Mark Gresham | 30 MAR 2023
To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.
I’ve read, that things inanimate have mov’d,
And, as with living Souls, have been inform’d,
By Magick Numbers and persuasive Sound.
What then am I? Am I more senseless grown
Than Trees, or Flint? O force of constant Woe!
’Tis not in Harmony to calm my Griefs.
~Almeria, in “The Mourning Bride”
by William Congreve, 1697
Although we can trace the concept of using music for therapeutic purposes back to ancient times, the modern practice of music therapy emerged in the aftermaths of the First and Second World Wars when musicians and medical professionals began to use music to help rehabilitate soldiers who had been injured or traumatized in combat.
The first known use of the term “music therapy” in English was by an Australian musician named E. Thayer Gaston, who used it in a 1944 article titled “Music in Therapy.” Gaston was one of the pioneers of the modern music therapy movement, and his article helped to establish the field as a legitimate and distinct discipline within the medical and health professions.
Since then, the field of music therapy has grown and evolved significantly, with the establishment of professional organizations, academic programs, and research initiatives dedicated to the study and practice of music therapy. It is recognized today as an evidence-based treatment approach that can address a wide range of physical, emotional, and cognitive needs.
However, not everything labeled with the buzzword falls into those parameters, so what is promoted publicly as “music therapy” in recent decades covers a wide range, encompassing everything from credible therapeutic applications to a kind of New Age snake oil.
American pianist-composer Chad Lawson is interested in introducing new audiences to classical music and using it for its therapeutic properties. Lawson’s musical philosophy emphasizes the importance of collaboration, vulnerability, imperfection, quiet, and simplicity in the creative process. He reinterpreted the works of Chopin in his 2014 album, The Chopin Variations, which was well received by listeners and industry alike. His podcast, Calm It Down, has become popular due to its blend of soothing music and talk revolving around philosophy in simple life lessons.
This past Saturday, Lawson presented a recital consisting of his original compositions and transcriptions of music by Chopin, plus his arrangement of a Billie Elish song, at the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts, with a modest amount of assistance by violinist Judy Kang and cellist Seth Parker Woods.
I say “modest” not only due to the limited number of selections in which Kang and Woods played but also the simplicity of the music, resulting in the utter absence of any virtuosic display of their abilities. But that clearly aligns with Lawson’s aesthetic, as further demonstrated by his own piano parts, whether playing in ensemble or solo.
The aesthetic of simplicity exists within works of the majority of classical composers but not across their entire catalog, though it has arisen as a cause every now and then throughout history. Indeed, in the 1980s, there was a trend of backing away from complexity, which the Germans call “The New Simplicity,” with the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt perhaps its most important exponent. One can also point to Erik Satie’s stately and serene Gymnopédies as a music of radical simplicity. And indeed, the galant style arose in the mid-18th century in reaction to the Baroque.
But Lawson’s repertoire, including his simplified re-interpretations of Chopin, was very uniform in placidness of expression, and an entire concert of that kind of sameness can easily become rather dull.
In creative expression, less can indeed be more, and quiet and simplicity can have striking aesthetic value when artfully applied. But simplicity and simplisticness are different things, and Lawson’s music for this concert came off more as the latter. Nor is perpetual serenity the only kind of therapy; catharsis is also therapeutic.
An awkward moment occurred when the concert ended, and the audience (mostly seated) gave its round of applause for the final number and then started to leave. Lawson appeared at the stage entrance as they were exiting, clearly expecting to play an encore, then after a few moments of hesitation, did so anyway, at which point most who had not already left returned to their seats.
Alas, I don’t even know what the encore was, except it was more of the same, so for me it made no memorable impression. I was left hungering for a different music, something to bite on. ■