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Classical Notes: March 8, 2006 Archive

Lexicon

Posted at 12:40 AM on March 8, 2006 by Valerie Kahler
Filed under: Musical philosophy

Whether you're an artist, a musician, a computer programmer, a mechanic, a chef or a housepainter, you become fluent in a certain language – one that has its own vocabulary, shorthand, even slang. My husband speaks Art fluently, while Music is my second language. Often, applying one lexicon to the other's medium leads to revelation for both. I'm unable to describe an art piece in artists' terms of light, composition, color, etc., but it's natural for me to think of it in terms of music. For example, the stark dissonance of Picasso’s "Guernica," or Gerrit van Honthorst's "The Denial of Saint Peter," which feels as though it's almost in a minor key, but tempered…sweetened by the sympathy of the handmaiden. Dorian mode, then? And so on.

This crossover of lexicons led to an interesting conversation at our house the other night…

My husband has long been a fan of Arvo Pärt, but had a watershed experience listening to a Pärt CD a few days ago. He described it so lovingly and thoroughly and evocatively that I wanted to stand up and applaud.

Using his artist’s lexicon (which in itself co-opts writers’ vocabulary) he described the music in terms of its "narrative structure." There are tropes: here’s the heroic bit, here you have pathos, etc…but how they’re connected is completely unexpected, unique, unfamiliar. He went on to talk about how Pärt laid down a layer of flute, and then brought the cello in, "tapping" on the flute with its different timbre and gentle dissonance. How he used silence - the space between notes - like an artist uses white space. How it became clear to him that Pärt creates his works with the same consideration of materials and placement and palette that an artist does.

He's decided that Pärt is a painter…and it's hard to disagree with his thesis.