This was last Thursday, in the living room. I don’t remember how we got started.
ERIK: Someone might say, “Oh, this piece of music makes me think of flying through the air,” but what they’re actually responding to is combinations of sounds. People often respond to music with emotions, but when I write music, I’m not necessarily trying to evoke certain emotions. I’m aiming for a particular aesthetic response. You know that piece of mine, “daaa-daaaa, daa-daa-daaaa“?
ERIK: People always say it’s sad.
LISA: It is sad.
ERIK: But I wasn’t thinking of sadness when I wrote it. I wasn’t trying to write “sad.” I was thinking of the starkness of that two-note melody, “daa-daaa,” and how to develop that starkness to its fullest point without adding anything that would remove that spare quality. I mean, these words — “stark,” “spare,” we think of them as sad, but they’re not necessarily. I was going for a specific aesthetic trajectory. It isn’t necessarily sad.
LISA: But what about music that makes you cry? What about that Beethoven string quartet? Or what about The Tree of Life? We both cried at those. I was thinking of death and mortality, and that’s why I cried. Why did you?
ERIK: It was an aesthetic response. It’s a very particular aesthetic response, but I wasn’t thinking of death. For example, I have a specific aesthetic response to the introduction of themes in a fugue. It’s like— like when we were standing on the mountains in New Zealand. I had a strong aesthetic response, but it’s not because I was thinking “we are so small compared to the grandeur of the mountains” or anything like that.
LISA: Well, I was! I was thinking of the grandeur of the mountains, and our own smallness and futility and impermanence compared to these mountains. I– I don’t even know how to feel sad without thinking of something particular. Sadness is always about death for me, about temporariness. If you take that away I don’t know what “sad” means.
ERIK: Here’s a different thought. Would it change things for you if, for example, people found out that Beethoven hadn’t been thinking of death when he wrote that piece, but something totally unrelated?
LISA: You mean like if historians found a journal where he wrote, “Today I felt very angry and then I sat down and wrote a string quartet to express my anger”? Never mind that that’s a ludicrous example.
ERIK: Yeah. Would that change your aesthetic response? Would you still be able to think of it as a sad piece?
LISA: Hmm. Yes… and no. It depends. This gets into creator intent and other things but… clearly I do think art and life are related. I went off Madeleine L’Engle a bit, when I heard her family didn’t like her books because they felt they twisted real life. I always like to have context in museums, and if I’m interested in someone’s work, I’ll look up their bio. Not that I need to be told “how to think” about something, but it often means more to me if I know the background behind a piece of work.
ERIK: I think a lot of people feel that way, but I don’t feel that I necessarily need context to appreciate something. For example, take a painting in a museum. A lot of people will walk by it and see particular colors of paint applied in a particular fashion to a canvas, and it won’t mean anything to them. But then they hear the backstory and it suddenly becomes interesting. I feel like a lot of paintings can be interesting without the backstory.
LISA: Well yeah, me too, but sometimes I need the backstory because otherwise I just don’t know how to approach the pieces — but plenty of other pieces just resonate immediately. You’re that way too sometimes; I know you are.
ERIK: But then, with the paintings you respond to immediately, aren’t you responding to something aesthetic? Something about the way the paint has been put on that canvas?
LISA: The aesthetic is emotional, for me. I’m not sure I know how to have an aesthetic response that isn’t also an emotional response.
ERIK: I think that aesthetic responses are so much more varied than human emotions. You can evoke so much more with art, compared with what you can feel. Take somebody like Lars Lerin — what do you feel when you look at his paintings? You’re definitely having an aesthetic response, but there’s no emotion to describe that.
LISA: You know, I think what you’re actually saying is that aesthetics evokes a huge range of response that we have no words for — but the emotions are still there. Just because we don’t have an emotion word to describe it, doesn’t mean it’s not emotional. Our language is very limited. For example: “joy.” We use that word to encompass an enormous range of emotions; for instance, there is the particular joy of sitting around reading on a cold day and your partner comes in with a basketful of laundry fresh from the dryer and comes over to you and kisses you and begins to cover your chilly limbs with warm clothes. That is joy. Then there is the particular joy of finding out your child isn’t going to die after all. That is “joy” too — but they are completely different!
ERIK: Yeah, okay. Yes.
LISA: So when you were writing your Adagio, and you were thinking of the starkness of that two-note melody, isn’t that still emotional? Two notes by themselves cannot be stark. Two notes are just two notes: “da-da.” But when you make them into a melody, adding tempo and dynamic phrasing — “daa-daaa” — you are interpreting them, you are drawing out the potential for starkness within them, and thus you’re thinking of a kind of feeling that people equate with sadness — even if it’s not what you personally understand as sadness.
ERIK: Okay. But what about aesthetic responses we have no name for?
LISA: You mean like the way we feel looking at Lars Lerin’s work.
ERIK: Right. Or maybe the first notes of that Stravinsky we played together: “daa-daa-DAA” —
LISA: Yes, yes. When I hear that I definitely feel something. Definitely.
ERIK: You know… I think we are talking toward the same thing.
We get up and move to another area of the apartment.
LISA: What if someone wrote an entire piece that was somehow all about the particular response evoked by those three notes. Imagine, ten minutes of hearing something that made you feel very specific, but you couldn’t identify the emotion. People might not like that. Some people would just give up and think, “This music is stupid.” Or they might hedge and say, “This music makes me grumpy,” or “This music makes me nervous,” when actually the grumpiness and nervousness come from not knowing exactly what it is that they’re feeling.
ERIK: Wouldn’t that be cool? If a piece could really draw that feeling out, a feeling you have no name for.
LISA: I think “Sleep No More” was actually a bit like that for me. It made me feel a million things and I had no idea what many of them were, but once I got over that I could just run with it and I loved that. But some people wouldn’t be able to get over that weirdness and uncertainty. They’d just shut down and decide this wasn’t for them. Maybe I would have, too, a few years ago.
We go back to the sofa.
ERIK: This is why nonliteral art, like music, is so great. It can evoke these really complex responses that we have no name for.
LISA: On the other hand, literal art — like writing — has the frustration and challenge and satisfaction of specificity, of being able to name things. You could write a piece of music thinking, “I’m going to write about the particular sadness of lemon cake” — I’m borrowing a book title — and you could play that piece for, oh, three thousand people, and probably not one of them would think of lemon cake. But you could write about it in words, and if you did your job well, almost everyone who read your book would be thinking about that very particular sadness, the sadness of lemon cake. [I haven’t read the book.]
We get up and walk around the apartment some more.
LISA: Do you think that maybe what you call “aesthetic response” could also be referred to as “a specific emotional response we cannot name”?
ERIK: Yeah, maybe. But it still comes out of a particular aesthetic stimulus, like those two notes.
ERIK: But it’s not “sadness!” My piece is not “sad!”
LISA: Maybe you understand “sadness” as a checkmark in one particular box, whereas I understand “sadness” as an enormous range. So when someone calls your piece “sad,” you don’t agree because it doesn’t fit into the box you know as “sadness,” whereas I’m comfortable calling it sad because what it evokes for me is encompassed within that range I understand as “sadness.”
ERIK: Maybe, yeah, okay.
I wander through the kitchen and dining area.
LISA: Actually, all words are like this — for instance, “table.” If you tried to describe to someone all the features that signify “table,” you would exclude [Erik’s brother] Brian and Emily’s coffee table [which is a big, polished, organic chunk of wood.] Maybe this is how you feel when you write — you’re trying to evoke a very specific thing, like Brian’s coffee table, but you get frustrated because people hear it and say, “Ah, table!” and you’re like, “NO, not ‘table'” — meaning “not those things with four legs and a symmetrical flat top!”
ERIK: That sounds about right.
Many thanks to Erik for helping me reconstruct this conversation — and for being the kind of person with whom I can have such a conversation, in the first place.
Photo from a month ago in San Francisco, taken by our friend Z who lives in Istanbul (she was visiting).