Saturday, November 19, 2011

The shape of what isn't there

You know us hippies -- we like nothing more than pondering the imponderable -- preferably in the evening with candles and music. So here we go.

A long time ago, I had a good friend who was a music composer. One day I asked him about a perception I experienced while listening to music. It seemed to me that some composers wrote a sort of stealth music, where the true melody wasn't played. Instead it was described by the music that was played. I thought I heard the music dance around a hidden melody, hinting at it without revealing it. Finding it, hearing it, seemed to be up to the listener. He just looked at me like I was nuts.

This entry is about what isn't there, and how it plays a role in art. For instance, a painting shows someone looking out a window. Something about it makes us wonder what the figure is looking at. We try to decide, using the face and the body's attitude as a guide. In a sense, the painting is pointing our attention toward something that isn't there. The same is often true of photos. Those people are looking at something. What?

Sometimes lyrics describe a negative space. Recently, I bought Robyn Hitchcock's "I Dream of Trains". In a documentary about the album, Hitchcock is asked about the lyrics to "I used to say I love you". His response is that the lyrics are the opposite of what the character in the song really means. Here's a refrain from the song:

"But my heart doesn't ache anymore
 No my heart doesn't ache anymore
 'Cause it just couldn't take anymore
 And I've lost my illusions about you now."

According to Hitchcock, this means the character's heart is breaking and he hasn't lost his illusions about her. It's what the lyrics don't say, that's really meant. Odd, and another version of negative space.

Sometimes absence is the thing that is painted into a picture or described by a melody. What we write, what we sing, what we sculpt, what we photograph -- can carve a negative impression of itself in a complementary reality. Sometimes this is intended, sometimes not.

What is satire if not a play on negative space? By focusing ridicule on a heightened, foolish version of reality, it points our attention away -- to the version that actually exists. Though reality isn't portrayed, if the satire is effective, that reality is what we're thinking about as we leave the theatre. We saw it in negative space.

Let's end with a stretch by taking this out of the realm of art. Sometimes the excesses of a culture literally carve out the inevitable response (OWS). The nature of the excesses paint the picture of what the response must look like. Excess and response: it's all one thing. The people who are the OWS protestors saw the negative space portrayed by the excesses, and filled it.

Too hippie for you? Or are you the one person who trotted all the way down the pike with me on this? If you have, can you think of other examples of something that, by its nature, describes something neither seen nor heard?

And could you blow out that candle? It's way too bright. Oh, that's so much better! Got anything to eat?