Friday, February 02, 2007

Without Music Life Would Not Be Fair

Postcard from Postsecret
After class and Clinical Sciences Journal Club today, I hung around a practice room at Millberry Union as four of my friends rehearsed for a concert. Jenny plays the piano like prodigy, Elaine and Paul play violin with amazing skill, and Albert plays violin (an understatement) while sensing music on an entirely higher level. What impresses me even more than their individual musical skills is that these four friends had enough initiative to get together on a Friday afternoon to practice for a concert that they are setting up themselves with funding acquired from UCSF.
In many ways, I am a musical dunce. As a lazy and unmotivated child, I never practiced the piano (even though I took lessons for an untold number of years) and my perception of tones, rhythm, and melodies is pretty much equal to that of a softly ripened tomato sitting quietly in the sun. Oftentimes, I marvel at how Albert can explain the meaning, emotions, and genius of certain musical pieces...allowing me to appreciate nuances in rhythm, musicianship, etc. that seem to have magically appeared within seconds. In a strange way, I feel as though Albert is actually translating the music for me so that I can understand what the violin is saying.
The idea of art being lost in translation has occurred to me in the past. As a person with many "pet-ideas," I once thought that although beauty can take an infinite number of forms, people themselves can only perceive beauty in a limited number of ways. Beauty is like white light, but we only see certain wavelengths as individuals. For instance, here is a poem:
The Forgotten Dialect Of The Heart
How astonishing it is that language can almost mean,
and frightening that it does not quite. Love, we say,
God, we say, Rome and Michiko, we write, and the words
get it all wrong. We say bread and it means according
to which nation. French has no word for home,
and we have no word for strict pleasure. A people
in northern India is dying out because their ancient
tongue has no words for endearment. I dream of lost
vocabularies that might express some of what
we no longer can. Maybe the Etruscan texts would
finally explain why the couples on their tombs
are smiling. And maybe not. When the thousands
of mysterious Sumerian tablets were translated,
they seemed to be business records. But what if they
are poems or psalms? My joy is the same as twelve
Ethiopian goats standing silent in the morning light.
O Lord, thou art slabs of salt and ingots of copper,
as grand as ripe barley lithe under the wind's labor.
Her breasts are six white oxen loaded with bolts
of long-fibered Egyptian cotton. My love is a hundred
pitchers of honey. Shiploads of thuya are what
my body wants to say to your body. Giraffes are this
desire in the dark. Perhaps the spiral Minoan script
is not language but a map. What we feel most has
no name but amber, archers, cinnamon, horses, and birds.
-Jack Gilbert
Look at the beauty of the end-stopped lines and the genius of his enjambment, the fantastical conceit of ancient Sumerian trade and timeless love. Makes your toes curl, doesn't it? When I was in middle or high school, one of my favorite books was a cheesy anthology from my wonderful mother called "Immortal Poems of the English Language" and I used to read all the emily dickinson poems. Once, when I tried to eagerly read the poem to my mother "Because I could not stop for death," or even better, "I died for beauty," I remember with distinct clarity how my lovely mother shook her head and said that the poem did not speak to her; she didn't understand its sublimity but she wasn't upset. It was like that Christmas story, where the little boy asks for a sleigh bell from Santa Claus and the adults could not hear the bell and assumed that it was broken. It was at that moment that i realized that there are special languages and senses in this world and certain arts -- visual, literary, musical, theatrical -- that touch people in certain ways, that bring those people to life and sensitize them in ways that are abnormal. This is all probably elitist harvard english crap, but what if there are a million different beautiful senses in the world and we are only privy to one or two of them? What if music is the same as poetry and poetry is the color aquamarine?
As individuals, we can sometimes see beauty in a landscape, a lovely poem, a powerful painting, a certain style of architecture, or a musical performance. In a less traditional sense, we can see beauty in the curve of a parabola or a mathematical equation, the elegance of an experimental design, or the smoothness of a chemical reaction. Beauty can be found in the way that a medical student comforts a sick patient or in the way that a doctor smoothly performs a a physical exam.
Back in the small windowless closet known as a practice room, I sat on the floor as Jenny and Albert continued playing their superb duet. If I concentrated hard enough, I could almost sense the beauty, the aching loveliness, inherent in the music and the way that the notes seemed to linger, float, twirl, and make complex arabesques. The music seemed to fluidly progress into an invisible maelstrom that pulled me, and I could just feel the edges of something else. I don't know how to explain it further, except that as first year medical students, we are taught to push our fingers underneath the rib cage to feel the edge of a patient's liver, and someone once explained that it feels like "the edge of a rubbery something quickly slipping away from your grasp."
I could almost feel the music's liver.

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