Saturday, May 21, 2011

It's not water, but...

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, "Morning, boys, how's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, "What the hell is water?”

Chuckle, chuckle, right? That’s how I reacted when I first heard these words spoken by David Foster Wallace in his speech This Is Water given at Kenyon College in 2005. At first it sounds like the type of joke that would be told at a dinner party of intellectuals. But then, after letting this idea marinate in my brain for a while, it seems sort of dark, sad, and revealing. Do we really know what we are living in? Well, I suppose our air is comprised of 78% nitrogen and 21% oxygen (and 1% “other stuff”), but do we really understand our surroundings? How can we comprehend what our world is if we only can see through our first hand perspective? We all know that life isn’t just direct visuals and experiences. In the same speech, Foster Wallace also says, “Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely talk about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness, because it's so socially repulsive, but it's pretty much the same for all of us, deep down. It is our default-setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth.”
I recently did a presentation for school on Wallace Steven’s poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” and themed it on perspective—so, not only does this quote exemplify what I’ve been thinking about for a while exclusively, but it outlines how we all think most of the time. And guess what? Foster Wallace’s speech can be applied to music (and I have my teacher to thank for showing me this speech and starting this comparison). On paper, music seems like it falls into the same category as every other thought we have—since it comes from one (in most cases) composers’ point of view, isn’t it just as self-centered as all other products of humans’ minds? Can music really help us know what we are living in or let us know what the hell this water is? Yes, and here’s the exception: music isn’t like any other art form—it’s not always the same. Unlike, say, a painting or sculpture, it changes every time it is performed and is guaranteed to be perceived differently to every single listener, every single time. Music is one of the escapes from this perspective tunnel vision, because not only does it demand a different perspective every time, but it demands that we understand this concept.

File:David Foster Wallace.jpg
Foster Wallace, photo by Steve Rhodes 

I was listening to Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 yesterday (definitely in the symphony kind of mood). The massive work is around 90 minutes, divided into 9 parts, and is also called the “Resurrection.” However, after the first part (Allegro maestoso) was over, I thought the resurrection had already taken place. The rise and fall of the emotion in the first section is similar to what I would think of as a musical resurrection, with the cellos making triumphant strides against the tremolo of the nervous violins, climaxing, and then relaxing to a confident yet calm closure. Of course, I knew that I still had 8 more parts to go. My perspective was changed by Mahler’s notes, but also simply by the length of the piece. It was impossible for me to be the center of the perception of the piece because Mahler had composed it, Zubin Mehta had conducted it, and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra had performed it, inevitably different from all the other times they had rehearsed it. But, the next time I listen to the piece, I’ll think of it differently because of my past experiences with it.
One of the many ideas that Foster Wallace presents is that a liberal arts education is often thought to “teach you how to think.” He plays around with this idea, and I thought, if music is an escape from these self-centered default settings, does music teach you how to think as well? In a sense, yes. Not only does it improve our brains technically, but it can almost be like a perspective exercise. It’s not possible to know exactly what a composer was thinking at every moment of the composition of a piece—we have to fill in the blanks of the inception, the duration, and the closing of every note, and we always will know that we will never be right. I think it’s almost an unspoken rule that music touches us all in different ways; if we all know this, we all must recognize that the person sitting next to us in a venue might be getting a completely different emotion from a piece or maybe even the same emotion as us. If we know these things, our tunnel vision can be widened and allow us to see in a more three dimensional way. Music isn’t water, but I guess we could call it a glass that the water resides in. I’m still asking myself the same question the young fish asked themselves, but I think when we listen to music we at least know how to approach the question and how to grasp it comfortably.                                                         

The speech is too complex for me to convey in around 800 words, so... 


  1. Elena,

    What a wonderful post! I am intrigued by DFW's words, and I love your connection to music. As fish live in water, humans exist in an ether carrying vibrations, sound; therefore, sound, or in a reduced form vibration, seem essential to our existence, one of the simple realities DFW considers. The idea of our ego-centric experience resonates with me as well, and I've been spending a lot of time thinking about the importance--if not the paramount responsibility--of an individual to try and develop a perspective beyond the self. The ability to empathize, while inherently human, is difficult to achieve, yet it may be essential to peaceful world. Would humans ever commit acts of violence if they truly knew the pain it would cause for another party? At the least, a perspective beyond the self would seem to significantly reduce the episodes of brutality occurring in the current world. With all that, I am interested in the ability of music and other forms of arts to promote the development of less-self-centered perspectives within us.

    Possible? I don’t know.

    Congratulations on all your fantastic accolades, and thanks for sharing your wonderful blog with the world!


  2. Olson:

    I completely agree with your connection to empathy! So many of our decisions are made in reference to ourselves, but if empathy was an emotion we didn't have to force, I wonder how different our world would be (probably very). Music is in a sense empathetic at its core, because it affects everyone to some degree, even if that effect is discomfort or dislike. Insteady of implanting emotions on others, like the emotion sympathy, music invades us and makes us realize our own emotions while at the same time showing us the minds of the composers.

    I think, among the thousands of other things we can learn from music, this could benefit us greatly. Can we make a law that everyone is required to listen to music for at least an hour each day?