Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Odes to Joy

One of my characters in my new project is going to say the following: Does music have to say anything more than, “I’m glad to be alive”? Or, more simply, Let’s dance!

I struggled for a long time to understand just that aspect of music. So much is tied to a program, or lyrics, or a subtitle, or even the moment in the life of the composer during which the piece was written. We look for meaning. Sometimes there is none, and in music that is just fine..

Music is the only medium I know that does not have to be about anything and still reach you. Even poetry, which supposedly is about the words and their sounds and how they interplay, has to have a subject or object to draw us in. And abstract art is the exception that proves the rule. You look at a Pollack and somehow it moves you, or possibly nauseates you, but it does something –- without reference points. That would not work for a Rembrandt or Vermeer; trust me on this.

Poetry, and anything using words, creates imahes to follow. Music, when it is not anout anything specific, allows us to create our own images from the influence of the notes. It has been said the observer brings his or her preconceptions and expectations to the table when viewing a work of art. But the art always gives you directions, hints. In music those hints are more emotional, more visceral, and the observer’s reaction more complete.

Take for example the coda at the end of Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony. After all that has preceded it – a funeral waltz, a crushing march, a playful contest and a declaration of Self – this last outburst explodes in the joy of being alive, against any logic. It says everything words cannot.

A song without words, a symphony without subtitles, a joyous celebration or a desperately sad sound, all touch us profoundly, often to tears. And I have to ask: does music have to say something to say something?

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