Speaking of Music Again: Oliver Sacks

We’ve been contemplating the mysteries of music over the past few weeks, since our conversations with Gunther Schuller and Richard Powers. What makes a piece of music “great”? It can’t just be revolutionary rhythms or technical difficulty. From where does that inexplicable effect of music on our emotions come?

The andante had just ended on a phrase filled with a tenderness to which I had entirely surrendered. There followed, before the next movement, a short interval during which the performers laid down their instruments and the audience exchanged impressions. A duke, in order to show that he knew what he was talking about, declared: “It’s a difficult thing to play well.” Other more agreeable people chatted for a moment with me. But what were their words, which like every human and external word left me so indifferent, compared with the heavenly phrase of music with which I had just been communing? … I wondered whether music might not be the unique example of what might have been — if the invention of language, the formation of words, the analysis of ideas had not intervened — the means of communication between souls. It is like a possibility that has come to nothing; humanity has developed along other lines, those of spoken and written language. But this return to the unanalysed was so intoxicating that, on emerging from that paradise, contact with more or less intelligent people seemed to me of an extraordinary insignificance.

Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past: The Captive, the Moncrieff-Kilmartin translation, page 260 in Volume III of the Vintage edition, 1982.

OliversacksMusic uniquely among the arts is both completely abstract and profoundly emotional. It has no power to represent anything particular or external, but it has a unique power to express inner states or feelings. Music can pierce the heart directly. It needs no mediation. One does not have to know anything about Dido and Aeneas to be moved by her lament for him. [Henry Purcell’s opera, from 1689] Everyone who has ever lost someone knows what Dido is expressing. And there is, finally, a deep and mysterious paradox here, for while such music makes one experience pain and grief more intensely, it brings solace and consolation at the same time.

Oliver Sacks in Musicophilia, p. 300.

I was always doubly tantalyzed by music: first of all by its patterns, its symmetries, its proportions, its mathematical perfection and abstractness; and and second by the excruciating pleasure which it could produce, and the sweet pain which was beyond words, beyond concepts, beyond expression by anything else…

Oliver Sacks, in conversation with Chris Lydon at the Cambridge Forum, November 5, 2007

As Paul Elie argued elegantly in his Slate review of Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia, there seem to be two Oliver Sackses. In our conversation, we welcomed both the observant clinical neurologist and the patient with 70-plus years of soaring, passionate musical memories:

Language of the heart, and language of souls. There’s part of me which sort of rebels against words like the heart and the soul and transcendence, and yet, and yet, one can’t avoid them. Interestingly, Williams James never uses the term ‘soul’ in The Principles of Psychology, but he continually used it in conversation and correspondence and of course he uses it, it’s central, in The Varieties of Religious Experience

I had a dream the other night. In dreams one escapes from the shackles of one’s own reason and reductionism. And in my dream I dreamt some Fauré; I didn’t know what it was, though when I woke up I realized it was his Requiem. But this in fact went with a vision of star nurseries, the sort of thing which the Hubble reveals and galaxies being formed. I don’t like words like ‘the beyond’ or ‘eternal’ but maybe one can’t avoid them. I may soften up here, but I’m not sure what to say…. Again, my feet are … I’m narrowly, childishly planted in the clinical. I can’t talk about transcendence, and galazies. I think of my patients, you know, who on the whole do not speak in cosmic terms.

Oliver Sacks, in conversation with Chris Lydon at the Cambridge Forum, November 5, 2007

Perhaps the essential question here is what neuroscience (still ragingly conflicted about, for starters, the place of music in our evolutionary history) is contributing to the delicious mystery of music. Will any discovery in the brain circuitry of music trump Proust’s reflections on the experience of sound?

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