Music gazes at its listener with empty eyes, and the more deeply one immerses oneself in it, the more incomprehensible its ultimate purpose becomes, until one learns that the answer, if such is possible, does not lie in contemplation, but in interpretation. In other words, the only person who can solve the riddle of music is the one who plays it correctly, as something whole.

–Theodor Adorno, The Relationship of Philosophy and Music, tr. Susan Gillespie

Every since I picked up a volume of Adorno essays at my beloved Labyrinth Books, I have been going through a mild Adorno phase and I especially enjoy hauling this volume to the New York Sports Club and barely stuffing it into the little bookslot of the Stairmaster and staring smugly at my neighbors with their pitiful People Magazines. They stare back at me with empty eyes, and I must admit as the sweat begins to pour down my face that it becomes hard to concentrate on a passage like–

Hence the ontological definition of music as a language sui generis is either so abstract that it says nothing more than that between the individual musical facts there exists an articulated context that is “logical” in its own way, as Harburger, for example, has attempted to demonstrate in his book on meta-logic.

–A footnote suggests there is more to learn about Harburger, but I do not interrupt my workout to check.

Somehow that sentence about the empty eyes and the interpreter solving the riddle of the purpose of the piece made it through to my brain, despite all the distractions of the NYSC, and left an impression. I abandoned my dampened Stairmaster more pensively than I climbed it. A piece, even one you know well, can feel like you just dropped all the items in your shopping bag and they are rolling across the floor in every direction. Every day, every performance, every iteration you have to gather them again (freshly, or else). But in this case, extending the metaphor as usual ad absurdum, before you return an item to the bag you must know how it belongs with the others, and even why you wanted it in the first place: a very emotional trip to the supermarket of musical ideas. You tie them together with (hopefully) invisible thread (the act of interpretation?), which can be drawn too loose or too tight.

Adorno had put into words what I realized was one of the motivating (subconscious?) themes of my practicing: the desire to bring all the parts into a whole, or to put it another way, the desire for the whole which allows the parts to exist meaningfully. I have been feeling this process and the tugs of these desires very intensely as I prepare the 4th and 6th Partitas of Bach. The Partitas are collections of dances, pieces written in genres, in a fixed stylized order; they don’t have the obvious, free literary or narrative sweeps that one is assisted by in works of Schumann or Beethoven, for instance; but despite being collections and varied and myriad and stylized and fixed they each seem to be hovered over by some sort of guardian angel, a uniting spirit. Each seems like a miniature cosmos. Without trivializing, I hope I can say that the D major feels to me like some sort of total vision of happiness (which includes melancholy and reflection). Its final gigue is a virtuosic release: the most overt, affirmative kind of joy, and it seems to sum up without needing to “answer” or “correct” or “propose” or right any wrongs that may have occurred before. (Unlike, say, the last movements of Beethoven 5th and 9th Symphonies, to name some ridiculously contrasting examples.) It is the one I find myself most passionately attached to right now. I can even discriminate between the “type” of happiness of the D major and the more extremely comic, lighter (but perhaps less profound?) happiness of the G major.

The E minor, by contrast, lies in some uneasy relationship even to the idea of emotion or mood. Its first movement seems to have an obvious “emotive agenda;” it deals with the most prevalent tropes of musical tragedy: the falling sigh motif and the descending tetrachord. The first movement explores them exhaustively, in improvisation and in fugue, then the subsequent dances are haunted by the same ideas in disguise, most remarkably in the Sarabande. But the signifier and the signified are in a strange dance around each other. After the Gigue, is it possible to feel the piece has a tragic or melancholic effect? (Even after the Toccata I am not so sure.) The minor keys in Bach so often do not seem centrally about sadness, do not seem a vehicle even for an emotion primarily; they seem to have a dual role; they evoke the tragic while simultaneously creating a pathway to daring, to intellectual adventure, to compositional wildness. I am not saying that Bach thereby drains the music of emotional content (the hackneyed charge of Bach as an “intellectual” or “cerebral” composer); but the affective content becomes a conduit and not the subject of the discourse; this kind of altered state is evident in the Gigue, which to my mind is lit by an intense fire, with its leaps and constant interplay of voices, sometimes altogether overwhelming, more intensity than “can be played.” Its difficulty (aside from technical demands) lies in that there is so much going on, so much density of tension, an unbelievable compression … But after an altered state like that, it is not so easy to say what the whole “tone” of the piece is (it represents no emotion that I know); its very daring makes it difficult to compress into a whole, to solve its riddle.

At the same time that the piece thrills you, it draws you into its strange questions, including the “useless” question: what does it all mean? Play it as a whole, Adorno says, and you the player ask: well what the *(&(*)# is that? But somehow you also know. And maybe you’re sitting over a dinner plate and your friend is telling you something and it occurs to you, how to play some moment in an Allemande (some wending, wonderful moment of ambiguous arrival or departure status) and you stare at your friend with empty eyes and can’t wait to get back home, you grab a cab instead of the subway and throw your keys on the floor and play it and why is it never as good as it is in the mind? (Charles Ives, a great lover of Bach, laughing in the background: “My God! What has sound to do with music!”)

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  1. hari
    Posted August 28, 2006 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

    that’s pretty heady stuff to take to the gym; might as well give your brain a workout as well as your body. i’m sure whatever you’ll put together will come out beautifully.

  2. musik-freak
    Posted August 28, 2006 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

    Glad to read you abandoned Steel for Adorno. As someone wrote, you soon won’t be needing summer clothes, so donate them in an appropriate bin and get back to Bach.

  3. sogalitno
    Posted August 28, 2006 at 7:30 pm | Permalink

    thanks for your insights on the partitas. i am working on No.2 and these comments are inspiring.

  4. Chan S.
    Posted August 29, 2006 at 7:57 am | Permalink

    Oh! This was wonderful to read (at the height of my current intense obsession with the Partita No. 4 Allemande).

  5. Marc Geelhoed
    Posted August 29, 2006 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    Keep reading Adorno, and pretty soon all you’ll be writing about will be Schoenberg and Berg. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

  6. Anonymous
    Posted August 30, 2006 at 12:00 am | Permalink

    Thought of you this morning when I heard an episode of RadioLab (hosted by two Obies, natch) on the relationship between music and language. It’s brilliant. You can find it here:



  7. Kelsey
    Posted August 31, 2006 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    “barely stuffing it into the little bookslot of the Stairmaster and staring smugly at my neighbors with their pitiful People Magazines” I love it!!

  8. solitudex
    Posted September 3, 2006 at 8:48 am | Permalink

    Such a poignant entry. For most of the serious music I play, such are the questions which I would find myself spending most time on trying to draw answers to from the music. Somehow, we musicians seem to be most protected from the artistic theory of L’art pour l’art (art for art’s sake), where meaning, didactism or emotions doesn’t exist in art, except for its aesthetic beauty. Thank Bach and Beethoven for that…

  9. Lane Savant
    Posted September 12, 2006 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

    Tim’s cascade chips Yum!

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