I want to write about music tonight.No, that’s not right. I want to play music tonight.
But since my skills are fairly feeble at the piano, and my kids are soaking up some gamma rays from the television, I will try to write about music instead.
And completely fail to do it justice.
There must be a reason for this divide. For the distance between words and notes, and the emotional effects they conjure in us.
Writers have to design emotion like a slow and meticulous spider spinning its web. It’s an intellectual process, at its very foundation. Readers absorb words in a similar way. Poetry—particularly free verse—is the closest we writers can get to being the conduits, and not the architects. While music . . . well, music is IV emotion shooting straight to the heart.
Doesn’t seem fair, does it?
If books and film are story-driven and wide, music is moment-contingent and deep. Complete immersion. Suspension. What I choose to listen to often shapes my mood like liquid being poured into an elastic and evolving reservoir. A song’s meaning is also layered by its past listenings, until we are moving through a grand canyon of visceral memory. In one sense, the emotion a song conjures deepens with every play (until we’ve worn it out, that is), and nostalgia is often the space/time harmony accompanying the melody itself.
So anyway. Where was I going with this again?
I’ve been listening to Bach lately. Specifically, his Goldberg Variations. More specifically, Glenn Gould’s impassioned, if eccentric, recordings of the Goldberg Variations.
And what does it conjure? Well, to explain it is to dilute its essence. It’s draining the immediacy of that liquid immersion. But I’ll try, anyway.
There is a bright, glassy clarity to Bach’s sound. Even his more melancholy variations have such a strength of structure stabilizing them that I know I’ll never be opened up too wide, or dragged too low. If I close my eyes while listening to the Goldberg Variations, I’m barefoot in the summer grass, feeling the cool specificity of each blade underfoot, as I walk, tiptoe, or dash across the lawn (not a field or wilderness—that’s too overgrown and hopelessly wandering for Bach).
I like its pure lines. The transfer of structure and calm (if only in the moment, alas). My thoughts may wander to the clouds while listening to Bach, but my heart is centered in my chest, and again, my feet are earth-bound.
Bach is a soothing balm when thoughts have become too overheated and unwound.
Yet music can also be emotionally dangerous. There is a darker landscape of song that not only shapes our mood, but saturates it to the point of masochism and pain. How can it wield such a power over us? Power that even the most beloved book cannot hope to duplicate for immediate impact.
And more intriguingly, why on earth would we invite it?
So many parts of our lives are not pliable. They’re fixed, like the bricks in a wall. Or the words on a page. Which provides stability and continuity, but also limits our freedom. Yet there are no barriers to where our hearts and souls might wander when we close our eyes, and press play. Or if, by some stroke of enviable fortune, we can play an instrument ourselves. It’s intoxicating to travel in that canyon, if also slightly treacherous for what it seems to paint on our lids and promise in the other world. For what it fails to deliver when our eyes snap back open at the end of the song, and only white silence embraces us.
Most of the great rock and pop songs are about desire of some sort. It’s no surprise. Desire is restless, fluid. Desire is eternal. And so is music.
We are not, but want to be. We desire desire. We want to live in the canyons of songs. Forever.
So have I gotten anywhere here with all of this? I don’t know. All that water seems to have slipped through my fingers . . . my web.
Aw, screw it.
Just listen to Bach, and kick off your shoes with me.