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.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.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?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.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.