3.Music B

3. Music B
(Further response to Jason's question.) 8.13.05 (my birthday)

This supplements what I wrote before about my involvement with music, and will address your specific question: why am I fond of using musical analogies in writing about Chinese painting?

Several possible answers to that. One, a simple one: in writing about music one is freed from issues of representation, which are there in both literary and pictorial arts, and can focus more exclusively on questions of style. (Forget for the moment about all theories of “representation” in music: phallicism in Beethoven’s 9th, Chopin’s Raindrop Prelude, Debussy’s titled Preludes—to which he actually added the titles after composing them.) And sometimes parallel or comparable stylistic moves produce similar or analogous effects: using a style that has popular or romantic associations, but then adding a touch of the wry or acerbic by introducing dissonance or “wrong notes” (compositions by the French composers known as Les Six were once put down as the “wrong note” school of music)—I can think of similar stylistic moves in Chinese painting, such as some works by Chen Hongshou, growing out of popular styles but distanced from them by sophisticated distortions and “dissonances.”

Historical transitions or episodes can be interestingly parallel: in writing about the reaction of early Yuan literati artists against Southern Song academy styles and their extensions, I have made a parallel with the time in the early 20th century when “romantic” styles (Tchaikowsky etc.) have developed to the point where intense or poignant effects seem too available, too easy, and some composers, notably Stravinsky, either parody them (Fairy’s Kiss) or go way off in another direction, the harsh, the uningratiating sound.

My intention is to draw on familiar materials in the minds of many readers to sensitize them to similar passages in unfamiliar materials, Chinese painting. If you say: the parallels aren’t exact, they are more misleading than instructive, etc., I have no answer except to say that I know from my own experience, and from the responses of others, that this kind of analogy has “worked” for a great many people. And, as with all such allusive writing, using such allusions can (if they aren’t too hackneyed, or obscure, or otherwise objectionable) work toward a sense of affinity between writer and reader: we are both people who are sensitive to this, now let’s go on to this.

In writing or lecturing about brushwork, I have compared it to those instruments—the violin, the guitar—in which the hand is in direct contact with the string that produces the sound, so that the touch, the slightest movements of the hand, alter the sound, giving an effect of very direct expression—vs. those in which the movements of the hands and the resulting sound are separated by a series of mechanical links, as in the piano. The human voice is of course more like the former. Although I have favorite pianists, they don’t affect me with the immediacy and poignancy of some favorite singers (Maggie Teyte, Conchita Supervia, Charles Panzera, Gerhard Husch) and violinists (Joseph Szigeti above all.)

In a class lecture, talking about how brushwork could be very soft and yet very strong, I compared it with what Rachmaninoff could do with his left hand. Afterwards an elderly man who had been auditing my courses without introducing himself came up and waxed enthusiastic about this comparison—it turns out he was a long-retired piano teacher, and Rach was his great passion. We became good friends—he also collected Japanese prints.

As a serious record collector, I was used to spending long periods sitting downstairs in the living room listening to records—you once came to our old house, Jason, with someone else and we did this. It was remarkable, over the years, how many Chinese art historians shared my love of music, and for certain kinds, such as the French song—Bill Watson was one. Bob Bagley’s passion is Boris Godunov. And I would have evenings listening to records for my students—always optional—for instance an evening of which the climax was playing the old Bruno Walter/Vienna Philharmonic recording of Mahler "Das Lied von der Erde." Ed Schafer talked earlier about how those very loose renderings of Tang poems came into being (Judith Gauthier as I recall.)

That’s all I can think of now. It should answer the question adequately.

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