A live band in IFC shopping mall in Central. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Odjida

“We are the music makers
We are the dreamers of dreams”
(Arthur O’Shaughnessy 1844-1881)

Shakespeare had it down to a T:

“The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils.
The motions of his spirit are dull as night,
And his affections dark as Erebus.
Let no such man be trusted.”

Does that mean that Carrie Lam is not to be trusted?

Social distancing is a life-preserving strategy to be welcomed and though the original justification for closing bars was the dubious reasoning that the consumption of alcohol made people more “intimate,” it had the knock-on effect of depriving musicians of a living.

Musicians are probably the worst paid of all professions, almost anywhere in the world, but most decidedly in Hong Kong.

We need to ask ourselves, why it is that people who bring such unalloyed joy into our lives are so disproportionately rewarded?

To succeed, the musician requires both an innate talent and a dedication to the skills necessary to master their medium, whether instrumental or vocal.

Lockdown has meant listening to recordings of our favorite music, reminding us of the critical absence of the extra dimensions experienced in live performances.

All the senses are engaged in the concert hall or the jazz bar, drawing on inner faculties of emotional response which cannot be experienced absent the living musicians.

Prohibiting live music compounds the deprivation of the warmth of human contact which is so basic a necessity for us as social animals.

The power of music to resonate within us is boundless.

When the Restoration poet William Congreve wrote “Music has charms to sooth a savage breast,” he was not speaking about Spotify.

Recorded music, listened to through high-quality audio equipment, undoubtedly pleases the ear and reaches within us. But the intangible channels that connect the live performer and the audience enable one to share the experience.

It is the sharing that is essential to our emotional and, ultimately, physical well-being.

Just as a meal shared enhances the taste and smell of the food, so sharing the melody, harmony, cadence and rhythms of music fashions invisible bridges between not only the performer and listener, but amongst the audience too.

The 17th century poet Dryden encapsulated the singular power of music:
“What passion cannot music raise and quell.”

The French Revolution gave birth to the Marseillaise. Initially the call to arms of the revolutionaries in Marseille, it quickly became the French national anthem. Both its melody and lyrics are inspirational as distinct from the dirge-like melody and unimaginative lyrics of the British national anthem.

Pre-recorded and played, as it used to be in theaters and cinemas throughout the UK, all it inspired was a compulsion to stand up, a little reluctantly, until the last note ended.

Given the choice, most British prefer Land of Hope and Glory, the melody and lyrics of which are apt to stir patriotic emotions. Traditionally, it is played by a full symphony orchestra on the last night of the BBC Promenade Concerts and the audience give it their all.

One memory imprinted in my mind is the picture of my father, a survivor of the horrors of the First World War trenches, tears streaming down his cheeks as he listened to a beautiful rendition of Rose of England during the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.

But leaving aside the call to patriotic fervor as a singular curiosity, go back to the psychological beneficence of music on troubled souls, a matter of particular topicality in the time of Covid-19.

The word isolation carries the weight of cruelty that it imports. Solitary isolation is a frequent punishment in prisons. I know not whether it is still practiced but sending a naughty child to his or her room used to be a common intra-family sanction, albeit of relatively short duration.

Now consider the current situation of the elderly and the emotionally vulnerable, compelled to sequester themselves within their living accommodation without inter-personal communication.

Whatever their fears and anxieties may have been, they are exacerbated by their enforced solitude.

Wars, floods, famines, droughts, all the natural and man-made disasters can be ameliorated more or less by the companionship of sharing with fellow victims.

Not so with the viral epidemic.

At the heart of the perception of the danger is the fear of falling victim. The most natural human reaction in such circumstances is reaching out to others for comfort and consolation.

Meeting for a drink in a bar or even a coffee offers the rare opportunity to engage with others and share concerns, whether for themselves or their loved ones.

 And what of the thousands who cannot be with their dying relatives or mark their passing.

Grief and loss cannot be cured but like many diseases, it is treatable. Music is a specific that has stood the test of history, not piped over a loudspeaker system but performed by a musician on the instrument of his or her choosing.

The government has authorized the resumption of church services, but nothing has been said about choirs or organs.

Live music performances do not spread the contagion. Musicians, whether individual or in bands or groups, are always physically separated from their audience. But in every beneficial respect, they do engage, intangibly but directly with the listener.

Hong Kong’s chief executive should demonstrate that she can provide balm to the population, by lifting her ban on live music.

My opening quotation is from Arthur O’Shaughnessy’s Ode about the music makers, I trust Mrs Lam is not deaf to its message;

“We are the movers and shakers
  Of the world for ever, it seems.”

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