WORDS AND MUSIC
This is the text of a talk I gave to the Lyceum Club via ZOOM on September 8th, 2020. Most talks given at the Lyceum during the 2020 lockdown can be viewed on Youtube at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCPas0SJNQwJs_NW9fhYVtXQ
I count myself fortunate that music has been part of my life since early childhood. It has afforded me immense pleasure. It has also given me much else besides. Music has enlarged and strengthened and deepened my life. I have found a firmer ground for life’s uncertainties through music, and also a means of tolerating those uncertainties. I am sure I’m not the only one here who has looked to music for solace in these blighted days of the pandemic. As a young girl, it was only when sitting at the piano and playing a piece of music that I would know what I was feeling: music revealed my emotions to me. So, if I had selected the sweet Chopin A major prelude then all was well; ‘That Mystic Word of Thine’ from the Methodist hymnbook (an essential companion for this piano-playing Jew) and things were looking bleak; Mendelssohn’s Song without Words number 14, and I was hopeful that life would open up and become easier. The family would also learn how I was feeling – not always a welcome experience.
Music has also been a master of memory, vividly evoking times past. I hear certain songs, pop songs in particular from my youth, and I am transported back to an earlier time and place, or rather, that time and place is brought into the present. Music is such a present tense experience. I hear, for example, the Beatles track, ‘Lady Madonna’, and I am with a guy called Henry, a fabulous dancer and very good-looking, whose manner of eating was so disgusting it put me off my food – and eventually off him, the sort of guy that if life were all dance he would have been perfect. When memories have fallen into the great forgotten, it is music (and smell, too) that, so often, comes to their rescue.
And lastly, and most significantly, from the very beginning, music has opened my imagination. Music has plunged me into vast and glorious unknowns, out of which ideas and insight emerge, and ultimately characters and story. In a very real sense, music has helped make me a novelist.
While grateful for what music gives me, mostly, I have taken the power of music for granted. Just like one doesn’t question why the blood carries the oxygen to the cells, I haven’t much questioned why – or how – music has illuminated the loves, conflicts, happinesses and griefs of my life. Sure, I’ve read books about the power of music – Nietzsche, Adorno, Anthony Storr – but more out of an intellectual interest, rather than desiring to deconstruct the lived experience of music.
Recently this has changed. Largely connected with the novel I am currently writing, I am wanting to know how music works, works on a person. The novel, working title, ADRIAN’S AWAKENING, has as one of its main characters, Adrian Moore, a 43-year-old academic whose scholarly research focuses on death, specifically the social and cultural work of the dead. Adrian is not at all musical. One day, as he’s driving home to Melbourne from an international meeting in Adelaide, he stops at a coastal town, and while he eats a very ordinary toasted sandwich and refried potato chips he becomes aware of some background music. He is utterly captivated.
Adrian is changed by this experience: not that he knows this at the time. Only later when everything that is going to happen has happened, when he acknowledges that at forty-three years of age he has fallen in love for the first time, and a year or so later when he finds himself foundering in a profound and unexpected grief, only then when he knows he has changed, and changed utterly, does he locate the beginning at that coastal café halfway between Adelaide and Melbourne, and that piece of music.
He discovers that the music is Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde(The Song of the Earth), the final movement Der Abschied(the Farewell). What he then does, and does quite consciously is research Mahler – he is a researcher after all. So music, or at least Mahler does enter his life. But for all his researches, these do not bring about the change. The change seems to have happened at some not quite reachable part of himself, and it modifies his behaviour, opens him to experiences and understandings that, at 43 years of age, are new to him.
I believe in the power of music, I have experienced the power of music. In creating this narrative for Adrian I have the opportunity to explore these mysteries of music. How do we understand music? Indeed, what does it means to understandmusic. Why does music affect us in the way it does? Why is music consoling for the bereaved, uplifting for the religious, soothing for the sick? The power of music is widely recognised. Many extreme religious sects actually ban music from the lives of their followers, fearing that exposure to music could release Dionysian – and fundamentally human – responses opposed to church teachings.
George Steiner, in underscoring the mysterious power of music, relates a story about Schumann. Schumann played a very difficult étude. When he was finished he was asked to explain the piece. Silently, he returned to the piano and played the étude again.
Are all my questions, then, moot? Is language lame when it comes to music, as Steiner suggests? Or is language simply irrelevant when it comes to music? Is music the best answer to music’s mysteries?
As a way of understanding a piece of music, critics and commentators often create a narrative. But is there a narrative, in the conventional sense of a story, to a piece of music, and does it help to understanding the music better? Certainly an apt title can shape one’s listening. So, for example, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibitionor Mahler’s song cycle Kindertotenlieder(Songs on the Death of Children) or his Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen(I Have Become Lost to the World) one of the Rückert Lieder predispose a particular narrative, and shape a particular listening. Though the lattermost case, I Have Become Lost to the World, poses a warning in adhering too closely to a title. There’s an ambiguity here: does the title mean I’m in a state of existential misery, or does it mean I am lost in the world of music and work? And does the music resolve the ambiguity? Given the relatively happy circumstances of Mahler’s life at the time (4thSymphony completed, engaged to Alma, career looking up), I would suggest the latter interpretation, but others have not.
It was Liszt who invented the term symphonic poem (or tone poem), in which musical themes and transformations trek a narrative. He wrote a series of 13 orchestral works that he called Symphonic Poems (12 written between 1848-58 and the last in 1882). These were ‘compositions written to illustrate an extra-musical plan derived from a play, poem, painting or work of nature.’ These single movement works were intended to evoke scenes, thoughts, imaginings in the listener: evokenot representactual scenes. A preface accompanies each of the tone poems. Again these are evocative and abstract, but still, I think they shape one’s listening.
Liszt’s symphonic poems inspired many later works. One of the more well-known is Strauss’s ‘An Alpine Symphony’. This piece in 22 short connecting parts follows a climb up a mountain at night, reaching the summit at dawn, and then the descent. I can easily follow this narrative through the music. But if I didn’t know the narrative, I would have a different experience, and a different understanding of the music. Nothing to do with mountain climbing, not for this listener, but a more personal awakening, something tied far more closely to my own past history, my present longings, my future hopes. Something individual to me.
I decided to explore further this notion of narrative in music. Does a narrative extend the music? Does a narrative extend the listening experience? Does a narrative actually connect music with meaning – verbal meaning?
I listened to several short pieces of music that were either new to me or I did not know well. Some had voice, others had solo piano or cello, all had orchestral accompaniments. I listened deliberately and consciously with narrative in mind, which is to say I listened verballyand semanticallyto the music. (In no case did I consult the text of songs, nor did I use any titles to guide me.) The stories came easily: one piece conjured an ocean, rough seas tossing a boat about and when all seemed to be lost, the music calmed and so did the seas, and the boat made it to shore. In another piece with a contralto soloist, I imagined a love affair, unbalanced, unfair, which eventually finishes in a sad departure. A third was shaped around the Kindertransport of 1938-9, the story of a little girl separated from her parent and being sent alone to a strange country; that terrifying train journey. I constructed each narrative as the music played. It was not difficult.
The interesting thing was, when I listened to the music in this deliberate semantic, verbal narrative way, I did not HEAR the music. Narrative did not help either the music, or my experience of it.
So, I am thinking that to hear music, one has to listen musically? Again that Schumann story: to understand music one has to listen or play it over and over again – not talk about it, or write about it.
I believe in the power of words, but is music where language fails?
Why does all this matter? Why not take the power of music on faith? After all, plenty of people do this with other forms of the numinous, so why not with music? (And I do regard music, its existence and essence, as awe-inspiring, intangible and yes, numinous.) I suspect this is exactly what does happen: that many people, perhaps most who are affected by music, accept this without question, accept it on faith.
Back when I was young, a scientist named Professor Julius Sumner Miller had a TV show called ‘Why Is It So?’ In this show he would question the everyday world, the world we all tend to take for granted. Why does it rain? Why does water go round the plug hole and not straight down. Why do insects not fall off vertical walls? Where does the water and waste go when you flush the toilet? I loved this show, it explained so many of the conundrums that worried my days and nights. I wanted to know everything about how the world worked, including those things no one talked about – or taught in school. Maybe my desire to understand what makes music work, is a latter-day expression of my juvenile curiosity.
I’m not interested in the neurophysiological processes that occur when listening to music, such as the brain patterns and the release of endorphins: these neurophysiological explanations don’t gel with the experienceof music. And I’m not interested in technical explanations of tonic fourths and fifths, and the relief of certain chord resolutions; again, such explanations don’t connect with the experienceof listening to music. Most people, including those with little knowledge of music, would hear Strauss’s ‘Four Last Songs’, or the Adagietto in Mahler’s 5th(well known from Visconti’s film, Death in Venice) or Bruch’s ravishing cello in Kol Nidrei, or the Hymn from Philip Glass’s Akhenaten, and hear these as beautiful. And not just classical music: many would hear beauty in Tim Buckley’s ‘Song to the Siren’ or K.D. Lang’s version of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’. And I expect most people would respond to the energy and power of Hendrix’s ‘Purple Haze’ and Stravinsky’s ‘Firebird’. The question that interests me is why: why would so many people with different knowledge and experiences, different life circumstances, different hopes and longings share a similar response to certain pieces of music?
Although, of course, I’m revealing my Western bias: most people would notfind the music of Strauss and Mahler and Leonard Cohen beautiful. I once sat through a Chinese opera, a very long opera. The concert ticket had been a gift, and the giver was sitting next to me. I was desperate to leave, but I couldn’t. The music grated, I was not attuned to it in any sense, I felt an almost physical aversion.
I wasn’t raised listening to the didgeridoo, but I’ve learned how to listen to it. I love its earthiness and eeriness; its music throbs and flows with the body’s beat. But I’ll never warm to the Indonesian gamelan. There’s a cultural component here, combined with exposure and familiarity – although the lack of familiarity does not mean lack of exposure. There are many people here in Australia who would say they do not listen to classical music – ever. BUT classical music is everywhere: in lifts, in shopping centres and of course in the movies. To mention just a few: Silence of the Lambs(Goldberg Variations); Oceans Eleven(Claire de Lune); the incomparable Callas singing La Mamma Mortain Philadelphia. Music forms the backdrop to many advertisements. No one who was alive in Australia, back in the days when cigarette smoking was ubiquitous, would have forgotten the swell of Tchaikovsky (Symphony 5, just a few bars in the 2ndmovement) as Paul Hogan encouraged all and sundry to have a Winfield. The fabric of our contemporary life is steeped in classical music.
Of course if art is the best, and perhaps only means of understanding art, as Schumann and others would have it, then there will be not explanation of the type I am wanting. But I’m not prepared to jettison language when it comes to music. I have far too great a faith in language to do so, and most particularly, that aspect of language that goes beyond the one-to-one correspondance between word and meaning, sign and signifier: namely metaphor.
Language is a symbolic system, the symbolic system par excellence. As Magritte so pithily showed in his painting of a pipe: Ceci n’est pas une pipe. (Magritte is being doubly symbolic: the pipe in the picture is not a real pipe, and the word ’pipe’ in the sentence is not a pipe either.) In this sense, language itself can be regarded as a metaphor for being-in-the-world, for the world itself, for time and space, for all that has existed and will exist. Language breaks the concrete boundaries of existence, of the here and now.
Metaphor itself, in the linguistic sense of the term, I consider to be the musical arm of language. In metaphor, words are used in original and creative and often unique combinations, evoking meanings and experiences that go beyond the dictionary meaning of individual words. Metaphor crosses the boundaries of the actual into the imagined, in order to illuminate the actual. Consider the following metaphors:
‘The ripe teenage mulch of his bedroom.’ Ian McEwan Saturday(p.30)
From the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai (Open Closed Open)
‘I still have inside me the mad search for emergency exits.’ (p. 6)
‘The soul inside me is the last foreign language I’m learning’ (p.33)
‘Enchanted places are the opiates of my life’ (p.69)
From Sebastian Barry, The Secret Scripture
‘We have neglected the tiny sentences of our life.’ (p.70)
‘There was a cold cheap cankered-looking moon’ (p.72)
And from Dorothy Porter, the poem ‘My At-Last Lover’ (Crete, 1996)
Your face sleeps
in the early morning
of my slack arm
you’re my at-last sound asleep
you’re my cat
with a dreaming paw
flexing in my hand
you’re my raw storm
and what am I, darling?
and full of trapped bubbles
Metaphor is suggestive and evocative, in the same way that music is suggestive and evocative. Metaphor has a mysterious illuminating effect, as does music. The power of a metaphor is expanded by its very abstraction, just like music. There’s an intangible but pungent emotionality to metaphor, just like music.
It makes sense to call metaphor the musical arm of language.
There are times in life when language is lame and music fills the breach, that is, music makes sense of an experience when language has backed off. But it does so in a sort of surreptitious, back-door way. You’re feeling bleak, confused, something is plaguing you, but it’s out of reach. You slump on the couch, you long for blackout, you put in earplugs, open your music library, select a piece of music (although probably could not explain your selection), hit play. And forty-five minutes later, your head is clear, your spirit is lighter, the way forward is less murky and forbidding: you are changed.
It is commonplace to refer to the intangible aspects of music – and yet odd, given that music is so PRESENT. People have written of the metaphysical dimension of music. I would suggest that music functions as a metaphor to our more grounded experience. Like all metaphors, music strikes deep and on target, it’s evanescent and organic, more original and creative than other explanations, other revelations. And so a person can be changed, changed utterly by a symphony.
Music as metaphor to lived experience; that through music, intangible and imponderable as it is, we know and understand more broadly and intensely this great messy experience of life.
THE PLAYLIST I COMPILED FOR THIS TALK