If you know me personally or have been following my other blog, http://sixmoreweeksofwinter.com, you know that I am currently experiencing some troubling side effects from a series of mild concussions I sustained back in my martial arts days. Because these concussions are chronic and not acute, there is nothing that I can do to make the symptoms go away entirely, but my doctor has given me some strategies to use to ameliorate some of the symptoms and, most importantly, to prevent the damage that my brain has already sustained from getting any worse. Most of these strategies are tedious and not worth going into detail about here, but one of them – ongoing learning – causes me no end of excitement. Wait, I remember thinking as the doctor handed me a very official-looking report on my condition, are you telling me that I now have a doctor’s note telling me that I have to quit my job, stop doing the same thing every day, read books, take classes, and seek opportunities to learn new things constantly? Well, cool.
OK, the doctor’s note didn’t really say that. But this is the internet, so I am not required to tell the truth.
My doctor did, however, indicate that it would be a good idea for me to study music. There are a couple of reasons for this: first of all, one of the things that can help the physical symptoms of my concussions (hand tremors, lack of coordination on my left side) is to engage in activities that require the right and left sides of my body to work together. I already knit, and my doctor thinks this is great – but if I knit too much it tends to enflame the fibromyalgia pain in my shoulders. Another possibility is to play a musical instrument, and I could probably manage something like the piano without too much body pain. Music also has the distinction of being similar to a language, and since I have already outgrown the period in one’s life when one can learn languages easily, this kind of work would challenge and extend my brain capacity in helpful ways. I am intrigued by the idea and am trying to make small forays into the subject that don’t actually involve anything so drastic as paying money for lessons – although at some point in the future I may sign up for a course at a community college or some such thing.
Hence this book by Harvey Sachs. Since my academic comfort zones are literature and history, I chose for my first book on the topic of music a volume that specifically looks at Beethoven’s ninth symphony in the context of European history and culture in the year’s surrounding its first performance in 1824. And I will admit that the experience of reading this book went a little bit like this: “Blah blah blah blah Napoleon; blah blah blah Lord Byron; blah blah Pushkin; blah blah blah blah, Heinrich Heine”; nevertheless, I enjoyed it. Sometimes. I did spend an awfully long time admiring the title of the book’s second chapter, “How Artists Internalize Revolution.” Isn’t that a great title? It’s my favorite part of the book, I think. And I love the idea of organizing a book around a multidisciplinary examination of a single year in history. There should be lots more books like that. But did I learn anything? Not really – except for the fact – which I already knew – that I am not fluent in the language of music.
Listening to music (music without words, that is) is very much like listening to people speak a language that I do not understand. It’s pleasurable, but only in the sense that it is a form of white noise that calms me and filters out distractions and makes me more aware of what is going on in my own mind, soul, and emotions. When I was a dorm parent, I used to have wonderful relaxing naps on my couch on weekend afternoons while listening to the students speaking Chinese in the nearby common room; listening to classical or other instrumental music can bring on a similar state of reverie. I have been aware for some time that the for the musically literate a piece of high-quality instrumental music like a Beethoven symphony elevates the listener into a state of hyper-alertness in which their minds go into hyperdrive trying to register every last detail of intonation and musicality (N.B. I have no idea if I have just used the words “intonation” and “musicality” correctly. Fake it ‘til you make it, dude). But, OK, I’ll admit it – I kind of didn’t believe them. I thought that people who described the intense concentration with which they approach classical music, and I viewed them with the same skepticism my students turn on me when I tell them that variations in meter can help one to understand the meaning of a poem.
But now I am convinced – music is a language, and it’s a language does communicate meaning of some kind, and it is a language that I cannot comprehend, even a little. Apparently symphonies can be considered “immoral.” Not only that, but some symphonies are written in the third person and others in the first, like novels and stories (What?), and can advocate for specific theological beliefs and political systems. While I don’t understand it fully, I am intrigued by Sachs’ statement that “immensity is better achieved by a process of compression than by expansion” (135), largely because it reminds me of the rule of inverse relationships that I learned when I was studying poetry: write simple sentences to convey complex ideas and complex sentences to convey simple ideas, etc. But mostly, as I read the book’s lengthy third chapter, I felt as if I was a visitor in a foreign country, attending a ritzy cocktail party and surrounded by very friendly people who were speaking languages I did not understand. And I handled the book exactly as I would handle that situation: I kept smiling.