August 12th 2017

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY The lessons for euthanasia are there for the learning

EDITORIAL Shorten's agenda will cripple Australia

CANBERRA OBSERVED Candidates must polish their paperwork skills

FOREIGN AFFAIRS EU v Poland: disquiet on the eastern front

EUTHANASIA How safe will Victoria's 'locked tin' be?

ASIA-PACIFIC AFFAIRS Pacific likely to focus for Taiwan's Iron Lady

PHILOSOPHY Aristotle and the virtues as products of reason

FEDERAL POLITICS Backbench marriage push angers Coalition colleagues

MUSIC Time and times: Melody is moments gathered for an instant

CINEMA Dunkirk: When survival is victory

BOOK REVIEW Just socialism by another name?

BOOK REVIEW The rightness of goading the left


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Time and times: Melody is moments gathered for an instant

by David James

News Weekly, August 12, 2017

Roland Orzabal, one of the members of the pop band Tears for Fears, once sardonically commented that song writing starts with an excellent idea that pops into the head. This is the high point. After that, he said, it was all downhill.

Paul McCartney’s description of how he came up with Yesterday was similarly momentary. He woke up, having dreamt the melody. He assumed it was just something that he had heard somewhere else. “There are certain times when you get the essence, it’s all there. It’s like an egg being laid – not a crack or flaw in it.”

It raises an interesting question about moments of time in music. The pleasure, even ecstasy, that can accompany musical creation is intimately related to its instantaneity. There is, of course, much work involved as well. And for some, such as Maurice Ravel, music was mostly hard work. He said he did his composing slowly, drop by drop. “I tore it out of me by pieces.” But even he argued that spontaneity was crucial, saying to Gershwin that without it instead of composing “first-rate Gershwin” he would compose “second-rate Ravel”.

That is composition. The elevation of the moment is even more prominent in improvisation. Talk to jazz musicians about what they are thinking about when they play, and many will say that when the music is working they are not thinking at all. They are immersed in the moment. It is an analogue of meditation techniques designed to eliminate a sense of the past and the future, leaving only the moment.

Practise for the moment

This is only part of the picture, however. To achieve that presentness, a great deal of time has to be spent practising beforehand. It is, if not a paradox, at least a contradiction.

Jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, one of the greatest improvisers, described in a number of ways how the past can be removed through what might be described as a kind of negative capability. He said, “Don’t play what’s there; play what’s not there”, and that it was always important to listen to what to leave out.

Davis famously got angry with saxophonist George Coleman for practising in his hotel room before a gig, telling him he paid him to practise on the bandstand. What Davis was pointing to were ways of being in the moment, a conspicuous feature of his own playing.

To listen to music is also to be transported into a moment. In a sense, the composer’s moment is being transported into the listener’s moment. That is especially the case with jazz, where both the listener and the player are involved in the immediacy of improvisation.

But it is also the case in classical and popular music, no matter how well worked the compositions are. The effectiveness of the music is in large part dependent on that sense of immediacy, of the suddenness of inspiration.

This is not to argue that music is greatly different from other art forms; all require the artist’s inspiration; and that is presumably a momentary thing. But it does lead to an interesting area of speculation: that music transports moments of time from the composer to the listener.

In poetry, ideas of presentness and inspiration are fulsomely examined. Wordsworth had his notion of “spots of time”, Ralph Waldo Emerson talked of the power of “moments”, Gerard Manley Hopkins talked about “inscape”, and James Joyce of “epiphanies”. Indeed, the idea of the artistic moment that is in some sense outside time is something of a trope among poets.

There has been less examination of this idea in music, however. Yet it is what happens with powerful music. To experience the power of Mozart, for example, is partly dependent on being surprised by his melodic movements, and so be drawn into a sense of immediate delight. The enduring power of a Miles Davis solo is in large part dependent on feeling close to his own discovery of where he would go with that solo.

With lesser soloists there is a far greater sense that the playing is pre-packaged; the George Coleman approach, as it were.

Repeated listening eventually removes this sense of immediacy. With lesser compositions, such as pop songs, that tends to make the listener jaded. It is only with the greatest music, that which has an eternal quality, that the sense of immediacy does not fade.

David James is a Melbourne writer and musician.

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