Friday, October 24, 2008

`Pure Contraption'

On the morning Nige wrote about his devotion to Bach, Gram Parsons and Schubert, I listened in my car to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing Die Winterreise. An hour earlier I had suggested to a friend that he listen to the Mills Brothers. I love Schubert but I was using him, in part, prophylactically: I wanted to get “Glow Worm” out of my head. I’ve written about Schubert before, here and here, but Nige speaks for me when he writes:

“Unlike the cleverclogs who write the liner notes, I have little technical knowledge of music, so my responses are almost entirely emotional (very emotional -- music moves me to tears far more easily than any other art form).”

When music hits me – and often it doesn’t -- it’s unmediated, pre-rational and pre-critical, not at all the way I read King Lear or look at a Matisse. Music is to poetry and painting as the sense of smell is to the sense of sight. I’m musically ignorant enough to believe that music is about something, often something quite emotional. When listening to good jazz Larkin said he was reduced to “a grinning, jigging wordlessness, interspersed with a grunt or two at specially good bits.” Music inspires inarticulation. I’m at my least coherent listening to Casals playing Bach’s cello suites, The Band’s second album, middle-period Bill Evans, Dylan singing “I’ll Keep It with Mine” or Satie’s “Gymnopédies.”

This December 70 years ago Auden wrote “The Composer” (the same month he wrote “Musée des Beaux Arts,” “The Novelist,” “Rimbaud” and “A.E. Housman,” among other beauties):

“All the others translate: the painter sketches
A visible world to love or reject;
Rummaging into his living, the poet fetches
The images out that hurt and connect.

“From Life to Art by painstaking adaption
Relying on us to cover the rift;
Only your notes are pure contraption,
Only your song is an absolute gift.

“Pour out your presence, O delight, cascading
The falls of the knee and the weirs of the spine,
Our climate of silence and doubt invading;

“You, alone, alone, O imaginary song,
Are unable to say an existence is wrong,
And pour out your forgiveness like a wine.”

In his sonnet, Auden emphasizes the directness of music at the other end of the process -- for the composer, not the listener: “Only your notes are pure contraption.” Nothing seems more transcendentally difficult, nearly impossible, than musical composition and performance. For mere listeners, music is among the chief privileges of being human. As a college freshman, my roommate (the son of Austrian and Slovak immigrants) introduced me to Dvořák, Smetana and Janáček, and I introduced him to Miles Davis and An American in Paris. Once, with Gershwin on the stereo, Mike said: “I wish I could just listen to music for the rest of my life.” For now, listen to Lorenzo in The Merchant of Venice:

“The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not mov’d with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night,
And his affections dark as Erebus:
Let no such man be trusted. Mark the music.”


Art Durkee said...

I assume you know that Ralph Vaughn Williams did a luscious chorus-and-orchestra version of that music speech from The Merchant of Venice. I've performed it a couple times in various choruses I've been in.

As a composer, I want to say two things:

1. Auden is correct, I think, when he says "All the others translate." Most artforms use signifiers and symbolic transformations to represent states of being, feelings, emotions, etc. They are meta-experience. A lot of art never gets past the meta-, and remains mostly locked in theory rather than soma.

The best art, in my opinion, is art that (re-)creates an experience in the reader, listener, viewer: exciting them to experience in their own soma an aesthetic experience. Triggering it, perhaps.

2. I've gotten into more than one argument with some poets who insist that poetry is the highest artform (as if there was a competition) because words are the most abstract symbol-set we've created. Words are more abstract than all other artforms, they claim. Obviously I think that's bunk. Music is pre-verbal, non-verbal, and requires no symbolic translation whatsoever.

Frank Zappa once quipped, "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture." I've often thought of that, in this context.

Anonymous said...

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