Notes On Musical Form And Essence


“If you look too closely at the form, you’ll miss the essence.” – Rumi

I recently came across this quote by the 13th-century Persian poet Rumi and found it interesting enough to stop and consider it, turn it around things I know. At first it brought to mind architectural objects–I pictured New York skyscrapers, all parallel lines in glass and steel, and then the Rubik’s cube, all colored patterns waiting to be reconfigured. But really it can applied to anything.

The Rumi quote came to mind again as I was listening to a recording of remarkable pianist playing some of his improvised pieces. Some the music’s form I thought I understood: repetitive patterns, both hands moving in rapid parallel gestures up and down the keyboard, totally tonal (e.g. I, II, IV, V, and VI) chords, sustain pedal down, and a general sense of slow change over time. Yet it was the music’s essence that captivated me: how the sounds could conjure what felt like a kind of aura or affect halo around themselves. This aura or affect halo was distinctive too: the essence of this music was a mix of urgency and melancholy–it was as if someone had pressed Play on a mental videotape of years of my memories from all over and now they were spinning around, overlapping. Listening to the music I felt as if I could feel its essence as a kind of mild delirium. I skipped around to some other pieces by the same musician and, like a those comic book exclamatory captions put it–baam!–the essence regenerated itself. Different pieces, same essential essence. How does music do this?

We often grapple with the relationship between musical form and its meaning. This relationship is slippery and difficult to explain because musical materials are not straightforward signifiers and their semantics always open-ended. Thus, over the years writers on music have offered many elegant observations relating to why discussing music is problematic. The depth and affective power of musical action are a function of how music acts as revelation, pointing towards experience “beyond the acoustic” (Robert Fink) without directly representing it. Music is “a language of sonic gesture” (Michel Chanan) “denied referential specificity and cognitive differentiation, but [is] profound in content” (Mikhail Bakhtin) and “a meaningful context which is not bound to a conceptual scheme” (Afred Schutz) that retains “a wide-open semiotic dimension” (Susan McClary and Robert Walser). Music is neither a universal language nor even a language; in its interpretive openness it is more like a sonic Rorschach test whose sense shifts depending on the values we bring to its forms. Music invites us into blurred experience which, like poetry, dissolves meaning and then reveals it on another plane (Anca Rosu). Perhaps this expressive multivalence is what makes music an imaginative Swiss Army Knife for understanding who we are. On a fundamental level it is a perceptual tool for engaging the hidden complexities of our worlds (Alva Noë): music virtually models “the urgencies and the passions of living” (David Burrows), our structures of feeling “as they are actively lived and felt” (Raymond Williams), and “offers a means of thinking relationships” (Richard Middleton). Think and be through me music says, by letting me engage you.

Anyway, back to Rumi. Rumi urges us not to get carried away with the form of a thing or experience lest we miss the essence of it. And so as I was listening to this piano music and thinking about Rumi’s quote, two streams of inquiry merged into questions: What is the relationship between the music’s form and the music’s essence? Does the form produce the essence? Or is essence somehow– almost miraculously–self-generating? Is it possible that the most stimulatingly delirious aspects of musical experience have little or nothing to do with the sounds themselves? If so, where does essence come from? Where does it reside? These questions bring to mind something the percussionist Ken Hyder said in his memoir about drumming and shamanism: “It’s not the music which creates the magic, it’s the magic sitting over, under and all through the music.”

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