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Towers of Babel?

If your mother-tongue is Swahili, Icelandic, Uzbekistan, Maori or one of the more familiar world-languages: Spanish, Chinese, Arabic, Italian or Russian it is always possible to translate it into “real” (UK) or American English. Such a human request as: “I need a drink of water!” can be translated from any of the world’s thousands of languages and local dialects. This is the universal capability of the spoken and written word: we have virtually exact equivalents in our own European languages. Despite this, it has often been realised in the past, more so than in modern times of universal communication, that probably some cultures, remote from our own, have concepts that are not properly understood by us in western society. In the same way we have long-standing historical notions of thought and philosophy of which other cultures probably still do not have any concept. This divide, it has been said, was, if not to some extent still is, one of the great stumbling blocks to world co-operation in agreeing treaties between one country and another: Some basic philosophical ideals, almost universal in western society, appear not to be capable of being understood by societies who view the human condition and morals differently from our own. In the main, however, the simple words of human usage, no matter from whatever near or distant society, can somehow be translated from one to the other.
Listening to discussions between experts or reading analytical reviews and theses in almost any field: literature, art, the theatre, economics, religion, politics or whatever, language can be revealing and assist one to understand the essence of the speaker’s or the writer’s personal view. Over the years I have read countless books about music. Many of them have become universally accepted authorities on this or that aspect of it. Without many of such learned - or even modest personal opinions - we should perhaps still be un-enlightened about many of the tantalising things that we have come to know through our reading what others have discovered. Unlike almost all other topics, such as the visual arts or literature, however, discussing or writing about music can be an elusive subject. Of course opinions about this or that kind of music, this or that composer from a variety of cultures or periods of history is a matter of personal taste that can be accepted or rejected. In the same way opinions about performance and the often conflicting ways that any given piece of music is interpreted can be a matter of the most absorbing debate.
Compared with most other things we can contemplate and discuss with others, perhaps by its nature, music somehow seems forever to remain elusive. Obviously it is possible to say whether a certain piece appeals, and - roughly - even to recognise why we either like or dislike it; whether it has one quality or another. Unlike most other means of communicating ideas, though, it cannot properly be translated into another language. Whilst it is relatively straightforward to say what a novel or a play is about, or what a picture illustrates, to which there is no gainsaying by critics; describing what a piece of music is really about is almost impossible. Music allied to words - all vocal music, whether opera, folk-song, oratorio, love songs, politically-stirring national anthems, is obvious enough, for the words explain everything and music - even if exalted enough in itself in such cases - does after all depend on the words to confirm what the emotional or intellectual intention is; words give the secret away. It is with music that has no verbal explanation that can leave the listener guessing. One of the sometimes irritating aspects of this abstract, or absolute music is that we are often bombarded with explanations that are not necessary. Academics, like research scientists are ever seeking to explore hidden meanings. This can be useful to all of us in the pursuit of a better understanding, and through generations of writers and thinkers we have been brought to a better understanding of what music is really about; so we have to be grateful for the researches they have made. The objection to a lot of written commentary such as critics indulge in, is that it can be so conflicting: each claiming that his or her view is the true explanation of the music’s meaning; whereas there can never be a final and true explanation which relates to each individual listener’s own perception
As with so many other facets of knowledge, some things appear - at least in the present state of discovery - to remain unknowable. It has been remarked before in some of these commentaries that music is certainly a language; but unlike literal languages it has this unique quality of being universal, or virtually so, while at the same time being incapable of translation. This is the paradox: the concepts expressed in Swahili, Icelandic or Tibetan can be translated with precision and accuracy as to what they mean in our own languages, but music, being universal in one sense is not capable of being more accurately translated from itself. We all “know” what it means though we can never say exactly what it means to us personally. We can draw close parallels, but these only ever remain notions at the back of our own minds that we cannot find counterpart words in any other verbal or literal language to define precisely what such and such a passage of music means to us.
Despite the ever-growing number of theses, essays, analyses, critiques, reviews, academic dissertations and musical books of all kind that confront us, in many ways perhaps we would be better not to be cajoled into accepting this or that expert’s assessment or “translation” of what a piece of music really means, but merely listen and leave it at that. Every piece of music which we hear for the first time has it unique meaning for each one of us. Whether, by reading a review of it and being exhorted to get to know what its meaning is said (by others) to be, there can be no substitute for the unique meaning - which we cannot even describe to ourselves - having something about it that, while we might struggle endlessly to explain, it remains tantalisingly elusive in our minds: either forever captivating and infinitely meaningful and alluring, (or totally repellent); we shall never truly be able to find the precise words to describe to another person the exact inner meaning or vision music brings to us.
Arthur Butterworth

January 2007


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