Prelude for a New Year

Monday, January 2, 2012

I am a law professor and a classically trained semi-professional singer. Lately I have been reflecting on what connections, if any, might exist between law and music. More specifically I have been trying to make links between classical music and equality, listening for anything that might help to illuminate the challenges, uncertainties, disappointments and triumphs that have accompanied the evolution of equality law. I first sang equality many years ago, in an introductory Charter class near the end of term. Students who had begun the year with a passionate commitment to social justice and equality had been worn down and worn out, by the rigors of first year, and, more specifically by the complexities of the Supreme Court of Canada’s equality jurisprudence. I decided, spontaneously, to sing the words of the guarantee ... in an effort both to wake the class up and capture their attention. It worked! After the initial embarrassment had subsided, I realized I wanted to explore whether it had worked on a different, less immediate level. Did changing the register of law ... transposing the words of law into musical sounds, with tempo, cadence, rhythm, melody, dynamics and timbre – achieve anything more significant than a wake-up call?

A few years later I sang section 15 again at the launch of the Women’s Court of Canada. This time I was deliberately bringing my embodied voice to the conversation about substantive equality – in a very particular and personal way. Giving “voice” to section 15 through singing it was many things – terrifying, invigorating, illuminating, restrictive and liberating. Afterwards, one colleague commented on the impact of hearing the provision as music. For her, it made the language’s lack of lyricism both audible and concrete ...causing her to hear the guarantee in an entirely different way. I understood what she was saying ... to put it colloquially, singing equality rocked my world!

And so, I have been wondering. Can theorizing about music enrich our theorizing about equality? Can listening to music enhance our perceptions of inequality? Can making music augment our equality instincts? I think that the answer must be yes ... the challenge is to identify to useful relevancies. What follows is a prelude … an attempt to use the power of music to enhance the legal and social power of substantive equality. But be warned ... the orchestration is unsettled, the development of key themes is ongoing, the rhythmic pulse will sputter, and the harmonies remain unresolved.

Music encompasses an almost unimaginably vast array of forms. Each is situated in a particular social, historical, political and cultural context. There is a world of difference between hip-hop and opera, between a tone poem by Schoenberg and a concerto by Mozart, between Indian raga and Tibetan chants. My focus is western classical music, Bach and Beethoven, Mozart and Mahler. The reason is simply my own familiarity and expertise.

Music constructs meaning, but in a way which is unfamiliar to those of us who make our living with words. Lawyers are deeply invested in the ways in which words construct meaning. Unlike law, or literature, or film, classical music uses another primary medium of communication – organized sound – to construct meaning in a different but equally powerful way. Musical narrative creates meaning for both the performerand the listener both of whom engage alone, or even better, in community with the sounds. The fact that the meanings constructed may well be individual as well as communal does not make them less significant – in fact, like inequality, both the individual and the shared experiences provide legal and normative meaning.

One characteristic of classical music which gives it the power to convey meaning is “voice.” In classical music, voice, meaning the instrument chosen to communicate the musical idea ... matters. A musical idea can be utterly transformed by the choice of instrument ... to take an obvious example, a theme voiced by a piccolo will be completely different from one voiced by a trumpet. The sonority of the violin is meaningfully distinct from that of the cello and composers of classical music, as well as those who listen to it, will attend carefully to those differences in voice.Instrumental classical music operates on multiple levels – harmonic, rhythmic, melodic, and on all of those levels, voice matters. There are lessons for equality law in this inherent complexity, and in this attention to the individual, unique, important capacities of each orchestral voice.

If we think of the guarantee of substantive equality as a guarantee in part about whose voices need to be encouraged – then classical music provides an exemplary example. In substantive equality law, our attention should be directed to voices which have previously been silenced, whose worth has not been acknowledged… or who make sounds which are unfamiliar and unsettling for law. In classical music, unfamiliar sounds are used with purpose, to create meaning. Sounds are never unvoiceable ... there is always an instrument which can be coaxed to produce a particular sonority, when that sound is understood to be necessary to the whole. And classical music can take a cacophony of dissonant sounds and turn them into an organized and coherent whole. All the players have roles which require them to see themselves as part of a larger process of community building, in which each voice is both dependent on and in constant and committed dialogue with others.

Within the idea of voice in music, is the power of silence. In classical music, the rest is more than just an absence of sound, it is the presence of silence, the voicing of silence, and it is indispensable to the rhythmic and musical structure of the piece. A well trained classical musician attends to silences and understands the significance of both their temporal length and their quality. Does the silence suggest finality? Or is it anticipatory? Is it truly silent, or does it contain echoes and resonances from what has gone before? It seems to me that attending to equality requires attending to silence, and asking careful questions about why a silence exists, where it exists, whether it reflects a barrier, whether it is a true silence, or whether it is a silence filled with what has gone before, anticipating what might come afterward.

I like imagining these musings as a prelude – loosely defined as a relatively short piece of music, without a rigidly proscribed form, which often serves as an introduction or preface to a larger work. In classical music, structures and forms, and organizing concepts like the prelude, the fugue, the sonata, the coda, and the cadenza are used to varying degrees depending on the genre and the era.For much of classical music, as for law, there is, in addition to the immediate experience of making it, or listening to it, anunderlying normative structure which explains and enriches the experience – and which offers a mechanism to dig beyond the immediate and into the transcendent.

On this day near the end of one year, and the beginning of another, a prelude on music and equality seems most apposite. Take a minute now and listen, carefully and intentionally to one of the most beautiful preludes ever written – J.S. Bach, Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major BWV 1007.

Happy New Year!

Rosemary Cairns Way is a Professor at the Faculty of Law, University of Ottawa and holds the Shirley Greenberg Chair for Women and the Legal Profession
Designed by Rachel Gold.