Monthly Archives: September 2010

Instrumental Music

I just finished reading Mark Evan Bonds’ Wordless Rhetoric: Musical Form and the Metaphor of the Oration (1991). He gives us a delicious 1799 quote from a fellow named Wilhelm Heinrich Wackenroder, who apparently is one of the founders of German romanticism. (Who knew?)

The context of the discussion: Bonds is describing people who would retroactively write programs for instrumental music. That is, they would listen to a Mozart quartet, ask themselves what it reminded them of–Lush, rolling hillsides! Deep, powerful oceans!–and then write essays telling people that these are the meanings of the works. This, says Bonds, “represents the antithesis of all the German Romantics stood for,” since they valued individual genius and indefinable, untranslatable beauty.

On that, here’s Wackenroder:

What do they want, these timorous and doubting sophists, who ask to have hundreds and hundreds of musical works elucidated in words and yet who cannot acknowledge that not every one of these works has a nameable meaning like a painting? Do they strive to measure the richer language by means of the weaker and solve with words that which disdains words? Or have they never felt without words? Have they stuffed their hollow hearts with only descriptions of emotions? Have they never perceived in their souls the mute singing, the mummer’s dance of unseen spirits? or do they not believe in fairy-tales?

Ouch! I think Herr Wackenroder is taking things too far, but his heart is in the right place: it seems important to me to embrace the undefinable as something worthwhile, though ineffable, transient, and so on.

But I still feel perfectly fine “programming” music in my own mind, imagining stories and settings that it could be representing, like scoring a film in reverse, where the score already exists but I need to invent the story. This is one reason why Explosions in the Sky is one of my favorite bands, and why this is my favorite song. We only get into trouble when we start claiming that our individual interpretation is the interpretation, right?

Side note: this book was due yesterday via interlibrary loan, so there were no renewals, so I spent much of yesterday rapidly typing my notes into Evernote so I could return the book. And then today I paste in this quote, which I think Bonds translated himself, and all I recorded was that it was from Wackenroder in 1799. Normally Google Books or Amazon previews would save the day: I could look up the book online and find the page and grab the exact citation that I stupidly didn’t record yesterday. But nope: even though this 1991 book is long out of print, Google Books only gives snippet view, and the page I need isn’t available at all. And by now, my ILL copy is being trucked back to wherever it came from. Bleah.

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The Transmedia Dentist

Jack in the Bamboo

Me at the Dentist, Kind of

I hate going to the dentist. It’s the physical and emotional pain, is why. Physical: scraping a pirate hook across my gums until they bleed, as if I’m in the brig, stuffed between barrels of rum. Emotional: guilting me for not flossing enough. (I don’t floss enough.)

For my last three visits, though, I’ve dealt with this pain with a new mental strategy: I think about Lost. I come in with a specific mental task to perform about some unanswered aspect of the show–this time, the question of Jacob’s cabin, and how we saw the smoke monster on the island at all if he was really trapped inside by the ash, as seems likely–and then I think and think and think and ignore Captain Hook and his multifarious torture devices.

Why bring this up now? This time, I went in, more prepared with my strategy than ever, reclined, and–!–saw that there is bamboo shooting up right next to the dentist chair, out of a big pot. So, looking up at the ceiling, there’s an effect kind of like what Jack saw when he first landed on the island, looking up past the bamboo at the sky. (I won’t make an analogy between his plane crash wounds and my bleeding gums. Never mind, I just did.)

I respectfully submit that watching Lost and being prepared to think about it at the dentist allowed me get a richer, more enjoyable experience out of that bamboo plant than the average patient. In other words, I had a transmedia moment, except that instead of a media narrative being conveyed through multiple distribution methods (TV, Internet games, tie-in books), it was conveyed and continued through my own life, my own mind, as one more step in the converging story of what Lost is and what it means to people.

This isn’t really that mind-blowing. We’re affected in real, everyday lives by the media we consume, contemplate, and re-project into the world, and people have talked about that since forever. It’s related to how our lives reflect¬†whatever we put into our brains (relationships, books, discourses, God). And I’m not even the first person to think about this kind of thing with Lost–there’s an entire blog, still regularly updated, called My Life is Lost, where people list the moments when Lost shoots into their minds from external stimuli. (An example: “I was recently at a baseball game, and at 8:15¬†pm exactly a plane flew across the sky. I silently prayed that Desmond would fail to press the button so the plane would break apart over the stadium.”)

Another illustrative story: our friends at church have two girls, 6 and 7, who think that our house is the most fun place ever. (Um, because it is.) So they came over for a sleepover the other night, showing us immediately that they had brought their prize DVDs of Planet Earth, which they insisted on watching later that night. As I cooked and they colored, I overheard the older one narrating her image out loud in a distinctly Planet Earth style: [to no one in particular] “A group of lions is called a pride. This pride has 1 male and 29 females, for a total of 30 lions. Female lions see extremely well in the dark, much better than the elephants who get too near.” And so on. She had learned the discourse style of her favorite show, and she found it pleasurable to mash up that discourse with her everyday life. (Is the bold thing annoying?)

The question, then, is how far this goes. I wrote a personal essay on this a few months ago (which I can’t post here, as I’m trying to publish it), and the more I wrote, the scarier it became: the language of TV, movies, video games, and books creeps into my everyday experience in thick, regular ways–so much that it eventually becomes hard to find times when I’m not mixing my life with outside sources in some way or another. That sounds extreme, I know, but at times, it feels true. It’s the spirit of the remix, but in a cybrid, half-human and half-machine sort of way. And I don’t know what I think about that at all.

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