What Music Has to Say

In his essay, “Why Read the Classics”, Italo Calvino declared that “a classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say”.

Though I don’t recall Calvino saying whether the classics spoke in the same language as us, whether the classics spoke under breadth to us, or whether the classics spoke in tongues to us. The classics may never be finished with what they have to say, but do we even know what they’re saying?

Music might be the most incoherent and babbling of all the arts: it speaks in different languages, under breath, and in tongues. Trying to understand what music means can be like an infinite game of telephone.

Hegel proposed that forming an idea took three stages. Let’s use making a clear statement about music as the idea here: Being (something exists, say John Cage’s 4:33), Essence (coming up with what 4:33 means), and Notion (declaring definitely that 4:33 means x).

Within the Essence stage one has to collect all of the different propositions, distinguish the contradictory ones, and after elimination arrive at a proposition which can move onto the Notion stage According to Hegel, the problem with music is that it’s stuck in the Essence stage. Since the music doesn’t necessarily say what it is clearly, we have to try to understand it ourselves. And that lends problems within itself.

Take 4:33 for instance. There have been various propositions, complementary and contradictory, from Cage and contemporaries and scholars, that have been boiling about the piece. Yet the conversation still continues on what the piece means. No closure has been made.

Maybe part of being a classic is also that it’s something people are never finished with trying to understand. But then again that might just be a part of music itself.


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