Music can provide a variety of experiences. Most valuable among them is a magical, spiritual, transcendent experience, one in which the sounds absorb us, take us over,one in which we lose our selves and become the sounds. This loss of self is the aesthetic experience; it is, in a word, beauty. The ultimate experience of beauty is available from the most sublime performances of masterworks of Western art music. And it exists on many levels; it is available to a lesser degree from a lesser performance, or a lesser composition. In fact the quality of a composition is directly a function of the degree to which its performance can provide a sublime, transcendent experience; likewise the quality of a performance is directly a function of the degree to which it maximizes the aesthetic experience available from the composition.
Looking for the “Harp” Quartet: An Investigation into Musical Beauty explores how the composer, performer, and listener all contribute to this most magnificent human experience. In the form of five dialogues followed by three related prose articles, the book takes place over the course of a hypothetical academic year. The dialogues are between Icarus, an inquiring student intensely concerned with fulfilling his highest potential as a musician, and Daedalus, an iconoclastic teacher who guides his search for understanding. A student performance of Beethoven’s String Quartet, Op. 74, “Harp,” serves as a point of departure and a recurring theme for this inquiry into musical beauty.
The first dialogue, “Looking for the ‘Harp’ Quartet,” explores the question, “What is a composition?” Occurring at the beginning of the school year in September, the dialogue introduces the main issues involved in the pursuit of beauty. The listener’s contribution to this highest experience is the focus in December, in “Renoir.” February’s discussion centers around the composer’s contribution in a dialogue entitled “Let’s Be Mookie”; and the performer’s contribution is explored in April, in the dialogue “Gurus.” June brings graduation and a consideration of the future in the last of the dialogues, “First, Last, and Always.”
Better than prose, the dialogue format can lead the reader through the step-by-step, question-upon-question process by which understanding can be built. The process is sometimes messy and frustrating, and that can be well reflected in dialogues.
Icarus exhibits some youthful arrogance, and Daedalus some curmudgeonly intransigence, for which each occasionally “whacks” the other. Over the course of the school year they approach a mutual understanding. But dialogues by their nature can make for tedious reading, so the book is best absorbed slowly, perhaps a subchapter at a time.
Each of the middle three dialogues is supplemented by a prose article of a technical nature. “Remembrance of Things Future” is a phenomenological investigation of the structure of the listener’s consciousness during a transcendent experience of musical beauty. “Patterns of Energy” examines the significance of musical form in the composer’s contribution to such an experience. And finally, “Dynamic Analysis” suggests how analysis may aid the performer, as a result of a more comprehensive consideration of a composition than has been traditionally practiced.
The search for the ultimate aesthetic experience of Western art music—a transcendent, loss-of-self experience—drives the book. It brings us inevitably to an understanding that the composition is not itself the aesthetic object, but is a potential for an experience. That understanding—of the composition as potential—in turn leads to an understanding of a listener’s experience that is not enriched by knowledge. It leads to understandings of the critical role of the gathering and playing-out of energy for both the composer and the performer. And it is the recognition of the critical, all-embracing, hierarchical patterns of energy, which are the consequence of every single element of the composition and of every single element of the performance, that allows for an effective, comprehensive process of analysis that aids performance, and vice versa.
The considerations in this book are specifically germane to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century tonal music from the European continent—a narrow focus in terms of geography and chronology, but one that encompasses the overwhelming majority of the art music performed, recorded, and listened to. Many of the fundamental issues, though, are completely applicable to music of other cultures and time periods.
To be sure, there are two experiential functions of art. One function of art is to bring us to the transcendent state—a magical, loss-of-self condition. Absorbing the aesthetic object fully and openly, losing ourselves in the object—losing the distinction between the “me” and the “anything that’s not me”—brings us into ourselves, and allows us to know ourselves fully in a most profoundly cathartic way. Music can do this, as can visual art.
And there is another function of art, which is to bring us more fully into the world around us. It reinforces our experiences of the world; it makes us think; it gives us new insights; it enriches our experience not of our essential being in and of itself, but of ourselves in relation to our external world. Representative art—artworks that depend for their meaning on understanding the aesthetic object as something, such as literature and drama—can do this. Music and visual art can do this as well. To those who seek this kind of experience from music, Looking for the “Harp” Quartet: An Investigation into Musical Beauty will prove of little value.
The book is a kind of how to manual for musical transcendence, and not a scholarly resource; it offers a path to achieving transcendence, not enriching information; it presents few citations, and relies on no historical precedents for proof. It asks the reader to come with open ears, it points out possibilities, it leads the reader to experience them, and it depends for proof exclusively on that experience.
Icarus and Daedalus come to us from Greek mythology. Daedalus was the uniquely skilled engineer and craftsman banished to the island of Crete; Icarus was his son. To escape the island, Daedalus constructed wings out of feathers and wax. Icarus, against the cautions of his father, flew too close to the sun; the wax melted, the wings disintegrated, and he fell to his death in the waters named for him, the Icarian Sea. This book is offered in the hopes that readers may enjoy the flight, regardless of the humidity of the landing.