Monday, November 06, 2006

The Universal Language?

More fodder from the Arts and Faith forum …The subject here is “music as the universal language.”

I don't think there is something inherent in the music itself that speaks to its hearers in a consistent way. Music is not the universal language. Or, perhaps better, music is a universal language that speaks with six billion tongues. I cannot tell you how radically different the same piece of music will sound to two equally sensitive, intelligent, spiritually attuned human beings. I have a good friend who experiences something approaching a spiritual epiphany whenever he slaps on Metallica. I hear the same music and want to stick a fork in my eye. There are genres of music I simply don't like, even though I know that millions of people find tremendous value in them. Music helps me understand what the word "joy" even means, and sometimes makes me want to worship God, and I've played that same transcendent music for people I love and I've met with uncomprehending stares.

That's not in any way to detract from the notion that music reaches people in remarkably powerful ways. It does, and I firmly believe that God uses it in countless good ways in peoples' lives. But there's no formula, nor are there instruments, melodies, chords, rhythms or any other components of music that universally communicate a specific meaning. I listen to music for a lot of reasons, and sometimes I'm simply looking to be entertained and mildly engaged. But sometimes something amazing happens. I apologize for quoting a review, but I'm too lazy to formulate this again, and it really does express what I'm trying to communicate:

"Lead singer/cherub Jonsi played his electric guitar with a bow, like a mutant cello, and made unearthly sounds with his voice. “Eeeeeuuuuu Syyyyyy Ohhhhhh” he sang on at least six songs, his falsetto soaring impossibly upward. It’s Hopelandic, a made-up language based on nonsense syllables and his native Icelandic, but I’d prefer to think of it as the angelic dialect of the heart. That mysterious phrase, repeated many times, sounded at various times like longing, yearning, grief, sorrow, joy, the unanswerable questions you hurl at God when your best friend dies of cancer, the wordless cry of joy when you witness the birth of your child, a thousand other moments of spiritual combustibility and incandescence that cannot be contained by cognitive knowledge and understanding. If it sounds trippy, it is. The gauze curtain that the band sometimes played behind, accenting shimmering shadows and spectral shapes, and the late ‘60s Pink Floyd freakout lightshow, only added to that impression. But that’s the territory explored by this band. It has nothing to do with objective communication, and everything to do with hotwiring the soul to the ineffable and the sublime."

Sometimes that happens. Those experiences in and of themselves can become idols, and the danger is in enshrining them and seeking them out rather than recognizing that they point to the author of all beauty. But those are incredibly meaningful experiences when they happen. That makes music pretty important, in my view. But good luck in trying to find the common musical denominator in those experiences.

I've had people express to me, on hearing such a view, that they find that it's steeped in relativism. I don't think so. I think it's kind of cool to love and serve a God who has found at least six billion ways to reach people.

And now, yet another take on “how can bad people create good music?”

There is a conundrum for me here and I can’t fully resolve it. If what you write is true, then the entire Miles Davis package – music, image, persona, personal life, whatever it was that drove his personal life – ought to come out in his art. You see that package, as a whole, as one containing serious moral flaws. And I do too. He was not a good man. The image that he portrayed is not one that I would encourage others to emulate. He engaged in behaviors that were certainly sinful. And, according to what you’ve stated above, all that badness should leak out at various points in what he created.

But here’s the conundrum: For me, this same vile dude created music that leads to the kind of transcendent experiences that I described above. I listen to Kind of Blue, the same album that has served as the backdrop to countless makeout sessions, and hear the angels. There is a song on that album called “Blue in Green,” a song co-written by Davis and pianist Bill Evans, another vile dude who has been a part of the recent conversation. I’ve listened to it hundreds of times, and it never fails to move me and startle me. It’s ravishingly beautiful. I could throw a bunch of other superlatives around, but none of them would really get at what happens. It’s something that draws me closer to God, that makes me want to worship the Creator. And it was made by sexist, violent, addicted, self-absorbed people.

All I can tell you is that personal history and worldview and image are real, that they’re significant aspects of any artist, and that they may not matter a bit in terms of how one hears the music. At least that’s my take on it.

4 comments:

Fred Kohn said...

Whenever I hear a discussion about the nature of language, my mind inevitably jumps to the tower of Babel. For some reason this is a bible story that gets relatively little attention, yet says so much.

The babel story tells us that people were created with a universal language. Yet God chose to confound this language, because if humankind continued having a universal language they could do anything and thus would have no need for God.

e said...

"All I can tell you is that personal history and worldview and image are real, that they’re significant aspects of any artist, and that they may not matter a bit in terms of how one hears the music. At least that’s my take on it."

Great essay. And yet it still leaves me hanging. So tell me, Great Sage: why do I hate Phish, the Dead, Dave Matthews Band, Blues Traveler, Iggy Pop, Jimmy Buffett...? Is it the music, their individual lives, the ethos surrounding their music--often shared by fans?

Help me Obi-Wan.

KarlandBethany said...

From the heart of someone who doesn't like Sufjan comes the following:

Andy said: I don't think there is something inherent in the music itself that speaks to its hearers in a consistent way. Music is not the universal language. Or, perhaps better, music is a universal language that speaks with six billion tongues.

Here is how I see it. Music is complex not only does it involve Melody, Harmony, Rhythm, and some times Lyric. It also encompasses Texture, Volume, Faith (or lack there of) and many other aspects that I can't put my finger on right now but you get the point.

Music is listened to by people who are all different. We all come to the music with different physical bodies, different emotional makeup's, different social experiences and histories.

These differences set the stage for me to be different. It's just like my wife and I arguing over the heater setting in the car. We both have human bodies that have a standard operating temperature of 98.6 Deg. F. But the 5 degree difference in the car means Karl is sweating and Bethany is freezing. It's the same thing that allows me to love a crisp fall day in Ohio and someone else to see it as the death of summer leading into he hell of winter in Ohio.

Music is sound and it is made up of compressions of air. What ever you may think "Also Sprach Zarathustra" cannot be heard when floating through space. Because of this listening to music is not only a connection to your mind and heart but also to your body. It has a physical resonance with you. Since each and every one of us humans is different it shouldn't surprise us that we all like different music.

E, The bands you comment about are some of my favorites. Why, because they resonate with me. My body likes the rhythms and textures they use. (Sometimes they get a bit long winded but overall they resonate with me.) For me I really don't like bebop. Is Bebop technically phenomenal yes, but for some reason it makes my skin crawl. I tried listening to the "Real Book" (an illegal transcription of 300+ jazz standards used as a text book at Berklee College of Music) songs from beginning to end on the radio in Boston once. I only made it through the B's before I had to shut it off as it was driving me crazy. Most of those recordings are listed as some of the Best recordings in Jazz history. Attending a Jazz/Pop school of music I struggled with this for a while. I should like this I told myself but never could come around to liking the sound. I gave up quickly and went back to my synthesizers and making weird noise nobody else liked.

I'm sure that if we compared our two collections of music there would be vast differences. As many difference as we can find if we were to compare us a humans.

I'm so glad that music can speak so many languages. Because of it, there isn't a human in history that was left without music. There is always something good to listen too.

Karl

Martin said...

"I have a good friend who experiences something approaching a spiritual epiphany whenever he slaps on Metallica. I hear the same music and want to stick a fork in my eye."

Wasn't that the Scorpions?