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"notes of strange coastal moans": Music as ordering principle in "AtLoM"

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  • "notes of strange coastal moans": Music as ordering principle in "AtLoM"

    A couple of post-ers have favorably noted the lyricism of the concluding paragraph of "All the Lights of Midnight," and I have to agree--so much so, that I'd like to quote the last sentence in its entirety and suggest that we should pay attention to it as providing insight into a central theme, maybe even a central argument, of the story.

    Here's the sentence, with apologies in advance for the missing accents etc.:
    Just a different path, a different way, where for perhaps for a moment you and I might be free to imagine, if only fleetingly, scenes of alternate possibilities: quantum theory deprived of one of its most breathtaking discoveries, undone on the corner of Los Pescadores and Covarrubias, where in spite of that treacherous clan clan a different choice is made, her lip unbroken, his cheek unstained, the two of them fleeing for wholly other places, perhaps south to Isla de Chiloe in search of the ghost ship Caleuche or west to Te Pito te Henua to eat oranges and swim above the black reefs, or even cast over the Andes, as far as Peninsula Valdes, where they might linger now, forever in the shadowmatter of their dreams, Francisca with color in her hair and slender chains of gold upon her ankle, Nufro beside her, ears red from the wind, unpainted guitar on his knee, while beneath his fingertips the notes of strange coastal moans bind all the lights of midnight with the powerful prophecy of a song. (84)
    The first time I read this, I thought of the concluding lines of Wallace Stevens' great poem, "The Idea of Order at Key West." The entire text is here, and if you go there you'll see that the poem's central image is that of a woman who is singing as she walks along a beach at sunset and, for the speaker and his companion, it is her song that sings that moment--indeed, that world--into existence. Her song is not ABOUT that place; it IS that place. The specific lines I was reminded of follow:
    Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know,
    Why, when the singing ended and we turned
    Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights,
    The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,
    As the night descended, tilting in the air,
    Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,
    Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,
    Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.

    Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,
    The maker's rage to order words of the sea,
    Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,
    And of ourselves and of our origins,
    In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.
    I hope you can see the similarity here: that Nufro's song, like the woman's singing and the speaker's gazing through the rigging at the night sky in Stevens' poem, likewise is a symptom of that blessed rage for order. Music, in other words, isn't metaphysics--it is a kind of physics.

    I have more to say on this but no time, just now, to develop it adequately. But for now I'll just note that Nufro's order to Francisca, when he joins SENDA, to paint the strings of his guitar "solid to the frets" is a telling image in this story filled with song and which impels its readers at every turn to hear, to listen.

  • #2
    Originally posted by John B.
    Music, in other words, isn't metaphysics--it is a kind of physics.
    Yes, music straddles that dichotomy of formal abstraction vs. real meaning, of surface purity vs. emotional depth, that MZD sets out to deconstruct in this story - it's pretty much laid out for us in the opening paragraph. Music always straddled physics and metaphysics, even before that distinction was a meaningful one: in Neo-Platonic thought, in the medieval quadrivium, etc. I think the comparison made with the Law is a telling one: the Law is something that must be imagined to have a kind of abstract purity quite apart from its application (which of course it does not). In the same way music has always been imagined to be the art that comes closest to 'pure form' (hence the Platonic association of music and mathematics) - even though a truly 'pure' music divested of human meaning does not, of course, exist.

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    • #3
      One further (slightly tangential) thought: the pun in 'Law too necessarily fulfils in a hearing' does not work in Spanish (as far as I know - unless elmago can tell us different). So that sentence must have been interpolated by Ricardo Justiniano, who translated, or by Abel Izquierdo, who retranslated. Shades of the 'water heater' brouhaha? Come to think of it, this fits in quite neatly with what I was saying above (and what Stencil said in the other thread): it's only in the hearing of the story that its potential for meaning crystallizes into a truth (of sorts).

      Edit: by 'what Stencil said in the other thread', I meant this: 'Nufro's theory seems so deeply written into things that it is in the production of the words by which it is explained.'
      Last edited by Raminagrobis; 02-24-2006, 11:16 AM.

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      • #4
        Outstanding, John B. Get you a case o' beer for that.

        Always loved Stevens' poem, and of course he's working from mythos older than dirt. Should we talk Aeolian rhythms, or the "music of the spheres" again?

        The universe as harmonic chord struck once and still vibrating, vibrato infinitum. Man, that's something to chew on.

        But Grobie's comments also remind me of a brief (because he doesn't talk much) conversation I had with a bassist friend of mine a while ago. His band was being reviewed, and the reviewer was praising the "abstract music" they created.

        "There's no such thing as abstract music," he complains. "Music is inherently abstract."

        One of those bedrock truths that we instinctively know but don't give voice to. At least I never did.

        Edit: I just realized you could really take issue with that statement, if your mind went another way. But I'll stand by it.
        Last edited by modiFIed; 02-24-2006, 02:57 PM.

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        • #5
          Originally posted by modiFIed
          Edit: I just realized you could really take issue with that statement, if your mind went another way. But I'll stand by it.
          Yeah, I was about to say.

          I remember writing an essay about Beckett as an undergraduate, in which I made the claim (lifted, no doubt, from some well-thumbed library copy of a students' guide to Beckett) that B's language at times (as in the sing-song exchanges of Vlad and Tarragon) aspires to the condition of music, which is pure form. My supervisor pencilled a discreet 'Is it?' into the margin, and left it at that.

          Music is not pure form, is not 'inherently abstract', surely? If we want to call something 'music' we must invest it with some kind of significance - there is no abstract music. A chord can be uplifting or poignant. Even atonal music isn't really abstract, because it means something in relation to tonal music. White noise, maybe that's abstract. But as soon as you call it music, it stops being abstract.

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          • #6
            Just a couple of quick things:

            We're told that the basic idea of Nufro's theory is that
            a particle's "choice of path" actually determined "the property of the destination" (79)
            Isn't that analogous to what theories of harmony describe, too?

            (That's not a rhetorical question, by the way.)

            Also, we're told that Nufro's fingers "flutter . . . whenever numbers were discussed" (79)--in a manner similar, I would imagine, to this:

            . . . by the age of fifteen he declared to several musicians . . . "I have played it all," after which his fingers moved but never touched, string and fret retaining their accustomed distance, Nufro packing more and more shreds of homemade sweater into his ears so he "could hear." (81)
            I mentioned in the first post on this thread that Nufro's request to Francisca that she "paint the strings solid to the frets" is significant. It is especially so considering that it coincides with his deepening involvement with SENDA. As elmago notes elsewhere, "senda" means "path." In this story, at least, musicmaking is figured as the creation of multiple paths, some popular, some so idiosyncratic that few can follow. But when he joins SENDA, Nufro ceases to create. He becomes the political equivalent of a cover-band; he becomes the messenger, ceases to be the message. What good will a guitar do him?

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            • #7
              Originally posted by Raminagrobis
              One further (slightly tangential) thought: the pun in 'Law too necessarily fulfils in a hearing' does not work in Spanish (as far as I know - unless elmago can tell us different). So that sentence must have been interpolated by Ricardo Justiniano, who translated, or by Abel Izquierdo, who retranslated. Shades of the 'water heater' brouhaha? Come to think of it, this fits in quite neatly with what I was saying above (and what Stencil said in the other thread): it's only in the hearing of the story that its potential for meaning crystallizes into a truth (of sorts).

              Edit: by 'what Stencil said in the other thread', I meant this: 'Nufro's theory seems so deeply written into things that it is in the production of the words by which it is explained.'
              The spanish word for hearing is 'audiencia'. In Spanish, the phrase toruns out to be 'También la Ley se cumple necesariamente en una audiencia' and the pun still works, albeit with a sightly different connotation.

              I'm trying to translate this and some other of the musical paragraphs to see if there's any relation to songs form the Nueva canción Chilena, tough I will need my girflriend's help for that. I'll keep you posted on any findings.

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              • #8
                OK, thanks for that, elmago. I see it does just about work in Spanish, but, as you say, it's not quite the same pun. It sounds like an effort to translate the English pun into Spanish, rather than a pun that originated in Spanish, if you see what I mean.

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                • #9
                  Originally posted by Raminagrobis
                  there is no abstract music.
                  Exactly my thought.

                  Nyeah!

                  Seriously - I see what you're saying. But you're talking about heard music.

                  I'm talking only of music.

                  And not musical notation either, or a particular work. Just music. What is it?

                  I note how you say, "when we want to call something music," and "we must invest....etc." But what we do when we listen is not music. When you explain music to me, that structured explanation is something else altogether than the music you explain. When even you hear it, what you hear is one thing, but what you remember hearing, and the qualities you ascribe to that memory, is

                  something else.

                  You could catch me on that, and say "Okay, the very waves in the air - they have a shape and a structure." Sure enough - when we look at them. But we do not look at music.
                  Last edited by modiFIed; 02-27-2006, 03:15 PM.

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                  • #10
                    Originally posted by Raminagrobis
                    White noise, maybe that's abstract. But as soon as you call it music, it stops being abstract.
                    The same way calling a blank canvas a painting makes it so?

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                    • #11
                      Originally posted by modiFIed
                      I note how you say, "when we want to call something music," and "we must invest....etc." But what we do when we listen is not music. When you explain music to me, that structured explanation is something else altogether than the music you explain. When even you hear it, what you hear is one thing, but what you remember hearing, and the qualities you ascribe to that memory, is

                      something else.

                      You could catch me on that, and say "Okay, the very waves in the air - they have a shape and a structure." Sure enough - when we look at them. But we do not look at music.
                      Ah. I'm glad you added that in the edit, because I was having some trouble understanding the first part of your post, which had me thinking you were going all platonic on us - I mean sure, you 'evacuate the event', take everything out of music that defines music, and what you're left with is an abstract idea of music - but you can say that about anything: poetry, for example, or the act of eating peanuts.

                      But your explanation makes perfect sense, and I agree. It fits in with the paradox I was describing up there - that the instantiation of music/law both is and simultaneously is not the thing itself. And there is always something in 'excess', that is fundamentally ungraspable but is nevertheless essential - in the case of the Law, it's the fact that Law had to be imposed by an act of violence even before there was Law - so an abstract of the Law very obviously preceded an instance of it, even if it meant nothing - in fact, only meant its opposite, violent irrationality. In a similar way, the experience of music that you describe does not really exist for us except when/until it is explained or remembered or discussed or invested with emotion. The experience is only 'disclosed' in the passage into experience (even the word 'experience' is causing us problems here), but that doesn't make the experience any the less essential. Music is both entirely abstract and not at all abstract. How's that for equivocation?

                      Originally posted by sutrix
                      The same way calling a blank canvas a painting makes it so?
                      Yup. Were you referring there to Kazimir Malevich's 'Black square on white background'?

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                      • #12
                        Originally posted by Raminagrobis
                        Ah. I'm glad you added that in the edit, because I was having some trouble understanding the first part of your post
                        Aye, bless this blood-red crucible. Note too how it is only with careful explanation and revision--structuring--that the thought--the abstract--is reified and shared between us as an intellectual tidbit--a concrete idea--thus creating a structured piece of reality out of the mind's microcosmic universe of apparently chaotic electrical impulses. And yet one could argue just as vehemently that the impulses are the actual reality, and the "concrete" idea is the abstraction. Spooky.

                        Originally posted by Raminagrobis
                        Music is both entirely abstract and not at all abstract.
                        And there you have it, sir. It is in fact the best example I can think of of this paradox. What could be more structured than the score of a Mozart symphony? What could be less tangible--yet entirely real and not at all theoretical or platonic--than the music as it emanates from the pit?

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                        • #13
                          Originally posted by John B.
                          We're told that the basic idea of Nufro's theory is that
                          a particle's "choice of path" actually determined "the property of the destination" (79)
                          Isn't that analogous to what theories of harmony describe, too?

                          (That's not a rhetorical question, by the way.)
                          Perhaps this (in particular the discussion of types of harmony) begins to answer my question. Or does it?

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                          • #14
                            Originally posted by Raminagrobis
                            Originally posted by sutrix
                            The same way calling a blank canvas a painting makes it so?
                            Yup. Were you referring there to Kazimir Malevich's 'Black square on white background'?
                            You think too highly of me, sahib: I know more or less nothing about artists and art. (And if this one's from HoL, then you think too highly of my memory as well.)

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                            • #15
                              If i'm not mistaken, Rami's avatar is Malevich

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