Monday, March 19, 2012

Orpheus with His Lute

I wrote a slew of posts made up of my philosophical ramblings about music, but I've been listening to a song by Ralph Vaughn-Williams that's made me want to ramble again. The song is "Orpheus with His Lute," and it uses lyrics by my good pal Shakespeare:

ORPHEUS with his lute made trees
And the mountain tops that freeze
Bow themselves when he did sing:
To his music plants and flowers
Ever sprung; as sun and showers
There had made a lasting spring.

Every thing that heard him play,
Even the billows of the sea,
Hung their heads and then lay by.
In sweet music is such art,
Killing care and grief of heart
Fall asleep, or hearing, die.

Also, if you don't mind counter-tenors, here's a fantastic recording of the song.

Anyway, the text and the music have got me thinking again about how bizarre music is. I've argued before that music has no natural precedent. We can talk about the music of the spheres or the music of birds or the wind rushing through the trees, but these are all quite different from music as we understand it from a traditional Western paradigm.

Where does a melody even come from? Seriously. Once they exist, they seem to be inseparable from themselves and inevitable. It's kind of divine. With a good melody, it's impossible for most of us to imagine it being any different from how it is. Once formed, the idea of a melody (though not necessarily its individual parts) appears without beginning or end. At no point do we think, "Oh, the composer's not sure where to take this." It rolls along like Fate and Fortune's Wheel.

Music is the most magic-like thing we engage in. None of us really understands it. What makes D minor such a sad key? Why is a V7-I cadence so satisfying? We've discovered that Western harmony is based on actual physical phenomena, like the harmonic series, but we really don't know why that moves us. One of Shakespeare's characters asks comically, "Is it not strange that sheeps' guts [lute strings used to be made from sheep's stomachs] should hale souls out of men's bodies?" It is.

I read a Wall Streat Journal article a while ago that claimed to have discovered "the anatomy of a tear-jerker." It said that Adele's "Someone Like You" followed a formula that all the other "tear-jerkers" (e.g., Barber's "Adagio for Strings") have used. A couple of smug neuroscientists wrote that changes in timbre and register release hormones endorphins in our brains which make us simultaneously sad and happy. This really doesn't explain anything: timbre and register changes alone won't consistently produce those same effects. There is an art to composition and performance. It can't be quantified, no matter how many times you look at a ghostly fMRI.

As quoted above, the great poet wrote, "In sweet music is such art / Killing care and grief of heart / Fall asleep, or, hearing die." So often, I've coped with my greatest difficulties by playing music. Who needs therapy when you have the Bach cello suites? Then there's Schubert's great song:

Du holde Kunst, in wieviel grauen Stunden,
Wo mich des Lebens wilder Kreis umstrickt,
Hast du mein Herz zu warmer Lieb entzunden,
Hast mich in eine beßre Welt entrückt!

Oft hat ein Seufzer, deiner Harf' entflossen,
Ein süßer, heiliger Akkord von dir
Den Himmel beßrer Zeiten mir erschlossen,
Du holde Kunst, ich danke dir dafür!

But why? Why do these sequences of ratios and heaps of sine waves calm our minds and soothe our spirits? I'm happy not knowing. Never knowing. We need some things to "tease us out of thought, as [does] eternity."

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