Monday, June 30, 2008

The Harmonics of Human Experience

Film director/writer Michael Mann said something in a recent TV documentary interview that stuck with me, that expresses a great deal of truth about art, why I make art, and what it is about, and for. He said that he is interested in those moments in his films when you see a look in a character's eyes, and you can relate to what they're thinking and feeling in that moment: you share what's going on with them, you can see the wheels turning. These are moments that happen sometimes without dialogue, or in the midst of it. The term Mann used to describe this moment is the harmonics of human experience.

That's a rich phrase for a musician/artist/poet like myself to run across. It refers to that same thing in poetry, in music, in art, that I have often referred to as richness or as resonance. These are the moments that give depth to a work of art. Without a moment like this in it, a poem is no more than a head-experience; perhaps a clever one, but not a deep one. Far too much art and poetry is disembodied, even anti-bodied (in all senses of that phrase), lacking a somatic connection.

Harmonics are resonant frequencies within a sound that create its richness, its tone color, and its synergistic volume. Tuned harmonics increase the overall volume of the sound, by adding resonance. It is a synergistic aural effect in which the whole is greater than the sum of the elements. Tone color is also created by harmonic resonance: a pure sine wave tone, such as that produced by a concert flute, with a cylindrical column of vibrating air, is bright and pure; a clarinet, because of its conical chamber, has a darker, rounder tone, because of the harmonics that are missing from the overtone series. The higher number of higher partials or overtones a sound contains, the brighter the tone color.

I am using physical, mathematical, and musical/acoustical terms to describe an aesthetic experience. I am doing this because I've studied all of these disciplines—something that seems to be rather rare even among musicians, many of whom don't know the first thing about physical acoustics or instrument-building——and because this is all verifiable by the mathematics involved, that describe the acoustical sound. What are the mathematics of human suffering? Surely mathematics can be used to describe state of mind—although the wisest mathematicians know that their formulae can never determine or predict the human heart. Aristotle was quite wrong about his poetics, and that is because he was a philosopher, not an artist; he described the reader's experience of poetry, not the poet's.

The human body is a sound-receiving instrument. We tend to think that we are face-forward, because our culture tends to promote the visual field as the dominant sense. (How else can you read this on your computer screen, but visually?) (Of course, I am also aware that sight-impaired readers who might find this essay will have various alternative technologies available to them, including reading-aloud software.) But we are drenched in sound. Acoustic space is three-dimensional and immersive: like water in a swimming pool, we are bathed in sound coming at us from all directions, all the time. Sound is harder to ignore than vision. Even if we cannot see, sound completely fills our bodies: our tissues, those semi-fluids and liquid-filled inner organs within us, resonate to sound, and vibrate within us as sound waves pass through us. We live and breathe is a transmissible fluidic medium: our planet's atmosphere.

What does this mean for poetry and music?

In film, Michael Mann is referring in one way to empathy: to the experience of finding oneself in the other (or the Other). His phrase the harmonic of human experience is also musical in that such harmonics tend to be partial experiences: specific moments of connection. These are what tie us all together, as a species, as living beings, even though we may have nothing else in common. We can all see a look in someone's eyes of complex despair, of bitter anger and regret mixing within with yearning, and feel that within ourselves; we have memories of having felt that way, too. But even leaving aside empathy, this is the resonance of human experience in that it is evoked shared experience. Art does this: this is what we feel in art, when we connect with it. (And this is what is lacking in art that does not move us, that we feel no connection to, that doesn't engage more than our intellect; sadly that's most art.) Even hatred of a work of art is an aesthetic experience, if we stop to appreciate it as such. The worst possible response to artwork is sheer indifference: nothing is more disembodied.

This resonance is exactly what I try to write in my poems. I'm not much interested in anything else.

Looking back, this may indeed by why I have always felt incredibly drawn in by Michael Mann's films. They are compelling and engrossing in visceral ways; most similar filmmakers leave you in your head, or your gut, not your full body, full experience, the way Mann films can. Moments in Mann's films can gut-punch you, leave you feeling shaking and shaken, feeling too many emotions at the same time to be able to articulate even one of them. Complexity in film scripts is very underrated in these days of simplistic narrative formulae. One thing that Mann films do is give you a sense of surprise: why did a character do that?—but then you realize that it is entirely in character, and they could have nothing else. There is a sense of shock, but it is the shock of real life, or verisimilitude.

This resonance is what I want a reader to get out of one of my poems, what I want a listener to hear/feel when they experience a piece of music. This is what it is all about: this resonance. There is nothing more important. Most discussions of poetics, or poetry guidebooks, talk only about craft, about technique, about the nuts and bolts of making a poem—almost none of them talk directly about the aesthetic experience which is resonance. Perhaps that's because it's so hard to articulate, even for those committed to using words as their primary tools. (Tools I trust less and less, although I am forced to use them.) It might also be that poetic philosophy has come to view resonance as a subjective experience, and therefore either impossible to discuss, or not worthy of being discussed.

But Mann's moments, those sometimes silent moments in his films, give the lie to the fallacy of the utter subjectiveness of aesthetic experience. It's about time we decried that easy and lazy myth, that of subjectivity, that lets us avoid the hard work of doing our best to connect to each other, through the resonance of human experience, despite it's inevitable difficulties. Artistic criticism has long since given up the fight, by proclaiming not only that is it impossible to understand each other—only insiders to a sub-cultural group can signify all their own signs—but that it's impossible to be objective, and one might as well be a solipsist. (This is why critical post-modernism cannot last: it is nihilistic, infinitely subjective, and ultimately valueless rather than value-neutral.) But Mann has not given up the fight. The thing is, when you look at those moments in his films when you can see the wheels turning behind a character's eyes, and know exactly what they're thinking and feeling, those moments are human moments: they make us what we are. And these moments are not "artistic" moments, not framed as art-objects, or set aside as special: they're ordinary moments. They are not High Art Aesthete moments. They take place simply, suddenly, precisely, and the create connections, silent communications. This is how art is meant to "communicate" between artist and audience. Too often, poets think that poetry is mere communication in a very superficial way: telling, narrative, confession, inner monologue, story. But that's phone-book-level communication. That is only the surface level of poetry. A poetry that has real depth, real richness and resonance, is going to be more akin—possibly even more cinematic per se—to one of those moments Mann describes from his films.

In every poem I've written over the past decade, this is exactly what I've wanted the reader to receive from the poem. (Success or failure is a separate issue from intent.) Ordinary magic. Moments of connection. Connection between the reader and the world of my own experience, vision, and imagination. I feel like a poem has succeeded when I get that kind of response. It's not a response you can force, or evoke at will: you can only do your best, as a writer, and hope that the resonance is there. There is something mysterious about it, still; even as all your craft and skill are dedicated to finding it, and capturing it.

I feel even more strongly about this in my music. I don't use tonal music clichés to evoke it, anymore than I use clichés in poems. Clichés are signs that stand in for actual experience: they are conventional shorthands, and moments of real resonance are impossible to achieve using clichés. Oh, you can be clever about subverting a cliché to good effect: but that's a headgame, a trick, and while it might be fun and clever, it still isn't very deep.

A piece of music can have meaning and resonance for me, and I don't have to explain it to the listener. Music is far more abstract than poetry: it can do things beyond the boxes that words, being symbols, put meaning into. I don't write program music: music that tells a narrative story, that is ekphrastic or depicts a story that can be printed in the program. My own music has always been about melody, gesture, and mood. Sometimes it tells a story: but in the way dance tells a story, not literally, not superficially, but through a sequence of feeling-images. I am not interested in a justification of my music; at the same time, I'm well aware that my tradition as a composer is that of experimental music, and of world music, not of mainstream tonal music with all its familiar patterns and styles. The closest I get to tonal music is writing in modes. I have an affinity for gradual-process music, although my chief inspiration for this style is the classical music cultures of Indonesia, India, and pan-Islamic North Africa, which I am somewhat fluent in as performer, theorist-listener, and composer. I have been successful as a composer, I feel, in that performers like to play my pieces, and listeners have more than once asked me if the feeling of energy and spirit they received while listening was intentional. (It was hoped for, if not presumed.) After a long absence, I am returning to composing/performing. It is where my craft really applies, and where I have to work harder than anywhere else, to get what I want. (Poetry, for me, in many ways, comes rather easily, by comparison.) Music is where my heart is, even though I practice several other artforms. (I'm probably least known for my music, and probably best known for my visual artwork. I don't care. The music is mine, and doesn't need to make me famous.)

The harmonics of human experience is a phrase, as I said, that itself has a lot of resonance for me. This is what it's all about: this resonance, this connection-making, this contact. E.M. Forster put two words on the title page of his novel Howard's End, to serve as frontispiece, introduction, epigram, and guiding principle:

Only connect.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I don't express it quite so well but I do understand what you're on about. My latest post may be about poetic construction but that is only a part of the equation. You have to construct the flute before you can play it. I feel the same way about poetic structure as you do about the mathematics of music. As I just said in a comment, every piece of [Western] music can be broken down to sol-fa and every poem can get broken down to DUM-de-DUM.

That said, songs made up purely of doh-me-ray-dohs and poems made up of DUM-diddly-DUMS may sound okay but they are just the frameworks on which we hang our meanings and feelings. To my mind the "I don't know" (DUM-de-DUM) at the end of Larkin's 'Mr. Bleaney' is an imperfect cadence that echoes and resonates and leaves me hanging beautifully on that unasked question. In visual terms it's as if the reader of the poem has just lifted his head as he says that line, meets my gaze and holds it till I have to look away.

It's a beautiful expression, "the harmonics of human experience", and this was a good blog using it as a jumping off point.

8:55 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Thanks, Jim. I agree with you about the frameworks upon which meaning is hung.

I have to disagree on a few small points, though:

Solfeg (do-re-mi, etc.) only works in Western tonal music, which includes classical, folk, and pop musics as we know them today. Solfeg fails utterly in any music outside that frame, including Western musics that break away from tonal music, or in Western music that predates the tradition of tonality, which didn't actually appear until the late Baroque and early Classical periods (turn of the 18th C.). Tonal music itself was a development that occurred only after the Renaissance, so as music tradition it's only about 300 years old. A short list of Western music that cannot be encompassed by solfeg includes most experimental music, most Medieval music, most modal music; microtonal music, such as Harry Partch's 37-tone scale; music of indeterminacy, whether practiced by John Cage or Pierre Boulez; tone clusters, such as Stravinsky, Arvo Part, or the modern Polish schools; etc. Solfeg is training wheels only for learning tonal music.

Certainly every poem IN ENGLISH can be broken down into iambs and trochees, etc. But it doesn't apply to other languages.

BTW, I've been an instrument builder a few times. In the most literal sense, it's true that you have to build the flute before you can play it. But building the physical instrument is not at all the same as generating the musical tradition or tuning system in which you play music with it—so the analogy doesn't work for me.

9:28 AM  
Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I deliberately added the 'Western' to my quote because I suspected you'd jump on the many examples of music that aren't neatly diatonic (Bartók and Ives jump to my mind) and, again, I was referring specifically to English poetry when I used my DUM-de-DUM example. There are always going to be exceptions. For the point of keeping things simply, just to make a point, I thought it would help. I agree with you on the instrument building point. Again I was being overly simplistic.

10:19 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

No worries, and I didn't meant to jump on you, if I did. You know me: I tend to look for nuance rather than simplicity. It's probably a fatal personality flaw. LOL

The truth is, I have never really understood or believed the "you've got to learn the rules to break the rules" argument, when it is given for art. There are too many ways in which the argument fails; too many exceptions undermine the rule, rather than proving it.

It makes sense in engineering, but art is not engineering. This is also why architecture is not engineering, but an art, although it has to work with the same materials; I look at one of Santiago Calatreva's moving buildings, and I sense a spirit therein that no glass box ever had.

Of course, I've had this argument dozens of times with various poets, in various venues. One poet who I respect even went so far as to say that he thought I had internalized the word-rules so well that I had transcended the conscious application of them, and he also liked what I was doing with my poems; but he wouldn't let go of the idea that I HAD learned the rules first. It was a nice compliment, and I couldn't refute him, really; but if I somehow did learn the rules before starting to break them, it was never in school, or in self-study. Nothing I ever did that I'm aware of, actually.

10:27 AM  
Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

You look at Santiago Calatreva and I look at The Pompidou Centre which wears its structure proudly on the outside. It's not conventional structure but that is what it is. Some people think it's ugly. I think I'd like it myself. I like industrial complexes, the kind of places that serve as cheap sets for TV dramas.

11:38 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

I've been to the Pompidou, too. It's fun, and the colored pipings that serve the building visually as well as industrially are interesting. I don't think it's ugly, but it's not for as spiritual a building as something by Calatreva, or Ando Tadao, or Wright at his best. To me my favorite kinds of buildings are about the space they enclose, and the ways they use light and air. If the engineering is on display in a way that's integral to the structure, it can be part of the aesthetic; all too often, though, it's an afterthought.

12:51 PM  

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