Music for the Dysmelodiac

Dysmelodia is a term used to describe the lack of relative pitch: it is a symptom of tone deafness. Those who suffer from dysmelodia can be genetically influenced or caused by damage in the brain. I am convinced that I am neither of these cases. I come from a family that is preternaturally musical. My fourth and youngest uncle was the neighborhood flutist. On clear moonlit nights, he would go up to the rooftop in the three-story house in Tebing Tinggi and sat on the ledge and played his flute. His beautiful and sensitively rendered Chinese compositions were the welcome lullabies in the neighborhood. My father played the Erhu, the Chinese two-stringed instrument, well enough to be invited to play in a traditional Chinese quartet. From Erhu, he then learned and mastered the clarinet. Its slim and finely tuned shape snugly wrapped in the silky impression inside the case fascinated me tremendously. The clarinet bespoke for me the fluidity of music so eloquently inscribed in form.

My children, all three of them, invariably display their ability to play a musical instrument: all three of them play the piano, the second son also plays the classical guitar exquisitely and the youngest, still finding her way, enjoys playing the violin. I wouldn’t vouch for the possibility of a musical genius in the family, but from what I’ve gathered so far, I wouldn’t be embarrassed to say that there is a musical lineage in this family.

I love all kinds of music, from the sappiest melodies to the classical, but just for the record I must admit that I am musically handicapped. I should perhaps consider myself lucky to be equipped with a taste for music. I can easily spot a great piece of composition or a melody, and yet those who go to karaoke lounges with me will tell you I’m a hopeless case when it comes to the pitch. I can definitely carry a tune, but boy how I ram through the pitches like a reckless driver in an orderly-proceeding traffic. I understand that this is paradoxical: how can a person who claims to be able to spot a good musical composition miss the pitches all the time?

I once learned to play the guitar when I was in my adolescence. I found squeezing my fingers against the strings to get the perfect Ds and Gs too excruciatingly painful, and also rather entrapping for a creative mind. You are allowed to laugh out loud on this, as I would right now. I had the misleading concept at that age that one could just strum the guitar and figure out a way to make a harmonious or dissonant musical piece. Had I been tutored by a musician of that mindset, I suspect I would have successfully gone on to master the instrument. I couldn’t connect then the thought that one has to learn the alphabets before one can compose sentences with the necessity of getting those chords right.

As consequence of this lack of education in music, as with my adolescent disregard for the mathematics and the sciences, I find myself continuously piqued with curiosity by music. I read avidly anything to do with music: development of musical compositions from monophonic to polyphonic, from the classical to the atonal to the intermittent silences of John Cage’s chance music. The only thing that comes out of this persistent pursuit is that I can safely say today I can carry an erudite conversation with a composer. I could even venture into a discourse about the inevitable reduction of compositions to the music of the spheres: as modern composers plod further away from atonal music, they will likely end up trying to reach the music of the universe. Thus, it is impossible to apply a singular theory whatsoever on a composer’s work: the umbilical cord has been irretrievably severed from any known musical structure. From Slonimsky’s Lexicon of Musical Invective, I therefore learned to appreciate not the musical lineage but its disparate singularities.

I would however err to the point of self-delusion if I were to admit that I could capture the essence of music. I can only present a hypothetical surmise that my connection to music is through language. The closest that language can get to music are through its assimilation of meter and aspiration to inscribe the fleeting immanence onto a composed line. Both poetry and music seem to move in the same direction. A poet attempts to use her language to soar toward the ineffable. When the ineffable has been rendered into a poem, it reverts back to the tribe of language: thus the ineffable again eludes capture. In almost the same movement, a composer utilizes a musical notation to capture what cannot be described into a musical entity.

The difference, however, is in the medium. Language is naturally incomparable to music because music is more spherical than language. A single Do or Re instantly evokes the ineffable in solid sounds, whereas language requires a whole syntax or even syntaxes in order to do the job. Therefore, those who attempt to get at music through language will invariably be faced with despair. Language lacks the spontaneity of sound; language is decipherable whereas music is instantaneous and ungraspable. Painters, through the medium of its colors, are more equipped to do this job than a poet. We must concede superiority to painters and musicians when it comes to spontaneity of their medium.

Having made this distinction clear to myself, I am now tickled pink with the grand idea of playing the double bass. The elegance of its shape, like an opulently elegant lady, enfolded in my bosom, I will grind away with Yo-yo Ma on the CD player in the background. There’s the advantage of a late bloomer: you pick up where others have given up.

This article was published by Now Jakarta, March 2009.

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