Back to top

46.  Prelude and Fugue in B flat minor from Book 2






Try speaking this in the rhythm of the opening of the Fugue subject

For most of us born and brought up in the Christian tradition our first association of ‘conversion experience’ would be the account of Saul in the book of Acts. A devout Jew and persecutor of Jesus’ followers, he is travelling to Damascus when he is suddenly aware of a light all around him. He falls to the ground and hears a voice : You will be told what you have to do’. Saul is struck dumb and blind and it takes him three days to come to his senses again. His whole life is transformed and he turns from persecutor to proclaimer, from cynic to mystic visionary. In the Buddhist world we tend to think of the conversion experience taking much longer than three days. Indeed many people speak as if the journey to enlightenment is bound to take many lifetimes, maybe countless aeons. Going back to the Pali Canon, however, there are numerous examples of people who hear the Buddha’s message and are converted almost instantaneously. The journey from sotapanna (stream-enterer) to arahant (realised holy enlightened being) sometimes only takes a few days. For the most part modern Western people do NOT go through their lives expecting to be changed, challenged, converted to a new way of seeing. Yet on some level there is no doubt that many people are seekers for just such a new way of seeing that can make sense of life and death, joy and suffering, love and passion. Music is clearly one medium that helps in this seeking - most people will have at least one piece of music, be it a popular song or an orchestral symphony - that has touched them deeply enough to be recognised as some sort of conversion experience, something which opened the world up, which revealed a deeper aspect of life’s rich meaning. For myself I remember a few such occasions. I first heard Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant Jesus on the radio when I was about seventeen. By the end of this massive two hour piano work I was sure that I had experienced something of the vastness of the universe beyond this time, this place, this life. It was like being converted to a different way of seeing where ‘my’ life, ‘my’ consciousness was just a drop in a limitless ocean. Both liberating and terrifying at the same time - I suppose both meanings can be contained in the word ‘awesome’. A very different experience for me was hearing the South African jazz pianist Abdullah Ibrahim perform in London in 1988. It was during the time when Nelson Mandela was still in prison and the whole world was watching, waiting for change. When Abdullah Ibrahim played his Song for Mandela I experienced something which I can now acknowledge as being the clearest source of inspiration for my philosophy of teaching music. I experienced with absolute conviction that ‘music can change the world because it can change people’s consciousness’. Ibrahim’s playing was a political act - not offered as a personal wish, not offered as entertainment, not offered to move people emotionally, but given so that people’s consciousness could be changed and through them the world itself could be changed. None of us needs too many conversion experiences like these in our lives. When we have had one we are in some sense told what to do with it - even though we may not be able to articulate what has happened until many years later. Music is an immensely powerful medium. It is a shared universal language, and both in performing and listening it has the power to bring together the left and right sides of the brain and create a new unitive consciousness.