What is music, and how do we hear it?

I’ve spent much of the day annotating my Links page (see top bar – and please let me know via email if you feel I’ve slighted your blog in any way). So in lieu of an original post, let me just put up a couple of quotes that between them encapsulate my own thoughts about music.

I first wrote about Stephen Dunn’s book of prose poems, Riffs and Reciprocities, back in December, 2003. Paired with “Noise,” here’s Dunn’s definition of “Music”:

Something overheard from the dissonant street – a screech, a bang – taken in and arranged. A subjective correlative. Sequences, resolutions, deliberate unfulfillments. The sublimity of large and small moments surrendering to the whole. What feeling feels like over time. An attempt to screw up what feeling feels like over time. Heartbreak and a high C. The twang the nervous system wants when it’s in revolt. The often welcome melodic lie. Ululation and a stomp of heels, scat-sense, voice and ear living together in brilliant sin. The soul’s undersong. The orchestration of randomness, a flirtation with the boundaries of silence and space. When Bun-Ching played last night – a reminder that the self wants to disappear, be taken away from itself and returned.

And here’s a description of the concert hall experience from a contemporary philosopher, Alphonso Lingis, in his book The Imperative (Indiana University Press, 1998).

We enter the concert hall, locate our seat; we look at the musicians picking up their bows and sticks and reverberating the violin strings and the taut skins of the drums. Our eyes move from one instrument to another in the orchestra pit. Then the music begins, and the tones now disengage from the surfaces upon which they were vibrating and weave into the space between us and the instruments. Our hearing begins another movement, from one tone to the next in a lyrical space that dilates and condenses, expands over a vast horizon, approaches from distances nowise limited by this renaissance salon whose ornate mirrors present on each of its walls only the other walls. This space is complete unto itself and the musical forces, more than tones, do not evoke or depict visible and tangible things, but materialize emergences, events, and destinies inexhaustible in themselves. At the end of the concerto, we look about as though awakening from the caverns of a trance and relocate ourselves in the hall with friends and with refreshments outside.

Last year around this time I posted a short story (well, a fictional vignette, at any rate) set in a concert hall, but I can’t find it right now.

You know, all this writing and thinking about music almost makes me wish I had a stereo of my own. It’s too damn quiet around here! If you’ve ever exclaimed, “I can’t hear myself think!” let me tell you: it’s not always a pleasant music that the brain makes. When my mind draws a blank, it’s not because it’s empty, but because it’s full to overflowing with white noise. Better the “melodic lie” or the surprise of dissonance than this unquiet peace, sometimes.

8 Replies to “What is music, and how do we hear it?”

  1. Your “about” page looks great. The coffee portait really stands out nice. Very nice vibe. Good work with the grays which, as I write, give voice in at least four timbres across a page, no longer white but reverberant with harmonics of gray.

  2. Ah, the unquiet peace…

    Sometimes people want to know if there’s some good “meditation music” to help “drown out” or “block out” the noise of the world outside their apartments or houses: traffic, lawnmowers, airplanes, playgrounds. And I have to tell them, albeit unhappily because even I wish it weren’t the case so often, that the most noise you’ll ever find is in your head. The unquiet peace will haunt you long after the last motor’s cough or tremulous note.

  3. Bill – Thanks, man. I can’t take credit for the grays, though – this is all Mr. Pettersson’s work. I think that the impression of grayness varies greatly with the width of the line and hence with the size of the font.

    StAnt – Who dat?

    SJ – See, that’s why I’d make a lousy Buddhist. I’d probably clobber someone over the head with a prayer bell if they asked me to recommend a style of musical wallpaper. I’d tell them to try LISTENING, to really actually LISTEN TO THE MUSIC. Oughtta be as good as counting your breaths if you do it right.

  4. voice and ear living together in brilliant sin

    I’ve always loved Dunn. Nice meditation. But get yourself a stereo, man! What do you do now, play music on your computer?

  5. No, I listen to it up at my parents’ house. And I have a boombox that plays cassette tapes. The local NPR station is classical-format, but unfortunately the programming is extremely conservative – Mozart, Mozart, and more Mozart.

    Keep in mind that I’m, like, poor. If someone wants to take up a collection for me, that’d be O.K. But I can’t guarantee I wouldn’t turn around and donate the money to some worthier cause.

  6. Sorry at the nervous attempt at humour, St. It IS akward chatting with a saint. I am twice startled, first to be addressed by a saint, then to have the saint mistake me for a doctor!

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