Songs Without Words

[After having written this, I’ve come to think of it as a first installment — if that — where angels fear to tread. You must not miss Jim Merod’s similarly directed piece in this issue. Ed.]

Mike Silverton

[April 2001. Originally appeared in La Folia 3:3.]

Informal speech can take the odd turn. “I could care less” means I couldn’t. Formal English (talk in black tie) can also mystify. To manufacture is, literally, to make a thing by hand. Another oddity, musical and explicable: everything is called a song. Not by cognoscenti, but among the less finicky, no question. An intelligent fellow with broad interests curious to know what I do as a music reviewer said, “When you play your songs….” Songs are sung. Lieder, chanson, madrigals, motets were not on the day’s worksheet. And yet, on a suitably vague, metaphysical plane, a mote in Proper Usage’s eye takes on a boulder’s weight.

From the notes by “poet and playwright” David Budbill to AUM Fidelity CD 1003, In and Out and Both at Once, with the William Parker Quartet: “William Parker is not only one of the world’s most accomplished and creative bass players, he is one of the great melody makers, song writers, of our time. In song after song on this CD, through the sheer beauty of his sweet melodies…,” etc. Parker’s a talented musician, so let’s not dwell on the hyperbole. Enough for our purpose to mention that there are no vocals in this release. As they say at the pet-adoption agency, it does give one paws.

Pop’s dominance and the preponderance of song within all pop genres to a large degree explain a term’s convenience. If one’s musical interests comprise about three percent of domestic sales, a string quintet’s a song, as is a tuba concerto, rondo for piano and glass harmonica, tone poem and ballet score. To object is to scream into one’s pillow. We creatures of the margin have become inured to the abuses of indifference. Our bruises heal, our calluses toughen, particularly those on one’s backside, so conscientiously does one attend to his listening duties, from which I took a busman’s break the other day to play a few symphonies by Karl Amadeus Hartmann (1905-1963), which always manage to touch me for reasons I think I understand. Hartmann’s dramatics are propelled, mostly without faltering, by energies and strengths that cannot but engage anyone with an interest in the symphony’s fate. But once captured, where to? One listens to inspiration in skill’s steady hand, much as one admires a painting. Yet skill can serve banality, witness Norman Rockwell’s superb draftsmanship. If I offend, take for a less provocative example the skills of the medical illustrator and compare them to those of Willem de Kooning, a painter whose slapdash, gleefully chaotic, forever fresh “Women” canvases reveal a unique vision. Had these paintings presented their subjects with meticulous precision, they’d be somebody else’s and likely a bore. Relative again to Rockwell, there’s the unsentimental poetry of Marsden Hartley’s crude brushwork.

Features common to what we know of human society have always included music. The present is perhaps unexampled by reason of abundance. We exist in a world awash in sound, most of it music. Excepting one or two numbers I found engaging, disco in its heyday was for me just another kind of pop in which I took no interest. I do remember, however, that an enthusiasm for disco in certain circles could get one in trouble. In addition to the friends we keep, we are known by the music we listen to. (Should I ever hear of a shootout at a chamber-music event, I’ll know that my world has collapsed about my ears.)

We are at a place where these observations could begin scattering like droplets of mercury. Allow me to return to K.A. Hartmann. I say toe-MAY-toe, you say toe-MAH-toe…. I get something from Hartmann you get from whomever. (One ground rule only: as an exercise of high-minded perversity, the discussion centers on unsung music.) The point is, we listen to music, tons of the stuff, most of the time involuntarily or indifferently, yet, unless we’re John Cage, we do not listen to traffic or the clothes dryer in quite the same way. A dear friend sent me these words of William Cobbett (1763-1835) I keep at my desk: “A great fondness for music is a mark of great weakness, great vacuity of mind … a want of capacity, or inclination, for sober thought.” Guilty as charged. ’Twas I with the smoking eardrums, milord, and space-to-let sign behind my eyes.

Hartmann, a “good German,” withdrew as a composer when the Nazis came to power. His postwar music (along with the prewar music he revised after 1945) speaks to me, and I do mean speaks. But what does speak mean? To return to our solecism, is all music song? I remember as a ten-year-old seeing the Daily News headline about the Hiroshima bomb. The Cold War began in earnest as I entered my teens. One’s hopes and anxieties took shape, along with one’s perceptions, under threat of Armageddon. I hear Hartmann giving voice to this angst and, yes, exuberance, peculiar in texture and content to its place and time, which was, coincidentally, my time and place. Hartmann and I are soulmates. (He’s dead. I can say what I please.) I recall a wag’s observation: Haydn was born before Original Sin. Nowhere in Haydn does one hear the erotic longing peculiar to Mozart in a good deal of his instrumental writing, a heart-wrenching example, the Andante from the Symphonia Concertante for Violin, Viola and Orchestra, K.364. I’m carrying on about what I hear Hartmann and Mozart saying, what I hear music meaning. Given our subject’s figurative character, it’s entirely possible to allow a mystery to hang out to dry.

I believe I’ve a handle on Brother Cobbett’s myopia. Alive as he was BCM (Before Canned Music), adrift in a dearth of organized sound, our supercilious forbear may simply have missed out on the good, meaningful stuff. Or, to give him full scope, he may have been one of those poor, blinkered souls for whom music is meaningless. Music speaks to the music lover — sings a song to the music lover — tho even in its figurative sense, the essence of wordless speech defies definition this side of hallucination. Yet I doubt that the music lover takes wordless speech for a mere oxymoron. We return to the question: What is it about music that speaks? When I play a Hartmann symphony, I do not come away with a better knowledge of German or Germany, the way of the world or a glimpse of Eternity. Excepting a heightened familiarity with the symphony in question, I’ve not the confidence to suggest coming away with anything that endures beyond the musical moment.

When we listen to music: There is of course the pulse, that which connects to essentials, existence at the corpuscular stage. Rock’s overwhelming pulse certainly helps to account for its staying power. What I hear as generic, cliché-laden pap others hear as life-giving. Several steps along the road to grandiosity, we respond foremost to sonorities arrayed as structure in time. Beyond this interest in the purely abstract, we apprehend music’s emotional thrust, but not in a haphazard way. Rather, I believe we remain temperamentally poised to grasp at emotion and mood. In this regard, to return to John Cage and the clothes dryer, I find myself hearing the composer’s aleatory compositions — pieces whose organization came about by chance operations — as coherent musical statements. To my astonishment, I might add. My head was making sense (whatever that means) of what the composer had intended as random construction. Or had he? Try as one might, is it possible to divorce oneself from one’s innermost being in the making of art? A great deal of Cage’s music reflects the serenity of the Asian philosophies, Zen Buddhism in particular, from which he drew strength. I hear this in the music, though perhaps not in so connected a way were I ignorant of Cage’s intellectual tastes. But, yes, I’d have sensed the music saying something akin.

All music as song? Perhaps.