View from the East: Learning from Proust

View from the East: Learning from Proust

Greg Sandow

Proust‘s In Search of Lost Time—as we’ve now learned to call his novel, whose name used to be rendered as Remembrance of Things Past—is very long, published in seven separate volumes. Scenes that another writer would treat in a single chapter (conversation at a dinner party, a visit with a friend) might, in Proust, go on for 100 pages. Which is why, when I set Proust to music, I found myself writing very long phrases. That, first, is because Proust writes very long sentences. One I’ve just read (in Sodom and Gomorrah, the fourth volume of In Search of Lost Time) goes on for more than two pages, as part of a paragraph that’s more than three pages long.

But I also wrote long phrases, I think, because of the precise way in which Proust’s novel is long. Some works of art (books, films, pieces of music) are long because they’re made of many parts; they’re full of material, one thing piled on another till the whole thing becomes enormous. But other long creations have the same number of parts as smaller works; the parts, though, are longer, filled with more detail. In Search of Lost Time is like that; so are Wagner‘s operas. I once made a Schenker analysis of the prelude to the second act of Tristan, two minutes, more or less, of music, a span that might make an entire Schubert song. In Schenker terms (if I remember this correctly), nothing at all happened on the background level, and very little in the middleground, though the foreground, as you’d expect, was full of tasty happenings.

Which is to say that this prelude was full of details that, from a larger point of view, barely start to go anywhere, analytically demonstrating what my ear already told me, that Wagner’s operas build their length from just a few sections, which, however, are very long, each one taking slow and measured steps toward a final goal. Proust, I think, works the same way—recounting not so many incidents, but treating each in microscopic and absorbing detail—which is why I found myself writing very long (and detailed) phrases when, as a composer, I fell under his spell.

But there’s much more to Proust than that—as there would have to be, or nobody would read him. What grabbed me recently is his view of art, set forth in his final volume, Finding Time Again. There are many lessons in it for us. Proust thinks that art, primarily, is about things deep inside, things that mirror

[an] inner book of unknown signs (signs which seemed to stand out, as it were, in relief, and which my attention, exploring my unconscious, cast around for, stumbled over, and traced the shapes of, like a diver feeling his way underwater)…

Artists read these signs, or rather grope for them, fumbling till the signs are clearly felt (though not always understood). So when we write music, we translate those signs into sound, even if we don’t know how we do it, or even that we’re doing it. But even so, our music makes sounds that symbolize these signs, or correspond to them. Or might become—because, like the signs, it’s so intangible—another form of them. (But I’d never want to say that it “expresses” them, since “expression” would be nothing more than gushing about the inner signs, or about the feelings we might have for them. Which seems like a trite and feeble enterprise, compared to what artists really need to do).

And of course—in art, looked at this way—there can’t be any rules. We’re better off if we’re not too certain of our style, or our techniques. Because otherwise we’ll write music exactly like the music we’ve written before, or, worse, exactly like the music someone else has written, instead of groping for our inner truth. Without quite knowing what we’re doing, we’ll judge our work by measuring how close it comes to models that already exist. If, let’s say, we’re writing an opera scene, in which a character is angry, we’ll remember other angry music, which establishes conventions for depicting anger. When we see our music follow those conventions, we’ll decide that we’ve succeeded, instead of groping in the darkness till it echoes just the shade of anger we’ve imagined deep within ourselves. (Vignette: Olga Averino, a voice teacher with whom I studied many years ago, would bring her students all together for a class. Somebody would sing, and, in her Russian accent, Olga typically would ask, “What emotion does the person in the song feel?” “The person in the song is angry,” the student would reply. “But which kind of anger?” Olga would demand, and then sing the opening of the song six times, in six precisely differentiated shades of anger, as distinct as six different people.)

As Proust says,

The artist has to listen to his instinct all the time, with the result that art is the most real thing there is, the most austere school of life, and the true Last Judgment.

So what can distract us from our instinct? Ideas, Proust says, are one distraction. They can be tempting—logical, persuasive, instructive—and yet not fully helpful, because they might not echo anything that’s deep within us. Or as Proust puts it, it’s not that our ideas “might not be logically right,” but that, even if they are, “we do not know if they are true.” (“True,” of course, being taken in its most intuitive sense, meaning true to what’s most deep and real inside us.)

To me that means we shouldn’t put much trust in musical analysis. (Even though I love it, and find it really suggest, or at least confirm, important things, as it did in my Schenker experiment with Wagner. But then, as is true with any kind of research or exploratory tool, your instinct has to tell you what to use it for. ) We especially should be wary of the pretense that musical structures—patterns of pitch and rhythm (no matter how logical they might seem, or how tempting)—can tell us what a piece of music really is. Or, once more, as Proust says,

So I had already come to the conclusion that we have no freedom at all in the face of the work of art, that we cannot shape it according to our wishes, but that as it existed before us, and both because it is necessary and hidden, and because it is, so to speak, a law of nature, we have to discover it.

And we can only discover the work with the underwater groping I’ve already spoken of. Strangely, though, it’s precisely here that systems sometimes help, even if logic and analysis can’t be reliable artistic guides. Sometimes—and often at historical turning points, when art and the world are changing—artists don’t know what to do. The past only offers guides that now seem wrong. The present is unclear. In this pregnant and unstable darkness an artist therefore forms a system (or erupts with a manifesto), which—like someone trying out a dowsing rod to look for water—at least points the artist toward a place to dig. I’m thinking here of serialism. Many of us roll our eyes at it (I’ve done my share of that), but we should never forget how hopeful and exciting it once seemed, long ago, or how clearly—since it had so much emotion rooted in it—it sprung from hidden places deep inside the ferment of the postwar years.

But still it’s wrong to think that systems by themselves can power art, or that they’re ever necessary. (Or even that they have to make sense, as serialism in so many ways didn’t. How, for instance, could anyone serialize dynamics, when the twelve dynamic levels Babbitt and others used to specific can’t possibly be measurable quantities, precisely reproducible and unmistakably distinct from one another, but instead are subjective measures of intensity, along a scale that offers no precise breaks between one level and another?)

In fact, one sign that a system really corresponds to some inner necessity would very likely be that, in many ways, it isn’t logical. If, in other words, a system falls apart in the merciless light of common sense and logic, people who believe in it surely need to do so, which we shouldn’t always think is wrong, because it’s emotions, in the end, and not logic, that really make a system plausible. Think of Boulez, making his famous, youthful, wacky proclamation (he was only 27 when he threw it in our faces), that “Anyone who has not felt—I do not say understand—but felt the necessity of the dodecaphonic language is USELESS.” He was saying how excited he was, not (no matter what he thought) laying down any possible law for anybody else. And in doing that, he might just as well have been a guy in a sports bar, shouting “Yankees rule!” (Then—to develop an analogy with last year’s World Series—Boulez added his own version of the inevitable corollary, “Marlins drool!” In his terms, that meant that if you write tonal music in our brave new word, you’re just indulging in nostalgia. But that, to return to last year’s world series, didn’t mean the Marlins wouldn’t win. Which in music means that people, no matter what Boulez thinks, do just fine writing tonal music now.)

But then, as Proust said, “It may well be that the quality of language is a better gauge for the level of moral or intellectual endeavor than an artist’s aesthetic approach.” To me, this suggests that music in any style can be truthful. We’d judge its truthfulness not by external features of its language, but by the inner truth in what that language says. Boulez is right to think that this truthfulness will be reduced (or flattened, or falsified, or sentimentalized), if a piece of music says only things that have been said before. He’d be right, too, to say that this especially can be a problem in new tonal music, which can suffer both from not saying anything fresh—if, perhaps, it adopts the old language too literally—and also from not saying the old things strongly enough (by not using the old language well, one sign of which might be not having tangible, decisive melodies, in a tonal piece whose language seems to call for them).

But there can also be a kind of magic, in which a tonal language can seem to be antique, and still begins to speak for our own time. (I say “seem,” because if this language can be used for any kind of current truth, then really it’s contemporary.) That might be because our time is full of music, written in so many languages, from so many eras, which makes those languages ours. Though with meaning that they didn’t have originally, because our experience with them creates new flavors. Proust:

…a thing that we have looked at long ago, if we see it again, brings back to us, along with our original gaze, all the images which that gaze contained.…Some name, read long ago in a book, contains among its syllables the strong wind and bright sunlight of the day when we were reading it.

Music of the past—along with the musical idioms in which it’s written—carries with it memories. We can’t just write in the language of that music, by reproducing the harmony and rhythms that the language offers us, and which we love. We also have to reproduce the feelings—the elusive inner traces—that those harmonies and rhythms (along with the phrasing, tone, and maybe most important, because it’s so physical, the sheer sound of older music) bring (and for so many years have brought) to life inside us. We can’t just copy musical styles of the past; that’s impossible. Unavoidably, if we use them, we write commentaries on them.

And the more we’re alive to that, the more truthful our commentaries can be. The same applies to languages of the present. Or—and here things get very interesting—to languages that seem to be contemporary, but really aren’t. Here’s I’m thinking of 20th century atonal styles, which seductively seem new because they haven’t yet been digested into the classical music mainstream, but in fact are old. They don’t seem to have any solid point of reference, either in current musical life, or current life of any kind, and so—when composers use them now—they can seem strangely empty, especially when composers excitedly believe in them. The commentary on them, which composers inevitably (if unconsciously) create, speaks of needs left unfulfilled (needs which, along with the emptiness brought by not fulfilling them, might grow stronger as the composer’s passion grows).

Which of course didn’t happen when these styles were new. When styles are new, everything written in them seems to tell a crucial truth, even if it’s just the truth of newness. The styles responded to a need, but the need could be satisfied simply by using the styles. The truth of newness, though, isn’t all that deep. So later, when a style at last becomes familiar, we can weigh the inner truth of everyone who used it.

Proust once more:

The reality to be expressed resided, I now realized, not in the subject’s appearance but at a depth where appearance hardly matters, that truth had been symbolized for me by that clink of a spoon against a plate, or that starched stiffness of a napkin…

Here he talks about the kind of experience that led to the most famous passage in his book, the one thing, I’d think, that people who haven’t read it are likely to have heard about. This is the passage where Proust’s main character —like Proust, named Marcel, and with experiences in his life not unlike Proust’s, but yet not Proust, and normally referred to simply as The Narrator—puts part of a madeleine into a spoonful of tea (a Madeleine, says Proust, is “a squat, plump cake” that looks “as if [it has] been molded in the grooved valve of a scallop shell”), and the taste floods him with certainty and joy. That, he at length understands, is because that taste brought back a memory of a madeleine dipped in tea that he’d eaten as a child, and thus brought the past—which he’d thought was dead forever—back to life inside him. (Or, to put that differently, it brought him nearer to his inner signs.)

That comes early in the first volume of In Search of Lost Time. In the final book, he has three experiences like the madeleine, one after another, but now, involving the oddity of stepping on uneven paving stones, and (as as Proust recalls in the passage I’ve just quoted) the clink of a spoon and the stiffness of a napkin that the Narrator uses to wipe his mouth.

That napkin, Proust has his Narrator say, “had precisely the same degree of stiffness and starchedness” as a towel with which he’d dried his face in a town by the seashore he’d visited in childhood. So the napkin now “unfolded for me—concealed within its smooth surfaces and its folds—the plumage of an ocean green and blue like the tail of a peacock.” And also the smell of his room, the strength of the wind, how much he’d looked forward to eating lunch, and the way he’d which familiar walk he’d take in the nearby countryside.

This is just what I said older music—and its language—does. But really I think all music works like that. Each pattern of notes that we create evokes associations, both with other music and with impressions of the outside world. Sometimes (though rarely) I can trace those associations in my own work. A passage at the end of a string quartet I finished recently carries echoes of a chord progression from Berlioz‘s Les Troyens, echoes I don’t think anyone but me could hear. Those echoes helped me when I wrote this passage, which is how I know they’re there. I was stuck; as I groped, I brushed against the chords from Berlioz; gratefully I seized the hint his music offered, and (though I hope I never copied him) I found the notes that took me onward.

But I think memories like these—and memories of real-world life—are buried everywhere in everything I write. And, of course, in everything that everybody writes. And I also think that we create associations whenever we listen to music. Music, then, becomes a perpetual madeleine, always throwing open doors of memory (maybe more so than the other arts, because it so rarely suggests anything tangible that could block our depths from opening). Its truthfulness is measured by how new the doors it opens are—new, even though those doors in turn are formed from memories. As Proust says,

When [a writer] writes…there is not one gesture of his characters, not one mannerism, one tone of voice, which has not been supplied to his inspiration by his memory, there is not one name of an invented character beneath which he cannot subsume sixty names of characters he has seen, one of whom has posed for the grimace, another for the monocle, this one for anger, that one for the conceited movement of the arm, etc.…

Which, as I’ve said, is true for music, though here it might be harder to say just what each gesture is composed of (or, in the musical sense of “composed,” composed from). But there’s no way to mistake the sweetness and, once more, the truth, that—in a fully alive, fully felt, and fully honest piece—everything within these gestures leads to. As Proust wrote,

And as art exactly reconstructs life, an atmosphere of poetry will always hover around the truths that one has reached in oneself, a gentle sense of mystery which is merely the remains of the semi-darkness we have had to pass through, the indication, as precisely marked as on an altimeter, of the depth of a work.

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