Friday, October 21, 2005

The Complications You Could Do Without

This past weekend, when I visited New York, Emily gave me a mix CD she had made, which included Sufjan Stevens's "Casimir Pulaski Day." I've developed, in the course of a day, an obsession with the song. I don't think songs count as spoilers. This post may be even more abstract than what you're used to from me; congratulations if you can follow it, 'cause I'm not even sure I can.

"Casimir Pulaski Day" is a deeply intimate song about a man whose girlfriend from his youth is now dying of bone cancer. It's as sad and as inevitable as one might expect, very calm and very close and detailing love and grief, ending, after the woman's inevitable death with a musical swell and fade very much connected with the song but for which there are clearly no words. It's a personal, loving, harrowing song about an experience that I've never even had (though members of my family have), losing an ex-lover whom you still love for the role he or she has taken in your life and to whom you feel a lasting connection. It's a song that made me cry just from its content, rather than any baggage of my own on that day--the song didn't act as a release for my feelings outside the song, it in itself just made me cry. That almost never happens.

Sarah and I recently had a conversation about intimacy in art, particularly in writing, film and theater. I feel like theater is sort of required to be macrocosmic, and has a somewhat more difficult time describing and portraying intimacy than does film. There are many exceptions, of course--Pinter's Betrayal, for example, Nelson's Goodnight Children Everywhere, I could go on if that were really what I felt like thinking about--but I find intimacy in the end very concrete, and I think film has many more ways of showing the concrete and still making it beautiful than does theater. With literature and song, though, this becomes confusing. "Casimir Pulaski Day" is in the end not precisely about intimacy with another person, it's about grief and memory and inevitability, but it takes something very close to the bone and renders it accessible.

Can I say "renders it universal"? Universality is another conflict that takes up my life (ask Talia and Bri about my thesis); lately what I'm thinking is that universal themes exist and universal conclusions do not. You can never rely upon universality to predict a concrete outcome, but you can rely upon it to predict . . . a knowledge, I guess. Sufjan Stevens is describing, in vivid, loving, artistic detail, an experience. He knows that everyone feels grief at some point, though not all of us react the same way to it; he is describing his experience in the hope that we recognize it. The recognition may not be universal, but the knowledge will. That's an incomplete thought, but I'm not all that coherent. (I have three jobs and am stage-managing. I'm at one of the jobs now. The obsession with the song just drove me to blog.) I mean, can I say, universally, that everyone experiences intimacy or wants it? The definition of intimacy by which I usually operate is that it's what's between people (usually two people, but occasionally more; a fairly small number, in any case) that is not relevant to anyone else. It could apply to lovers, to families, to tribes, to any kind of love. And some people never experience love; can I safely assert that everybody wants it, that the *desire* for intimacy is universal? I don't even know how I could do that. But perhaps the knowledge of intimacy, the knowledge that that feeling is out there and is of significance, is universal.

I think good theater, at some level, has to approach intimacy from the outside. It may eventually get inside, but it has to start out. That applies even in pieces with small casts and limited literal onstage scope--In Pinter's Betrayal, for example, the form, moving backwards and occasionally forwards as it does in time, keeps us slightly out of it, and also we see the surface of Emma's relationship with each man before we learn to recognize her intimacies with each of them. Film and literature, I think, have the choice of starting inside. I think all good film and literature eventually moves outside, that you have to in order to make us care--this is a mistake made by soul-vomit artists of all genres, that just your story because it's your story is important to people other than you. Form, the acknowledgement and use of form, is a way of moving outside. Theater's form is so clear that it automatically starts outside; our perceptions of film and literature, of "getting lost" in it, are pretty different. (And once again we recognize, film and literature are much more related as forms than theater is to either one of them. At least, that's my view on the matter.)

So what about music? In Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences, musical intelligence is completely separate from others. Literature, for example, would appeal to (I think--correct me on the title of this one if I'm wrong) narrative intelligence, intra- and interpersonal intelligence; theater and film as well could appeal to several intelligences put together (there are seven of them). But music has an intelligence of its own. And for someone who's very dependent on words and verbal communication, I find that in listening to songs I am hearing and reacting to the music long before I am reacting to the words. I find music an amazingly visceral experience, especially in combination with theater and film. I think that is one of the greatest contradictions in Brecht, for example. Brecht was one of the first people to render concrete the idea of the distance of audiences in theater--in some ways, the idea of approach from the outside. The basic concept behind his "alienation effect," which made him famous as an artistic theorist, is that an audience has to remain aware that they are watching a play, not being taken into another world. And yet much of his work, in particular those pieces that are judged by most critics to be his best (the later stuff, including The Threepenny Opera, The Good Woman of Setzuan, Mother Courage and Her Children and The Caucasian Chalk Circle), incorporates music. And it's my feeling that good music--and I certainly don't have the musical theory background to define at any concrete level what I think makes good music--cannot *help* but bridge distance, cannot *help* but move you into another world. Brecht wants you, in some ways, to analyze your reaction before you react; by using music, he also fucks with that, because there is no time to analyze your reaction before you react to it. Theater these days--in many ways because of Brecht--rarely aims to be purely visceral, though of course anything good is visceral in part. Music, maybe because it is its own intelligence, always hits the visceral first. Or so I, who scored high on my musical intelligence test (don't get excited, it's really just a questionnaire) but have very little musical training, think. I have never experienced anything like what "Casimir Pulaski Day" describes, but I was made to understand it and to feel it, and more through music than through words. My reaction to "Casimir Pulaski Day" was first in the journey that the music expresses. When I listened to the lyrics, I could then render concrete in my mind what the journey was--the knowledge and the acceptance of knowledge, the anticipation of grief and of missing someone without knowing you could miss them, and the lyricless swell at the end that means that even when you know something is inevitable, even when you're prepared for it, you can't really be. As Stephen Dunn, one of my favorite poets (poetry is perhaps a whole other conversation on this topic) says in "The Vanishings":

your voice fails, chokes to silence,
hurt (how could you have forgotten?) hurts.
Every other truth in the world, out of respect,
slides over, makes room for its superior.

That is almost the definition of a visceral experience, that you cannot rely on knowing what you know. And yet, even without knowing what you know, it happens to you, and means something to you, anyway.


At 1:13 AM, Blogger Connor said...


I hope this isn't considered spam... I don't have anything useful to say this time. I just wanted to say 'hi,' so I totally understand if you decide to delete this comment. That said,


It was wonderful to see you Saturday before Saturday last. A real breath of fresh air. Thank you for coming out.

~ Connor

At 12:12 PM, Blogger Sturgeon Draftwise Falk said...

Found this on google when I typed in Sufjan Stevens. The wonders of media integration at our fingertips.

Fascinating stuff. I would say keep it coming, but since this entry has long been supplanted by others it looks like you have indeed kept it coming.



At 9:25 PM, Blogger Lawrence said...

so, music is its own intelligence, eh? i don't believe it, and neither does my Gallatin concentration ("Structures of Transcendence"). the whole theory reminds me of a passage in an "essay" (and i use the term loosely), "The Actor and the Über-Marionette", i just read for the puppet class i'm taking, by bizarro theatrical theorist Edward Gordon Craig. a painter, an actor, and a musician are hanging out on the side of a hill or some such thing, and the painter says to the actor, "In fact, you and I, who have been talking all this time while the musician has sat silent, sinking deeper and deeper into his chair, our arts by the side of his art, are jokes, games, absurdities." the painter later goes on to say, "He is nothing except in his music. He is, in fact, somewhat unintelligent, except when he speaks in tones, in notes, and the rest of it. He hardly knows our language, he hardly knows our world, and the greater the musician, the more is this noticeable; indeed it is rather a bad sign when you meet a composer who is intelligent."

it seems to me, now, that intellectual writers, powerless to explain the power of music, have decided as a whole that it comes from something completely other, something unattainable, something even that, if it were to come into contact with their vaunted "intelligence", would then find itself polluted. (Frank Zappa: "Information is not knowledge. Knowledge is not wisdom. Wisdom is not truth. Truth is not beauty. Beauty is not love. Love is not music. Music is the best." I say that if you lop off the last two sentences, you have a pretty awesome personal credo right there.) i think it's some kind of jealousy talking: if you can't handle the existence of something in your world, promote it to a god to get it out of your hair.

now i don't really know much anything directly about this Howard Gardner chap, but that's my immediate reaction to hearing about this: not even that he's guilty of such a thing himself, especially if he has the guts to talk about "interpersonal intelligence" and the like, but just that he may have just passed on a historical urban legend.

... i mean, okay, i have deep problems with the notion of "intelligence" to begin with, to the point where i get disturbed when i can't think of something else to call somebody but "smart". i guess i feel like H. Gardner's idea of 7 isolated intelligences is probably a good first step towards a total dissipation of the term; but that's exactly why i have serious doubts about whether any test for "musical intelligence", even in non-questionnaire form, can be any more legitimate than an IQ test. especially considering what i believe is the unjustified propagation of music's special sanctity as i've outlined above -- which led, i'd say, ipso facto, to music's rather lagging behind the other arts in critical self-examination (for instance, i still can't believe how sappy and conventionistic so much of the '60s hippies' music was (the *'70s* hippies are of course a whole other story!)). i guess the reason i'm harping on this so much might just be because i take issue (i do!) with your statement "I certainly don't have the musical theory background to define at any concrete level what I think makes good music" -- because i don't think musical theory background is what does it. (and thus, i'd say, if you can react to music like you say, you *do.*)

so, like, i don't think you should be so scared of music (Talking Heads, 1979, damn your eyes, David Byrne). because, okay, music theory training is something i know about (gee, that sounds arrogant as fuck get out), but it's not what i've learned in music theory classes that lets me theorize about what i like in music: it's structural speculation ("Structures of Transcendence"), and on top of that, maybe even, theories of *signification*. i think it's important that if i followed what i learned in music theory classes, i'd predict i'd like completely different music than i actually do. it seems like the small-scale form of music may just be determined, far more than by anything else, by the immediate cultural context it's created in -- how else could The Clash (on that album you copied from me) play anything that would possibly be denoted "jazz" or "reggae" unless it's understood that it's all to be understood from within a punk-rock frame? and it's the large-scale form that really makes most of the practical meaning and impact of the music. (... or, have i possibly misunderstood your meaning of "concrete"?)

or, like, i can certainly *hear* King Crimson's instrumental "Nuages (That Which Passes, Passes Like Clouds)" as embodying its description in my KC biography, "This lonely, melancholic air harbours both a stoic reflection on the passage of time and a sense of regret that things have not quite worked out as well as they might", but i sure don't do it naturally. actually, maybe King Crimson particularly is one of my favorite bands because i can allow myself to *not* react to their music viscerally, that they can generally manage to throw themselves outside of the system of coded symbols we've taken for universal musical keenness, and yet i can generally scratch out plenty of meaning from their music anyway. so is "Casimir Pulaski Day" (a song i have not heard) incredible because its lyrics exactly confirm the feeling that comes from the music? i mean i don't doubt that there is a "the feeling that comes from the music"; just because i think our way of doing music in this day and age is a somewhat arbitrary language doesn't mean that that language isn't capable of great eloquence. but if they *didn't* match so well, i don't know, would that be such a bad thing? i'm kind of suspicious of such incredible "realism" (if you can even call it that) in prosody as in theater.

shit, clearly you shouldn't get me started talking on *music* of all things....


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