• The Record Press

Music is Inherent

Written by Anthony Cheng

Nearly a decade ago, under the kind consideration of our A-Level music lecturers, they organised a concert trip for us to attend the Royal Academy of Music in the great city of music making: London. RAM put on in their own grand concert hall a performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto, or more famously known as the “Emperor” Concerto. The pianist, who was had a spare brain to conduct, was none other than the French master of subtlety, colour and tonal warmth, Pierre-Laurent Aimard.

With little effort I can recall the exact point where I was arrested by the music, causing a clamping sensation in my chest, slowing creeping up to produce a razor-like scratch in my throat. The introduction of the piano in the second movement (adagio un poco mosso), a passage of quiet, trickling descending notes that made one picture fine crystals falling out of the sky, made my eyes glisten with tears. They emanated from this feeling of uncorrupted bliss, acceptance, security, and re-birth. I left the dark concert hall into the broad afternoon daylight disorientated; my view of the world shifted to a vantage place I’d never been before.

I found it impossible, from then on, to stop external stimuli such as beautiful musical expressions from putting me under the influence of wonder. I pondered without much result as to why that particular piano passage, or any “great” music in general, arouses such intense emotions and sudden awareness of the enormity of life. It wasn’t a necessity to have shed a tear at that point in time, but I ended up doing it outside of my own will.

People of Science and Arts have subjected themselves to the principle of music. Why do we make music and enjoy it? Humans aren’t exceptions when it comes to music, or my favourite description – “sonic mathematics” - from a YouTube comment on a video with Jacob Collier riffing about esoteric music theory; Birds, too, have their own songs. They tweet with admirable variety across landscapes and conjure up complexities of their very own. Humans, however, are more advanced in that our music tends to encapsulate the Human Condition.

Understanding how the Human Condition is reflected in “sonic mathematics” is a Herculean task but steps can be made if I narrowed our viewpoint – that is of a classical pianist with a pinch of philosophical musical thought.

The conception of musical ideas in the classical world can, as a matter of fact, come from, but not limited to, profound emotions like nostalgia or existential crises; they can come from trying to grasp, intellectually or irrationally, Life’s meaning. The former emotion makes me think of 20th Russian modern romantic composer/exile Sergei Rachmaninoff, writing about his beloved Russia. The latter’s most prominent figure that I think of is the 20th Century Austro-Bohemian Romantic composer, Gustav Mahler, who earned his legacy through his post-Beethoven symphonies. “Whoever listens to my music intelligently,” he said, “will see my life transparently revealed.” Music composition is expression of complex feeling and thoughts where words utterly fail to do justice, but there was a time where literal words in the form of a programme were used by Mahler to help listeners understand the context of his symphonies. No sooner when it had been written than it was thrown out. Overexplaining one’s musical story is a double-edged sword that unintentionally severs the principle of a “pure” symphony – the music itself stands alone. Music affects the emotion and the psychology, not the rationality, so a “concrete image” would be detrimental. Once asked by a journalist on the meaning of his Second Symphony, Mahler replied “I believe I have expressed my intentions clearly enough in the music. When I conceived it, I was in no way concerned with a detailed programme of events, but at most with an emotion.”

These emotions that Mahler had were something of gripping crises in the existential. He was tormented, like many formidable artists were, by the realities of the human condition. What is the purpose of all this toiling and suffering? Will death at last reveal the meaning of life? But the remarkability of Mahler is that despite this drudgery and gloom he was also very human, he relished in the profundity of life. He swam, walked, hiked up hills. Even when his doctor gave a prognosis and estimation of his time left on this earth, he declared with exuberance “I am thirstier for life than ever”. And his symphonies embraced all that was human and the joy of living.

Music becomes the medium to transform that inner turmoil and its uncontainable energy into something where mere words end up doing nothing but committing an offence of descriptive inadequacy. When an artist like Mahler, with all his grievances about the human condition, become too concerned with this limitation of our biology, he turns to creative outpouring for consolation.

Although there are theories that propose music, from an evolutionary standpoint, as being carried out by humans to give cohesiveness to a group, classical music can be a very individual experience. A movement of a symphony, for example, can remind you of a time in your life where you felt an all-consuming love for another, or the moment when the loss of an important person in your life collapses you; or some music can make you feel jubilant, brimming with hope about Humanity’s future – we listen to music that makes is feel understood as a person. The most important music to us are the ones that tackle the problems that we are going through, and whether they succeed or fail in capturing the beauty of our struggles, is subject to subjectivity. But we must acknowledge that the artists try.

In Deryck Cooke’s essay Mahler as Man and Artist, “the romantics intended their symphonies to be expressive of life; the difficulty was explaining in words just what they expressed.” We make and enjoy music because it helps us with the impossible: to say the unsayable.

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