Meaning in Music and Falling Asleep

Diary 5/30/22: What it’s like to fall asleep; The Rake’s Progress on DVD; quotes on meaning in music; Stravinsky as Picasso; and Auden.

Copyright 2022 (text only) by Alan Carl Nicoll
All Rights Reserved


I woke at 3:30 am, went back to sleep and woke again around 4:30.  In trying again to get back to sleep, I experienced something interesting.  I lay awake with my eyes closed, hoping or “trying” to get back to sleep.  Briefly I began reciting to myself the elements of the periodic table, this time starting with rubidium (strontium, yttrium, zirconium, etc.), since this had given me trouble and I had looked it up last night before bed.  (This is my only method of encouraging sleep.)  Then my thoughts wandered and finally settled on a single word, and I was trying to think how it was spelled, but couldn’t—then I forgot the word I was trying to spell, and I recognized that I was almost asleep and that sleep would come very shortly.  And that’s all I remember.  The point is that this is as close as I’ve come to experiencing what it is like to fall asleep.  I have often thought of waking up as the turning on of specific modules, perhaps in a random order, rather than a general turning on of the brain; now it looks like falling asleep may be the reverse process, a shutting down of specific modules in random or partly random order.  This time, a language module, perhaps specifically necessary to spelling, shut down before some kind of more general awareness or internal awareness module.

Sleeping with Fairies

I should mention that I had taken a melatonin pill, 5 mg, before bed.  I had been doing this routinely for about a month, when, a week ago I stopped, then resumed the night before last. My opinion of melatonin as a sleep aid has fluctuated between “slightly useful” and “useless.”

Monte Pederson (L) and Jerry Hadley

Watched Igor Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress on DVD last night. (A full, different, production is available on YouTube.) The experience reminds me of when, in my 20s or late teens, I had bought Alban Berg’s Lulu on LPs based on a rave review in a magazine. I found it so unlike the opera style I was used to, bel canto, that I couldn’t listen to it even once. Stravinsky’s opera, though not bel canto, was interesting enough that I watched the whole thing. It’s clear to me that I won’t be listening to it again for its beauty as music, since I don’t find it beautiful, mostly. The story also has little to recommend it: it’s yet another version of the Faust story. There are two or three other operas based on Faust that I do like for their music. I consider myself a fan of Stravinsky, but mostly that’s because of his famous ballets. (I think of him as “the Picasso of music.”)

Hadley and Dawn Upshaw

The production and singers were interesting enough, and general curiosity about Stravinsky, together were enough to keep me watching; however, I interrupted my viewing to watch an episode of Family Guy and, I think, an episode of The Simpsons. Also during the viewing I looked up The Rake’s Progress in William W. Austin: Music in the Twentieth Century from Debussy Through Stravinsky. This did little more than provide a spoiler for the ending, but it didn’t really affect my enjoyment. That enjoyment was somewhat more than marginal. The production reminded me of a Broadway musical, of which I have seen very few. There was a chorus of mimes dressed as apes, and a singing chorus wearing funny hats of red vinyl. The costumes of the singing chorus changed in each of the three acts. The opera was inspired by a series of paintings, Hogarth’s “Rake’s Progress” paintings, and the libretto was a collaboration between Stravinsky and W. H. Auden. Some of the text was interesting enough that I contemplated going back and writing it down, but, alas, the “moral of the story” was this: idle hands are the devil’s workshop. Overall, I guess I would recommend this DVD to fans of modern opera; I will likely keep the disc for a while, but never watch it again.

Igor Stravinsky stamp

Music in the Twentieth Century is a book that I had previously found interesting, but in reading the author’s discussion of the music of Debussy yesterday, I found it so metaphorical and vague as to be almost useless. The whole question of meaning in music is a vexing one. Leonard Bernstein and Stravinsky have said disparaging things, or perhaps discouraging things, on this subject.  Bernstein said, “The meaning of a piece of music is what it makes you feel.”  The Stravinsky quote is: “My music is best understood by children and animals.”  The Bernstein I copied from a TV show, probably one of his Young People’s Concerts; I don’t have a source for the Stravinsky.

These are not philosophically satisfying. My best guess at what the critics are talking about when they talk about, say, the meaning of a Brahms symphony, is essentially the structure or thematic structure, that is, a tracing of themes and variations through the movements of the symphony. I wanted to quote Austin to illustrate the worthlessness of what he was saying, but the more I look, the less confident I feel in my opinion. Here is the first quote I settled on: “Schoenberg was fascinated equally by the infinite, ungraspable extent of the tonal realm and by its continuity, its absolute oneness. In nearly every composition he tried to suggest both.” p. 37.  I can get a vague sort of idea of what he means here, and I tend to blame myself for not getting more. But much of this book is simply over my head, because my education in music is spotty at best.

This is inconclusive, and I am reluctant to leave it at this, but neither can I expect to settle a question about which I have little to offer but prejudices.  That is, I’m tired of the subject for now.

Perhaps at this point my readers have a clearer idea of how we fall asleep!

Copyright 2022 (text only) by Alan Carl Nicoll
All Rights Reserved

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