Sunday, 19 September 2021

The meaning of music

 Why do music lovers after attending a concert of classical music feel better than before? Why do they want to hear some of the pieces of the classical repertoire again and again, and again? Is that because they are dumb, and want to revisit what they already know, thorough conservatives as they are? Or is there something else going-on? If someone, entirely ignorant of the art form, would look at the central performance culture with the endless repetitions of a core repertoire, it must strike him as a mysteriously conventional field where thousands of people want to hear the same kind of sounds over and over again, a sort of apotheosis of empty, obtuse hearing routine, inducing trance-like states of unconsciousness only interrupted by ritualistic clapping of hands on waking-up from comatose slumbers. 

But music lovers know this is not true – what is happening, is happening inside the listener. They have the experience, the very real experience, as if something inside is touched and (often) being put in order, the music waking-up a process of emotional organisation, along a sound structure that moves in time, that changes, appears to ‘say’ something and to create a ‘narrative’ that can be ‘emotionally followed’ without ever having spelled-out the subject or the meaning. It is like a language but where the words have been deleted and only the emotional component of meaning has remained. The emotional part of the psyche resonates with what is happening ‘in’ the music, and is influenced by that resonance, as if emotions have been recognized by another consciousness, and are being ordered and given a meaning. 

This ordering does not mean that initially vague and chaotic emotions are being restrained or suppressed, but are given profile and shape which have a logic of their own. The interaction between the music heard, and the emotional territory in the psyche, is a process of resonance: the emotional field aligns itself according to the dynamics of the music. This resonance influences the character of the emotional field, changing some aspects of its nature during the experience, as in a ‘learning process’.

“Perhaps what is inexpressible (what I find mysterious and am not able to express) is the background against which whatever I could express has its meaning.” A famous saying by possibly the most important philosopher of the 20th century, Ludwig Wittgenstein.

This seems to be a quite expressive indication of the meaning of music…. which is not in the notes, but hints at the background against which they obtain their meaning. And this background is not meant to be the cultural framework of music – although that also plays a role in the formation of meaning - but something on a more personal level, also including something of a psychic, transcendent nature. Wittgenstein hinted at something mystical or spiritual, at a possible reality ‘behind’ reality, across a boundary where language and the type of consciousness created by it, no longer are appropriate instruments of understanding.

In 1977, the musicologist Maynard Solomon wrote: “If we lose awareness of the transcendent realm of performance, beauty, and brotherhood afforded us by the great affirmative works of our culture, if we lose the ‘dream’ of the Ninth Symphony, we will have nothing left to set against Auschwitz and the Vietnam War as a paradigm of human potentialities.” Here, we come closer to the realm as hinted at by the Viennese philosopher, and the importance of the art form in relation with the actual world becomes clearer. Loosing the art form altogether would mean a drastic signal announcing the death of Western civilization – a bit like the ‘canary warning in the coal mine‘. But are human potentialities, as symbolized by the great affirmative works of our culture, not more than a tentative reaching-out into the ineffable? And how easy it appears to be to abuse the works’ resonances in the human soul, thinking of the appropriation of classical music by the nazis.

There are qualities in works of art which go beyond objective specifics – that is the whole point of art; it comments on the human condition in a way which conveys more than the eye can see and the ear can hear, hinting at the meaningfullness of life in all of its manifestations if related to a higher form of existence.

The sense of the ineffable background from which great art emerges, has been hinted at by – among others – Leonardo da Vinci: "We are all exiles, living within the frames of a strange picture.  Whoever knows this lives large. The others are insects."

“The important thing is not in the notes”, Mahler is quoted saying, and: “If a composer could say what he had to say in words he would not bother trying to say it in music.” Awareness of the transcendent nature of music began to erode after 1918, when Stravinsky said that music is not capable of expressing anything at all – though he modified this notorious saying a bit later-on in life, realizing that very much of his own music was, in fact, and underneath a quasi-hard surface, quite expressive and communicative. 

What is the ultimate test? There is the story of a concentration camp inmate who, while tolling during a summer night at some absurd physical task, designed to torture him, suddenly heard a recording of a Brandenburg Concerto being played, through the open window of one of the staff quarters. And suddenly he got the very distinct inner experience that life was meaningful, that creation was there with a purpose, and that his own misery was merely an evanescent horror he, unfortunately, had to endure. In his condition of despair, a transcendent reality was opening-up to him, a reality from which the record owner was excluded for life – otherwise he would not be there – but for which he inadvertently acted as an instrument, and which gave the victim the strength to endure the absurdity of his torture.

It is in this vague and inexpressible territory that, in the 19th century, the idea was born that when organized religion was losing its spiritual content and seemed to gradually petrify into empty convention, it was music that could save the essence of religion, doing away with ritual, complex theology and ordained organisation. With music, religion has in common the notion that meaning is not literally in the gestures of symbolic ritual, but in the background against which they obtain their meaning, a background insufficiently and sometimes clumsily ‘explained’ by theology and the ‘holy books’, having to rely on language and concrete imagery. This explains the mystery that the literal materials of, say, even the best works of Mozart, are quite simple and sometimes rather trivial. But they acquire their expressive meaning through their superb artistic treatment and taste, defined by the composer’s instincts about the background from which he worked, and through the context of the totality of the works which gives the fragments their eloquence.

That is why the human condition is related to art music, because, just like a musical work, it cannot be codified, fixed in its meaning, and cannot be fully understood on the basis of its material presence and appearances. The nature of music, of classical music as a serious art form, is not material at all, but uses ‘material’, physical sounds, to bring us closer to the background against which our life obtains its meaning.

(From: 'Postcorona Music; Classical Music after the Pandemic', to appear somewhere next year)


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