April 16, 2007

“That pleasure which is at once the most pure, the most elevating and the most intense, is derived, I maintain, from the contemplation of the beautiful.”
-Edgar Allen Poe

I spent a lot of time thinking about this quote and I think it can actually be approached at many angles. On one hand, looking at something beautiful and just being taken back is a pretty primal, simple, and basic feeling, and it is also has a lot of pureness. What moves the heart is usually immediate pleasure like love at first sight and then it’s subsequent destruction. But anyone who knows anything knows that taking love at first sight seriously is risky business. Unfortunately it almost never happens and has very little meaning, and it is barely even real. There is a difference between being romantic and being hopelessly romantic. I could go on for hours with another rant about what true love is, but I’m not quite sure I have the right to do anything like that because most of my feelings on the subject are based purely on intelligent speculation. But it seems pretty generally argued that real love isn’t about loving someone because of how they look. It is about personality and experience, and maybe that already completely turns everything people know about beauty backwards on a daily basis. In any case, I have seen some beautiful things. If only I had realized that my eyes suck before I had gone to see Niagra Falls or the flower gardens at Millenium Park. But then again, I only really realize how dull my vision is when I put on my glasses. Before I conciously realize how much more beautiful everything is with my glasses on, everything is, to me, how it should be. That is a matter of perception. I almost never wear my glasses, because they are uncomfortable and they get me all worked up about how crappy my true vision is.

Which is very interesting, actually. I had a talk in my writers workshop that spawned all of this, and at one point we got to the fact that the pictures that are extremely detailed and photorealistic are often the least beautiful. Because really, our world isn’t always so detailed and perfect. People started trying to make animation realistic a long time ago, and the idea was to be perfectly realistic. What these people didn’t realise is that people don’t want to watch movies or play games that are realistic, because that’s no fun. We are all used to realism anyway, because we are real. Making a face as detailed down to the pore as possible is working at the expense of art. When I put on my glasses, and I’m being very sincere here, I suddenly look awful in the mirror. I suddenly realize all of my pores and my small imperfections, and I therefore get disgusted. I see the dirt, the wet ground, and large rats with tiny teeth that much more clearly. Then I take them off and everything blurs and everything is suddenly just a little more beautiful, despite the lack of detail. So what beauty is real? My lying to myself when I take my glasses off, or what is really there in all of it’s glory? I’m leaning towards both having their redeeming qualities. If you meander on the details too much you are missing the point, but ignorance is not always the best way to take things in because you are lying to yourself.

This is why that culture we could not remember does their art that way. But really it happens in all good art. On a simple level, perfect things are not interesting and also not realistic, because in the natural world, things are only perfect the more you zoom out. Certain art is often portrayed in this way. There is often a very simple repeating pattern or shape that is then made to be uneven with a small imperfection. Things that are completely perfect are not enjoyable. Take a perfect circle for example. Better yet, let’s work on our own dimensions and make it a perfect sphere. Well, not perfect, because I would personally call it impossible to make something that is completely perfect down to every last quark, as far as proportion and mathematics goes. But this is a pretty smooth sphere in your hand. Let’s make it green. If someone placed this sphere on a table, it wouldn’t hold your attention for that long. It is boring. It is very smooth, but it is predictable because it is so perfect, and therefore not that interesting. The more you zoom in on it the more it opens up. The more you can see, the more little things about it are apparent and therefore have the potential to be beautiful, but also it gets more imperfect and rough and ugly. Thus is the way that large green circles exude beauty. They can, but you need to ask yourself how much detail is satisfactory and how much is enough. And then it all comes into perspective when the sphere is made out of opaque glass, and you shatter it on a wall. The way all the glass explodes out of it, now that is beauty. You spent the whole stage collecting all those rings, and now you get pissed off when you lose them all. You don’t even realize that the best part is watching them explode outwards, into what was otherwise nothingness. But it’s not always complete shattering, sometimes just a knick. And this, this is why a relationship with no conflict is not romantic at all.

Getting a little more broad here, contrast is often times what makes something truly beautiful. The first time you go out and see the ocean when you were a little kid, well, there is just nothing like that. And it is still amazing now, and watching the sun set over the water and that brilliant flash of light at the end, that is just wonderful even when you are an adult. I remember when I was a kid back when I lived in a house on Perfect St., everything was huge because I was so small. I remember twenty gorgeous, gigantic elm trees all towering about the houses and the streets and reaching up to have conversations with the stars. Now I come back that same yard in which all of the elm trees have died, and the yard is very small and dirty and not that many feet across. What I DO remember are the Ginkgo Trees, because their leaves are shaped so funny and they are so uncommon. I think that is another thing that can mean a lot to beauty, that difference in size. Astronauts say that seeing the world from space is the most beautiful thing they have ever seen. On the other hand, when someone sees a baby or a tiny animal, to realize that this tiny little thing is also alive and breathing and seeing is just crazy. Gorgeous.

I’ve spent the last few months completely enthralled by a piece of music that is less than three minutes long. Every time I hear it, it is still as fresh as the first time and I am still as blown away, and I have a hard time figuring out why. The song is Fleeting Smile by Roger Eno, brother and fellow ambient pianist of the famous Brian Eno. The song is originally off of the third installment in Brian Eno’s Music For Films series, but I got the song from a Saint’s Records compilation called Compounds + Elements. The song is very simple. It is a piano played slowly. That is it, just a piano. And the melody is relaxing, beautiful, and yearning. I feel like every time I hear it only yields more rewards, even though it seemed like I had picked the thing apart to it’s core already. First was the realization of the nearly inaudible metronome far in the background, then the subtle use of the pedals, and now I’m sort of pondering the theory behind it all. I don’t have a piano to go up to and try it now, and I’m not music theory buff (hey, I’m working on it already), so a lot of this might be based on speculation that is in fact wrong, but this song has brought me to very precise consideration that I would like to think bears some kind of fruits.

What strikes me first is how slowly it is played. Keeping time in a fast song is easy, especially if you are playing an instrument, because you have no real desire to speed up and the tempo is naturally assertive enough to keep the player concentrated. But in Fleeting Smile, the tempo is extremely slow and often times purposefully slowed down or sped up, to build tension. This makes the final two notes all the more painful. Painful in a good way, though. This song is completely teetering on the edge. It is at first glance a happy little lullaby, but like the title suggests, the piece is short and vague, like the face of a pretty girl across a crowd. During the song’s repeating ascending melody, while the lower notes are in a constant little harmony, the higher notes often times hit dissonant chords, that is, chords that do not assert themselves as either major or minor, happy or sad. I think that is what gives the music such a yearning sound, such a tragically beautiful and happy aspect. I think that is why most movies in Hollywood today are disposable, because they end predictably happily. The real, worthwhile movies are the ones that can’t decide if they are happy or sad. And I realized that this might be the case for all music.  Some famous cellist once said that beauty lies in the diminuendo. He was thinking kind of two dimensionally.It is now my personal belief that the best music, well that’s not true at all, the most moving music, is the music that is teetering on the edge between major and minor like that. Upon ending this song, the listener is just begging for more and has completely eaten out of Eno’s hand. I can’t get a handle on whether how simple this song is propels it to such astounding heights or if it’s something else. This song, like other very quiet low key piano pieces of it’s kind, works it’s magic by using simplicity and allowing the listener to effortlessly propel their imaginations and senses. And yet I equally appreciate very dense, complicated music because it challenges the mind and paints a very specific, beautiful picture. And sometimes I enjoy the difficult stuff the most, because often times the most challenging music is the most truly artful. Mozart and Bach are still revered to this day as being incredible while respectable artists today aren’t even pimples on either of their asses, but very few classical musicians had the guts to break the rules. I think that is why I don’t like classical music all the time, it has so many limitations and so little will to be obnoxious or challenging, that after someone has heard one Mozart concerto, it is very easy and reasonable to assume that one has heard them all. And even pop can be painfully predictable and therefore not rewarding in the slightest. This contrast is also felt heavily in literature and visual arts and needs to be explored more. By the way, I want more of this. I want more very simple, short piano music like this and I would be endlessly grateful if anyone could direct me to any other stuff of this kind. I’m dying here.

There are people who strive to understand beauty through proportions and mathematics and philosophy, and I think it’s impossible. The fantasy of these people would be to see and understand something on a specific enough level that they are blown away and can die happy. Maybe it is that simple and maybe it is not, but it is not easy either way. And I think we could sit here talking about beauty for the rest of our lives and still hit new ground. I’m going to go eat a sandwich now.

One comment

  1. Hey,

    I just found this essay of yours while (again) searching the web in vain for some help on the chords to the very same Roger Eno song which touched you, a lot like it touched me — “Fleeting Smile.”

    As a complete amateur, I’ve been struggling to re-create this on my piano by ear for several weeks now. So far as I’ve been able to noodle it out, I get a nice, consistent chord rotation of A7-D-Gmaj7-Em7. But I would be mighty interested in being enlightened by more knowledgeable others.

    Some of the magic of “Fleeting Smile” is the way the melody stands so nearly still, while the bass does such a nice, soft, competent, waltzing accompaniment. A lot of Vince Guaraldi’s music stands in one place like that — except in his case it was atop a smugly cool descending chord pattern.

    Maybe there’s also something to the way “Fleeting Smile” sneaks the root chord past you so quickly and effortlessly and early that it doesn’t ever feel like it could be home bass. Then, every where else the song wants to go, the thing just hangs there without resolution. It’s like a stripper who exits stage left with most of her stuff back on — just so much sexier that way.

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