On writing about music

What I can identify as the vivid beginning of Self-machinations was reading about the life of Robert Schumann, the German composer, whose biography embodied the Romantic portrait of mad, tortured genius—his mental illness (diagnosed in 1854 as “psychotic melancholia”) rendered behaviors of schizophrenia in his music, composing simple melodic phrases at midtone, until he lashes out wildly, exploiting the entirety of the expanse of the piano keyboard. His complicated marriage to the pianist Clara Wieck, his longtime friendship with fellow composer Johannes Brahms, and that imprint of his mentality onto the musical project gripped and fascinated me, and Schumann’s life seemed to form a rich subject that opened up further and further questions and, eventually, became my introduction to a lengthy writing project—in pages as well as over a few years.

I tend to think that music is the only subject which I write about (at least, taking it more seriously than anything else), but whenever people ask me, “Why do you write about music?”, I am incapable of giving a precise answer. I have always enjoyed listening to music; it was my father who made music a large part of my life—when each Sunday morning, waking me up, anything from the American standards to Cuban experimental jazz would resound through the house, loud enough to be heard even by the sari-sari stores outside. But to respond that “I write about music because I love music” would be a reductive answer, at the very least insufficient. Similarly, once explaining that I write about music as a consolation for my inability to play an instrument, I immediately wanted to take those words back. I concede that I cannot accurately articulate the reason, only that it feels deeply personal and urgent to me.

There is an unspeakability that pervades extensively through the process of Self-machinations, including such a basic level on the writer’s part as “Why am I doing this?”, and it seems to have informed even the faint capillaries of the work. What initially began as a project on translation, under the mistaken notion to formulate “equivalents” for music in language, this context of self-implication as well as the sense of self-infliction could not be outstripped. As any writer tends to write more or less than what was initially conceived, I could not have anticipated it—looking back on its development over the past few years, it would seem that my previous employments of the description “project on music” to refer to it are considerably invalid now.

Of course, these ambiguous strains can be accounted for by the sheer scale of the subject matter and thereby the project itself. I often find myself going back to how the music maestro Daniel Barenboim—to whom I owe so much, as both writer and listener—begins his own inquiry into the nature of music:

I firmly believe that it is impossible to speak about music. There have been many definitions of music which have, in fact, merely described a subjective reaction to it. … In music, as in life, it is really only possible to speak about our own reactions and perceptions. If I attempt to speak about music, it is because the impossible has always attracted me more than the difficult. … [It] gives me a feeling of activity. It has the added advantage that failure is not only tolerated but expected. [1]

Hardly am I as optimistic toward venturing into the impossible as Barenboim seems to suggest; nor do I think that the anticipation of failure (as it is sometimes pointed out, as if to offset the level of ambition) makes one necessarily noble or earnest. But to take on a thematic territory such as music, as Barenboim rightly expresses, no amount of aspiration can escape its unspeakability. Music—of such a nature both technically complex and thoroughly immediate, entirely abstract and visibly present, richly variegated and densely historical—might lend naturally to the idea that there is something essential to it, yet it cannot be pinned down. Several essentialist philosophers and thinkers have gone on extensively to try and define this exclusively musical capacity, from eighteenth-century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer to early twentieth-century novelist Marcel Proust, asserting music’s singular uniqueness—it was the English essayist Walter Pater who famously declared in 1873, “All art aspires towards the condition of music.” [2] It seems precisely because one faces an unspeakability that the urgency to tell music ruptures, which may be that feeling of activity, or some paradox of human tendency.

Writing Self-machinations, I inquire largely into that musical encounter, to attempt the indissoluble gap between a language that sings and one that tells, until, in the process, I feel the need to turn inward. Fortunately or not, when the yearning to tell comes from the site in which language happens, awareness of the self acutely heightens, especially when the unspeakability of music parallels the impenetrable privacy that exists within a self. I would say that the need to interrogate subjectivity in the work happens through music—a relation that itself unfolds gropingly (as when a subject is made to continue by its own machination, how does music sustain?), that even the infliction of the writerly project itself constitutes the ultimate gap.

None of this is not already matter-of-fact. It is admitted in the very beginning, in the essay entitled “After Beethoven,” that “nothing more than nothing can be said.” By and large, the primary conceit of Self-machinations is precisely the confrontation with the project’s own systems within and of language, as well as the enactment of gestures in futility. Throughout the four major sections, the writerly project—as a matter of subjectivity—is continuously questioned, perhaps more times accused, within the general formulation that the activity of writing unfolds as both straining and proceeding from the self (refracted as biographical subject, external subject, etc.). Self-machinations is achingly self-conscious. Certainly I did not intend to construct a private language argument, though the danger presents itself there.

It is almost unfortunate to me that I was not able to get rid of the consciousness that I was doing it to myself. When I began to develop interest in a project on music, it was in fact my intention to get away from implicating myself in my work. Most writers end up having to talk about themselves—as in a moment of lyric expression, or a process of reflection—which I have found persistently unenjoyable. In writing the different parts of Self-machinations, it became clear to me, over time, that neither music, nor even my vague idea of the self was my central preoccupation. Only recently I came across a sentiment, in his studies of translation, from the German philosopher and theorist Walter Benjamin that “music needs no translation.” [3] This is the limit of the practice. It could never have been about music in the beginning. If not then, what?

from “If (Not) Music: Self-machinations as Exegesis”

Works cited

[1] Daniel Barenboim, Music Quickens Time (London: Verso Books, 2008), 5.
[2] Walter Pater, Studies in the History of the Renaissance (London: Macmillan, 1873), 41.
[3] Walter Benjamin, “Translation—For and Against”, Walter Benjamin: Selected Writing, Volume 3: 1935-1938 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002), eds. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings, 249.


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