I was listening to Mussorgsky’s* Boris Godunov last weekend, and found myself in the usual state of awe. I’m not a musical idiot. I don’t play well, but I have enough experience that I know basic performance theory, have learned how to listen to the several parts of a symphony, know when the various instruments are playing in correct time and pitch. I’ve read Greco-Roman and Medieval all the way up to post-structuralist music theory, know the history and development of the modern orchestra, and am well grounded in the symphonic canon: I can distinguish between the baroque* and the classical, an opera and an operetta*, Sibelius* from Saint Saëns.*
None of that helps, however, describe how and why certain pieces affect me. Being able to pick out all of the variations of the “Frere Jacques” theme in Mahler’s* first symphony, or knowing the narrative behind the night of the witches’ sabbath movement in Berlioz’s* Symphonie Fantastique, or the weather imagery in Tchaikovsky’s Fifth,[i] for example, cannot explain the consistent emotional response these pieces evoke. I can describe them, tell you they sound eerie, or sad, or triumphant: but these are just figures of speech that categorise; the music itself eludes description.
From what I gathered by my brief stay in my Aesthetics of Music class, musicologists have spent most of their time arguing over this very problem: why does music affect us? The long-dead Pythagoras believed music was a reflection of the perfect math which also ordered the universe: as the perfectly proportioned heavenly spheres turned, they emitted a divine music. Our reaction to music, if this theory were correct, would be innate, absolute even.[ii] Modern semiotic theories of music propose that the emotions we feel when hearing music (for example, a minor chord evoking a “sad” feeling) is simply a reaction based on convention.
Neither theory, however, adequately describes the individual’s personal relationship with a specific piece of music.
As much as I love studying a piece of music, learning the different themes, symbolism, history, or the meaning of the words behind a particular piece, the best way to listen to music is still, to listen to it: to stop trying to understand it, or to possess it somehow, and simply to let it pervade you, and take you over.
Which is sometimes how I feel about poetry:
Read him slowly. dear girl, you must read Kipling slowly. Watch carefully where the commas fall so you can discover the natural pauses. he is a writer who used pen and ink. he looked up from the page a lit, I believe, stared through the window and listened to birds, as most writers who are alone do. Some do not know the names of birds, though he did. Your eye is too quick, and too North American. Think about the speed of his pen. What an appalling, barnacled old first paragraph is is otherwise. (The English Patient, 94)
I’m not certain whether knowing about Kipling’s idiosyncratic writing habits matters at all, but yes, to allow yourself the time to enter the text, to consider the materiality of its sound, to allow each word to repeat itself, unfolding all its potential meanings, to stop looking for the “correct” interpretation momentarily, and allow your mind to simply play within the spaces of the text, this seems very good advice indeed.
Not that a million post-structuralists[iii] have not proposed this space of play before: indeed, the official[iv] post-structuralist term for this space is jouissance, and includes all the potential misinterpretations and new meanings that occur in the spaces between letter and letter, word and meaning, old meaning and new, text and reader, text and text, text and other reader, and so on. To engage in jouissance is to admit one’s lack of control over the text, and in admitting this lack of control, to know it in the only meaningful way possible.
This principle of jouissance, I think, applies to physical spaces as well as the space of the text. At least, it does in the Ondaatje poem I transcribed [v]. The customs, fears, and signatures of all the individuals living within the Medieval village permeate that space as small thirty miles, saturating it with meaning. [vi] Our speaker within the poem must experience this meaning, but cannot hope to encompass all the “secret mark[s]” that comprise its many languages (spoken and unspoken) and relationships; he can only offer us nouns and adjectives: “circus in-laws,” ” home life,” “a familiar animal”. We can, in turn, only make meaning from these by reading in the same slow, open-to-permutations manner in which Almasý advises Hana above. Or by physically entering the locale with an openness to its otherness.
[i] Tchaikovsky’s Fifth. Anything I would try to write on these pieces would be effusive and fairly empty. Just find them, get comfortable for an hour, turn up the volume, and listen.
[ii] would be innate, absolute even. Johannes Kepler in the 1500s believed so much in this idea that he set down the scales of each of the planets. Of course, Kepler also believed there were people living on Jupiter.
[iii] a million post-structuralists. Of course, we’d have to bring in a few Saussurians to manage the event; the post-structuralists can’t be relied upon to arrange a gathering of these proportions: they’d just keep deferring their responsibilities to others.
[iv] official. According to Roland Barthes. See From Work to Text. Is it ironic that I can’t find an online version of this text for reference? Presumably because it’s copyrighted. It seems the author is not so dead after all.
[v] the Ondaatje poem I transcribed. Hopefully my decision to let the poem stand on its own for a while makes sense at this point.
[vi] saturating it with meaning. Yes alright, I stole this phrase from Certeau’s “Walking in the City,” where Certeau writes about the discourse he names the “local authority”: It is a crack in the system that saturates places with signification and indeed so reduces them to this signification that it is impossible to breathe in them.’ It is a symptomatic tendency of functionalist totalitarianism […] that it seeks precisely to eliminate these local authorities because they compromise the univocity of the system” (106). I haven’t thought the implications of this idea as it relates to jouissance, place, and music, but I think the entire coastal village functions as a local authority for the speaker in the Ondaatje poem, just as I think poetry and music provide a similar sort of space for the reader/audience. Though what these spaces are resisting seems undefined. Again, perhaps non-organisation is the point here.
Works Cited (the all-Michael edition!):
de Certeau, Michel. “Walking in the City.” The Practice of Everyday Life. Trans. Steven Rendell. Berkely, LA, and London: U of California P, 1984. 91-110.
Ondaatje, Michael. “The Medieval Coast.” Handwriting. Toronto: McLelland & Stewart, 1998. 20.
Ondaatje, Michael. The English Patient. Toronto: Vintage, 1993.
Steen, Michael. The Lives & Times of The Great Composers. Cambridge: Icon Books, 2005.
23 April 2008
Glossary of Terms (all-musical edition!):
Baroque. n. nom. The music of the 17th and early 18th century, written by Bach, Purcell, Monteverdi, and other harpsichord-playing, Latin-music-singing folks with not-so-powdered wigs. It is preceded by the Medieval (or “chanting monk”) and Renaissance periods (bring out your recorders!), and followed by the Classical (Handel, Mozart Beethoven, and other men in overly-powdered wigs), Romantic (c.1800-1900; brazen as the thunder! narrative as an epic poem!) and Modern periods (FRAG themes MEN and TED narratives: think TSE’s The Waste Land, or, better yet, a Stravinsky piece). There are also rumours that “postmodern” music exists, but you know, no one’s really sure.
Mahler, Gustav. n. nom. Modern. German. Composer. Though I’ve also heard him called romantic. Musicians are hazier about these things than literary folks. Then again, considering my point about music resisting categories, that’s probably a virtue. Anyways, Mahler wrote 10 symphonies, and a bunch of lieder (songs).
Mussorgsky, Modest. n. nom. One of the “Mighty Five” of Russian music (Balakirev, Cui, Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Mussorgsky, if I haven’t bored you to tears already. Actually, I suspect no one’s made it as far as this footnote anyways; if you have, you’re a special, and particular sort of person, and this week’s code is Roland. Tell M. I’ll be late for the secret assembly.) Mussorgsky set the “tone” for later Russian composers such as Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, and Stravinsky. If I was only allowed to listen to one composer for the rest of my life, it would be Mussorgsky.
Operetta. n. (pedantic). An opera, but with a few speaking parts thrown in for good “measure”.
Saint-Saëns, Camille. n. nom. French Romantic composer. His mother once wrote to him “I have raised only a girl of degenerative stock…Either you will play well, or I will renounce you as my child” (Steen, 619). Sure it’s misogynist, but it must have been effective motivation back in the 1800s: CSS’s Danse Macabre is pretty fantastic.
Sibelius, Jean. Probably the most famous Finnish composer, working between the Romantic and Modernist periods. Want to know how great he is? Steen writes that “During the Second World, when tobacco was rationed, he was supplied with a special issue from the factories” (742). Finlandia and Valse Triste are among his best-known works, and easiest to find, though his second symphony is my own favourite.