Hearing Voices

23 Jan

Last week I finished reading Madame Bovary, the 19th century novel by French author Gustave Flaubert. When a book’s original version is in English or Hebrew, I always read the original, since I don’t want to miss what was lost in translation. But I still don’t know French and so I turned to the Hebrew translation by Irit Akrabi, and found it to be phenomenal.

The novel itself deeply moved me. I consider it to be one of the greatest works of art I ever encountered. As it is with all art, grading novels is of course ridiculous; But when I finished reading I couldn’t help but feeling that Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is the only novel I’ve read that rests at the mountain-top of artistic achievement together with Madame Bovary. Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and The Idiot, Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks are among other realistic novels that have inspired me a great deal, but they seem to stand just a step – well, half a step  – lower than Tolstoy’s tale of Anna and Flaubert’s story of poor Emma.

I don’t know if Facebook should be any indication, but I posted the following status: “Just finished reading Flaubert’s Madame Bovary.. I’m speechless in the presence of such a perfect work of art. Did anyone here read it? What did you think?”. Only one person “liked” the status and also wrote a detailed comment. It was my friend Sophie who happens to be a Literature Professor at the Sorbonne… for comparison, an earlier status about the fascinating dilemma of being a night person vs. a morning person generated seven comments. Could it be that no one cares about these masterpieces anymore?

Anyway, the one thing that struck me the most about Madame Bovary is Flaubert’s voice. I’m using the word ‘voice’ as opposed to ‘plot’ or ‘story line’. In Madame, The plot itself is not especially unique. It does move to extreme places, but compare it with any plot in a Paul Auster or Philip Roth novel and you will find it rather predictable in comparison. I think Flaubert’s real achievement (and this was said many times before, for sure) is not the story but the way he tells it; The Voice. His is full of subtle (and less subtle) irony, a healthy dose of cynicism, emotional warmth in unexpected places, and a penetrating vision as to how society and personal life are interconnected.

The “It’s not the story, it’s how you tell it” principle could easily be applied to Jazz as well: “It’s not the song, it’s how you play it”. Sure, some songs have better melodies, more interesting harmonic progressions and so on. But tell that to Charlie Parker, who transcended the basic form of Gerswhin’s I Got Rhythm to create a revolutionary, personal sound, or to Thelonious Monk, who was the Midas of Jazz, turning everything he touched to Monkish gold. (Monk certainly earned his place in history by playing his own compositions, no doubt about that, but his interpretations of standards are sublimely original. Check out his album Monk Plays Ellington for an extensive example.)

I don’t think that “sounding like yourself” at all costs is what a musician should aim for. Branford Marsalis once said something that really made me think; I don’t remember the exact words, but he basically said he doesn’t need people to always recognize him instantly when hearing his music. On the contrary, he would love it if people would open the radio, hear his new album, and think “man, this is cool! what IS that?”, only to discover later that it was him.

The following process is known to many musicians:

You start out by looking for your “own style”.

You find something you’re happy with.

You begin to eliminate anything that doesn’t fit in, and you work with your newly discovered style for a while.

Some time passes. You realize that this style, that was so you last year, isn’t so you now.

More importantly, you realize that if you’ll keep turning away anything that doesn’t comply with your idea of your “true” style, your art will never grow.

Eventually you understand that you can play anything you want, and that if you will be open minded, let a lot of inspiration flow in, master your instrument, and play whatever wants to come out, you are going to end up sounding great; forget original – just great.

“A great work of art is of course always original” – from Nabokov’s Lolita

“To me style is just the outside of content, and content the inside of style, like the outside and the inside of the human body—both go together, they can’t be separated.” –  Jean-Luc Godard

What do you think? Could a boring song become a masterpiece under the hands of a superb artist? On the other hand, are there stories so intriguingly beautiful, that it doesn’t matter who tells them? And what about an original voice in art – do you care for it when listening to music for example, or is it just great music you’re after? It could be of course, that originality and greatness are inseparable. Your comments are welcome.

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2 Responses to “Hearing Voices”

  1. Maya January 23, 2011 at 9:00 pm #

    Omer,

    Beautiful writing!

    To me, the ‘voice’ is what’s most important. “simple” or “boring” piece of music can turn gold in the right hands… or in this case, through the right voice. And brilliant works can very easily turn dull when they’re not treated with care, sensitivity, and the responsibility of the artist to channel them with truth, using his/her personal voice. that’s what makes it original.

    At the end of the day, I don’t care for brilliant concept, technique, or perfect execution. I want to be moved to the core, smacked to the face, keep thinking of that piece of music/work of art/performance long after it’s over/done… What an incredible feeling it is when it happenes!:)

    xo
    M.

  2. Anja January 24, 2011 at 9:38 am #

    hey omer
    I enjoyed reading this one! I don’t think that Facebook is a good indicator… since its one of the lightest entertainments one can have, consisting of 80% smalltalk 10% stalking and 10% calendar ^
    I guess there are more factors influencing how an artwork is perceived, like the state of mind that you’re in at that moment, the atmosphere around, your personal situation, the person who recommended it to you, your past experiences and so on. I believe a good artist can turn a simple thing into an extreme experience.. but it gets extraordinary when both comes together, artist and artwork on a high level – when what you see or hear or read has the power to change the way you feel, when the state of mind doesn’t matter and it just leaves you with something. and when it influences your thoughts for the coming days, months or even more, when you feel that you can use it as basis for something new or let it become a part of yourself. like this book apparently did.

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