A Word on Notes … A Note on Words

Recently, a musician friend sent me this quotation and the question that follows: “If I could express the same thing with words as with music, I would, of course, use a verbal expression. Music is something autonomous and much richer. Music begins where the possibilities of language end. That is why I write music.” — Jean Sibelius

Would you debate this one?

#25 Violin & Piano Sonata

#25 Violin & Piano Sonata — Mozart

At first I leaned toward agreeing with Sibelius about nuance and richness of music. One reason I don’t write much about music as a generality is that I’ve read too much bad writing about music: “It always meets me where I am and never asks any questions. It can pick me up when I’m down, and mellow me out when I’m sad / mad / jealous / etc.” And to some extent that has also been my experience with music. But to a much greater extent, my experience with music is cerebral as well as emotional and tends to defy words.   Like many other people, my life has been bookmarked with music: the sweet and sorrowful memory of my great loves, losses, accomplishments, ridiculous decisions, and moments of simply living — at the beach, in the forest, on my bike, in the city, under Christmas lights, holding hands, kissing in the rain — all come with their accompanying harmonies, melodies, drum lines, oboes, cellos, electric bass, and of course, violins. Suggesting that, in fact, music does tend to speak deeper and, indeed, embrace more widely than mere language.

As I learned a second language, and came to be able to use it (relatively) well, I became aware of many limitations in my native language. As a writer who works toward a precarious mix of precision of words and bending of language to build an idea or an image, such limitations quickly frustrated me. I solved this problem by using Spanish words where nothing quite “fit the bill” in English, even though I know that most of my readers aren’t bilingual. Here again, music overcomes the limitations that culture, education, and social expectation impose on language.

But then I ran across (with an entirely unrelated motivation) a TED talk by Jamila Lyiscott in which she addresses the problems and joys of being “articulate” in her 3 languages. (It’s worth a look. Her talk / poem brought me to tears – no small feat.) She says, “I speak a composite version of your language because mines was raped along with my history. I speak broken English so the profusing gashes can remind us that our current state is not a mystery.” Listening to her speak I thought again about the way that being bilingual has changed the way I write, and even what I write about. Maybe I’m wrong, but I’ve become convinced that the changes in my poetry over the last five years or so are indebted to my daily immersion in my second language. I don’t think that anything other than someone else playing with language(s) could have made me think those exact thoughts. Not even music.

nobody told you

…no one alerted you…

In the end though, I can’t fully agree or disagree with Sibelius. There are times when language reaches places that music doesn’t even try to reach. When I write a poem, I know that readers will see the exact images I write, even if they don’t attach the same emotion to them that I do. I know that I use words to reach certain unspoken taboos, emotions, memories in readers, and I’m also aware that the places my words touch are not fully predictable.

I think much the same about music. Sibelius and Rimsky-Korsakov and the other favorites tell stories in musical phrasing and pitch and key (and …), which have the advantage of bypassing languages and cultures in ways that language cannot, or are unlikely to do. Still, I feel certain that the government of Germany in the 1930s and 40s did not hear the same stories in Wagner that I hear. That music reaches me as a listener is without question; that the intent remains intact from Sibelius’ ear to my ear, must remain a question forever, as I cannot sit down and ask him about any given piece. His experience is not my experience, though we are both human and from Western cultures. These intersections in culture may influence my response, but I can never know if my response is the response he sought.

I’ve heard and read artists of many genres who say that it doesn’t matter that their audience “gets” the same thing that they imagined. The matter and substance that the audience picks up go far beyond the original intent, encompassing both more and less than “intended.” In this sense, art is not a spectator sport. In spectating we also participate actively, a fuerzas, and in general the artist and her intent is no longer a factor. The art becomes art via the interpretation of, and interaction with, the audience. Without that dialogue, art of any stripe is meaningless.

A little piece of me (the bogus English teacher part) wants to suggest that perhaps Sibelius should have put a bit more time into his writing, maybe experimented a bit with things outside his ken and comfort zone. Maybe in words, too, he could have transmitted more than he imagined. But then again, his music has left so much to think about, so much to experience in the worlds and scenes he weaves over our eardrums and nervous systems. Perhaps, he was right. At least for himself.

So to answer the question, I don’t think I’d debate Sibelius at all. But I wouldn’t mind sitting down over a good glass of wine and talking it all through with him in front of a Finnish fireplace. I’m certain I would learn much about how to listen and be a better audience of music. And, who knows, he might learn a thing or two, as well. ‘-)

~LD

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