English Version | If music be the food of love, play on

05 Jun 2021
By Ana Murcho

The title of this article is not stolen from a song. It is “borrowed” from the confession of Orsino, Duke of Illyria, one of the protagonists of the play Twelfth Night, by William Shakespeare. The title of this piece is not a song, but it could be, I hope one day it is, because I can’t remember the rest of the monologue proclaimed by the bitter lover. What stuck with me was this phrase, this knife to the heart. And what if it was a song? If it was a song – with all due respect to the British playwriter and all the literary geniuses that followed – perhaps I would know it by heart. That is power of music, perhaps (we underline the perhaps) the ultimate form of art.

The title of this article is not stolen from a song. It is “borrowed” from the confession of Orsino, Duke of Illyria, one of the protagonists of the play Twelfth Night, by William Shakespeare. The title of this piece is not a song, but it could be, I hope one day it is, because I can’t remember the rest of the monologue proclaimed by the bitter lover. What stuck with me was this phrase, this knife to the heart. And what if it was a song? If it was a song – with all due respect to the British playwriter and all the literary geniuses that followed – perhaps I would know it by heart. That is power of music, perhaps (we underline the perhaps) the ultimate form of art.

Nicolas Jaar has this song – a very rare recording, to which you only get to through previous knowledge, meaning, by writing his name on YouTube, the only platform where it is available – called Encore, in which the Chilean American musician and composer used a phrase by Marcel Duchamp, firstly said during a speech in 1967, as a sample, and as a background to that musical composition: “From the labyrinth beyond time and space, seeks his way out to a clearing”. The tune, that has been somewhat overlooked due to the Jaar’s ultra-applauded career, is a gem in the eyes of those that appreciate unusual aesthetic combinations, those that mix words, the sound of sea waves, and the wonderful piano of the artist that the public knows through masterpieces such as the album Space Is Only Noite (2011). Encore, however, is another bop. Encore is a lost alien on the cyberspace, a “I love you” in the middle of the darkness, a “I love you” on a deserted road. Encore is music in its purest state. As is Nessun Dorma, the aria of the last act of Turandot (1926), by Giacomo Puccini, or Mad Rush (1979), by Philip Glass, that I listen to on repeat when I need to concentrate, meaning, to write, with the volume on the edge of what’s reasonable. What do all of them have in common? They awake something in me I will never be able to put into words. Tolstoy would have said that “music is a stenograph of feelings”. In his book The Kreutzer Sonata (1889), he wrote: “Music makes me forget my real situation. It transports me into a state which is not my own. Under the influence of music I really seem to feel what I do not feel, to understand what I do not understand, to have powers which I cannot have. Music seems to me to act like yawning or laughter; I have no desire to sleep, but I yawn when I see others yawn; with no reason to laugh, I laugh when I hear others laugh. And music transports me immediately into the condition of soul in which he who wrote the music found himself at that time.” That is the power of music.

It's the Greeks’ fault – the word “music” comes from its Greek congener, mousike, which would translate to “the muses’ art”, and the expression fits like a glove, which in itself would be enough material for another article. From the Greeks and Fran Lebowitz, the North American writer with a sharp tone who, in Pretend It’s a City – the documentary series directed by Martin Scorsese for Netflix that transformed her into a pop culture icon – made us rethink music as the ultimate form of art. On episode number two, entitled Cultural Affairs, Lebowitz discourses about the impact that a song, or the memory of one, can have on people. “We see how happy and grateful people are for music. Especially music that was popular when they were younger. It doesn’t matter if that music was Frank Sinatra or Billy Joel or David Bowie or Q-Tip. What matters is this: ‘Don’t you remember our first date? This song was on.’ This means a lot to people. And they love the person who gave this to them. And it is all a mystery a to them. No one is as adored as musicians. No one… Musicians are loved by people. Adored even, because they give them the ability to express their emotions and memories. There is no other form of art that does that… Odds are musicians and cooks are responsible for the biggest pleasures of human life. And the song Motown, which was popular during my teenage years, every time I listen to it, I immediately feel happier. There is no doubt it makes me happier. I pretty much can’t say that about anything else. There. But do I think Motown is the best song to ever exist? I don’t. But if someone asks me: ‘As soon as you hear this, do you feel happier?’ Yes. That is a very important effect on human beings. Music makes people happier without doing no harm. Most things that make us feel better are harmful, therefore, it is an unusual thing. It’s like a drug that won’t kill you.” Just like one Quora user shares, music is our attempt to achieve immortality, of reaching something we don’t know, of overcoming our human experience: “More than any other form of art, it resembles death; each note is based on the death of the previous one and, once the musical presentation is concluded, it is finished, leaving behind only the space and time when it was created. Recording is an attempt of humanity in capturing the intangible nature of music.”

Composer, painter, poet, playwriter, spiritual guide and social reformer, Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) was awarded the Nobel Prize of Literature in 1913. As a writer “he introduced new forms of prose and verse in Bengali literature”, the website Assírio & Alvim affirms, which edits part of his work in Portugal, but his lyrical approach is not exactly what we’re after here. It is, on the contrary, part of an essay found on his work Sadhana – The Realisation of Life (1913), a sort of mystical itinerary that goes over various conferences by Tagore on subjects such as love, beauty, infinity… and music. “Music is the purest form of art, and therefore the most direct expression of beauty, with a form and spirit which is one, and simple, and least encumbered with anything extraneous. We seem to feel that the manifestation of the infinite in the finite forms of creation is music itself, silent and visible. The evening sky, tirelessly repeating the starry constellations, seems like a child struck with wonder at the mystery of its own first utterance, lisping the same word over and over again, and listening to it in unceasing joy. When in the rainy night of July, the darkness is thick upon the meadows and the pattering rain draws veil upon veil over the stillness of the slumbering earth, this monotony of the rain patter seems to be the darkness of sound itself. The gloom of the dim and the dense line of trees, the thorny bushes scattered in the bare heath like floating heads of swimmers with bedraggled hair, the smell of the damp grass and the wet earth, the spire of the temple rising above the undefined mass of blackness grouped around the village huts – everything seems like notes rising from the heart of the night, mingling and losing themselves in the one sound of ceaseless rain filling the sky. [...] But, the singer has everything within him. The notes come out from his very life. They are not materials gathered from outside. His idea and his expression are brother and sister; very often they are born as twins. In music the heart reveals itself immediately; it suffers not from any barrier of alien material. Therefore, though music has to wait for its completeness like any other art, yet at every step it gives out beauty to of the whole. As the material of expression, even words are barriers, for their meaning has to be construed or thought. But, music never has to depend upon any obvious meaning; it expresses what no words can reveal.” We took this idea and asked two musicians if music is the ultimate form of art after all. Opinions were divided.

“Hum. I don’t agree, no… In fact, I profoundly disagree.” It is this very directly and precise manner that we got Paulo Furtado’s answer, the man more commonly known as The Legendary Tigerman. The artist, who has for long forsaken the frontiers of music to allow himself to be seduced by other subjects, whether directing or photography, owns up to the fact that he needs a set of other stimulate to reach the final product – whatever that is. And that final product, whatever that is, will always be art, without a category or a label. “I get to music through drawing, painting, photography, and those are all things that are deeply connected, it’s all the product of some undefined spark. The instincts I use to write a song or direct a movie or write a piece for a theater play, all come from the same place, what might change is the perspective with which I employ those same instincts, if I’m at the service of my spark or if, on the other hand, I’m adding gasoline to other fires. This is also because I believe that what makes an artist someone unique is the way they see the world and understand it, and then that can be applied to any art form, and it will always remain particular. As an enjoyer of music, art or cinema, I feel like I can just as well feel touched in a profound way by something that comes from anywhere, I can feel as moved by a Rui Chafes sculpture as I do by Johnny Cash’s voice or a film by Jim Jarmusch. In conclusion, I don’t believe there is one art that is purer than all others and, if by any chance there was, I don’t believe it would be that interesting. Purity in general is not that useful in art.” Some people, like Lebowitz, argue that, beyond being the ultimate art form, music has a plus – it makes people feel happy in a spontaneous way; because almost immediately it makes them feel something, in the first chord, the first sound; it takes them elsewhere, let’s them dream, makes them believe in the impossible, allows for the universe to extend beyond what’s visible, here and now, to become this giant thing that is “just ours” – ours, and of the author(s) of a certain song. How does a musician face this (eventual) power of music? “Once again, I don’t agree, I’ve felt all those things with other forms of art as well… To me, cinema or theater, for example, can and should encapsulate all artistic forms, and use them as they please. When you compose music for the theater, for example, even more than in cinema, everything contaminates everything. If the music is present from the first moment, the gest of an author, a chord, an image, someone’s voice inflexion, scenography, light or lack-there-of, all this trails one unique path. Perhaps music might be more immediate in the way it moves us and our emotions, I’ll go that far, but I might not be able to create emotions that are as complex as with cinema or theater or visual arts.”

João Hasselberg, bass player, composer, educated in music by the Rhythmic Music Conservatory, in Copenhagen, and by the Conservatorium van Amsterdam, in Amsterdam, has a different opinion. Not completely opposite, just different. Perhaps due to the fact that João, like Paulo, also grew used to search for inspiration in the beauty of (other) things beyond songs – photography, a childhood hobby of his, is something that takes up more and more of his time. Therefore, how could one ask for him to choose one form of art over another? “Music is the only manifestation considered as artistic that isn’t rooted in a visual aspect. Painting has its beginning and tradition within the representation of something belonging to the visual world, or at least a conjugation of elements of that world (from the petroglyphs to the Dutch hyper-realism of the XX century). The same goes for sculpture, cinema, literature. […] In music there has never been this figurative dimension (a song can mimic the sound of frogs in a pond, for example, the same way visual arts depict still life).  Because there is no attempt to represent the visible world in a literal way, music has no need for a ‘host body’ to manifest itself. Because in painting, what moves and interests us is not what is depicted in the still life, but rather something deeper and intelligible that is kept in that still life as a parasite and that manifests through it. That saves music from the suffering of these ‘translation’ processes from one form to another and allows it to reach us the most direct way possible, without [a] host body that would need us to ‘unveil’ it from within.” It’s not that simple to explain the effect of music as art, though. Hasselberg clarifies: “Of course there are other questions that rise in the middle of all this. Considering a sound (or a group of them) ‘music’ in itself, is an exercise. There is a sort of musical canon (what we could call ‘harmonious balance’), that isn’t more than mere principles of physics and acoustics. Chords and scales are built the way they are because there was a defined series of harmonics in each note. A lot of music that John Cage wrote, would be considered nothing but noise by someone less ‘available’. […] Generally speaking, music has the ability to escape the visible, the rational, what’s communicable through signs (like the language of literature), etc. This doesn’t mean that in reality this is how we perceive it… we have a huge socio-cultural load that is very hard to isolate, of eventually bypassing so we are able to listen to a piece without prejudice.” Does this floor our argument? Yes and no. “About music having that immediate power of making us dream, go back in time, etc… Auditive memory, like the olfactory, is very powerful. A song that is heard only once, on the right emotional moment, is forever attached to it. […] If this makes it the purest form of art, I’m not sure, but because it doesn’t need to be a parasite on the visible world, it is placed aside of any other ‘art form’.”

And it does. I was nine when Guns N’ Roses launched Use Your Illusion I. Hitchhiking with my older cousins, who listened to cool music (at the time the word used would have been different, for sure), I saved my pennies and bought the tape to what would be the third studio album of the North American band. Sidenote: the record player my parents had was out of my reach, since it was too precious, there weren’t loads of stereo systems around, meaning, devices where you could listen to CD’s, and all I had, besides a yellow Walkman that would accompany me everywhere, was a white radio, honestly ugly, that allowed me to listen to K7’s. That’s how November Rain got to me, the song I (purposely) omitted from another text in this issue, with the intention of bringing it here, where it is more needed. Because it isn’t rationally explainable how a kid would react so intensively to a tune that, supposedly, is light-years of her understanding and short life experience. Somewhere in those eight minutes and fifty-seven seconds – and I write it like this, extensively, because it still is something quite unthinkable for a single – Axl Rose will say: “And when your fears subside / And shadows still remain (oh yeah) / I know that you can love me when there's no one left to blame / So never mind the darkness, we still can find a way.” Well, what did I, a little nine-year-old, knew of any of this? Nothing. And what did I, a little nine-year-old, felt while listening to this? Everything. It has been three decades that November Rain plays on my virtual playlist – and here the term is employed in its literal form – without never tiring me out. In 2014, I paid its due homage in that feed where our public confessions end up at, Facebook: “The best attempt to explain falling in love (or out of it) ever. The best allegory to passion and its infinite possibilities ever. The best beginning of a song that ever was. The best music video ever. The best bond between the meaning of a song and its title. The best song to bring together opera lovers, light pop-rock listeners, trance addicts and folk and/ or indie geek supporters. The best song there ever was. And if it’s not, it’s pretty darn close.” And if this is not a greater form of art, it’s pretty darn close.

Translated from the original, as part of Vogue Portugal's Music Issue, published in june 2021.

Ana Murcho By Ana Murcho

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