Can you hear it?

When I wrote about music, I took great care not to mention any music I listen to. I knew the reader might be put off the whole argument by my choice of illustration. Music is just so personal, isn’t it? I am glad people reading the article did provide some examples.

Näckrosdamm, by Gunnar Widforss [Public domain]

Näckrosdamm, by Gunnar Widforss [Public domain]

In one of the first comments, David Yerle wrote about his experience with Jeff Buckley’s “Grace”. He associates it with a ‘primal cry against the existence of time that seems to summarize the whole agony of human experience.’ and goes on to say that he believes that “Grace” is bigger than Buckley himself. And that’s what all artists aspire to.

To me being an artist implies at the very least a personal creative power that can’t be analysed. Then, with effort, the artist may at some point produce a work that transcends himself. So I went to Youtube and saw the clip. I listened to it, three times in a row. I really wanted to hear what David described, but found I couldn’t.

Why is that?

I have always believed there are great works of art that could leave nobody indifferent. They are timeless and they stand alone. I also know that many people would be offended if you called a popular song as a work of art. I don’t agree with them: my concept of art is quite generous. And I think it’s not necessary that everyone should recognise a piece of music to be art before we could call it that. So why can’t I hear it?

“My personal hobbies are reading, listening to music, and silence,” Edith Sitwell

It might depend on the definition of agony: intense pain of mind or body and the struggle that precedes death. Also as a violent struggle or contest. Greek roots: agōnia, struggle, anguish, agōn, gathering, contest for a prize, agein to lead, to celebrate.

Pool in the Woods, by George Inness  [Public domain]

Pool in the Woods, by George Inness
[Public domain]

My personal definition of agony might bar me from recognising it in Buckley’s singing. It’s also possible that my limited knowledge of music makes it harder for me to follow what Buckley does. I know that many people share David’s experience.

Why so sad?

If we associate art with the agony of creation, this does not make for cheerful songs. Could an unpretentious, happy song about love be art in any way? Let’s listen to “Don’t you love her madly?” by the Doors for a minute. When I look at Jim Morrison, strutting about on stage, with his deadly white puffed-up face that speaks of taking way too many pills, I don’t exactly get excited, but to hear him vocally express a relentless upbeat energy is not a bad thing. When I listen to this, there is no evidence of suffering. Could it therefore never be art?

“Men profess to be lovers of music, but for the most part they give no evidence in their opinions and lives that they have heard it.” Henry David Thoreau

I know somebody who can chop down a tree so well it is a pleasure to watch. It’s nice to see certain people cook, or teach, or move gracefully under water. In doing this, a person might approach, or even attain, what we recognise as genius. I think we can all remember seeing this. It makes you happy just to watch. Can work therefore be art? Or does art need something more than genius?

The garden of earthly delights, detail, by Hieronymus Bosch (circa 1450–1516) [Public domain]

The garden of earthly delights, detail, by Hieronymus Bosch (circa 1450–1516) [Public domain]

I want you 27 times

I have met two people who heard Elvis Costello’s “I want you” and thought it was a love song. In my opinion, this is a big mistake. Elvis Costello would have probably have called it “I love you” in that case. I know, he starts off by saying “I love you” but then we are treated to 27 instances of “I want you” And they are all different.

“If you cannot teach me to fly, teach me to sing.” J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan

I would like to propose this mixture of a song, a poem and a complaint as more than a pop song and maybe illustrative of art. I am hindered by the fact that I could not find a decent studio version online. The live ones on Youtube are simply dreadful. You might choose to listen to a sample to get a feel for the song.

This song is explained on the internet, like everything else. It’s about Elvis Costello being sad that his partner had sex with somebody else. I am not interested in any of that: All I want to know is if he managed to transcend his personal situation in this song. In my opinion, art should elevate both the artist and the listener.

One could say that love is from the heart and want is from the belly. The two might go together, but all the wanting person really says is: “I want you to be mine.”

Let’s just listen for a moment. This song is designed to make one feel uncomfortable. The music jars in the background and the lyrics are remotely like a poem, but they are also disjointed images. Still, the voice is strangely measured and almost calm.

By John Olson Hammerstad [Public domain]

By John Olson Hammerstad [Public domain]

We might see indications of a relationship that has been good, but since by the 10th line we get:

“Your fingernails go dragging down the wall,”

It should be clear that all is not well. Further on, there are accusations:

“And if you need a second opinion as you seem to do these days: I want you.

You can look in my eyes and you can count the ways

I want you

Did you mean to tell me but seem to forget

I want you

Since when were you so generous and inarticulate

I want you

It’s the stupid details that my heart is breaking for

I’ts the way your shoulders shake and what they’re shaking for”

Just a little hoarseness in the voice. On a tangent, I would like to propose that histrionics can never qualify as art. Here, we can readily imagine how our inconspicuous neighbour, the man who always leaves home with plenty of time to get to work, is on the verge of losing it. He is trying to contain a maelstrom of images and feelings and failing: there is tension. An aspect that might be indispensable to art.

When I listened to this song, I felt myself engage with it, also a necessity for a work of art.

I woke up and one of us was crying — I want you

They are together in a room. Anything might happen. — Good music needs sensitive ears.

With thanks to David Yerle for sharing his views on Jeff Buckley.

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About Pipteinpteron

Catch a falling feather. Don't keep it.
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24 Responses to Can you hear it?

  1. David Yerle says:

    Hi lively!
    I’m not surprised you didn’t find what I said about Jeff Buckley. I think he’s a little like beer: an acquired taste. And he’s definitely not for everyone (musicians seem to be especially taken with him).
    I love Elvis Costello, though I’ve never heard this song in particular. I like “the scarlet tide”, for example (though not as much as Grace).
    If you like songs about cheating, one of the most fun is Ryan Adams’s (not Bryan) “come pick me up.”
    On the rest: I find art pretty much to define. To me, it’s just some creative piece that makes me feel awe. The rest, I consider to be a craft: sometimes good, sometimes not so good, sometimes terrible. That said, what makes me feel awe might make somebody else feel indifferent and vice-versa (for example, I don’t get people’s obsession with Daft Punk).

    • Thank you for your comment! I think beer is an acquired taste, so you might be right. 🙂
      With your definition of art, you are close to the dictionary: ‘Art: the conscious use of skill and creative imagination especially in the production of aesthetic objects’.
      Only when a ‘work of art’ is mentioned, they add ‘high artistic quality’. I have been quite liberal with definitions here, because I only wanted to discover some of the aspects of what might, or might not be called art. Especially in pop songs, that is highly personal, I think!

    • PS: I just listened to “Come pick me up” and thought it was very funny. Thanks for the tip! 🙂

  2. Can I hear it? If I am deaf, I can’t but it does that change the art in music? I think that art begins with its creator who draws from his or her artistic vision and shares it with the world. Some we can appreciate, some we can’t. Often you need the artists context/story to make sense of it and perhaps fall in love with it. As you present it very well, the story makes all the difference! I have often wondered why one simple line drawing from Matiss is worth big bucks but a very similar drawing spraypainted on a bus shelter isn’t. We know the answer. Can I hear it? Sure, in all 27 dimensions 🙂

    • Thank you for your comment, Genetic Fractals! Surely 27 dimensions should not confuse you in any way. 🙂
      You mentioning artistic vision makes me think that I should have mentioned something like that. If you do look at a Matisse in comparison to something spraypainted on a bus shelter you’ll find he had a recognisable artistic vision and style. I also think that often the simplicity betrays the truly great artist, but I don’t know if you’d agree.

  3. I never expect to hear in music what others hear. I’ve listened to songs that were supposed to be dark, and found them very cheery (at least as far as the music went, as I often ignored the lyrics). How we interpret things is heavily based on our experiences, and since the music goes through the same interpretation, one can’t expect everyone to walk away from music with the same message or mood.

    Why must art be associated with the agony of creation? Why must creation be agony?

    BTW, I haven’t forgotten your request that I expand my art experience into an article. I’m still picking at that one (and have been a bit busy lately). For the record, your posts on music have made me realize something, and the article is being affected accordingly.

    • Thank you for your comment, BR! I think in songs there is often a contradiction between lyrics and music. Sometimes it’s there on purpose and sometimes it might be a coincidence. I also think you should be perfectly free to hear whatever you hear. When I referred to people thinking of the Elvis Costello song as a love song, I did not mean to say that I mind there being different interpretations.

      I have been thinking about the agony of creation and I don’t think it is absolutely necessary. Maybe one does not always have to suffer for one’s art. But then again, there is suffering in every life: like David said in his comment to my first article ‘if Jeff Buckley had been happy, he would probably never have written Grace’. Maybe unhappiness is the primary source of art, after all.

      I will look out for your take on art experience. 🙂

  4. dyssebeia says:

    Nelson Goodman has a fabulous essay (in his book Ways of Worldmaking) called “When is Art?”, which tries to replace the question “what is art” with the title question. Goodman is trying to answer the descriptive version of the question, and to suggest that something is used as a work of art when various criteria are met, whether or not the work in question is any good. But there is also the normative question: when is our use of something aesthetic, as opposed to using it for, say, mere entertainment. The criteria for distinguishing art from non-art normatively are not at all the same as those that separate art from non-art descriptively. This is why we feel tempted to apply the term ‘art’ as a badge of honor to various activities (e.g. cutting down a tree) that, descriptively speaking, are not works of art at all. Our general speaking is informed simultaneously by both senses, which get drawn upon as we (unconsciously, usually) feel the situation merits. (Incidentally, a lot of disagreements on whether something is or isn’t “art” stem from one person favoring a descriptive approach and the other favoring a normative approach.)

    Perhaps this is only tangentially related to your post, but I hope it helps in at least this sense: I think both the normative and descriptive questions appear in various ways in your initial post, and trying to locate them and separate them out in your thinking may bring further clarity.

    • Thank you for your comment, dyssebeia. This is very helpful. I can easily recognise the use of the term ‘art’ as a badge of honor and I can see the disagreements arising from the two different approaches to art that you describe. This will definitely bring further clarity. 🙂

  5. I think the motivation to make art is the eureka moment, what David Foster Wallace called the ‘click’. I’ll plug my own post on this very subject. http://wegway.wordpress.com/2013/05/17/the-artists-high-and-the-click/ .

    I’ll bet when someone who’s sad about something writes a great song about it, they get a serious buzz. The happy result is a sad song and the satisfaction of a job well done. I’m going to check out Jeff Buckley as soon as I get home. The free wifi on the train does not permit such extravagant things.

    • Hi Steve! Thank you for your comment. I am very happy for you to plug your post on the subject. It’s great.

      One of the things that makes blogging a bit of a challenge from where I stand is that most of my readers know more about the stuff I write about than I do. If I mention Schopenhauer, there are philosophers looking over my shoulder. If I do a piece on Feynman, there are physicists who can appreciate his work in a way that I could never have access to and if I write about music, there are people who play and even compose music themselves. So when I write about art, well, I try to use my personal perspective and write about what strikes me. Apart from that there are usually more questions than answers, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

      You should not get the impression that I mind people knowing better. I really don’t. But I do chuckle about it sometimes when I read the comments.

  6. OK, another comment. I checked out Jeff Buckley’s “Grace” and it’s incedibly powerful. I forwarded it to my daughter who’s a professional and also a singer/songwriter in a band. I wouldn’t do that if I didn’t really like it. Now here’s one for you folks: A 78 year old Leonard Cohen wrote “Show Me the Place” for his 2012 album, Old Ideas. The nostalgia for redemption is very sad indeed, and he answered the question, “What if Nietzsche wrote a spiritual?”

  7. Pingback: On Art, Awe and Simulations

  8. Dara says:

    When I was about 11 I realised that ‘I Want You’ was one of my favourite songs, along with Joni Mitchell’s ‘Little Green’ and ‘The Devil Went Down To Georgia’ by the Charlie Daniels Band. Anytime any of these songs came on the radio I would be absolutely transfixed and in the context of what you have written I wonder now what it was that affected me so deeply. I believe it was a combination of things – the mood of the song, the melody, the singer’s voice, the story. But it was something visceral, emotional and tangible and not especially analytical.
    Art is an extraordinarily elusive beast. Can it be restricted to a normative or descriptive definition? Art takes off and has a life of its own once it has been created. It is the meeting point between intent, execution and perception. The artist produces, the spectator projects. Who’s to say what it is that is both the product and the gift?
    I am very wary of the over-intellectualisation of art, I think it takes it to strange, airless places. If art is to live, it must be able to breathe.

    Good thought-provoking stuff though, thanks.
    Dara

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