This essay is in a context of other questions that ask: what is the meaning of music? It is part of a larger work but I wanted to share this section, as it plunges into the phenomenology of music and attempts to get at what is rich in a composition. The overall whole aims at seeking what the being of music is; this is a brief stop along the way.
The Music of Philip Wesley: “Two Souls”
Let us begin our listenings by focusing on a peculiar instrument and its capacity for rich emotional expression: the piano. The piano is representative of music in an essential, stripped-down way. If there is any substance to a song at all it can be played on the piano. The piano is purely music, pure and simple. We say “pure” intentionally and in a twofold manner. It is pure in the first sense in its basic character. The music of the piano is boiled down to its essential nature of rhythm and melody. It is in the simpleness of the piano that the instrument is able to attain its expressive element. It is pure in the second sense in the pureness of its harmonic character, in its generation of sine waves or “pure” tones. It is in this tonality that the piano is able to achieve the character of intimacy. The instrument has a special capability of producing quiet, romantic, solemn, sad, and nostalgic soundscapes that directly capture and reflect deep human emotions. Some striking examples of this are the nocturnes of Frédéric Chopin. A virtuoso, he is called the “poet of the piano”. But there is poetry that dwells within the being of the piano. Within and out of the simplistic pureness of the piano, the piano manifests the elegant marriage of meter, harmony, dissonance, melody, and intimacy. In its containment of mathematical ratios that make up the harmonic series, the piano rings out musical scales that are the alphabet of musical language. Through this language, the piano speaks to us its pure poetry. Chopin is the poet of the piano, but he is only so because firstly there is poetry in the piano. This poetry discloses a world to us: the peaceful rippling of the lake as aquatic life whoosh and bubble in the water, a scene of distant stars in the cold night sky as one sits in a field and thinks of lost love, a lonely bench in the evening that one rests upon in solitude. This and more all happen because of the poetry in the piano.
Keeping this in mind, let us now listen to what speaks in the piano. Our considerations turn to the brilliant pianist Philip Wesley and his beautiful piece titled “Two Souls”. For the most part, we want to go in to the song with a blank understanding of what the artist intended the piece to be about. There is an aspect of music that consists of interpretation, even for those compositions that were specifically written about something. There always remains an area on the listener’s part that is reserved for interpretation. This has to do with the expressive nature of music itself. What would appear as a slow, solemn, poignant rendition of “Amazing Grace” could represent for one the slow and drawn-out, painful process of a personal meaning of salvation, and for another, it could merely stand as a peaceful rendition of the song meant to be played for the aid in sleep. What we are aiming for in this instance is to go in to the song neutrally and remain open for what the piece musically wants to impart to us. And so without further ado, let us listen to the piece “Two Souls”.
We begin the piece bearing in mind that a song is a way of telling, and what immediately opens up to us? We notice the song starts in a slow and intimate manner. The piece takes its time, greeting us only with an opening strike of a chord. The notes linger and fade, and after a time the second chord is played. With these two chords together we get an impression of sentimentality while the piece remains solemn. A sense of being weighed down presents itself. Something heavy seems to be weighing on the heart. We are lured in with the despondency of these two opening chords. But the piece has not yet started its direct telling-communication with us. The two chords are setting a space for the piece to begin its introduction. It is with the repeating of the two chords that we are briefly introduced to some new notes. With these new notes, the piece begins its telling. But it does not reveal all at once. In its introduction the telling is restrained, is holding itself back. There is more there that the piece is unspoken about. It says just enough to introduce to us its heartache, its bereavement; and then again it remains silent and withdrawn by repeating the opening chords alone. It then restates its burden, but only briefly and in the same manner of holding back. It is by this holding back that we get the impression that there is more there, that the piece means more than it says. It makes supreme use of its silence. We are introduced to a progression, but in the same way as before in the holding back of melody. We were only briefly introduced to the piece’s telling, but only in a way that shortly set up a certain heartache and longing.
We are now being gently transported to the crucial place where the piece wishes to divulge its communication. The progression is restated but it now feels the decisive time to continue its story with us through melody. What is it that it wishes to say? It sings in its melody of a certain sad emptiness and yet it also conveys a sense of quiet respite. It does certainly possess a sense of calm restfulness, but there seems to be an underlying ambiguity. It is peaceful, nocturnal; and yet it sets a scene that is also forlorn and introspective. Perhaps through the quiet stillness, it wishes to reflect on its heartache and that which has been lost. There seems to be some evidence that supports this through this particular passage, as it is setting up the next movement of the progression. And how does the next movement correlate with the previous? It is entirely yearnful, detached in longing. There is a certain Saudade that is conveyed, as if in a looking back in reflection on the incurred loss and a looking forward to existing in this tragic state—a charting of the implications of a life in ruin. But then something unexpected happens. There suddenly seems to be a sort of clearing or lighted place that approaches at the peak of these mournful passages. Perhaps it is an early indication of the signs of morning, a new day. But this early morning, this new day, is not of the sort that is associated with notions of a positive rebirth, an uplifting new start, a happy new beginning. Contrarily, the piece wants to remain downtrodden, dejected. This new early morning remains in a sense uncanny.
We were previously being transported to the crucial place that the piece wishes to disclose its essential matters to us. As we have reached this clearing place through the night of soulful reflection, this lighted place of an uncanny new day is the essential space that the piece has wished to transport us all along. Through patient thoroughness and hesitant holding back the piece has been slowly building the impetus to transport us to this exact moment and location. The piece takes a new turn in its telling. It has made sufficient use of its silence and withdrawal, and now it desires to commune with us in a direct way. The uncanny morning is young, so too is the futural life of ruination. Those charted implications are now becoming bitterly realized. The telling has become more talkative. Perhaps these matters are more poignantly being addressed, more so for that which has been lost. The melody is thoughtful in its sombre address. Expressed is the love it had for that which has been lost, and its bitter, unresolved state of affairs.
Until now the structure of the piece has been loosely free-form. The night of reflection was long and drawn out until we reached our destination of the uncanny new morning. Exactly what was uncanny turned out to be the piece’s continuance of despondency within the soulful morning. At the beginning of the uncanny morning, the piece launches itself out of a free-form structure and into a traditional one of verse and chorus. Its next movement is the chorus. Through it we have reached the epitome of what the piece wishes to disclose to us; we have reached its zenith, noon. A fury of sadness, yearning, incompleteness, ruin, and bitterness outpour through a chorus, a tearful address. Perhaps things that were never allowed to be articulated are now being released outward in explosive, crashing melody. Despondency is given over to dance, a caper over love and joy, a cavort of weeping statues. But it has been a long night, and now noonday begins to wane. The uncanny sun begins its journey back to the horizon. The night sleeper has begun to daydream. What does life mean anymore in ruination?
After its speaking of the essential affairs the piece subtly delivers us back to the verse—only now the melody has been transposed up an octave. By this transposition, there is bestowed on us a feeling of finality. Evening is heading to its night. There is also a sense of recollection and summation of everything the piece has divulged to us. In the transposed retelling of the melody, the piece is ongoing in its seeking of resolution to all that has been lost. At the very end of the melody, in its last utterances, the piece begins to ever so lightly become quiet—lowering in volume—perhaps a final sign of the piece’s coming conclusion, a last endeavor of resolve. The moon is full in the futural sky; we have once again returned to night, and in the turn we reach midnight. We have come full circle. A certain nostalgia fills the air as reflection once again graces the night. But this reflection, in its summation of everything gone before, is futural—is looking towards the horizon. The very last tender throes of the piece begin to slow in tempo, as in the wind, just before shifting in a new direction. But what new direction are we facing in this turn of events? We look to the piece itself for an answer, as in looking upon a face in discerning its emotional expression. But the piece stares back at us in ambiguity in its final striking of the root chord. We are left to wonder. The chords themselves are resolved, as any trace of a leading tone is nowhere in sight. We have come “right back home” where we started. And yet, in this musical resolve, we are faced with a possibility of despair, condemnation—unresolve, irresolution. Despite there being no trace of a leading tone, we are left hanging, almost as in midair. We are left to wonder.