Saturday, September 15, 2012

The End of the Beginning

Unlike literature, music doesn’t really require interpretation. In Truth and Method, Gadamer gives a convincing account of how the interpretative dimension of reading works. The brilliance of Gadamer’s description of what he calls the hermeneutic circle paradoxically illustrates the poverty of considering music in literary terms. In Gadamer’s thinking, interpretation happens through a series of projections that guide the process of reading but that are also consequently revised by it. What a text means, therefore, is not something that is passively revealed by the literary work; rather, interpretation requires projecting hypotheses that at first limit our engagement with the actual heterogeneity of text. Continued reading, however, transforms and enriches those original hypotheses and those reshaped possible interpretations open the hermeneutic circle yet again. In other words, as soon as you start reading you think you know where it’s all going to go but then, SURPRISE MOTHERFUCKER, THINK AGAIN! Interpreting the meaning of something is the dynamic mediation between the reader and the text.

While music has the same temporal dimension as literature—its experience involves the passage of time—it doesn’t involve the same kind of interpretive projections. The anticipation is experiential not semantic, more bodily than cognitive. Take for example the arresting yet completely enigmatic Super Beagle sample that opens Kanye West’s “Mercy.” The question one asks is not “What does that mean?” but “What is he saying?” But even without understanding one word, you experience it musically as counterpoint to the heavy, deliberate, and minimalist beats at the songs opening. It’s a stunning intro. The first time I heard it I could feel my body dilate to the song to feel where it was going. I anticipated affect not meaning, an ending but not a resolution. If it plays any role at all, interpretation is something that happens in music only after most of the somatic sensations that connect us to music dissipate. (This might sound like an odd claim in this blog, but if you notice carefully I hardly ever interpret songs here. Mostly I describe what they do and then use them to illustrate the social/aesthetic/theoretical/personal context that I want to write about.)

Listening to a song for the first time is not like reading a novel for the first time. It’s more like kissing someone for the first time. In such a situation you are very present and aware of your body and what it is feeling. You feel that transitory instant when the space between you and the other person changes from a border separating you to a substance that contains you both. The unshakeable terror of the moment makes you move cautiously and so you sense if your movement towards her (sorry, I can only write this from the perspective of a man who kisses women) is reciprocated. You close your eyes, and if you are moving slowly enough you can feel her breath on your skin and all of the little hairs on your face electrify just before your lips touch. After that, all the situations are different. Some lips are soft and inviting, some oscillate between reserved and daring, some are fixed and unyielding. With some people you know that they will always like the way you kiss them because of the way they kiss you, others you know will never enjoy the way you want to kiss them, and others still seem like mysteries that only time will tell which way the kissing situation will go. Generally though, after that first pause you know how you feel about kissing someone, and when a song ends that first time you have a pretty good idea about how you feel about it also. The first time you hear a song and the first time you kiss someone are similar in one last way: because it’s about newness and raw sensations rather than analysis and reflection, the experience usually doesn’t mean very much.

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