Wednesday, 8 August 2007

Music and Language

I've started listening to Miles Davis recently, after following Harry from The Cat Empire through his various side projects. Harry is a strangely charismatic person on stage. Felix, the other frontman, projects or affects an air of confidence and clarity - he knows why he's there, he knows what he's doing, and he knows how it's supposed to sound. Harry, however, draws attention because it seems that no-one, not the band, sometimes not even Harry himself, knows what he's going to do next. What he does may not always fit perfectly, but bloody hell it's fun to watch.

That sort of flow s something I wish I could do more often. I'm an extremely analytical person. It seems to be my natural tendency, and it's been reinforced for so long through school and university (where the majority of my studies were science and maths based) that I can't switch it off. This isn't a bad thing - it's taken me a long way, and it's a very powerful tool to have in my mind. The problem is, as Mark Twain noted after learning to pilot the Mississippi, once you understand something it seems to lose a sense of beauty that, to me, arises from the lack of understanding. Without understanding something, the mystery that is inherent becomes mystical, perhaps because it can't be understood, only experienced. I think Harry understands this, or at least knows how to not try to understand it and to feel it instead.

Today, as I was thinking about this, I realised something about the way I listen to music. I love having music as a soundtrack to my life - I think walking through Melbourne city in Winter with my iPod on is amazing - it doesn't separate me from the world, it gives an endless variety of contexts for the scene I'm in. It can change the whole mood of a landscape. This feeling comes most with music that either I know very well, or music that has not words, which brings us nicely back to Miles Davis.

I think that I might reach this flow that Harry seems to find so effortlessly on stage by moving through analysis and out the other side. With music that I know extremely well, I've extracted all the meaning that I can, and all that's left is the immediate experience. With wordless music, jazz in particular, there is very little to analyse in the first place, so this 'experience rather than understand' state arrives much faster.

This has given me hope. I've been thinking lately about James Joyce as I read Ulysses. It's a very dense book, with allusions coming faster than I can comprehend, and passages of extreme beauty. I often wonder how Joyce came up with his lyricism - the short stories he wrote at 25 I would happily accept as my life's work at 70. But then, while reading the scattered sentences composed variously in Greek, Latin, French and German, as well as Gaelic phrases and words he invented to fit meaning he needed, I had an epiphany - something Joyce would have appreciated. He reached his flow of language by understanding language so implicitly that he didn't need to analyse to experience the words he wrote, he just knew what words were required - the mental equivalent of muscle memory.

So what this says to me is that I can learn to write beauty.

I see words as objects - when I argue I become more and more precise and less and less emotional - it all hits me afterwards. I'm extremely careful with the words I choose, because I can see and feel the effect that they have on people. But maybe if I embrace this and learn as much about language as I can, I'll be able to find the words I want to express the feelings I have. I won't have to choose the words - I'll just know what's needed. That's what I want, and that's what I need.

In other news, I'm going to propose to my girlfriend on Saturday.