4. Why Melody at All?

Agnes Martin, Falling Blue (1963)

In his book Human, all too Human (Cambridge University Press, 1986), Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) wrote:

Without Melody: There are people who repose so steadily within themselves and whose capacities are balanced with one another so harmoniously that any activity directed towards a goal is repugnant to them.  They are like music which consists of nothing but long drawn out harmonious chords, without even the beginning of a moving, articulated melody making an appearance.  Any movement from without only serves to settle the barque into a new equilibrium on the lake of harmonious euphony.  Modern men usually grow extremely impatient when confronted by such natures, which become nothing without our being able to say that they are nothing.  But in certain moods the sight of them prompts the unusual question: why melody at all?  Why does the quiet reflection of life in a deep lake not suffice us? – The middle ages were richer in such natures than our age is.   How seldom do we now encounter one able to live thus happily and peaceably with himself even in the turmoil of life, saying to himself with Goethe: “the best is the profound stillness towards the world in which I live and grow, and win for myself what they cannot take away from me with fire and sword.” (aphorism 626, translated by Hollingdale)

Friedrich Nietzsche

Most of us long for melody in music. Melody is one of those factors of music that enable the music to say something to us. It is often through melody that music can appear to us as, to use Roger Scruton’s phrase, an “image of the subject”: a free subject, moving according to its own laws, unencumbered by the necessities that undermine so much of our freedom in life. This subjectivity can be expressed in melody so well because the line of a melody, with its metaphorical risings, fallings, and so on, can imitate human action as it works towards a goal. When you add rhythm and harmony you can establish a world in which the journey takes place and one that can provide an ideal analogue against which we can understand, evaluate, and inspire our own less ideal efforts.

But what if we take away melody? Can we still have an image of the subject? Many would say it is difficult to see how. Perhaps rhythm would help. But what if we take away all or most rhythm and leave only chords? Some minimalist works are indeed primarily chords such as Peter Garland’s solo piano works Two Persian Miniatures I (1971), A Song (1971), and The Fall of Quang Tri (1972). John Cage’s One 8 (1991) is almost 45 minutes of mostly chords played on a cello. But one of my favorite examples is John Zorn’s profoundly moving work Redbird (Tzadik, 1995), inspired by the painter Agnes Martin, which is “a hypnotic work for harp, violin, cello and percussion mirrors the detailed and complex painting for which it is named, as a series of chords are ordered and reordered, creating a play of memory and surprise that will leave the listener in a sensual reverie” (for more info on the piece go to the Tzadik site here).

One way to account for the minimalist power of Redbird is given in the Nietzsche quotation above: instead of providing an image of a subject directed toward a goal amidst the turmoil of life, the work offers a glimpse of a subject that is elevated above worldly goals in transcendent stillness. Now many artists associated with the minimalist movement wanted to present works with no transcendent meaning at all. For example, the painter Frank Stella, commenting on his painting The Marriage of Reason and Squalor, II (1959), asserted, “What you see is what you see.” But Agnes Martin was trying, through the minimalism of her work, to offer an experience of transcendence (see above and below, as well as this MoMA link for some examples).

Martin in her studio, 1954

Rather than a negation of the subject into meaningless, repetitive mechanisms, we have an affirmation of the self as a “deep lake” as Nietzsche put it. Martin herself has a work entitled The Dark River and Zorn’s album Redbird includes a work Dark River dedicated to her as well: both, I think, express this deep and mysterious equilibrium that the self can reach which cannot, as Goethe said above, be taken away from us with fire and sword. Some minimal works, to be sure, may negate subjectivity and meaning. But some works can, even without melody and rhythm, elevate us in a sublime direction that expands our sense of self and meaning and, perhaps, offers us a glimpse of infinity as well (for my post on the Kantian sublime and the infinite, go here).

Agnes Martin, The Dark River (1961)

For my post which argues that music may be alive, go here.

For my post on demonic music, go here.

  1. Lianna on

    I’ve never thought about any of these things in this way..Really love this, thanks!!

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