Do you hear what it means (what you see)?

There is talk about the ‘visualisation’ of culture. One very important reason for this is no doubt the ubiquity of screens. As a music person, to look upon this as a mere strengthening of the visual aspect of culture strikes me in important ways as a reversal of my own experiences.

To take the most visual medium, the movies – clearly, images there are very, very strong.

But even there, and even to non-music persons, the images wouldn’t press themselves so strongly on our brains without the sound effects. These are essential, both for conveying the meaning of the image itself as to provide extra suspense about the unseen, the out of sight. Imagine doors not clicking onto the lock, steps not sounding, mouths not sighing.

And evidently, most images would be emotionally very impoverished without the music.
Imagine the many empty landscapes, empty stares, empty endings – music provides a sense for what is in the mind but out of sight – for what we must imagine but cannot see.

This goes for games as well, I guess.

What does this mean for concert music – ‘absolute music’?

I do not want to say that music in movies and games functions in the way it does on the concert platform. But I do think that ‘functional music’ shows that our moving images acquire their very meaning in many ways essentially through sound and music.

It this is true, then we should perhaps speak rather about a continuing sonification and musicalization of our ‘visual culture’.

I think we should. The above suggestion is confirmed not just by the simple experiment of turning off the sound on your tv-set. A reason for the existence of the iPod and other mini (private) music players seems to be to create an emotionally gratifying soundtrack to our everyday personal moves (to school, to work, in the gym).

Again, what does this mean for concert music – ‘absolute music’?

Now, it is often said that the use of visuals and theatricals has not yet been fully exploited in, for example, the classical concert situation. Quite so, but one might just as well (or, given the above, better) argue that we have only just begun to exploit the psychological possibilities that music offers for visual media.

I do not only mean the limitless possibilities it has for creating an emotional atmosphere, but I would like to point to its narrative and dramatic properties as well: the capacity for ‘bridging time’, so to speak – properties that, I feel, used to be the hallmarks of ‘old’ classical music, and that new classical music is at present rediscovering.

Something similar happened (and is still happening) to the relation between music and words. Very crudely speaking, you might point at the continuous effort for music to better express the meaning of the words – in the madrigal, the opera, the music drama, sprechstimme and so on. Here too, one might ask: does that make music (or culture) more ‘verbal’ or actually create more purely musical opportunities? Clearly, not only would the libretti of Schikaneder and Wagner and the lyrics of Ira Gershwin be slightly less enjoyable without the music that Wolfgang, Richard and George produced to them – but their poetry loudly calls for the uplifting force of music. Even more strongly, much of the instrumental Classical and late romantic music, and instrumental jazz, seems to have grown into independent musical forms right out of such (sometimes even rather thin) verbal soil.

It’s just one more example of the Wagner-Liszt paradox: we point at a set of words (or images) to talk about the meaning of the music that accompanies them, but end up listening to the music to learn what those words might mean, really, actually, or possibly.

Possibly so with all our words.