Monday, February 28, 2005

Post Number Six: Music And Poetry. Art Again.

Of the primacy of subjectivity in the ability to appreciate Art.

Let's consider the following examples:

"Unthrifty loveliness, why dost thou spend
Upon thy self thy beauty's legacy?
Nature's bequest gives nothing, but doth lend,
And being frank she lends to those are free:
Then, beauteous niggard, why dost thou abuse
The bounteous largess given thee to give?
Profitless usurer, why dost thou use
So great a sum of sums, yet canst not live?
For having traffic with thy self alone,
Thou of thy self thy sweet self dost deceive:
Then how when nature calls thee to be gone,
What acceptable audit canst thou leave?
Thy unused beauty must be tombed with thee,
Which, used, lives th' executor to be."
(W. Shakespeare, Sonnets, IV)

"A Elbereth Gilthoniel,
silivren penna míriel
o menel aglar elenath!
Na-chaered palan-díriel
o galadhremmin ennorath,
Fanuilos, le linnathon
nef aear, sí nef aearon!"
(J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of The Rings, Book II, Chp. 10)

"Why do people fall in love?
Don't we know love is full of dangers?
Letting loose our foolish hearts
In this world full of perfect strangers
Maybe this time you will find
The moon will treat you kinder
Yes, I'm sure that I recall
That's the reason people fall...
Love is needing to belong
Right or wrong, when you feel the fire
Love is living in mid-air
young and rare, on a sky-high wire
Hoping this time it will last
You feel your heart beat faster
Yes, I'm sure that I recall
That's the reason people fall in love
Taking chances you would never take
When wide risk it all
Half afraid he'll only break your heart
Still you will close you eyes and simply fall
Why do people fall in love?
Are we fools with no hope of winning?
Or perhaps we always see
One last chance for a new beginning
Holding on and letting go
But never really knowing
Well, I guess that after all
That's the reason people fall in love"
(L. Eder, lyrics for the song Why do people fall in love)

What's the difference among these three quotes?
The first one is a Sonnet by Shakespeare, the second, a poem in Sindarin by Tolkien, the third are lyrics for a pop song.
The Sonnet is not only intense with meaning, but the result of a long and careful construction intended to build something of transcending beauty. In fact, what Shakespeare does here is what I already described before as "using the tools you have learnt to master to convey a message". The message is behind the words, but the words themselves are magnificiently following each other in a perfect example of balance. Alliterations, rhymes, and charming sounds are spread evenly throughout the poem. Not a word could be changed without breaking the equilibrium of this composition.
The poem by Tolkien is in Sindarin, a language invented by him that was meant to be beautiful. Tolkien had an incredibly subtle sensitivity to the beauty of languages, which brought him to believe that the musical essence of words is at least as important as the meaning they convey. Tolkien's poem is essentially beautiful for the sounds of it are, at least in his intentions, musical and pleasant to the ear. It doesn't matter whether we can understand the words or not, whether we speak Sindarin or not. The beauty of this poem resides in its sound.
The song lyrics are very close to speech. They mean what they mean, they were never intended to hide anything. They are not supposed to sound particularly beautiful per se. In this sense, they are "only" words. This song is purely "romantic" in its intent, and its lyrics show no particular spark of genius or inspirational marvel.

Why did I make this example today?

The vast majority of modern pop songs, are appreciated by the public especially for their lyrics. This makes of course no sense to me, since what touches my soul is the sound and not the meaning of a song's lyrics. Anyway I can understand how certain people that do not share my quite peculiar sensitivity to sound would completely ignore elements such as melody and harmony to concentrate on what is more easily "understood", that is, basically, words. But, as I proved with my three examples, words can be a lot more than a medium to convey an obvious meaning. Words are the tools poets and writers use to create Art. A simple romantic text with scarce poetic value is, well, disappointing, at least to me. Compared to what lyrics Shakespeare or Tolkien could have written for that same song, I find Linda Eder's choice of words really dull and appalling, leaving much to be wanted.

Some Italian singer/authors have concentrated more seriously on the lyrics of their songs. One of the best examples is Fabrizio De André, a very Leftist singer who paid extreme attention to his lyrics (they were actually decent poems themselves) and whose words normally hid more profound meanings. Here are the lyrics of one of his songs.

"Solo la morte m'ha portato in collina
un corpo fra i tanti a dar fosforo all'aria
per bivacchi di fuochi che dicono fatui
che non lasciano cenere, non sciolgon la brina.
Da chimico un giorno avevo il potere
di sposar gli elementi e farli reagire,
ma gli uomini mai mi riuscì di capire
perché si combinassero attraverso l'amore.
Affidando ad un gioco la gioia e il dolore.
Guardate il sorriso guardate il colore
come giocan sul viso di chi cerca l'amore:
ma lo stesso sorriso lo stesso colore
dove sono sul viso di chi ha avuto l'amore.
Dove sono sul viso di chi ha avuto l'amore.
Che strano andarsene senza soffrire,
senza un volto di donna da dover ricordare.
Ma è forse diverso il vostro morire
voi che uscite all'amore che cedete all'aprile.
Cosa c'è di diverso nel vostro morire.
Primavera non bussa lei entra sicura
come il fumo lei penetra in ogni fessura
ha le labbra di carne i capelli di grano
che paura, che voglia che ti prenda per mano.
Che paura, che voglia che ti porti lontano.
Ma guardate l'idrogeno tacere nel mare
guardate l'idrogeno al suo fianco dormire:
soltanto una legge che io riesco a capire
ha potuto sposarli senza farli scoppiare.
Soltanto una legge che io riesco a capire.
Fui chimico e, no, non mi volli sposare.
Non sapevo con chi e chi avrei generato:
son morto in un esperimento sbagliato
proprio come gli idioti che muoion d'amore.
qualcuno dirà che c'è un modo migliore."
(F. De André, Lyrics for Un Chimico)

This is actually quite beautiful, with rhymes and precise metrics. I am not skilled enough to be able to translate a poem into English (I would hardly be able to write a poem in my own language), so the best I can do is to provide a literal translation, warning the reader that my scarce skills are responsible for the poor result of what I am typing, and that the original text in Italian was much more poetic:

Lyrics for "A Chemist"
"Only death took me to the hills
a body among many to give phosphorus to air
for bivouacs of will-o'-the-wisps
leaving no cinders, melting no frost.
As a chemist I once had the power
to marry the elements and make them react,
but always I failed to understand men
why they combined through love,
entrusting to a game their joy and their pain
Watch the smile, watch the colour
how they play on the face of who looks for love:
but the same smile, the same colour
where are they on the face of who's found love?
Where are they on the face of who's found love?
How strange to leave without suffering
without a woman's face to recall.
But perhaps your dying is different,
for you who exit to love, who concede to April
What's different in your dying?
Spring doesn't knock, She confident comes in
like smoke She breaks through every cleft
She has lips of flesh, hair of corn,
what a fear, what a desire She takes you by hand
what a fear, what a desire She takes you away
But watch hydrogen silent in the sea
watch hydrogen sleep to her side
only a law that I can understand
could marry them without making them burn
Only a law that I can understand.
I was a chemist, and no, I chose not to marry.
I didn't know whom and whom I'd generate:
I died in a wrong experiment
just like idiots who die for love.
Someone will say there's a better way."

This, in itself, is a very nice poem. I cannot fail to appreciate the effort and the skill put out by Fabrizio De André. I understand this is Art, and I wonder if my readers will perceive the difference between this text and the one by Linda Eder. They are both about love, which is why I chose this one. They are also both about "why people fall in love". But they are very different. In Italian it is also very musical, and some of its peculiarities just cannot be translated into English. De André was very "Italian-ish", he never loved the "American" way to entertainment. So his songs are deep with meaning and "heavy". It should come as a dramatic surprise to my reader then, that I actually don't like his songs.
Please do not misunderstand my meaning.
I do not like his songs does not equal to I do not perceive their artistic value.
I am very aware they are artistically significant, way more than other pop songs I enjoy. The problem with his songs, for me, is that I am not "resonant" with the form De André chose for his art to be expressed. He sang with a guitar and little more, in form of ballads. The music itself was "unimportant" to him, a mere "decoration" of the lyrics, which were the real "chest" containing the full value of the song (I use the past because De André is dead, although he kept singing until the end of his career in the 90's). To De André, it was poetry in Italian language the mean to convey a message, and music was the "addition" to have poetry break through the mass market and reach the masses. I am quite sensitive to words and poems, but not enough to appreciate a song whose main element is its lyrics. I can actually appreciate a song without understanding the lyrics. I find a Chinese song (a classic of the 70's called "Wang Bu Liao") absolutely charming, and I have only a vague idea of what a few of its lines could mean. Words are beautiful to me, but sound is better. The same lyrics by De André, with a completely different music, would make my ideal song. Then of course, I would not call it "pop song" anymore for the simple fact that I use the expression "pop-song" to define "American", light-entertainment industrial products. This is not to say that all pop songs are industrial products, but rather that I have chosen that expression to define them.

Here comes then, the meaning of what I said when I stated that one has to be "resonant" with the form of expression the Communicator (Artist) has chosen to convey his message. I can understand very well the message hidden in De André's beautiful poem-lyrics. But when it comes to emotional impact, his music has a limited effect on me. I enjoy his lyrics a lot more when they are written on a piece of paper, where I can read them aloud following the metrics and the actual beauty of their natural sound in Italian, un-hindered by the annoying music intended to support them. But that of course, is not the aim of De André.

What I tried to say in this whole post in the end is that we can all recognize Art when we find it, but there certainly is *one* form of art that makes your inner chords vibrate. Cultivating that form of art, pursuing it and enjoying it as much as possible, provides immense pleasure. It is up to my readers to search and find the Art they feel most resonant with; but certainly, whatever my reader's choice, anybody's life is greatly enriched by the wonders of Art.