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Thursday, March 7, 2013


Richard Wagner in “Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft (1850)” described it as an “apotheosis of the Dance”. Walter Riezler in “Beethoven (1938)” concluded, “Not in any other piece, each movement is profoundly dominated by the rhythm”. Both wrote their impressions on Beethoven’s 7th symphony. Both tried to go into it and understand the profound elements hidden in this piece. Both felt this symphony has something beyond its pure music, something hidden in the background. Beethoven uses in this symphony a very interesting and variable use of the dactylic Greek rhythm. This use creates a bridge that connects the concert hall with ancient Greece. Beethoven manages to touch something hidden in humanity’s musical-rhythmic background and makes us experience a unique musical experience. Since both of them talks about the dance character of this symphony, I would like to try and understand more of the hidden elements of the dance.


What is a dance? Lets have a look at a definition I found in Wikipedia:

Dance is a type of art that generally involves movement of the body, usually rhythmic and to music, performed in many different cultures and used as a form of expression, social interaction and exercise or presented in a spiritual or performance setting.
Dance may also be regarded as a form of nonverbal communication between humans, and is also performed by other animals.
Definitions of what constitutes dance are dependent on social, cultural, aesthetic, artistic and moral constraints and range from functional movement (such as folk dance) to virtuoso techniques such as ballet. Dance can be participatory, social or performed for an audience. It can also be ceremonial, competitive or erotic. Dance movements may be without significance in themselves, such as in ballet or European folk dance, or have a gestural vocabulary/symbolic system as in many Asian dances. Dance can embody or express ideas, emotions or tell a story.
One of the earliest structured uses of dances may have been in the performance and in the telling of myths. It was also sometimes used to show feelings for one of the opposite gender. It is also linked to the origin of "love making." Before the production of written languages, dance was one of the methods of passing these stories down from generation to generation.

Going into this definition, one could understand the width of Wagner’s observation. As we know, Wagner did have a special engagement with ancient history and myths. I think that when saying that it is the “apotheosis of the Dance” he had his mind ancient cultures rites and rhythms. The Dance character of the 7th, with its dactylic figures, brings the Greek poetry into the concert hall 2000 years later. By using a Dance or dance figures, a piece of music can communicate with us awakening a very deep and hidden esthetic sensation. But we can go even farer and deeper.
In her book "Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World" writes Nathalie Comte: One of the earliest structured uses of dances may have been in the performance and in the telling of myths. It was also sometimes used to show feelings for one of the opposite gender. It is also linked to the origin of "love making." Before the production of written languages, dance was one of the methods of passing these stories down from generation to generation.

Choosing to communicate through dance-rhythms the composer touches a very old and hidden receiver inside the listener. We are all children of people who thousands of years ago used dance as a primitive way of communication. At first communicating two of the very important human necessities:  love making and story telling. In Symbolism in Dreams, Freud tries to explain the origins of the symbols we all have in our dreams: “A philologist, Hans Sperber (1912) of Uppsala… has put forward the argument that sexual needs have played the biggest part in the origin and development of speech. According to him, the original sounds of speech served for communication, and summoned the speaker’s sexual partner” 
Could this mechanism work also in music? Can music bring to live ancient passive experiences we all have hidden in us? Only the possibility that music can make us unconsciously connect to emotions or sensations buried inside us for thousands of years is very exciting.

What do we experience when we listen to music?

One would say, joy, or sadness, or fear: All are words we use to describe nothing but our will to humanize everything around us, whether its animals, nature or music. But maybe we should try to describe what we experience without using words. Is it possible?
If we agree that it is not possible, we also agree to a very important argument: music has to be described in words in order for us to experience it. I would like to be more precise, it does not mean that we necessarily have to create a narrative out of it, no; we need to use the symbols of words in order to describe musical sensations: We need symbols in order to experience music.
Do we need to be in a certain state in order to experience music?  The most common phrase of someone who is listening to music would be: “I need to concentrate”. We must immediately ask, concentrate in what? Or why do you need to concentrate, why not just relaxing? How do you even know that concentration is the key to experience music?
Concentration is surely needed when one would like to experience a critical-listening: analyzing the form and composition methods of what one is hearing. But the amount of concentration is surely limited, because even the best concentrators experience all kinds of thoughts and feelings coming and going into their minds. So maybe this is it? This thoughts and feelings are the music-experience? Even a non-catholic Freudian would jump now and say that maybe this thoughts and feelings would not have come to our mind without the stimuli of the music. The fact that we seat in silence, in a room full of other people, listening to music is by itself a very unique scenario in the everyday life. While listening to music (and not talking) we are obliged to listen to everything that passes in our mind, it is as if we are prisoners in our own mind surrounded by walls of sound and rhythm. Another question arise now: the music is the stimuli of our thoughts or is it the thoughts that define our impression of the music?

It is a well-known fact that art stimulates our mind and senses. We all know that a certain piece of art could make us think or feel certain things in certain moments of our lives while in another time the impression would change completely. While I cannot agree more with this when dealing with visual arts, with music things had to be dealt differently. There are two fundamental differences between visual-art (painting, installations, dance without music, all kind of art we perceive using only our eyes.) and music: while art is perceived using our eyes, music is perceived using our ears; visual art is always the same (after being done by the artist), music changes all the time (in performance).


The first and important issue come to my mind thinking about eyes-ears art consuming is the fact that eyes could be closed and the ears cant. This is not only a physical observation this must have a profound influence on the way we receive artistic information. The fact that the body can shut down its visual receiver is philosophically speaking interesting. Think about it, we need to close and open our eyes for at least 150 times in a normal day; one of these times will be for few hours! What does this mean? Why our body needs to have this milliseconds breaks? Why do we need to close our eyes in order to sleep? I obviously do not seek for the physical answer. Could it be that our visual mind need this black moments in order to elaborate information? One could think of many different ideas, what is relevant to our discussion is the fact that visual art is perceived using an organ, which by definition is a non-fluent one, an organ used to control its information’s receiving timing. An organ that has the habit of phrasing the information it receives.


The only organ in the body, which receives information constantly, 24/7, is our ears.
I find this highly attractive: We receive and elaborate sound and noise with or against our will all the time. Evidence shows that even during our sleep we receive and elaborate the sounds and noises that enter our body. The ears are mainly used to receive and elaborate words and speaking. The basic mechanism the ear is doing almost automatically after a certain age would be the word-listening elaboration.

What is interesting about this observation is the fact that the ears and the eyes are used to consume and elaborate information in a different way, one can control the information and one cannot therefore one is obliged to construct everything it hears in order to put things in its place, while the other is more of a free soul, choosing what he wants to receive and what not. Maybe this is why we all trust more our eyes than our ears: they are more trustable since they are more independent. In addition, we have to remember that the eyes take an important role in sleeping, while the ears betray us and receive information while we sleep: behind our backs (or eyes?)!
Another important difference lies in the different ways both organs are used to analyze or elaborate information. I think the ears, dealing most of the time with words-sound, are used to work with sound in a more linguistic approach: sound-words-grammar-form-meaning. Eyes would be much more open to information which does not necessarily contain any structural meaning, and maybe even more: when receiving information the eyes are much more capable of dividing the information rather then adding. Think about it, while for our ears it is much easy to construct, our eyes can easily deconstruct. I am sure each one of us had many experiences of this type: looking at a building but counting its windows, or listening to the beginning of a sentence while we know its end before the speaker have said it. When watching a lamp that is hiding a piece of the wall in our room, we can easily “delete” the lamp in our mind and see the wall without the lamp blocking it, but each one of us who did some listening to music or even in solfege classes knows that it is much easier to add musical information then to reduce. Last week I had friends and my house and I found myself in an interesting situation: we were in a room where on the wall there was a very disturbing piece of art and in my CD-player there was some modern dissonant music. All the guests found the picture very disturbing and we had a small discussion about that, but in a certain point all of them cancelled somehow the presence of that picture and we continued the evening like the walls were all white. On the other hand, the music disturbed them a lot and it got to appoint where they asked me to shut it down because it was impossible. The body was not able to stop the sound from entering and disturbing the mind. The mind had to deal with the sound what led the guests to be very nervous.
Even if those examples are a bit simplified, I think they do say something about the different ways we perceive information. All this brings us to a conclusion that has a lot to do with our search of music experience. But I don’t want to rush into premature ideas; lets first finish what we have started.

The second fundamental difference between visual art and music lies in the fact that visual art is not an art in time while music is. While a painting was being created in a certain amount of time, at the moment it has been done, it is frozen forever: The painting watches the time going by him while it never takes and active part in it. In music we have three different times: the first is the time the composer spend on composing, the real time or duration of the piece, the time the piece is “using” while being played in the performance. I do not want to get into the philosophical aspects of art in time or time in art, I would like to take only the relevant ones to our discussion: a piece of art written in notes, has to be played in order to live, in order to take part in our time. Music is in fact a piece of art that has to be born every time from the beginning. The piece of art made by musical mediums does not complete its artistic entity until someone plays it: the performance is the last stone one has to put in order to finish the house, without it one could still recognize it as a house but rain would be able to go through. When we get a score of a Beethoven symphony, we can look at it, observe and learn it, we could even imagine how would it sound like, but only when playing it the music takes its real place and go into our souls through our ears and not our eyes or imagination. While our eyes look at the score and are able to read one or two or even 5 different voices at a time, the ear can listen to all at once effortlessly. This is the major difference: when we look at a mountain we see only the part that is visible to us and we can imagine what is on the other side, while with music, we hear all parts of the mountain in the same time without being able to control it or imagine it differently.

second half of the article will be published on april 1st.