Wednesday, October 27, 2010

On Music

From Nobel Prize-winning author J.M. Coetzee. Diary of a Bad Year, 2007

In doctors' waiting-rooms, a decade or two ago, the tedium would have been relieved with quiet background music: sentimental songs from Broadway, popular classics like Vivaldi's Four Seasons. Nowadays, however, one hears only the thudding, mechanical music favoured by the young. Their cowed elders bear it without protest: faute de mieux it has become their music too. The rupture is not likely to be repaired. The bad drives out the good: what they call "classical" music is simply no longer cultural currency. Is there anything of interest to be said of the development, or must one just grouse about it under one's breath?

Music expresses feeling, that is to say, gives shape and habitation to feeling, not in space but in time. To the extent that music has a history that is more than a history of its formal evolution, our feelings must have a history too. Perhaps certain qualities of feeling that found expression in music in the past, and were recorded to the extent that music can be recorded by being notated on paper, have become so remote that we can no longer inhabit them as feelings, can get a grasp of them only after long training in the history and philosophy of music, the philosophical history of music, the history of music as a history of the feeling soul. 
From such a premise one might go on to identify qualities of feeling that have not survived into the twenty-first century of Our Lord. A good place to start would be the music of the nineteenth century, since there are some of us around to whom the inner life of nineteenth-century man is not quite dead, not yet.

Consider singing. Nineteenth-century art-song is very remote in its kinaesthetics from singing today. The nineteenth-century singer was trained to sing from the depths of her thorax (from her lungs, from her "heart"), bearing the head high, emitting a large, rounded tone of the kind that carries. It is a mode of singing meant to convey moral nobility. In performances that were of course always live, those present had staged before their eyes the contrast between the mere physical body and the voice that transcends the body, emerging from it, rising above it, and leaving it behind.

From the body, thus, song was born as soul. And that birth took place not without pain, not without pangs: the link between feeling and pain was emphasized in such words as passio, Leidenschafi. The very sound that the singer produced — rounded, echoing — had a reflective quality.

What Cartesian nonsense to think of birdsong as pre-programmed cries uttered by birds to advertise their presence to the opposite sex, and so forth! Each bird-cry is a full-hearted release of the self into the air, accompanied by such joy as we can barely comprehend. I! says each cry: I! What a miracle! Singing liberates the voice, allows it to fly, expands the soul. In the course of a military training, on the other hand, people are drilled in using the voice in a rapid, flat, mechanical manner, without pause for thought. What damage it must do to the soul to submit to the military voice, to embody it as one's own!

I recall an episode that took place years ago in the library of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. I made some or other enquiry of a librarian, from whom each question of mine elicited a swift, monotone response, leaving me with the unsettling feeling that I was speaking not to a fellow human being but to a machine. Indeed, the young woman seemed to take pride in her machine identity, in its self-sufficiency. There was nothing she sought from me in the exchange, nothing I could give her, not even the salving moment of mutual recognition that two ants give each other as they brush antennae in passing.

Much of the ugliness of the speech one hears in the streets of America comes from hostility to song, from repression of the impulse to sing, circumscription of the soul. In the education of the young in America, instead, the inculcation of mechanical, military patterns of speech. Inculcate, from calx/calcis, the heel. To inculcate: to tread in.

One can of course hear stunted and mechanical speech all over the world. But pride in the mechanical mode seems to be uniquely American. For in America the model of the self as a ghost inhabiting a machine goes almost unquestioned at a popular level. The body as conceived in America, the American body, is a complex machine comprising a vocal module; a sexual module, and several more, even a psychological module. Inside the body-machine the ghostly self checks read-outs and taps keys, giving commands which the body obeys.

Athletes all over the world have absorbed the American model of self and body, presumably because of the influence of American sports psychology (which "gives results"). Athletes speak openly of themselves as machines of a biological variety that have to be fed certain nutrients in certain quantities at certain times of the day, and "worked" in various ways by their taskmasters to be brought to optimum performance level.

One imagines the lovemaking of such athletes: vigorous activity, followed by a burst of orgasm, rationalized as a kind of reward to the physical mechanism, followed by a brief winding-down period during which the ghostly supervisor confirms that performance has been up to standard. Old people still querulously demand to know why music cannot continue in the tradition of the great nineteenth-century symphonists. The answer is simple. The animating principles of that music are dead and cannot be revived. One cannot compose a nineteenth-century symphony that will not be an instant museum piece

Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Bruckner, Mahler, Elgar, Sibelius composed within the bounds of symphonic form a music of heroic rebirth and/or transfiguration. Wagner and Strauss did much the same in forms of their own invention. Theirs is music that relies on parallels between harmonic and motival transmutation on the one hand and spiritual transfiguration on the other. Typically, the progression is through murky struggle toward clarification — hence the note of triumph on which so much of the symphonic music of the period ends.

Curious, given how alien the ideal of spiritual transformation has become, that the music of transformation still retains some of its power to move us, to create a swelling feeling of exaltation, such an odd emotion in our day.

More difficult to pin down are the animating principles of the music of our own times. But certainly we can say that the quality of yearning, of erotic idealism, so common in earlier Romantic music has vanished, probably for good, as have heroic struggle and the striving toward transcendence.

In the popular music of the twentieth century there has been a newfound rootedness in body- experience. Looking back from the twenty-first century, we see with surprise how rhythmically bare a notion of dance sufficed, first for the aristocratic courts of Europe, then later for the European middle class. The court dances of Rameau, Bach, Mozart, to say nothing of Beethoven, sound quite leaden-footed by today's standard. Even by the late eighteenth century musicians were becoming restive about this state of affairs, looking around for more rhythmically challenging dances to import. Again and again they dip into the music of Europe's peasantry, of gypsies, of the Balkans and Turkey and Central Asia, to refresh the rhythms of European high music. The culmination of this practice is the ostentatious primitivism of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring.

But the really great refreshing of popular music takes place in the New World, via the music of slaves who have not lost their African roots. From North and South America, African rhythms spread over all of the West. It would not be too much to say that through African music Westerners begin to live in and through their bodies in a new way. The colonizers end up being colonized. Even so rhythmically nimble a fellow as Bach would feel out of place, as if on a different continent, were he to be reborn today.

Romantic music seeks to recover a lost state of raptness (which is not the same as rapture), a state of exaltation in which the human shell will be shed and one will become pure being or pure spirit. Hence the continual striving in Romantic music: it is always trying to push further (is there not a piece by Mendelssohn called "On Wings of Song" — the earthbound poet yearning to take flight?)

One begins to understand the basis of the Romantic enthusiasm for Bach. Characteristically, Bach shows how in almost any musical germ, no matter how simple, there lie endless possibilities for development. The contrast with more popular composers of his day is marked: in Telemann, for instance, a piece of music sounds like the application of a template rather than the exploration of a potential.

Is it too much to say that the music we call Romantic has an erotic inspiration — that it unceasingly pushes further, tries to enable the listening subject to leave the body behind, to be rapt away (as if harking to birdsong, heavensong), to become a living soul? If this is true, then the erotics of Romantic music could not be more different from the erotics of the present day. In young lovers today one detects not the faintest flicker of that old metaphysical hunger, whose code word for itself was yearning (Sehnsucht).


twiggy said...

glad to have found this blog! quite good...

Clark said...