Monday, May 29, 2006

the invisible boat

there is a famous, if probably apocryphal story about Captain Cook's first landing on one of the Polynesian Islands he visited during one of his voyages of discovery: the story goes that, so far beyond the native islanders experience was the eighteenth-century European world he came from that they were literally unable to see the boat he had come in. when communication had been established and they asked him where he had come from, and how he had got there, and in reply he pointed to the great three-masted sailing vessel anchored off-shore, they stared in an incomprehension that, quite literally, occluded their vision. the ship conformed to no known configuration of their experience of the world, so it was invisible to them.

it's clear that, in many aspects of our development, we require guidance towards understanding what it is we perceive: that perception precedes cognition, and that the link between the two is the learning experience.

we appear to inhabit an oscillating universe in which our sensory apparatus has evolved to compensate for the ever-moving waves and particles of the material world by adopting a set of oscillating platforms of its own. we are constantly comparing one experience with another at the micro level in order to make sense of what it is we are perceiving. the eye, for instance, is never still - it is constantly vibrating, making tiny movements up and down and from side to side in order that the photosensitive cells on the retina can compare one stream of photons with another and combine these comparisons into a visual representation of what is out there (at least, in the wavelengths that were determined to matter on the natural selection route). all the way up to the macro level, each item of information we acquire about the world is compared with those which preceded it in an ever-expanding library of sensations and memories. and eventually, when we have acquired a sufficiency of experiences and memories, we are able to apply a sophisticated discriminatory function that compares our personal libraries with all those others out there in everyone else's head, and start developing a thing which we call 'taste' - whether we apply it to what we eat, drink, hear, or see, we still call it 'taste' - something which, in turn, helps others to decide whether or not we and they have enough in common to feel comfortable in each others company.

this taste thing - as applied to music - is far more sophisticated, obviously, than preferring, say, sweet foods to savoury, or the other way round. what would the musical equivalent to that be? preferring assonance to dissonance? hard to say, because our relationship with music has less to do with our capacity to hear and discriminate between different tones and rhythms than with the sort of mentoring - direct or indirect - we have received in the course of learning how to hear this cultural construct we call 'music'.

it is often repeated that music is a language, one that is capable of facilitating a form of communication between people whose native spoken language is different, and one that is able to articulate aspects of our experience that words fail at. if both of these statements are true, then it follows that the process of learning about music - that bridge between perception and cognition - is more analogous to learning about gastronomy than about the fundamentals of another spoken language.

everyone eats, just as everyone makes noises, but we require guidance towards the enjoyment of a wide range of gastronomic pleasures, just as we require guidance towards hearing the wider range of possibilities of acoustic pleasure. 'understanding' is never the point, any more than understanding a soufflĂ© is the point. the literature of musicology is constipated with the language of understanding, a language that is often as patronising as it is hermetic. the better commentaries on such non-cognitive experiences as enjoying good music or food tend to be those which abandon the descriptive in favour of the anecdotal – a tacit acknowledgement of the fact that the translation of one sensory language into another is a fundamental oxymoron.

for all that, there remains the very interesting question of whether or not music carries any meaning at all beyond the immediately emotional and visceral. and that, in turn, raises the question of the relationship between the artist and his or her audience - how, in the process of its creation, the artwork becomes separate from the artist. the literature of artistic meditation is full of references to the phenomenon of the creation - be it a novel, a piece of sculpture, or a piece of music - taking on a life of its own, of the relationship between artist and artwork being similar to that between parent and child, and of its seeming - literally, in many cases - to determine the course of its own completion. art – particularly Modernist art – has come to be considered almost as an extension of the unconscious, or the libido, or both.

but art doesn't exist in a moral vacuum, and, as a spectator or listener, acquired knowledge about the biographical events surrounding the work is clearly as important as the work itself.

if we regard this painting with uninformed eyes, it appears to be saying something relatively straightforward:

if, on the other hand, we regard it in the knowledge that it was the last painting van Gogh ever worked on, and that he died soon after completing it, it takes on an entirely different set of readings, particularly when we add to that knowledge the commonly understood biographical details about his madness and poverty.

similarly, once we have learnt that Carl Orff was one of Hitler’s favourite composers, it becomes impossible wholly to enjoy his gloriously Rabelaisian Carmina Burana without experiencing a pang, at least, of pc concern.

the same applies to all music which has in some way been contextualised by commentary - and almost all music has, whether in the form of critical assessment or anecdotal annotation.

there have been many more or less erudite attempts to explain the finer points of musical language by analysing particular keys or scales or chord-progressions as utilised by particular composers to achieve particular effects. in the course of the 2006 Reith lectures, for instance, Daniel Barenboim himself demonstrates several such.

I suspect, however, that such repeated attempts to analyse how such and such a chord in such and such a key might evoke such and such a response is more akin to a form of didactic sleight of hand than Mosaic dogma.

if there is sufficient authority behind a particular statement about the world, that statement can quickly become an axiom. the majority of artistic judgements occur in this way.

at the very least, it's a form of tautology. let's say that we hear, for the first time, a certain musical passage which we find affecting, and which we come to understand is expressive of loss, say, or yearning, then an authority such as Barenboim comes along and painstakingly analyses - usually demonstrating on a piano - the musical structures underlying this effect, and, hey presto, our ears are opened and our understanding is complete. our own inarticulable sense of something special having happened when we heard the music has been articulated, redefined in reassuringly comprehensible English, and, henceforth, whenever we hear that kind of progression, or structure, we know what it 'means' because we have been armed with the means (the words) to describe it.

this is probably no more than to say that this is how it – culture – works: that, over time, an aggregation of opinion occurs as to what means what, what matters and what doesn’t, what is good and what is bad, guided by a dependable grouping of authorities whose combined opinions coalesce into a set of doctrines which, in turn, become grist to the continually developing cultural mill.

it becomes impossible, therefore, eventually, to challenge such received opinions as that Mozart’s Symphonies or Rembrandt’s portraits embody the human spirit par excellence because such opinions have become the aesthetic equivalent of Newton’s First Law of Thermodynamics – their ‘humanity’ exhaustively analysed as a function of key-changes or brush-strokes.

whether or not music has the capacity to do anything more nuanced than embody the human spirit in this very generalised sense is hardly worth arguing about: clearly it can't describe, for instance, the processes at work in a Shakespearean sonnet or any similar work of literary genius - that isn't the point of music, despite what an army of wishfully thinking pop critics might have us believe. the music can support, and seem to reinforce the sentiment of the average lyrics - either I love you and you love me and we're as happy as we can be in a major key or I loved you but you left me for another so I'm a bit sad in a minor - but, in reality, bereft of the lyrics, we're for the most part left floundering in a swamp of interchangeable genre-dependent sounds that manifest the entire range of the emotional alphabet between A and B (and occasionally stumble on to C).

that we can, and do, nevertheless, find some music either as breathtaking as staggering onto a Himalayan summit, as joyful as the birth of our first child, or as gut-wrenching as losing our most precious possession is a side-effect of our two-steps-forward one-step-back progress towards our evolved humanity, when the cerebral cortex finally wrapped itself around the limbic system. because we can speak, we think we can speak about anything, but, at its best, music occupies the breathing spaces between the words, than which it is no less affecting, and at its very, very best, it articulates that which remains and will always remain resolutely unsayable, but as necessary to the articulation of our humanity as our ability to love.

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