Monday, February 15, 2010

My angels, my devils

But there my triumph's straw-fire flared and funked;
Their betters took their turn to see and say:
The Prior and the learned pulled a face
And stopped all that in no time. "How? what's here?
Quite from the mark of painting, bless us all!
Faces, arms, legs, and bodies like the true
As much as pea and pea! it's devil's-game!
Your business is not to catch men with show,
With homage to the perishable clay,
But lift them over it, ignore it all,
Make them forget there's such a thing as flesh.
Your business is to paint the souls of men--
Man's soul, and it's a fire, smoke . . . no, it's not . . .
It's vapor done up like a newborn babe--
(In that shape when you die it leaves your mouth)
It's . . . well, what matters talking, it's the soul!
Give us no more of body than shows soul!

-- Robert Browning, "Fra Lippo Lippi"

What is music for? It's a trite question, but one that I find myself wrestling with every time I sit in front of a piano.

Part of me wants to tie up every seam, preserving the illusion of a coordinated whole with a presentation so compelling and forceful that it makes you literally forget where you are. I want to ravish you, dear listener. I want you to believe that a bunch of vibrating air actually means something. (I want to believe it too.) And I want it to be aspirational and positive: this is a glimpse of something higher than the often-horrific, often-ridiculous way life can be. Something beautiful, that speaks to the soul.

At other times that approach feels like a supreme contrivance. An intellectualized put-on. A walking shadow, woven of escapist impulses. Shouldn't music at least occasionally take a penetrating and critical look at its own damned self? Point to the means by which it is made? Take you backstage? Sit you down at the desk upon which it was written? Stop in medias res to reveal the fragile, flawed humanity behind the end result?

[photo credit: "Angels without daemons," by plastAnka]


cinderkeys said...

Music is an auditory drug. I want it to also mean something more than that, to elevate us. Maybe it does.

Either way, I'll take another hit.

Vikram Devasthali said...

I don't think meaning in music is a contrivance, although I'm not sure how much control we have as musicians in that specific respect. I defer to Brad Mehldau:

"Music is cherished in part because it supersedes the need for discourse ahead of time...Our very muteness towards music, though, is often the precondition of a deep solidarity that its listeners experience amongst each other. It involves a preternatural kind of group knowledge, a resounding “I know that you know.” I don’t know what you know, but that’s not important."

mrG said...

People who know me cringe to think that I might launch into a sermon at this point, but I'll spare that here and just deal up the facts of the matter: music is, because people crave it. if you don't give it to them, they will create it themselves, and the Great Mystery of music is how, apparently, it is possible to make 'better' music.

That's pretty incredible. Awesome really. Over the 100,000 years of looking at the problem we have assembled a billion incomplete theories as to why this is so and a billion and two guaranteed money-refuned fool-proof paint-by-number methods that seem to never quite measure up to works of pure inspired musical creation from each somehow mysteriously 'sensitive' genius, but the fact remains the music exists a priori, inextricably and inexplicably bound up with who and what we are, were, and hope to be.

How's that?

Andrew Durkin... said...

Thank you all for continuing to indulge me as I descend into these increasingly free-associative posts. You might say I'm working through some aesthetic issues. In any case, it's good to have the feedback. For what it's worth, Gary, you -- and any of the rest of you good folks -- are welcome to sermonize here any time.

I think what got me going on this post was thinking about Zappa's tendency to disrupt the continuity of his own music -- an approach that has always fascinated me. I used to hear that in Monk too, where instead of going for a full-blown lyrical line, he would do his herky-jerky minor-second-out-of-nowhere thing.

I like that because it's beautiful, but you never get lost in the beauty. It's like an out-of-body experience: simultaneously being swept along but also being aware that you're being swept along.

It often seems that for many people in the modern world, music picks up where religion left off (and many who otherwise shun religion get very religious about music). I find that interesting, but as I get older, it's harder and harder for me to create from a position of full-blown don't-touch-the-fourth-wall drama. (I used to be able to do it no problem.)

Maybe that's what I get for having spent eight years in a literature department, where every damned thing is potentially a subject for critical analysis. In any case, I want music that points in both directions: toward some kind of higher plane, but also toward the grounded and everyday and even mundane. I want the mystery and the demystification, all at once.

Is that even possible?

cinderkeys said...

Music may be one of the only things in which it is possible.

mrG said...

Sun Ra said that our 'salvation' lay in the Unknown, and the proof of that was in how nothing that is known has saved us. He also reminded us that the Unknown is always greater than the Known, which Bucky Fuller formalized in his Sweep-out model of sensory awareness which says the next enclosing sphere of knowable ("tunable") points goes as the square of the radius plus 2 (Euler's Equation). Besides, the real problem with an Aristotlean critique is you would have to know all the points in order to make any judgement about them, yet we already know the unknown exceeds what we can rationally consider :)

So I'd have to give big Absolutely Possible on that one. At minimum, a solid not known to be impossible.