3 Feb

Cadences which break (or mend) the heart

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 02/03/16

George Steiner on the mystery of musical meaning

“[O]ur perceptions, the immediacy of our perceptions of harmony and of discord would seem to correspond not only to our readings of inner states of personal being, but also to that of the social contract and, ultimately, of the cosmos (that ‘music of the spheres’). The energy that is music puts us in felt relation to the energy that is life; it puts us in a relation of experienced immediacy with the abstractly and verbally inexpressible but wholly palpable, primary fact of being. The translation of music into meaning, into meaning that is entirely musical, carries with it what somatic and spiritual cognizance we can have of the core-mystery (how else is one to put it?) that we are. And that this energy of existence lies deeper than any biological or psychological determination. Thus we do seem to harbour at the threshold of the unconscious, at depths precisely unrecapturable by speech and the logic of speech, intimations, incisions in the synapses of sensibility, of a close kinship between the beginnings of music and those of humanly-enacted meaning itself. A world without music is, strictly consideed, outside our persuasions of order and desire. It need not be a dead world in the geological or biological sense. But it would not be explicitly human. . . .

“We know of music as we know the spark and pressure at the centre of our own selves (or, perhaps, as we know of our own sleep). But we have no defining, systematic grasp of its constant, enormous impact. We can say that music is time organized, which means ‘made organic’. We can say that this act of organization is one of essential freedom, that it liberates us from the enforcing beat of biological and physical-mathematical clocks. The time which music ‘takes’, and which it gives as we perform or experience it, is the only free time granted us prior to death. We can speculate, and have done so from the ancient rhapsodies to the neurophysiologists of today, on possible concordances — themselves a musical borrowing — between bodily rhythms and subliminal cadences on the one hand, and the structural conventions of music on the other. But where it is not metaphor, almost everything said remains, in a chasteningly etymological sense, verbiage. . . .

“What we know is the relevant power. Folktale and metaphysics, myth and psychotherapy, Eros and religious rites, share the knowledge that music can literally madden, that it can make violence vibrant, that it can console, exalt, heal, that it can wake Lear out of crazed blackness. There are cadences, chords, modulations which break or mend the heart, or, indeed, mend it in the breaking. There are tone-relations which make us strangers to ourselves or, on the contrary, impel us homeward. There are andantes (Mahler’s trick of transcendence) which seem to break open the prison house of the ego and to make us one with the tidal peace of being. There are scherzos (too many in Mozart) in which laughter is perfectly real and, at the same time, where laughter is a last, unconquerable sadness. Melodies — I have cited the conviction that they are ‘the supreme mystery of man’ — can arch across an abyss or they can, as it were, pulse underground, unsettling all foundations. All these, however, are lame banalities. . . .

“Where we try to speak of music, to speak music, language has us, resentfully, by the throat. This I believe to be the buried meaning of the fable of the Sirens. More ancient than language possessed of ‘thrones, dominions, powers’, more secret than those bestowed on speech, music lies in wait for the speaker, for the logician, for the confidant of reason (Odysseus par excellence). The Sirens promise orders of understanding, or peace (harmonies) which transcend language.”

—George Steiner, Real Presences (University of Chicago Press, 1989)

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