I have been spending a lot of time in the garden this summer. Sometimes I think about what I am doing and sometimes my thoughts wander. Sometimes they wander someplace interesting but sometimes not. I believe research shows that the mind’s negativity bias grows stronger with age. My defense against that is to think about what I have been reading and what I might write about when I get time and energy enough. Our weather turned hot and dry about 2 weeks ago so I have had to water every few days for the first time this summer, and when I water, I put on my ipod. It is the perfect activity for music listening. I can get our gardens watered during Dvorak’s 9th and one more movement of another symphony or it takes around 2/3 of Bob Dylan’s greatest hits. Yesterday I finished in the time it took to listen to Beethoven’s 5th and the first two movements of his 7th. Great stuff for communing with your plants, monitoring the water flow and enjoying our beautiful farm.
My mind wandered during the 5th symphony. My 8th grade music teacher in Minot, N.D., introduced me to this piece and used the trope of ‘fate knocking on the door’ for the opening notes. I found that distressing as I listened to this fabulous work. First of all, the knocking notes are an all too effective ear worm and tend to distract from the beautiful later movements, but my mind came to rest when considering the difference and interplay between the music and the verbal trope, between the art form and the verbal label, between Langer’s presentational and discursive symbols.
Briefly, because I have discussed this so much before, presentational symbolic forms, epitomized by art, carry import through gestalt-like forms composed from elements that have no significance outside of that form, while discursive symbolic forms, epitomized by language, carry meaning through linear syntactic combinations of elements which bear their semantic load independently of any new combination. The vocabulary of art, so to speak, may be culture bound but is otherwise unlimited, variant and intuitive with their creation limited only by the creativity of the artist; the vocabulary of language is established through social convention and though invariant, may be used in novel constructions.
So the artist’s work is not really ‘translatable’ to the work of art educators and critics. Art appreciation is more the apprehension of artistic import, though given the creatures that we are, we try to supplement this through discursive thought. The boundary between art and the critical, i.e., talking, effort to express thoughts about it, is, I think, impermeable, and that was the real source of my distress when thinking about fate knocking while listening; the trope interfered with my appreciation of the import (and also while I find most critical efforts uninteresting).
Suppose those opening notes are not fate knocking (and what about fate? Not exactly a modern meme except in literature and drama, and oh yes, the theology of John Calvin). Suppose the notes are any number of things, the sounds the fetus hears made by the uterus’ first contractions of birth or the flap of sails in the first gust of a storm or the banging of an anchor being raised to the deck or the Western Union man at the door or well, you get the idea. The notes signal an opening literally of the musical piece and then symbolically of some experience. These are all suppositions and music is music, the lovely symbol of time and vital experience as a complex flow, multidimensional, and human and available only for direct apprehension.
So I have to go water the garden again and practice listening to music while forgoing the intellectual fog of talking about it even to myself. The plants know all about it but can only model it, not teach it.