About (not) putting music into words




Describing  

Lovers  of art history books  of course know the exquisite sensation of reading insightful words that match the pictorial evidence.  The exhilarating interplay of seeing and understanding.  Describing paintings, there’s a whole  body of literary texts and poems devoted to it , and a venerable word to consecrate the habit:   ekphrasis.
And how about describing what we hear?  For sure, there are lovely poems built entirely around  onomatopoeia’s.  And language is sound of course.  Clattering rain – thundering thunder – twittering birds (1).   So yes, obviously,  we can describe what we hear – but can we describe music? 
  
While in art history there is a well established, long standing relationship between evocative descriptions on the one hand and the visual  arts on the other , this seems  less so in the history of music where descriptions tend to be either technical (and reserved for the musically initiated) or limited to the review of a performance. (2)

Descriptions of works of visual art  are both very precise and very imaginative, immediately conjuring up a scene or an image while also evoking emotional and philosophical meanings & associations. 
But a description in words that effectively evokes a piece of music for the non-initiated?  Well, there are the CD-sleeve notes that give a  blow-by-blow account of the musical progression in terms of instruments, motives, rhythm, melody – sometimes mixed with indications of “emotional” pitch.(3)  And yes, there may be program music where even an accompanying story can be told.  

 However, in musical history there seems  to be no equivalent (at lease not on the same scale) of  the formidable tradition of  "written-out art history", be it in the form of those innumerable “Ecrits sur l’art”  (by many a  poetically inspired writer or artist), or as libraries full of lavishly illustrated and copiously written art history books. 

A quick Google search yielded an interesting article (“Some Thoughts Towards a Theory of Musical Ekphrasis “ ) about Musical Ekphrasis, but tellingly enough it dealt not with  the poetic  description of pieces of music, but rather with the opposite question, i.e. whether music can describe scenes.(4)



Moved to silence  

Perhaps music is indeed too abstract and “springing from [...] depths of the human psyche” that are too deep to fathom?(4)  Maybe we should really follow “Einstein’s summary advice” about Bach’s music (and about music in general) :  listen, play, love , revere – and keep your trap shut” (5) .  

Luckily,  John Eliot Gardiner, for one,  did not shut up but wrote a wonderful  600+ pages book on Bach.  With insights and formulations that nearly belie the impossibility of describing music.  How well he does justice to the intricate evidence of Bach’s music itself: its mystifying complexity, sure,  but also its “rhythmical elasticity and buoyancy”, its dancing qualities, its empathy and emotional depth, “so full of poignant emotion that we are moved to the very core of our being “. 

Each of us has experienced the shattering effect music can have,  musical reception is highly subjective and the sheer depth of the accompanying emotions could make us (us = uninitiated but sensitive souls)  believe that we each  have some personal,  special insight in “the truth” of the music. This is most likely not the case, the emotion may very well be  not at all relevant to the composer’s aims, let alone to other musiclovers, it is a secret garden not to be shared. (6) 

So, not being a distinguished musical connoisseur, I shall hereby “shut my trap” – and finish with Auden’s words (7)

All the others translate: the painter sketches
A visible world to love or reject;
Rummaging into his living, the poet fetches
The images out that hurt and connect.
From Life to Art by painstaking adaption
Relying on us to cover the rift;
Only your notes are pure contraption,
Only your song is an absolute gift.


Pour out your presence, O delight, cascading
The falls of the knee and the weirs of the spine,
Our climate of silence and doubt invading;
You, alone, alone, O imaginary song,
Are unable to say an existence is wrong,
And pour out your forgiveness like a wine.”



Non-musical notes

1) Word-examples inspired by the impressive electrical storm we had here at noon : first an oppressive stillness, then a bang and a flash, heaven’s floodgates opened, and the rain started pouring down: first aggressively clattering, then turning into a soothingly purring noise.  And soon a few courageous birds started signing again, while the first  sirens started wailing ( a medley of car alarms and fire engines).

2) of course there are many many reviews, of concerts, of CD's, songs and tunes , both classical and pop/contemporary - , just as there are private testimonials/love declarations to certain pieces of music : but they are not an imaginative, literary genre in their own right 


3)   There’s an  app from Touch Press editions that offers a “multi-media” guide to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. Quite impressive – while the music plays you can follow the progress on the score, you get to see the instruments taking their turns to perform, and there’s a continuous written comment running on what exactly is happening. All very instructive and insightful – but not qualifying as ekphrasis ... 
 

4)  

As I understand it, what must be present in every case of ekphrasis is a three-tiered structure of reality and its artistic transformation:
A.      a scene or story--fictitious or real,
B.      a  representation of that scene or story in visual form (a painting or drawing, photograph, carving, or sculpture (or, for that matter, in film or dance; in any mode that reaches us primarily through our visual perception), and
C.      a rendering of that representation in poetic language.


The poetic rendering can and should do more than merely describe the visual image. Characteristically, it evokes interpretations or additional layers of meaning, changes the viewers' focus, or guides our eyes towards details and contexts we might otherwise overlook. Correspondingly, what must be present in every case of what I will refer to as "the musical equivalent to ekphrasis" is 
  A.      a scene or story--fictitious or real,
   B.      its representation in a visual or a verbal text, and
   C.      a rendering of that representation in musical language.



5) John Eliot Gardiner – Music in the Castle of Heaven   http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/oct/30/music-castle-heaven-js-bach-john-eliot-gardiner


6)    Gardiner has this lovely habit of not only having copious references at the end of the book , but also plenty of illuminating quotes at the bottom of the page (it’s surely not an accident that he refers to Walter Benjamin’s  constellations), such as this one by Peter Williams: “ The exquisite world of imagination opened up by any powerful music is itself problematic, for it tempts listeners to put into words the feelings it arouses in them and so to visualize a composer’s priorities and even personality. There must be few people who have played, sung, listened to or written about Bach’s music who do not feel they have a special understanding of him, a private connection, unique to themselves, but ultimately coming from their idea of what music is and does. This might be quite different from the composer’s “


7)  Trust WH Auden to write as insightfully about paintings (Le Musée des Beaux Arts) as he does about music (The Composer).  

4 comments:

leenhuet said...

Interessante vergelijkin, Flâneur. En zo ontdek ik een prachtig gedicht van Auden dat ik nog niet kende!

Swann Ffflaneur said...

bedankt, Leen
ach, Auden. een oude en grote liefde! 'old school' humanistisch,erudiet, bedachtzaam...

leenhuet said...

En dat moest 'vergelijking' zijn, sorry!

Swann Ffflaneur said...

die "g" had ik er al bij-geprojecteerd!