A Story About Purpose

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN NOVEMBER 2015 - This was an article written for The Penguin, the student newspaper of the New England Conservatory, to which I owe much of the confidence that I have in my own writing.

This past Thanksgiving, I prepared five traditional Malay dishes for my friends. I began cooking at 10pm on wednesday night and slept at 4am; then continued from 10am until the guests arrived at about 5pm. Before the cooking started, I had traveled to four different shops to get all the right ingredients and schlepp them home. I was honestly at the edge of my rope before we began.

No matter how much you love your roommates, people you live with are always going to get on your nerves once in a while - and that is exactly what happened in the first hour of cooking. I found myself incredibly strained and stressed. I took a shower and tried to rest for a moment, but it was not enough. So finally, I reached for some music on my computer, and of all the music I could have listened to, something drew me towards a recording of my own.


It was a composition of a friend of mine in New Zealand, which I had arranged to be performed by 9 players, all of whom were also my close friends. I could feel their presence as I listened to the track. There was a guitar solo by a friend of mine who was a young father - a great one - and I could feel the warmth and acceptance that I always felt from being with him in person. Then came my bass solo; I couldn’t help but laugh a little as I felt my own presence and was comforted by it - it was like me comforting myself with the sound of my own voice.

I walked away from the music refreshed, and ready to cook for the next 6 hours.

This was not the first time that I had reached for music’s healing qualities, but it was the first time I had experienced an urgent need whose immediate treatment absolutely had to be music. It was the first time I acknowledged that such a thing could exist. Just the week before, my teacher had commented on my ability to heal people and make their souls feel refreshed when I play. It was a very heavy comment, but I finally began to truly believe that music could be for healing people.

I’ve often thought about this strange need that people sometimes have to decide what music is ‘for’, as if that knowledge would legitimise our position in society. The reality is that music is used for a lot of things depending on where you go in the world. You will find music used for healing people, but also for purposes such as divine exultation, literal communication and organising the daily life of the community. Furthermore, the power of music can be exploited for purposes of monetary profit, social conditioning, interrogation and torture.

My personal belief is that music does not have an intrinsic purpose, nor does it need one. If it’s anything, it’s just a concentrated human experience - anything that can be done with music can be done without music, but it is a lot more powerful in musical form.

The role that musicians play in society today - certainly western and westernised societies - is often the role that society remembers us in from a past age. It tends to be a role that is not very relevant in the everyday lives of people, especially those who don’t already have a personal connection to musicians. The role that we see ourselves in is also often what we are told that we once should have been. We are living off the bones of our ancestors, and this is what needs to change first, in my opinion.

In this age of independence and internet access, we have an opportunity to drastically redefine our relationship to the audience that is society. The ball is in our court - it really depends on what we want out of the relationship so that’s what we need to decide, first for ourselves and then for our communities.

What I discovered from my Thanksgiving experience is that we really can allow the things we believe in and feel strongly about to become part of our music-making. Religious musicians around the world do this; pop musicians around the world do this and so do all of the composers whose music we continue to play. I’m not saying we shouldn’t play their music, but their beliefs and concerns were expressed in a way that was relevant to society during the time that they were alive. Our challenge is to express it in a way that is relevant to society in 2015, and continue to reexamine and reinvent that as society moves forward and evolves.

In my case, it’s very clear to me that there is a lot of pain in the world right now. And a lot of my music is about feeling pain, going through and coming out of it. What I want out of my musical relationship to the world and its people, is to be a comforting voice that accepts their pain, lets them know that they are not alone in their pain, and gives them the strength to continue fighting. There are other musicians with different purposes in mind, and I have met a few - for example, one whose desire is to inspire the misfits, and one whose aim is to change the fearful status quo. These are three very different purposes, but all are very needed and very relevant to society today.

Not everybody’s purpose has to be so grand and world-changing. The important thing for us is that we find some kind of reason for doing what it is that we are doing, and make that reason a part of the way we live our lives; make it part of everything we do, everything we say and everything we choose. I would even say that personally, my connection to my purpose is stronger than my connection to music itself. I’m not saying yours has to be - but I am saying that it’s totally okay if it is.

Step One is ‘Purpose’. It’s about finding the reason for what we are doing that is the most relevant to ourselves. Step Two is ‘Relevance’. It’s about showing people that our purpose is relevant to them, too. It’s not as hard as you might think - I’ll show you next time.

If you’re interested in taking this first step, I recommend you read Karl Paulnack’s Boston Conservatory welcome address. Just google ‘Karl Paulnack Speech’. Also, if you see me around school, I’d love to talk to you - look for the guy with the shiny pants ;)