Friday, July 08, 2005

The world is quiet here

The other week Mental Multivitamin had a few things to say about atonality and Alban Berg, with reference to a recent article excerpted as follows:

Music is both a balm for loneliness and a powerful, renewable source of meaning — meaning in time and meaning for time. The first thing music does is banish silence. Silence is at once a metaphor for loneliness and the thing itself: It's a loneliness of the senses. Music overcomes silence, replaces it. It provides us with a companion by occupying our senses — and, through our senses, our minds, our thoughts. It has, quite literally, a presence. We know that sound and touch are the only sensual stimuli that literally move us, that make parts of us move: Sound waves make the tiny hairs in our inner ears vibrate, and, if sound waves are strong enough, they can make our whole bodies vibrate. We might even say, therefore, that sound is a form of touch, and that in its own way music is able to reach out and put an arm around us.

(Does smell literally move us? Does everyone have nose hairs? Is their movement an essential component of the physiological processing of smells? Smell is powerfully evocative, but the case could be made for sound and taste. In each case, a step is taken outside of our predominantly visual world. It's a question of what you notice, what you're allowed to notice, what you're made to notice.)

A response noted that:
We have relegated music to simply an exercise in listening, and then intellectually verbalizing (for expression) what we hear.

What many of the twentieth century modernists do is to force us to go beyond intellectualizing about what we hear, to force our hearing to blend with those physical vibrations that are happening, to tap into something deeper from within our very center that we can't articulate. We can only express by moving. Or by creating something else in a physical or visceral way.

I've only skimmed the original article and the commentary it generated. I'm not currently interested in a discussion of the virtues, or lack thereof, of atonality and dissonance. It's the excerpted passage that my mind keeps returning to.

The music moves you.
"Can you feel the music?"

Is it because music is so physical that it is so emotional? That we ascribe the qualities of sound to certain experiences to convey their intensity?

An idea resonates.
It strikes a chord.
"How does that sound?"
A face or a name rings a bell.
Memories echo.

Voices, when soft music dies
Vibrate in the memory

— Shelley

I'm struck by how little music is in my life these days.

With some exceptions, I turned the stereo off and shut "music" out, rather unconsciously and I believe temporarily.

It started with the exhaustion of new motherhood. I needed to regain my ability to focus amid... everything — the spatial-visual clutter, the disorganization, the interrupted sleep. The noise of that time in my life (though all my senses were assulted). I wanted peace and quiet. (Even here, I think the "quiet" is metaphorical.)

Perhaps turning the music off was an attempt to disassociate, to stop up emotional leaks.

Of course, my world is not silent at all. I hear the whir of air conditioners, snippets of conversation passing beneath my window, hammers and saws in the distance, planes overhead. Birds. Cats.

I feel I am in tune (in tune) with my space. Tuned into it. This is something that much pop music actually prevents us from doing (opposite from what musicians of formal training aspire to).

(I wanted to research "expressions of sound as metaphor," but this wasn't a very fruitful avenue. However, here are some of the really amazing subjects to the study of which people devote their lives:
The effects of culture, environment, age, and musical training on choices of visual metaphors for sound
Modeling the effects of irrelevant speech on memory
Cross-language word segmentation by 9-month-olds
Modulating semantic feedback in visual word recognition
Foreign language knowledge can influence native language performance in exclusively native contexts

I note that I listed many topics related to language, because I studied linguistics, because a fascination with these things drew me to the study of linguistics. For a while I'd wanted to pursue Cognitive Science, but I'm too lazy, and probably not smart enough. I read Steven Pinker when I can.)

I'm discovering the music again.
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