Sunday, February 27, 2005

Post Number Four: Mae Govannen. Im Arwen.

Of my innate sensitivity to Sound, and my love for Music

Yes, you have the right impression about the title of this post. It's written in Sindarin, the elven language created by Tolkien. I will immediately provide you with a translation: "Well met. I [am] Arwen". There is no verb to be in Sindarin, just as it happens in Russian. If you are interested in learning some Sindarin, please follow the link to the right, which will lead you to a comprehensive site about Tolkien's languages. Once again, I am referring to Tolkien in the title of my post, when the contents have nothing to do with him. In fact, this post will be about my own feelings about musical beauty. It will be very personal and introspective, and of a different quality compared to my previous posts. It will also dig into certain technicalities which I hope won't scare my readers away.
If you have seen the Lord of the Rings, you might have noticed that every now and then actors spoke in a language you couldn't understand without subtitles. That language was Sindarin. Probably you got the impression, despite the inability to understand it, that Sindarin sounded very beautiful to the ear. It is musical, harmonious, and sweet. When Liv Tyler for the first time speaks her line in Elvish, it seems that speech has turned into a song of innatural beauty. I am very fond of foreign languages and their sounds. I believe that in order to sense the beauty of a word, it's better to ignore its meaning: in fact, when the meaning of a speech is obscure, all that remains is the sound of it, and my mind can concentrate completely on it without the distraction of attaching a meaning to each word, and an idea to the speech. I am not advocating the primacy of beauty over the meaning of a text of course! I am using this literary metaphor to provide an example of what will come next.
Personally I find certain languages exceptionally beautiful to the ear, although I do not understand a word. Among the ones I have been exposed to and that I find most pleasant are Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, Greek and Swedish. Then, there are the languages I do understand; in these cases, it's not just the sound of the words themselves that I like, but the structure of the grammar. I am of course very fond of the English language, or this Blog wouldn't be written in this idiom. Anyway, in terms of ponderous grammar and monumental architecture, my favorite language is most definitely Latin, closely followed by German. A sentence in Latin is sounding with dignity and seriousness. There is a ponderous power in the Latin language, as if the dullest of concepts acquired a millenary burden of wisdom and authority when expressed in the ancient idiom of Rome.
I will try to give an example. Take the following sentence:
"The things that are small for the great are minimal for the greatest."
it is actually a joke I have made up myself based on the fact that "The Greatest" translates into Latin as "Maximus", which is, in fact, my name in Latin. Now, note the same sentence in Latin:
"Quae sunt parva magnis, minima sunt Maximo."
To actually better perceive the atmosphere of this sentence, it should be written as it would be done by the Romans:
The sound of this sentence, regardless of its meaning, has an intrinsic power that is completely missed in English. It is not a mere chance. Take this other example:
"...and to protect your own life, losing the reason to live". This is an excerpt from a long speech, and a sentence I am particularly in agreement with. It states that it is not worth to keep living if, to protect your own life, you give up your reason to live. It is a very Roman thing to say. In Latin it sounds:
"... et propter vitam, vivendi perdere causas."
Whether you perceive or not the different effect produced by the sound of this sentence when uttered in Latin is of scarce importance, because the sensitivity to sound and to languages is innate and not commonly shared by every human being. It is not a bad thing to lack it, and I am not chastising anyone for failing to see my point. As I said, this is going to be an introspective post. Therefore, if the reader wants to bear with me, I'll move on from languages to the next step, which brings us a bit closer to my chosen topic.

In front of colors I do not have the same sensitivity I think I possess for sounds. I realize that my inner chords are only touched in front of certain, quite clashy associations of colors. I fail to enjoy the intricacies of shades of green or brown. To me, the only collection of colors that somehow produces an effect on my inner self is the mixture of an intense blue, a shiny green, and a perfectly brilliant white. I naturally associate it with an ideal landscape with azure skies, high mountains topped with white snow, and intensely green, Scottish-like grass, descending in the distance into a blue ocean. Warm colors like red, orange and yellow give me a sense of dirt, of unease, as if they were sticky and oily like a stain of tomato on your tee. This means that I am instinctively unable to enjoy the nuances that others perceive, and probably it is the original root that makes me so uncapable to feel much in front of a painting (unless the painting in question displays blue, green, and white in the right proportions).
This is to say that each person has a peculiar sensitivity, an innate resonance (recently I came to love this word, "resonance") with certain particular sensorial stimulations. I am sure that while my sense of sound is way more trained and developed than the other senses, for other people the most intense experiences would come through sight, touch, taste or smell. I am now talking to those of you that naturally privilege the sense of hearing, because what I will type next will probably make little sense to anyone else. I can assure my readers that I feel the same disorientation whenever someone tries to tell me about the beauty of a painting.

Since my most significant emotional experiences are elicited by sounds, it comes quite naturally that the form of art I am most "resonant" with is Music. I am particularly fond of what is generally known as "classical" music. I don't like this definition. From a historical point of view "Classical" music is the collection of compositions created during the "Classical" age, which is the second half of the Eighteenth Century in Europe. So, composers like Bach, Haendel, Wagner, Debussy, Ravel, Tchajkovskij, Shostakovic or Dvorak should not be considered "Classical". None of these composers, in fact, lived nor created music in the "Classical" age. But it appears that in order to be understood, the expression "Classical Music" conveys the right concept, so I will use it with the only caveat that I deem it inappropriate.
As I said I have no sense for pictures. My taste for colors will sound dull and repetitive to someone more attuned with visual arts. To my ear, instead, it is what is commonly known as "pop music" to sound dull and repetitive. Not only it is extremely Light (and I don't tolerate its Lightness), but it lacks skill, fantasy and ultimately, beauty. I am referring, just to make the point very clear, to recreational music such as Britney Spears' pop songs, rap (all rap), hip-hop, disco-dance and so on. I am not referring to the Queen, Elton John or David Bowie. To me, the difference between these two groups is obvious, so I won't dig into it any further.
In one of my previous posts, I stated that the process of creating an artwork basically consists of
1. Acquiring an exceptional level of skill in one or more specific crafts as required
2. Using the learnt techniques to convey a message.
In order to understand a work of art, though, there must be a resonance between the technique used by the artist and your inner sensitivity. It is like speaking a language. If you want to understand the meaning you must understand the language first. So, it is necessary to find the specific craft intrinsically beautiful per se to really attempt an approach to a work of art created through that specific craft.
My instinctive love for sound is more inclined to be elicited and stirred up by a combination of sounds played together, or almost together (in the language of music they are called "chords" and "arpeggios", respectively), than by a disjointed sequence of sounds. In a very basical simplification, music is made of two elements: a Melody and a Harmony. For those who know little to nothing of the technicalities of music, when you are sitting in front of a campfire with your best friend playing the guitar for you, what you are singing is the Melody and what the guitarist is playing is the Harmony. Chords and Arpeggios are to be found in the Harmony, while the voice carries out the Melody (which is why usually the melody is "singable"). However beautiful a melody can be per se, I must admit that it is the harmony that supports it that makes my heart beat. Stripped of the harmony, a melody that would make me cry (and I am moved a lot by music) loses most of its grip on my soul. On the other hand, a harmony stripped of its melody can still retain a good deal of the mysterious magic that makes my heart beat. [Much should be said of the emotional effect I feel for different timbres, but I will intentionally skip this element because it would lead me too far]
A harmony is not simply one chord (although even one can be beautiful, as I will prove later), it is a sequence of chords and arpeggios (I admit I am over simplifying a very complicated matter, but I beg you to excuse me for this, because I am trying to convey a message to readers that most likely have little to no training in music). Different chords do not always sound well together, while others, for mysterious reasons, seem to be "meant" to follow one another. I remember I spent entire days mumbling over the same two chords again and again, pondering how beautifully they called to each other, how pleasant their succession sounded to my ear. If you have a keyboard, you can try this experiment. Try playing together the following notes: D, F, A, in this order, so that the D is the lowest note and the A the highest. What you just played is a D minor chord, and it's already beautiful per se if you can feel it. Now play it again but add a fourth note, D-F-A-C. Do you hear that wonderful collection of sounds? Does it move something in your inner self? Because to me, what you just played is pure delight. It is an "artificial seventh" as it is called, and it is very common in Bach's music.
Let's try another. Try playing the following chord: F, A, C, E (incidentally it appears to mean something!), and then the previous D-F-A-C. Do you hear how this chords seem to "call" for each other, as if they were "meant" to be in sequence? Again, feelings are very subjective and even those who are most sensitive to music will certainly perceive sounds in different ways. Perhaps a pure C major (C-E-G-C) is more pleasant to someone's ear than my artificial seventh. The simple presence of certain sounds in certain sequences in music is already enough to stir something into my heart that goes very close to passion. The right harmonic sequence (which should never be so dull to be reduced to just two chords of course) can, in the right moment, provide my heart with the same intense emotion felt when I am kissing a beautiful girl. Of course, harmony is meant to support a melody, and there are no words I can find to describe the beauty of the right melody accompanied by the right harmony. On the other hand, you can by now take for granted that the obsessive repetition of bass thumps, supporting the obsessive repetition of the same few, banal chords, intended to sustain the obsessively repetitive "melody" of a disco hit nauseates me. I don't even get to the point of disliking it for its Lightness, its lack of depth and meaning. It's nasty to the ear before being downright ephemeral.
It should be quite obvious then, that if pop music is not repetitive and it actually displays a rich and beautiful harmony supporting a tolerable melody, my ear won't fail to enjoy it. And in fact, I do like some pop music. As a mere example, I recently discovered a singer called Linda Eder. I have heard her singing only once and only one song, "Let Him Fly". I invite you to listen to it. The harmony supporting the melody is fairly enriched, especially in terms of timbre richness, and the melody moves like the waves of an ocean in a lovely crescendo supported by the amazing voice of this awesome singer. The final acuto comes as a cry of liberation, which is exactly the meaning of the lyrics which end on the words "let him fly". There is a lot in terms of instinctive pleasure that I feel when I hear this song. Nevertheless, I also have to admit that it lacks something.
Like all songs, this song is, well, "just a song". Its structure is beautiful, but very simple, it's emotionally quite powerful (to me), but it lacks a profound, hidden message. It is a wonderfully crafted empty gift box. Unluckily. That is not to say that I dislike it, because one can admire the skill of a crafter that decorates an empty box with great accuracy, but, sigh... it's short of something. A song by, say, Britney Spears, is a rough, poorly crafted, dull industrial plastic box. A song by, say, Linda Eder, or Freddie Mercury, or Lacuna Coil, is a nice display of reasonable skill with the techniques of the art called Music, and if one is as sensitive to sound as I am, it can touch a chord or two in one's inner self, like it does to me. But there's more with Art than just mastering a technique and get an emotional grip on the listener. Giving you an emotion is wonderful but not enough.
Here comes classical music. Classical music composers were all very skilled at creating harmonies and melodies. Obviously much more skilled than the authors of Britney Spears' songs, and probably more skilled than the authors of Let Him Fly as well. But whether they were skilled or not is not the point. The point is that they used this skill, they used those sounds that possess so much emotional power over my soul, to convey a hidden message. They worked like painters and poets, bending their skill to the needings of communication, transforming pure emotion into speech. Listening to Classical music is not as easy as listening to Britney Spears, although this is not necessarily the rule, but the emotional power it possesses, combined with the depth of its significance, provides an intensity of experience that I cannot feel in any other way. I hope that my words have induced some of the most musically inclined of you to pay more attention to sounds, but my purpose was just that of trying to express with words a turmoil of emotions that compares only to the feeling of hugging a woman or kissing a friend.
In a classic example, I would like to mention Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. It is written in C minor. This choice is already full of meaning. To those who are especially sensitive to sound, there is a humonguous difference between a melody played in C minor and THE SAME MELODY played, say, in D minor. The first one will we perceived as dramatic, the second will be tragic. Death is in D minor, Struggle is in C minor. Beethoven chose C minor because when he composed the Fifth Symphony he was trying to convey a specific message: a struggle against Destiny. As you probably know, Ludwig van Beethoven turned deaf when he was 27. There was no greater catastrophe for a composer than being a deaf. This is easily understood. It is also easily understood that Beethoven wasn't too happy about it. In fact, he felt a turmoil of emotions in his heart that almost led him to suicide, if it weren't for his immense strength of will. I am profoundly in awe of this man. This man, Ludwig van Beethoven, had a depth of thought and a willpower that I can only dream of. He was the ultimate contrary of modern "Light" ideals, those of a person devoted to inane amusement and ephemeral (another word I am fond of these days) entertainment (the mantra of consumism). Beethoven, to say it in very modern terms had BALLS, a lot of them. How do I know? Not only because he did not kill himself at all, but kept composing his music regardless of his handicap, becoming probably the greatest composer of all time. I know it because he said it in his music. He stated it with all the power he could extract from the tools he had learnt to master as a musician. The famous first notes of the Fifth Symphony, the repeated sounds, they are not only powerful and beautiful to the ear (mine at least). They mean something that transcends their mere emotional effect. It's Destiny. Can you hear it? Destiny knocking at your door. In the first movement, the characteristic construction of the symphony, which required two "themes", two "melodies" that would follow each other, is transformed by Beethoven into a battle, a dramatic struggle, a heroic combat between a man's aspiration to happiness and the dramatic destiny that attempts to destroy this very happiness. He's telling us that if we really want to pursuit happiness we must stand in the face of Destiny itself. We must fight for it, we must struggle. It's not something to take for granted (as our epoch seems to believe). Listen through the Symphony. Try to feel the intensity of the emotional fight that Beethoven is trying to portray until an immensely powerful crescendo explodes in the Fourth Movement, which is written in a monumental C major, the most optimistic of all tones. How does that movement start? Three times C major: C major, C major, C MAJOR, GODDAMMIT! I have struggled and fought and suffered to win over my unfortunate destiny and I am darn HAPPY now! I want to SHOUT my happiness, to hell with Destiny, I have WON! How else can you describe the immensity of the fanfare of the fourth movement? Can you feel how PONDEROUS Beethoven is, how hard gained happiness is for him? There is so much more than just the emotional impact of music in this composition, regardless of the beauty of sounds themselves...!! I am feeling my heart beating faster at the sole memory of the fifth symphony, go figure listening to it!
I will close this post here, for I have said all I could about this topic. I hope I have communicated at least in part the emotional effect that music has over me, and once again the reader might have noticed how important it is for me to perceive weight in what entertains me. There's a reason if this Blog is called "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" after all. Now you all will excuse me, but I can't help rushing to listen to music.

[After reading my post again, I realized I completely skipped another very important element that adds to the emotional grip music has over me. That is the architecture of music. In the attempt to simplify things I ended up forgetting what is probably one of the most significant effects achievable by a well constructed composition. In fact, of all forms of musical creation I especially favor the fugue. It is a monumental construction of humonguous proportions, especially when it is well written, but the technicalities are so complex that I won't attempt to describe them here in a few words. It will suffice to say that beyond the beauty of chords and melodies, which please my ear first, my brain finds indicible delight in following the intricacies of a complex music; this is not limited of course to Bach's fugues. Examples of wonderful musical architecture are to be found in Wagner's masterpieces, in the symphonies of Mahler, and in the breathtaking orchestrations by Ravel. It is simply impossible, I finally realise, to express in simple words the various layers of pleasure that are elicited in my heart and brain by good music. I can only say as a final note, that in order to satisfy me to the fullest a music must compy to the following criteria:
1. it must possess a rich and complex harmony
2. it must be graced by an appropriate melody
3. it must display a variety of timbres in adequate proportions
4. it must be constructed in a complicated and monumental architecture
5. it must convey a profound message
The pop music that I appreciate, in my opinion complies to the first 2 criteria, rarely including the third. Almost never the fourth. The fifth simply turns pop music into another genre]