what i talk about when i talk about music (apologies to murakami)

It’s a funny think, writing about music. Yes, it’s like dancing about architecture, but it’s also pretty darned appropriate to do so. Some of the best writing I’ve read, fiction or non-fiction, has concerned itself about music or the fine arts in general. Music, in particular, lends itself to abundant discussion due to its ineffable nature. As Rilke put it in his Letters to a Young Poet:

Things are not all as graspable and sayable as on the whole we are led to believe; most events are unsayable, occur in a space that no word has ever penetrated, and most unsayable of all are works of art, mysterious existences whose life endures alongside ours, which passes away.

There is so much in our human existence which is beyond our comprehension. Hence, the creation of religion and great works of art. Each attempts to describe the indescribable in terms that resonate with our pathetically finite bodies and souls. For me, music is where it’s at. I love the dramatic arts, the visual arts, film, most everything that claims to be art. But music for me hits the sweet spot of profundity – even when it’s not ‘high’ art. Some of the most moving songs for me in my recent life have been popular songs, from such bands and artists as Coldplay, Ben Folds, Brandi Carlile, and Barcelona. I must make a distinction here, before the fine art police come down on me for conflating popular music and ‘art’ music. First of all, the distinction is becoming less and less of an issue with each decade that passes, so it’s largely moot. (And plus, in the days when the ‘western canon’ of classical music was still ink drying on vellum, there was really no such distinction.) Second of all, I think that the issues addressed in each genre are similar, but often take different tacks in that pursuit. Popular music might deal with falling in love and breaking up from the perspective of the individual, in all its banality (which, by extension, makes it approachable to all of us – we can relate to the average dude who gets dumped on his birthday, for example). Art music might take falling in love and place it in the continuum of the universality of love, and what love means in the vast expanses of the world and the universe. Both approaches are equally valid. When Ben Folds sings about a love that spans a lifetime, as he does in The Luckiest, it successfully takes a simple text (though elegant in its simplicity) and creates a story that spans decades in the space of a four minute-plus song. It’s a gorgeous ballad, and one that never fails to tug on my heartstrings for a variety of reasons, all of which I’m not going to bring up here. But here’s a version similar to that which he sang with the Oregon Symphony a few weeks ago:

And then, there’s the art music approach – in this case, let’s use the subject of death, and the anticipation of death. Perhaps the most effective of all the great composers in this particular area might be Franz Schubert (at least in the area of the art song), most particularly in his fantastic song cycle Winterreise. In the twentieth song of the cycle, entitled Der Wegweiser, the protagonist of the cycle is on a deserted road on a dark and snowy evening. He ponders why he takes the road less travelled, and on his uneasy and unceasing quest for these deserted byways. In the end, he knows that he is seeking the road that no one returns from – that which leads to death. Personal, evocative, yet universal and probing in its approach to the greater meaning of life and death as it applies both to the individual and to mankind as a whole (especially in the context of this monumental collection of songs). Here is Dietrich Fischer Dieskau with Murray Perahia, pianist.

Both are great in their own way. Clearly, the Schubert has already stood the test of time. Will the Folds? Only time will tell. But my point is this – music has that special quality of being able to address issues with great subtlety (or not) with or without a text. For example, is there a greater valedictory statement of leave-taking than the finale of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony? Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra, Myung-Whun Chung, conductor.

More on this in a future posting. And I promise a bit of writing on the opening concert of the Oregon Symphony’s 2014-2015 classical subscription series from last weekend, too.

3 Replies to “what i talk about when i talk about music (apologies to murakami)”

  1. Just an abbreviated version of some thoughts that require more space.
    1) I think it is a mistake to separate “serious” music from “non-serious” music by genre. Different genres are saying things in different ways, and there can be good and bad art in each. (I think I’m agreeing with you.)
    2) An idea I’m sympathetic to, and that seems similar to what you are expressing, is that language provides us symbols that we can use to think. If we can express something in language, we can reason about it (as you do in your post above). Having a word for something can change the way we interact with the world (consider the difference between “little brown birds” and “white crowned sparrows.” Two people can see the same thing, but the person who has a name for the particular bird has a richer experience). And so the idea goes, art (music, literature, paintings) provide symbols for things that we don’t have good words for – and thus broadens our ability to think about the world. Consider (with apologies to Carver) what we talk about when we talk about “love.” Agape? Eros? Philia? The Greeks made some distinctions. But we love ice cream, we love our partners, we love our families, and the lucky among us love our jobs. It’s not all the same thing. Being able to pull up an image from art gives us a tool to think about fine distinctions – even fine distinctions in the love we feel for our partner – where language fails us.

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