Saturday, April 13, 2013

Truth and Illusion

We live in a time when truth is under heavy assault from many directions. Corporations, for example, carefully craft the image they present to the public. This is a characteristically modern example of illusion, because, as we all know perfectly well, big oil companies are really not quite as concerned with 'green' technology as they would have you believe and clothing companies are really not quite as hip as they would have you believe. Often, in the media and law courts, we see two conflicting versions of the 'truth', neither of which has much to do with reality. And then there is the growth of computer-generated imagery in movies. Indeed, the creation of clever illusion is one of the core strengths of 21st century civilization--if it counts as a strength!

One of the most compelling accounts in popular culture of the divide between truth and illusion took place on the television show Angel. The retired Watcher and one-time "rogue demon hunter" Wesley Wyndham-Price who was long a comic character on both Angel and previously on Buffy the Vampire Slayer falls in love with the physicist Winifred Burkle, known as "Fred". Very soon after they get together, Fred is taken over by the demon Illyria and dies, leaving only a shell occupied by the demon. However, "some fragments remain" of Fred and the demon can, at will, bring back the look and personality of Fred. Wesley rejects this adamantly. He points out that one of the most important things one learns as a Watcher is to distinguish truth and illusion. When Illyria brings back 'Fred' it is mere illusion and is like ashes in the mouth to him. But in the final episode of Angel, when Wesley is mortally wounded, Illyria brings back the image and personality of Fred and Wesley welcomes her. This is not just because he is dying, but because Illyria has grown to have human feelings for Wesley, so the expression of them by 'Fred' is no longer an illusion, but reality. Here is a little selection of clips encapsuling the Wesley/Fred/Illyria story arc. It begins with the illness in which Illyria takes over Fred's body:

Now however am I going to connect this with music? I have to admit that it isn't easy. The thing about music and all the arts is that part of the 'art' is the creation of illusion. We are all, to some extent, purveyors of "smoke and mirrors". Music is an evanescence in the air that evaporates as soon as it is heard. This can be very powerful, but it is the power of something invisible: compression waves in the air! It is remarkable how something so rarified can have such an emotional effect.

We trade in illusion, but as has been said about another art form, we tell the truth by lying! For example, on the piano or guitar, we create the illusion of a melodic line by phrasing. In reality, neither instrument can really play a melody the way a violin, flute or voice can because on the piano and guitar, each note starts to die away as soon as it is struck. It is only through the creation of illusion that a melody appears. We create sensations in the listener by playing some notes louder and others softer, by playing some notes as a block and others spread out; by given some notes a different tone-color than other notes. Here is Vladimir Horowitz showing how it is done:

Now here is where the truth part comes: we can only make the right choices if we know what the 'truth' of the music is. We can only create the illusion of a melody if we know which notes comprise that melody. We need to know what the music expression should be or needs to be before we can choose how to phrase, how to color, how to 'interpret' the music.

That word "interpretation" is pretty much a misnomer as applied to musical performance. We are not translating from one 'language' to another, just realizing music notation--a set of instructions and sound diagram--in sound. Sometimes the composer gives detailed directions for each note. Other composers, like J. S. Bach, gave almost no instructions apart from the notes themselves.

The truth and illusion distinction comes into play when we hear different performances of the same music and conclude that some are more 'faithful' to the notation, style, period than others. Turning a Toccata and Fugue by Bach probably intended to show off the capabilities of an organ into the soundtrack for a horror film probably runs against the 'truth' of the music. Similarly, transcribing the Talking Heads for string quartet probably goes against the truth of their music.

But because music does not deal with truth and illusion so much as it does with beauty and ugliness, everything is always going to be a bit slippery. If you do it just the right way, perhaps Bach could make a good soundtrack for some kind of film. And perhaps if you do it just the right way, Jimi Hendrix could be transcribed for string quartet:

No comments: