I really don’t know life at all

10/11/2011 § Leave a comment

I was just listening to a song “Both Sides Now” by Joni Mitchell from the album of the same name that came out a few years ago.  It is a fabulous recording, made by her in her maturity and quite different from the version (which I also like) she did in 1969 on the album ”Clouds”.

I noticed while listening that part of the magic of this latest version is the contrasts: her rough old voice and the smooth sound of the strings of the orchestra; the pretty melody she sings and the simple four notes repeated over and over in the background by the violins; the way she deliberately varies her pace and inserts pauses here and there, while the orchestra keeps a disciplined, metronomic rhythm. Somehow it works – it sounds absolutely right. The whole is much greater than the sum of the parts.

It takes great talent and artistic maturity to carry this off. Benjamin Britten does it, on a recording of English folk songs I have that he recorded with his friend Peter Pears. While Pears sings the tune, Britten on the piano seems to avoid it, either playing something completely different or playing the tune a couple of beats after Pears has sung it.  Again, it works, giving new life to songs that are 100s of years old.

This reminds me of something I often reflect on – that the finest work is produced when you take diverse elements and allow them to express themselves in all their beauty and brilliance, while somehow melding them into a whole. Bringing the different parts together doesn’t diminish them, it amplifies them, takes them to a higher level.

The human body is like this. The lungs are absolutely amazing at what they do, the heart beats again and again, 35 million times a year, your skin keeps you dry yet breathes, the brain is more complex than a city (!), and so on. They have hugely diverse functions. Yet when we meet a human being, an amalgam of all these parts, we experience the extraordinary whole, not just the parts (unless we are in the medical profession, but that’s another story…).

Organisations at their best work this way too.  At Kingfisher, where I used to work, the CEO excelled at attracting and retaining the best people and allowing them to thrive. It seems that Alex Ferguson, Manchester United manager, has that quality too. That is why these leaders last (both lasted more than 20 years at the top) – they permit others to shine, while getting them to work together.

To me this is another example of the mystery and wonder of life. It reminds me that, like Joni, I really don’t know life at all….  So I will go back and listen to Benjamin Britten.


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