Filling in the Gaps: The Questions and Imaginations of Art and Music

A woman plays with the variations of sound produced by her drum.
A manipulation of sound on conventional and unconventional instruments.

“You can understand nothing about art, particularly modern art, if you do not understand that imagination is a value in itself.” – Milan Kundera

I was wandering through a small book store, browsing through the English book section for something I might like to pick up, when I came across a new edition of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. I sat down on the steps, avoiding the trail of water that followed up from various other browsers’ foot prints, and decided to read the new preface in which Lucasta Miller describes the disturbing effects of the novel on its readers; an incomprehensible disturbance that is almost impossible to locate. The solution Miller came to for this problem is that “…great literature was as much about questions as it was about answers.” She explains that readers open the novel with the anticipation of receiving some sort of set answer, when really the book leaves one with more questions than when she initially passed her eyes over the first word. Because many readers use books as a mode of escape, great literature mirrors the unsettling facts about life: sometimes there are no answers, but it’s the thoughts and questions that make life fascinating. As time has melded art into what it is today, this concept of the importance of an idea and a process instead of a final product has taken hold of the art world.

The night before I happened upon this copy of Wuthering Heights, I attended my first electro-acoustic show at Acker Stadt Palast, a small venue hidden within a Berlin courtyard. Folded up cardboard boxes littered the courtyard’s corner, small tables covered by a thin sheet of rain were surrounded by chatting smokers, and the inside of a bar was illuminated through the doorway with soft oranges and yellows, exuding the warmth of the room. My friends and I walked in, paid 6€ for our tickets and crawled in quietly through the side door so as not to disturb the show. With all of the benches full, we found some room on the floor, crossed our legs and began to listen. The peculiarity of the instruments and the sound created for me the same unsettling feeling that Miller ascribes to the novel. The first thing I noticed was the multitude of buttons…

My sister Nicole holds tightly onto the shuttle recreation’s seat, refusing to be pulled out while she presses as many buttons as she can in her last attempts to preserve the imaginary space she had created and navigated through. Finally, after a promise of an Air & Space Museum T-shirt, she is convinced and we continue on, exploring the world of the sky.

The band’s drummer pulls out a large Styrofoam block and draws it across the drum’s surface in quick, sudden movements, pounding two rocks together above the drum in between sounds…

The leaf pile is finally big enough to jump in, set up right next to the curb so that we could build the lower leaves up against something solid. Nicole hands Dad the rake, takes a few steps back and sprints forward, leaping into the air just a few feet before the leaves and comes crashing down into the pile; brown, orange, and yellow flying everywhere. The sound of the damp leaves swishes across the pavement as her feet land in a wet thud.

The man in the middle draws back on a tape reel, manipulating the strip to create bursts of vibrating sounds…

“How do we get the tape out,” I ask Nicole, poking my player with a screw driver.
“Try wedging it under, like this…” She pushes down on the screw driver’s handle, lightly, then harder and harder until we hear a soft crack. “I think it’s broken…”
“Well, damn, that’s my favorite tape. And the radio doesn’t work!” I turn around and hand Ty the screw driver. “You try.”

He crawls up from the back seat and begins to toy with the car’s player. Nicole and I wait for a while in silence, listening to the increasing cracking noises and scratches as the tape gets lodged further into the contraption. Nicole leans up and taps the car’s dashboard.

“Sorry, Lisa,” she whispers sadly.
“Who’s Lisa?” Ty asks, his face consumed by the radio buttons.
“The car.”

Suddenly the music begins to get louder and louder and faster and heavier, beating against the walls with a sudden tantrum of noise. I can’t concentrate on the woman running her fingers over the board of buttons, or the drummer smashing a cymbal against the drum’s top, or the man pulling across the tape reels. I close my eyes and feel the sounds – the unnatural, insane, electric sounds – vibrate through the room; like fist pounding against my heartbeat or an avalanche trapped in my mind. It overwhelms, excites, frightens, gets louder…

Mom’s shouting for me to come down to dinner.
and louder…
The school bell begins to ring before lunch.
and louder…
The car engine roars as we pull out of the driveway.
and louder…
Nicole’s pounding against her closet walls.
louder, louder, louder.
Until there’s silence. And suddenly the sound of my own breath feels foreign in the empty space and my thoughts halt abruptly to match the lack of sound.

I open my eyes and catch my breath, staring blankly ahead of me at the three musicians. Slowly, hands all around me are drawn together in a loud applause and the musicians take a quick bow before disappearing behind a curtain.

I looked over the space again, at the strange array of unconventional instruments and the peculiarity of the simple stage where only three people stand and I understood the unsettling feelings that Emily Bronte creates. I understood the oddity of being left more confused than when you began. Music is my escape, as it is with many people; its purpose is to fill my mind with something other than my own thoughts and yet I had just experienced something that violently threw me into my thoughts and memories and the chaos of my own mind. I finally understood Mark Rothko and the simplicity of his work that is meant not to tell its viewers how to feel but rather to help them feel.

The reason why great art, whether it is literature, visual art, or music, cannot create a simple escape is that it makes you question things; it delves you into the deepest subsets of your mind and draws you out, revealing the chaos and complexity of life. The music that I had listened to did not take me somewhere else, it took me into myself, the way that questions do rather than answers. The music had put sounds to my memories, and my thoughts, and the complete insensibleness of a thought process. Instead of an answer, or a final, complete product, being the work of art, the true art was in how it was created (for electro-acoustic this means various types of electronic technology and other objects manipulated to create various, surreal sounds) and the thoughts that it provoked.

Art today is about imagination; not just that of the artist, but that of the reader, the spectator, and the listener as well.

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