life’s mysteries, an embrace of time and energy. Just as space itself is a mystery, so is the inner space of a human being, the soul-space which is said to be intangible, but which nevertheless can be “touched” by experiences which include the musical.

What am I getting at here? That music is nature speaking, and one of the most glorious manifestations of life’s mysteries, a dynamic balance of matter and spirit, physical energy making manifest the province of the imagination. The gift of emotional capacity in animals is a wonder of nature, and because music has the power to both articulate emotion and generate emotion in listeners, as composers and performers we have the privilege of working this mysterious alchemy. That the emotional parameter of music is so often ignored and undervalued in our discourse tells us much about ourselves and our cultural values; but to me, it is the most precious - and that which gives most to the nurturing and development of human nature. As Fuller said, "love is metaphysical gravity," which we can exert. To me, that is my job with this thing called music.

This wonder with the capacity of music to express the mysteries and love of life has fueled musicians for centuries, from Bach's amazement with the magic of counterpoint, to Cage's mindfulness in hearing everything as music. I'm smitten too, because we live in an enchanted ecosystem: an ecosystem that is musical, filled with the polyphonic consonances and dissonances of the spectral harmony of the allsound of that greater organism which is us all.

– John Kennedy, 2002

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