By Ian Brennan
April 7th, 2020
The word essential has been at the forefront of the current global lockdowns, acting as de facto societal litmus tests. In Italy, wine shops remain open for business. In America, people line-up for guns.
But few things are more essential to civilization than books. It is far from incidental that any burgeoning despot turns early towards book banning and burning.
As a company that started out selling only books and through its rise, decimated most bricks-and-mortar bookstores, Amazon’s deeming books non-vital items during the current crisis is stingingly ironic.
One of the great triumphs of capitalism is to label art as impractical. The arts, though, are among the most pragmatic of educational pillars— making culture corpeal, honing emotional intelligence, and creating a tangible history.
Far from an impractical thing to study, literature and the arts are indispensable. They act as societal ballast, connective tissue that transcends and bypasses other interpersonal divisions.
Sadly, rather than the romanticized video-reportage of quarantined citizens serenading each other balcony to balcony, what I’ve witnessed at home in Italy are residents blasting commercial recordings out of their windows— one a Salsa, another power-ballads from 1970s Roman superstar, Lucio Battisti.
No doubt these are attempts at connection, but via proxy and not with one’s own voice.
In the West, the title ‘musician’ is usually bestowed most often as an indication of ownership rather than ability. But we need not possess a 6-string guitar or laptop to express ourselves sonically. Some of the most musical people I’ve ever met remain mostly silent. No matter where we turn, we are surrounded by instruments. Every object and surface is literally peppered with stored harmonic energy that can be rubbed or struck out of it, releasing its inner life.
A constructive act against consumerism is refusing to be made a passive recipient of content, to instead raise our voices and actively disentangle from words, screens, and data by exploring the over-neglected senses of hearing and touch.
The current period comes custom-made for listening— to the noises that comprise “the quiet.”
Ian Brennan is a Grammy-winning music producer who has produced three other Grammy-nominated albums. He is the author of four books and has worked with the likes of filmmaker John Waters, Merle Haggard, and Green Day, among others. His work with international artists such as the Zomba Prison Project, Tanzania Albinism Collective, and Khmer Rouge Survivors, has been featured on the front page of the New York Times and on an Emmy-winning 60 Minutes segment with Anderson Cooper reporting. Since 1993 he has taught violence prevention and conflict resolution around the world for such prestigious organizations as the Smithsonian, New York’s New School, Berklee College of Music, the University of London, the University of California–Berkeley, and the National Accademia of Science (Rome).