Dear Grant Bakewell from Sacramento,
First of all, thank you for your very difficult work. Our lives as musicians are one step removed from the painful task of dealing directly with the sick and the dying, as you do. So thanks.
The closest I have gotten to your subject is a piece from a few years ago, a commission to write music for a morgue on the outskirts of Paris. The doctors in a hospital in Garches decided that they might be able to lessen the pain of the death of a loved one if one's last memory of the deceased was not of a hospital bed, with tubes all over the place and harsh, fluorescent light, but of a calmer and more sympathetic setting.
They raised money to commission an Italian artist, Ettore Spalletti, to make a beautiful and very introspective morgue, and they commissioned both the English composer Scanner and me to make pieces for the morgue.
It was a very moving project. You can hear more about it on this podcast from the WNYC program Radiolab.
Music does have this power to open people up to recognizing their emotional centers. Music goes straight inside you, without any kind of mediation or intellectualizing, and in a way which isn't always good. The same power that makes us feel comforted or spiritually engaged is unfortunately the same power that opens us up to being made to cry in movies, or to being subliminally encouraged in advertisements to buy a certain car or toothpaste. Music's power is a double-edged sword.
One of the things that Michael and Julie and I talk about all the time is that our music could lead to a new kind of 'emotionalism,' in which music opens people up to the possibility of feeling something, deeply, without telling people exactly what to feel or when to feel it.
For myself, this comes from very personal experience - I remember when my mother died getting a lot of encouragement to be strong, to control my feelings, to keep my emotions in. What I felt I needed, and which I felt I didn't get, was permission to feel, to access that part of myself that was truly hurt. At that moment I didn't want music to comfort me - I wanted permission to feel my own pain. I have tried in my music to deal with emotions in a way that encourages deep feeling, without telling people exactly what that feeling should be. I want to use my music to give the listener permission to feel.
"Bang on a Can" has never done anything specifically aimed at music therapy, and the closest we have come to making music for the other non-concert settings you mention is a version we made a few years ago of the piece Music for Airports by the English composer and rock producer Brian Eno. This piece is considered the forerunner of ambient music; Eno's idea was that the music that is ignored in the background of your life should be made as carefully as the music we choose to put in the foreground.
It was originally a piece for machines and tape recorders but Michael had the great inspiration that we should arrange it for our ensemble, the Bang on a Can All-Stars, and we have recorded it and toured it around the world. It is a beautiful idea, and a very gentle, spacious and calming piece. It has a kind of healing quality to it so I imagine it might be useful in your work.
And in case anyone is interested - and even though no one asked me about it , you can hear my Pulitzer Prize piece, The Little Match Girl Passion - here.