This poor writing website has been languishing for a long time with nothing on it, partly because all of the things I desperately want to talk about are things that I ultimately can’t. I believe in my little website, however, and decided to make a concerted effort to revive it. At Barnes and Noble the other day I bought a discounted book of writing prompts, and I vow to fill this site with writing, as often as I can, for at least a year. I realized that I’ve been wanting to write with no outlet for it, and this is as good an excuse as any. I can’t promise to stay remotely on topic, but who wants that, anyway?
Prompt 1: What are ten sounds that you associate with winter?
At Rutgers, one of the first General Honors Program classes that I took was about musical synesthesia, taught by Dr. Gary Chenoweth. The textbook for it was the first dense book of academic philosophy that I’d ever read, entitled Sound and Sense. It was so dense and philosophical that it actually broke me, and I honestly haven’t been able to read a book of philosophy all the way through ever since. I remember the gist of it, that western music created a lexicon over time that enabled people to associate certain sounds with other senses — smell, touch, taste, movement, words, nature, etc. Conversely, commonly accepted onomatopoeia made its way into music and became the standard “phrase” for referring to things. For example, thunder = drums. (See, book? Not to be anti-intellectual, but that wasn’t so hard to state in two sentences!) Despite the density of the textbook, I really enjoyed the class.
On second thought, maybe this textbook (with examples written in musical notation) was my first realization that there was a level of learning I’d have to achieve before being able to comprehend certain things, and in this case, the bar was constituted by an entire musical language. Perhaps that was the point at which I threw up my hands and admitted academic defeat. “I guess I’ll have to just pretend that I get it,” I probably thought to myself, staring at musical notation interspersed with philosophical writing.
Defeated or not, the best part of class was when we listened to things. Chenoweth introduced me to Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, and handed me the realization that the classical music I’d learned in ballet class was just the flat plain from which mountains of crazy, joyous sound could emerge.
I remembered that as a child I’d watched Rudolf Nureyev’s version of Rite of Spring on PBS, and recalled falling into the intense story of crazy sacrifice, watching the crash and fall of dancers as they invoked ancient myths. The music fell like a hammer, drove the naiads to a frenzy, described the rise and fall of their limbs. Researching further, I discovered that the original choreography was by Vaslav Nijinsky. I found his published Diary and read it, and stared at the black and white pictures of what must have been the most exciting and vibrant modern dance performance to ever flop completely.
Nijinsky wrote in searingly direct prose. His choreography was the fascinating iceberg that described the fruition of thought about myths and rituals and their meaning. (I tried, just now, to find a connection to Carl Jung, and am surprised that I haven’t found anything written yet — they were all contemporaneous, Jung, Stravinsky, Nijinsky, and their philosophies were of a kind.) Through the synesthesia of ritual turned into a musical lexicon, movement took shape, meaning arose.
Although I’ve never felt the need to revisit Sound and Sense, I’ve always wanted to dance this choreography. This is something that I learned about myself. My first impulse when synthesizing a new idea is to create art out of it, and not something academic.
So here are ten sounds of spring instead, all hidden in this terrible, beautiful music.