The Ravello Dialogues - Part 2

MUSIC -  THE COMPOSER

James Harris argued that music could convey very limited meaning as an imitative art, but that it could convey emotion - and that in matching a mood to words it could help convey the meaning of the words in powerful way.

Mordant argued that music could convey meaning and that music was a precise language with a complex grammar, both in time (form, melody) and space (harmony, pitch).

This may not have been apparent to Harris, writing in the 1740s in a baroque world when the tradition was that each piece should have one "affekt" or mood. In the classical style (after 1750) form and drama, and contrasting moods, became more important in musical style.

Mordant argued that we translate the language of music into images and feelings from our own experience in order to understand it (and that the immediate effect of harmony or melody is only one aspect of its language.)

Most importantly he argued that the language of music itself is a formal language translating a deeper level of meaning, the "hidden music." The same deeper "hidden music" is the real work, the Ideal Form which the composer struggles to convert into sound, and it is the same deep language that we hear in all Nature the language of meaning in everything, to which we can relate directly or attempt to translate into music or art.

As the musical work is NOT the notes but the underlying "hidden music" it would be possible to suggest that a work of music pre-existed, awaiting the composer to make it visible or audible.

I

There may be cases in which the musical work is a direct "translation" of something else but in the case of something original, the product of the composers mind, it is as if he is following an existing pattern or Form.

COUNTESS

The work may pre-exist? Do you mean that the "message" or the "hidden music" may pre-exist before you add the notes to it?

I

It may seem that way. The composer may have a complete message, or code, in his mind, and work to convey it in music. On the other hand there could be another explanation for this apparent effect. He may create something without any pre-existent design but form it by judgment as he goes. He may follow innate, or acquired rules, for what is right in a piece following whatever seed or opening he has before him. In other words the pattern may not pre-exist but the Rules for the creation of a work may pre-exist.

COUNTESS

So you feel that a work could be pre-existent?

I

It can certainly seem so. There are cases when a composer has left a work unfinished. The listener, or another composer, can sense what the complete work should be. The music is projected into the gaps, or silence. But this may be innate judgment working on the material that it has before it.

COUNTESS

This may not argue for the pre-existence of the work but, instead, argue for the pre-existence of "innate judgment" or some pre-existent laws of order.

I

True.

COUNTESS

Is the same true of nature? Imagine a place, a hillside. Sometimes we feel it may be incomplete and that a shrine or temple will complete an inner message or meaning.

I

Yes. The hillside has reminded us of something else or perhaps the natural desire to create and complete has inspired us to add a human touch.

COUNTESS

There is a natural desire to add something or complete the message. Yes. This suggests that art and creativity is inspired by an innate desire to complete what is imperfect to fulfil an "absent good" as my friend Mr Harris says, following Aristotle. But we can equally destroy the meaning or impose something inappropriate.

I

Yes, which is why we have to work hard to be true to ourselves which depends on being part of the whole and not separate. This is always a fundamental law of the artist. Art is never self-serving. It is not self-expression, but a sharing in nature. If we build the temple on the hillside we must not be imposing, but sharing our own nature with the nature of the hill.

COUNTESS

And the temple, being a complement and completion of the hill should not parody Nature. There is nothing more destructive than architecture which imitates organic nature. A simple geometric temple may complement nature but an organic form can be a carbuncle or parody of nature.

But is the temple, if desired by the hillside, pre-existent?

I

Either it is, pre-existing externally, or our desire makes our mind part of the mind of nature and works in our imagination through innate judgement.

COUNTESS

Or the mind of God?

I

God is, by definition, all knowing and eternal. We may not be part of the Mind of God but we may approach Truth through the Mind of Nature.

COUNTESS

To all extents and purposes the temple is pre-existent because the hillside is, at it were, an unfinished work of art.

I

Yes

COUNTESS

And so we can say that our aim in creating any building should be that, to our best skill and judgment, it seems as if it were pre-existent?

I

Yes.

COUNTESS

And this is the same result of skill, memory and judgment as you would use in composing a piece of music?

I

Precisely the same.

COUNTESS

And so the fundamental skill of any artist, in any medium, is the learning of judgment, the acquiring of an innate judgment the rules of correct grammar in the universal language. We may call it taste.

I

Yes.

COUNTESS

And Taste is not a personal taste but a learnt skill?

I

Very much so.

COUNTESS

The language of which we learn the grammar is true of music, poetry, nature, behaviour, ethics?

I

Yes. We learn the grammar of the "hidden music" to be able to read it and work with it in the world. We learn by imitation and by being inspired by the flashes of knowledge and delight when we are aware of the Forms.

COUNTESS

I can see that in music, being a complex abstract construction of harmony, melody, form, expression, memory, is peculiarly close in nature to the "hidden music" or language in all things.

I

I feel music, understood in this way, is the clearest way we have of understanding the reality of the "hidden music". If I may refer to a literary work from after your time - Herman Hesse's "The Glass Bead Game" describes an abstract game which translates the universal hidden language but, in fact, music is in itself this "Glass Bead Game." In theory any concepts might be attached to musical ideas (themes, harmonies) and their relationships explored through musical relationships. I refer to abstract, pure music, instrumental music.

COUNTESS

Good, as I am, as it were, a patroness of instrumental music, I am delighted that you have raised instrumental music to pre-eminence though I may be deluded by vanity. Perhaps the purest music belongs to Urania, who rules over pure harmony.

I

Perhaps, but I am always your votary.

COUNTESS

I am delighted that you are.


What then is the vocation of the composer? It seems a burden hard work and lack of recognition or understanding.

I

It may be a burden, but the vocation is irresistible. The moments of delight are rare but fill us with the desire for more. Moments of vision excite desire. The process is a process of love.

COUNTESS

Ah, love, which has had so small a part in our conversationI would say that love is the medium as delight is the reward. But where is it that love leads you? Why create this music?

I

Music is, indeed, part of the service of love. It is writing, or simply contemplating, the music that matters. Composing is an exploration of the world, or of the possibilities of the hidden language which is the meaning hidden in the world. Our music is a diary of the exploration. The imagination is the alembic of experience purifying experience into a communicable language. (Imagination is never an "escape from reality but our means of understanding.) It may not be necessary for the music to be performed or to have an audience. The work of composing is an end in itself. Our first desire is to explore. To convey what we discover is a secondary desire.

COUNTESS

Would you be content to compose purely as an act of contemplation?

I

Yes and perhaps there is even the possibility of not composing at all. The vocation may simply to explore the possibilities. Perhaps my own desire is to follow the hidden music, to trace its roads through the world. Perhaps I will abandon public life and write purely for myself, to make that music audible for myself until I can simply hear it as I travel. Hear, and contemplate.

COUNTESS

It may be satisfactory to some, this monastic way but there is a need to pass love on. Desire burns from the world to the artist, from the artist to the audience. There are many levels of communication. The music must be composed. It must be brought to new life by performers. (As patroness of instrumental music I do not hold performing musicians in so low a regard as Mr Boethius.) The listeners receive the hidden language and clothe it with their own memories and feelings so that the language becomes part of them. Desire drives these waves of communication, but I would suggest that the composer should never be driven by the need to be heard. The composer must serve music and, if the music desires to be heard he should follow that flame, but he himself should remain invisible. He is only a medium, as the performers are.

I

I agree. I, too, would not wish to denigrate performers, who deserve respect for their skills, but they are servants of music as much as the composer. They should also be invisible through humility.

COUNTESS

We suggested that musical works might be said to pre-exist and that the composer simply reveals them. Might such "works" exist in nature? Such "works may be present both in space and time as combinations of objects or in series of events.

There is, for example, our hillside which demands a temple. That hillside is a "work to which we, as architect, may be a contributor. There may be a place which has a complete story to tell. There may be a series of events on that hill which are brought about by a hidden music which nature composes. There may be fundamental harmonies or themes which recur in different times and places, as different interpretations of one idea.

I

It is an attractive idea and one that seems to be supported by experience the harmonious relationship of events which create a story with no material causal connection

COUNTESS

The hidden music in all nature gives meaning to things and, in what we have called the Dance, forms distinct works. The One draws things towards each other to create larger forms, works, sonatas and symphonies.

I

If so the human mind, which has learned the workings of the hidden music, may be able to foresee the form of such works.

COUNTESS

Which is, of course, prophecy not concerned with the future, of course, but with seeing the "truth in things. So a composer can be a prophet?

I

In that sense as a listener to the hidden music.

COUNTESS

To go back to these "Works" in nature these are the same as the "works" of a human life the shaping of a person into a work, a dance, a symphony.

I

Indeed.

COUNTESS

In which case the same understanding of music in the broader sense of form, works, structure, development, is the same understanding as is necessary to understand the vocation of a life, or the stories and works in nature.

I

It would seem so.

COUNTESS

I would say it was indeed so as the hidden language or meaning in nature whether in place, or space, or in time is the same language which, in your case, is understood as a hidden music.

I

This is how it seems to me.

COUNTESS

And there is only one language of relationships and meaning which is the same meaning in any aspect of life or nature and is produced by the working of love, drawn by the One, to produce smaller and larger Forms or Works in all things. And the same process is shared by the artist, who is simply another creative facet of Nature.

I

Yes and I would say that the study of music is the best way we have of understanding the workings of that language and this is a new gift. In ancient times people studied harmony in all things the vertical and timeless aspect as it were, but in recent times music has developed into a complex language of form which more closely reflects the language of Nature.

COUNTESS

Yes an important point. This is a new knowledge. Not everything of value comes from Ancient Wisdom. Sometimes there are new discoveries though they may be inspired by the Ancient world.

The new knowledge depends on the artificial creation of a musical technique which is complex enough to imitate nature, either in the contrasting tonalities and structures of our music or the elaborations of oriental music based on expression and elaboration. Music has developed into such a language only since the rediscovery of the ancient world and of drama and, more importantly, comedy. The language of comedy brings surprise, contrast, and the bizarre juxtapositions of nature and music learned comic form and timing with the Opera Buffo and such men as our delightful friend Galuppi. Perhaps these comic artists should be celebrated as much as the tragedians.

 

I

 

Thalia, the muse of the Earth and Comedy is held to be silent, but the earthly music is the mixed music which draws on all the heavenly modes. Her music is the Hidden music - and perhaps it is Comedy, rather than tragedy, however melancholy it might be at times.

 

COUNTESS

How curious, that the most wordly music, the cut and thrust of the comic muse, is closest to the subtleties of the hidden music of nature.

I

And that some mindless and featureless "mystical" music intended for relaxation or trances is the furthest from the workings of love. It is simply bland and lifeless music to induce sleep. Silence is the only true music of the Negative Way. The true mystic engages with silence or engages with the full reality of the broken world.

COUNTESS

Would you say that the vocation of the composer is the same as that of the priest?

I

That is a question for your friend Miss Maude.

We had been joined by a friend of the Countess - a darker figure, perhaps a member of a religious order.

 

MAUDE

Thank you for drawing me into your conversation. The process of vocation is working in all souls. Love draws us to the pattern of what we should be. The composers vocation is to explore the hidden music, as you call it. One part of a priests vocation may be to study scripture which he reads as if it were music attentive, understanding the stories, images and forms. Though scripture may be read in three ways, the literal and the allegoric and as music. To me it is always the story, or the poetry, that conveys meaning, not the literal meaning of the words exactly as with liturgy. I would always say "pass on the story, never what you think it means. The true meaning of scripture and liturgy (what we do in worship action, gesture, words) may lie in small details of gesture or language which we do not understand if we interpret literally.

The priest may also use his understanding of the hidden music to examine the world, providence, and his own or others vocations but the distinct feature of a priests vocation must be a specific desire for God, or the one which, in my tradition, would be above all a calling to meet God in the Eucharist.

Without this the vocation is the calling towards knowledge that everyone shares in different ways, even if it can so easily be turned in on itself.

COUNTESS

What kind of music, then, should a composer produce when he follows this vocation?

I

I see four different kinds of music which follow this working of love. I would say all are equally "religious" or "spiritual" but none need be sacred or liturgical music. To me the comic muse may bring us closest to God. Sacred music, as generally understood, is music with a liturgical function, music to be used in church. It may be inspired but more often it is purely functional, setting words in a practical way. The music itself may have no deeper value.

I could divide music into four parts:

1 Contemplative music the composition of which contemplates the meanings of correspondences in the world, (contemplating experiences, memories) or as abstract ideas. This music may be purely theoretical or purely contemplative and never exist a Sounding or "heard music.
"
2 Abstract music Music which explores purely musical language with no background of other meanings this would include exercises in fugue, counterpoint or any abstract structures. Though the composer may work in a purely abstract frame of mind the music is still an exploration of meaning and the hidden music. It is a study of language itself.

3 Music about the world Music which attempts to translate the hidden music into heard music. It may attempt to communicate a quality or meaning which the composer has experienced. It may be music exploring "The Spirit of Place", a story, a relationship.

For example - a composer may explore the natural forms, stories and feelings of a place and attempt to translate them into music to reveal their mystery to others, or to develop a relationship. This is a curious and rare role for a composer, but it may be part of a vocation.

4 Music for the World Music which has a complementary role. We might compose music to create a particular mood, or we may compose music for a place, or person, to give something, to create a counterpoint, or, in a way, as healing or a prayer.

COUNTESS

This classification of music is quite new to me. I wonder if every kind of music would fit these categories?

I

I think so. Most everyday music would be in the fourth category it need not be deeply prayerful or seriously healing it might simply be meant for amusement or delight though what could be more healing than that? I suppose liturgical music would fit this area too, though I could add a fifth category for purely functional music, which may have no value or meaning in itself. It might include background music that fills silences in shops, music that is purely designed to set a rhythm but has no other musical content (capstan shanties, military drumming, rave music). Of course any of these functional kinds of music may also be high art.

MAUDE

I wonder if your concept of this hidden music as a deep language beneath all language, and beneath the forms of things may explain the ancient idea of speaking in tongues? Perhaps there are times when the pure meaning is so strong that we do not have any language to communicate it and so the pure meaning (not merely pure emotion) is expressed in apparently meaningless sounds. It is as if someone is inspired to sing, or perhaps improvise at the organ, but has no skill or technique so the meaning (which, if this is true, is meaning and not simply nonsense or hysteria) pours out in whatever impression of a language we can produce.

I

If all such people had received a thorough training in extempore organ playing they would have become Bachs.

COUNTESS

Perhaps we simply need to sing. We can know music through singing. If we can sing we have, you would say, a purer language with which to express meaning.

 

MAUDE

We only know beauty through knowing the beautiful. We only know love through loving. Your Platonic Forms or Ideas may be real but we know them through our experiences of our own world and our own life.

I

I like to think that all Nature is communicating, performing the hidden music. It is constantly changing and making new forms, new works, but it is always singing. In this way I can understand that the world is an emanation of God, to use a Platonic term, but I am unhappy with the Platonic idea of a series of emanations, of a chain of existence growing further and further from God. Surely the humblest thing is as close to its source as the most beautiful and perfect? The world may be, though, a constantly evolving thing, the creation of the Trinity, a God who is constantly dancing through nature. Our God is not a remote being divorced from creation but an eternal dance. The Trinity is the source of all Performance and Composition. Relationships and Performance are at the heart of all things in our tradition. The whole world is a performance, all parts of the world are singing, playing, listening, contemplating, communicating. The whole performance of many small works, songs, dances, sonatas, or larger structures symphonies, operas, comedies and tragedies is driven by love, the Trinity, in its continuous creation, and illuminated by those sparks of grace or knowledge of truth which are our treasures and rewards.

GO, IF YOU WISH, TO PART 3