Sights and Sounds

In his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, Thomas De Quincey observed that most people make the mistake of assuming that humans are merely passive to the effects of music. It is not simply the music acting upon the ear that makes it pleasurable; “it is by the reaction of the mind upon the notices of the ear (the matter coming by the senses, the form from the mind) that the pleasure is constructed, and therefore it is that people of equally good ear differ so much in this point from one another.”

Virginia Woolf’s The String Quartet provides a fascinating example of the mind reacting the the sensations produced by music. In her classic stream of consciousness style, Woolf shows us all of the mental impressions inspired by a piece of music by Mozart: “Flourish, spring, burgeon, burst! The pear tree on the top of the mountain. Fountains jet; drops descend. But the waters of the Rhone flow swift and deep, race under the arches, and sweep the trailing water leaves, washing shadows over the silver fish, the spotted fish rushed down by the swift waters, now swept into an eddy where–it’s difficult this–conglomeration of fish all in a pool; leaping, splashing, scraping sharp fins; and such a boil of current that the yellow pebbles are churned round and round, round and round–free now, rushing downwards, or even somehow ascending in exquisite spirals into the air; curled like thin shavings from under a plane, up and up….How lovely goodness is in those who, stepping lightly, go smiling through the world! Also in jolly old fishwives, squatted under arches, obscene old women, how deeply they laugh and shake and rollick, when they walk, from side to side, hum, hah!”

It is clear that these images are primarily the product of the listener’s own mind. It is true that composers often have specific imagery in mind themselves (Flight of the Bumblebee by Rimsky-Korsakov and the storm section of Rossini’s William Tell Overture come to mind,) but it is all but inconceivable Mozart wrote Woolf’s detailed scene into his music. As sublime as the music is, it is Woolf’s own mind that constructed the pleasure.

And because the processes of the listener’s mind are at the center of the how pleasurable music is, it is little wonder that mind-altering substances and music go together so often. As far as I know, Woolf did not drink, but De Quincey used to get high on laudanum (opium dissolved in alcohol) and buy cheap seats to the opera. And there is reason that Grateful Dead concerts smell the way they do.

So have a beer (or more) and see if it doesn’t make music a bit more enjoyable.

Beer of the week: Flying Fish Abbey Dubbel – This Belgian-style ale from New Jersey is alright. The aroma is is sweet and yeasty, with notes of dark cherry and red wine. But the flavor does not quite deliver the same punch as the smell. I would very much like this beer to have a bit more spice, or sweetness, or something in the finish.

Reading of the week: The String Quartet by Virginia Woolf – The excerpt above describes only the first movement of the performance. The rest of the music evokes a sinking boat, a sword fight, and much more.

Question for the week: Have you ever, like Woolf, had vivid images elicited by live music?

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