Music and the “Opera Aperta”

I was talking to an old friend last night.  He had read my blog posts and his response was incredibly insightful and thought-provoking.  First a little background, this friend is a professional musician and an author of several books about music.  He is incredibly creative, intelligent, and one of the most insightful people I have had the pleasure of calling a friend.

His reply to my blog was about music, naturally, and how music provides for him a similar experience as the written word does for me.  Then he said something that set me thinking…  he said he spends his time “reading” music, that his  “ears are always giving [him] information, and there is a whole universe of things in sound that cannot be put into language.” Fascinating.  Now I love music in most of its forms, and consider myself a sophisticated listener, but I’d never quite thought of it that way.  As much as I love reading, I have to admit that music can be incredibly powerful, even transcendent, with its own unique vocabulary that is open to such broader, and more personal interpretation.

That, in turn, got me thinking about a book that I read years ago, Umberto Eco’s Opera Aperta (The Open Work), one of his earlier works about the dance between text and reader (yes, Eco again, at least until I finally read Prague Cemetery).  In this book, Eco argues that a text can be read an infinite number of ways, depending on the reader, the context, and myriad other factors.  Eco himself also states that musical compositions are also “open works”, offering “fields of possibilities” of interpretation, by performers who interpret the scores, and of course, by the listener, who brings with her all manner of unique experiences and perspectives.  This idea of such an intimately interactive relationship between reader and text, listener and music, viewer and art,  is truly at the core of how we meaningfully experience the world around us… this constant dance of thought and change, affecting later interpretations and experiences, a process, that if we keep our minds open and alive enough, can last throughout our lives.  As Eco so eloquently states at the end of the Spiegel article that I blogged about yesterday,

If you interact with things in your life, everything is constantly changing. And if nothing changes, you’re an idiot.

At this point, I began reflecting on some of my more powerful moments of listening to music.  At those moments the music is such an intensely personal experience.  Like the author can provide structure but not explicit meaning, so too with music… the musician or composer can hint and nudge, but ultimately the meaning that we derive is truly and uniquely our own.  And as such, we develop the same intimate relationships with the music that matters to us much in the same way that we develop such personal relationships with our books.

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9 thoughts on “Music and the “Opera Aperta”

  1. Good post, Kris.

    Context, yes. But I’d include stage of life as well. But maybe that’s ‘context’ after all. There are books that we may read before it’s time – before we can truly appreciate them. Those books that we read at the perfect time, the time when we may be most receptive to what they have to tell us, are books that will forever be pinned in our memories related to a certain stage of our lives. When I was a big book saver (space concerns have limited me now), I’d write the month and year that I read it in the front. When I’d pull a book down from my bookshelf, that date would be the key for me to tell me where I was when I read it, what my concerns were at that time – and even sometimes how it may have moved me in a certain direction.

    Music though needs no such artificial devices for remembrance. Maybe this is because music is more visceral, more embedded in our gut. I do know that there are certain songs that can transport me back to the first time I heard it, or how I used to listen to another song over and over in a certain context. I can even remember for a lot of my music where I bought it. With some, I even have a mental picture of the buying experience, walking home with Blonde on Blonde for example. I can tell a lot of stories about certain songs, certain albums. Something I can’t really do with books.
    I have to say that with my penchant now to primarily go for digitized versions of both books and music, the distinctions are mostly lost now.

  2. Thanks for the comment.

    I agree about how where we are in our lives affects our reading of books. I’m currently rereading a book for the fourth time in about nine years, and its been a different experience each time. Its as if I respond to and interact with a different part of the text, a different level of the text’s meaning each time. Every time I open a book to reread it, I am reminded of that famous adage (Heraclitus, I think?) about not being able to step into the same river twice.

    About music, yes, music is a much more visceral experience. Whereas books speak to my mind and intellect (and my by extension my emotions), music seems to bypass logic. My memories attached to music are much more grounded in my emotional reaction to it. I mean, I can remember as if it were yesterday the first time I listened to Pink Floyd’s “Meddle” album, or the day I brought home Paul Simon’s “One Trick Pony,” or the first time I listened to an entire piece by Bach or Mozart.

  3. And funny note about digitized formats. Although I was completely comfortable switching to digitized music (I picked up an ipod the second they came out and spent hours on “napster” way back when), I still haven’t been able to make the switch to digitized books. I have a Kindle and find that its fine for casual fiction or quick reads, but my need to actually score the page, to quite literally interact with the text through annotations makes having an actual book almost necessary.

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  8. The Open Work is a book I keep coming back to. I love how you articulated your personal reaction to artistic openness in your final paragraph. Openness is something to be valued in Art it self but also in the interpreter of Art. So often that is overlooked.

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