Expressing the inexpressible in music

In an essay ‘The Rest Is Silence’ Aldous Huxley wrote that:

From pure sensation to the intuition of beauty, from pleasure and pain to love and the mystical ecstasy and death — all the things that are fundamental, all the things that, to the human spirit, are most profoundly significant, can only be experienced, not expressed. The rest is always and everywhere silence.

After silence that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.

In a different mode, or another plane of being, music is the equivalent of some of man’s most significant and most inexpressible experiences. By mysterious analogy it evokes in the mind of the listener, sometimes the phantom of these experiences, sometimes even the experiences themselves in their full force of life — it is a question of intensity; the phantom is dim, the reality, near and burning. Music may call up either; it is chance or providence which decides. The intermittences of the heart are subject to no known law.

Last night I watched Ólafur Arnalds perform.  His last two songs – Near Light and Lag fyrir Ömmu – were from my favourite Ólafur Arnards album, ‘Living Room Songs’.  For me, his music not only evokes the phantoms of my most significant and most inexpressible experiences but also the experiences themselves in their full force of life. 

Aldous Huxley also wrote that music has things to ‘say’ about the world, but in specifically musical terms:

Any attempt to reproduce these musical statements ‘in our own words’ is necessarily doomed to failure. We cannot isolate the truth contained in a piece of music; for it is a beauty-truth and inseparable from its partner. The best we can do is to indicate in the most general terms the nature of the musical beauty-truth under consideration and to refer curious truth-seekers to the original.

In the depths of my grief, I had listened to Living Room Songs and felt in my heart, subject to no known law, his ability to express the inexpressible through the beauty and rawness of his music.  I didn’t know that Lag fyrir Ömmu translates to ‘Song for Grandma’.  It was written by Ólafur Arnalds for his grandma who had passed away and who was instrumental in defining who he is today. 

Wendy Lesser, an American writer, has said:

The springs of our reaction to music lie deeper than thought… Part of what music allows me is the freedom to drift off into a reverie of my own, stimulated but not constrained by the inventions of the composer. And part of what I love about music is the way it relaxes the usual need to understand. Sometimes the pleasure of an artwork comes from not knowing, not understanding, not recognizing.

Ólafur Arnalds says that the greatest thing about being a musician is to be in the position to inspire other people.  He takes pleasure in hearing that people have been motivated to create after hearing his music, whether it be a painting, a poem, their own music or something completely different.  And that ‘music is not a one way street, it is a conversation where the listener’s role is as important as the artist’s.’

As I reflect on this now, it brings me to something that Cheryl Strayed recently said in an interview:

So I talk about that thing where it’s like, if you had the choice, you were given this terrible box of grief that is the death of your father.  And if you could have it a different way, if he could be alive again, you would choose that.  But you can’t choose that.  He’ll never be brought back to you.  So what you get to do then is decide whether this box that is your grief just becomes a piece of junk that holds you back and is miserable and ugly all the time, or you make it something beautiful.

In the conversation between the listener and the artist there is something so powerful in the beauty of how Ólafur Arnald’s music becomes an aid for others.  In taking Aldous Huxley’s advice, I refer any curious truth-seekers to the original, to all of Ólafur Arnalds’s music.