man can embody truth but he cannot know it

Miranda Cuckson, violinist
Miranda Cuckson, violinist

c)i will be performing the trio version of the suite from Stravinsky’s A Soldier’s Tale on Sunday, and so I’ve been thinking a bit about the piece (and his music more generally). Music is always an abstraction, due to its temporality– it is through memory that form and rhythm and harmony are experience, as associations between present and past (and future) events. And (some of) Stravinsky’s music (some of it) gets tagged as being cold or bloodless. But always at the same time it is about the body, it is in the body, savagely and unavoidably.

In the preceding post, I quoted Miranda, and here’s a longer passage, speaking about performing Stravinsky’s A Soldier’s Tale:

…much of the time we are in tandem or hocketed so the natural physicality of playing those rhythms and meters, feeling the bounce or lilt of them and digging into articulations, certainly is a unifying force in playing together… Even when the rhythms go off-kilter, we are still basically unified in doing and experiencing those. We don’t veer off into different ideas. So there is surprise/shock and whimsicality but also a grace in how the rhythms and motions turn out.

Not how this language is all about time and interruption and things going off-kilter, and yet this temporal frisson is a unifying force of the performance. This music is in the body, and the body knows it precisely because of the musical tension between laminar flow, conflicting rhythmic mechanisms.  Strikes and thwomps and repetitions; the march’s inescapable pull on the audience and optimism prefigures the Devil’s entrapment and subordination to the violin’s power.  

Miranda notes that “there is a rustic character in the music but I think with it being a very stylized theater piece, and also the neatness of his rhythms, it is slightly removed from actual roughness and grittiness.” I agree, but also wonder about this stylized neatness; this a reserve and elegance that constructs itself through its relationship to savagery and roughness and grittiness.  The music comes to us embodied by the performers, invading the listener.  The title of this post comes from a letter from W.B. Yeats to Lady Pelham; one of his last, from January 1939. The passage continues:

“The abstract is not life and everywhere draws out its contradictions. You can refute Hegel but not the Saint or the song of experience.”

This is what I love in Stravinsky, and why his music resists all tidying up; its embodiment and its abstraction continually reveal and deny each other, always ever not quite one or the other.

Come and hear for yourself! Sunday, 7:30, Scorca Hall!

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