Sound of Mystery

In my last post/blog, I pointed out that the visual and aural arts sustained me during lock-down moments. I went on to elaborate on the visual arts and how I related to certain examples of these.

The aural arts, aka music, are far more mysterious. So mysterious, in fact, that I doubt anybody can really explain why it is we humans respond to such weird arts at all. Or even put into words their essence. Quite simply, they defy description by verbal or written language. They are their own language.

Music is, when all said and done, just vibrations in the air, vibrations albeit which conform to prescribed patterns. Why such patterns should have an effect on us akin to hypnotism is the essence of the mystery. Some music soothes, some arouses, some depresses, some keeps us on an even keel, some throws us off balance. Unaccountably, all of it feels like the stuff of life itself. Our life of emotions.

Of course, there are some among us (poor souls) unaffected to any extent by music. The magic is not there for them. We call these people ‘tone deaf’. Other people – not me I regret to say – produce music via some instrument. My partner, Janet, plays the piano. Her cousin, Suzanne, who lives in Spain, scrapes a living as a concert pianist.

Because music is not amenable to description, all I can do when writing about it is to describe the effect it has on me. Its effect is considerable, and happens to me every day of my life. For which I am most grateful. And puzzled at the same time.

Let me say something controversial. I don’t believe music and spoken language mix very well. They are like oil and water. Most popular contemporary music tries to combine them. But, for me, lyrics tend to drown out the mystery of the instrumental line. So popular contemporary music leaves me cold. Bob Dylan won his Nobel Prize for his lyrics, not for the music that went with them.

When I listen to opera or classical song, the human voice is just another – sometimes rather beautiful – instrument. I prefer to hear such music sung in a foreign language – let’s say Italian or German – so I’m not distracted by the lyrics. If I understand the lyrics, as say in Handel’s Messiah, it inevitably jars.

For me the most interesting music (with some notable earlier exceptions) was composed from the 18th century to the present day. J S Bach is indicative of the good stuff from the 18th century. So-called ‘modern jazz’ is indicative of the good stuff from our century, and from the latter part of the last.

There is a wealth of amazing stuff in between. Everybody has personal favorites, and I have mine. The holy grail for me is Beethoven’s Variations on a Theme of Diabelli for solo piano. This music is so precious to me that I ration my exposure to it for fear it might become stale, like an effete advertising jingle. This is probably an ungrounded fear. It is doubtful if music of this calibre is capable of being rendered stale.

There are a number of excellent performances of the Diabelli on record. One of my favorites is that by pianist Stephen Kovacevich. Not too many pianists would dare approach this piece. It is notoriously difficult to play. My partner, Janet, would not attempt it in toto, but I think her cousin in Spain would manage it well.

With personal favorites come personal prejudices. I have never warmed all that much to Brahms, Chopin, or Wagner. That says more about me, I am sure, than it does about the music of Brahms, Chopin, and Wagner.

Musically speaking, I would give the nod to Bach, Handel, and Mozart in the 18th century, to Beethoven and Schubert in the 19th (with honourable mentions to Schumann, Bruckner, and Rachmaninov), and to Prokofiev and Bartok in the early 20th. But where did the so-called ‘classical’ tradition disappear to in the late 20th and early 21st centuries? I look for it, but don’t find.

Not a problem. Jazz, for me, fills the gap. Jazz is music that soothes. In the chaotic century we live in, there is a need for ‘sooth’. If you don’t know where to look for jazz, there is a dedicated radio channel on ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) that plays it continuously.

We are told that, as a musical form, jazz originated in the USA. But these days in the States it appears to have lost much of its earlier appeal to other forms driven more by lyrics than by that mysterious and undefinable thing called music. If you want jazz these days, the place to go is Japan. In eating places, bars, and izakaya all over the country, you will more often than not find recorded jazz playing quietly in the background. And, of course, the celebrated writer Haruki Murakami once ran a jazz club in Tokyo.

Jazz can be listened to in a vacuum for its own intrinsic appeal, or as background to some other activity, e.g. conversation over food and/or drinks, though – I hasten to say – not so much in these days of lock-down and social distancing. It really does make a most excellent background, and I look forward to days in the future when I’ll be able to enjoy it again in congenial company while eating my sashimi washed down with sake.