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Open Curtain – An Essay on Meaning in Music

By Herbert Reichert, Audio Note NYC

In 1937 Curt Sachs wrote of dance, that it represented, "the victory over gravity, over all that weighs down and oppresses, the change of body into spirit, the elevation of creature into creator, the merging with the infinite, the devine."


My first experience with the artistic frontier, or what some may call the "avant garde", was Little Richard and Jimi Hendrix. The feelings this music inspired were strong enough to make me want to be an artist too. I wanted to paint pictures like Jimi played the guitar. At the time, I was studying physics in college but these artistic urges kept getting stronger until...junior year I just quit science and signed up for art. At first, I wasn't very good at painting or drawing. I struggled because I didn't really understand what I was trying to accomplish. My teachers couldn't help - they weren't very good at describing the purpose of art. They were even worse at explaining how I could tell when I had created something of lasting value. How could I tell if what I was painting was really good art? How could I tell if Jimi Hendrix was really a great artist or just a popular showman?

I have since devoted my life to answering these questions. This essay attempts to outline some of the bigger concepts that have 'settled in' and continued to be of service to me when looking at paintings, listening to music, or reading a novel.

The first part of this essay is a description of what it feels like to be an artist - because without empathy there is little understanding. The heart of the essay is a discussion of a few of the natural laws that govern the organization of artistic compositions. In conclusion, I will try to explain a value system that we all share - that can be applied to judging the quality of any artwork.

Hopefully, this venture can give the reader an enhanced sense of comfortability, more intense pleasure and deeper understanding when experiencing any of the fine arts.

Chicago: 1969

Fueled by a sense of destiny and bored with all aspects of conventional life, I created myself as a young artist in search of romance and truth. I wanted to experience the deepest and strongest passions. I was compelled to understand the infinite. Painting, dancing about the studio, listening to Hendrix and E. Power Biggs, I felt the wind of the universe blow through me. Applying paint with trawls to huge canvases, I was seeing what no one had ever seen. I was making the invisible - visible. I worked quickly, with very little conscious direction, to capture a glimpse of the vision just in my periphery. Using sticks and broken brushes, scratching into lampblack and varnish, I cut shapes like an electric Paganini. Today I take a more considered and peaceful approach to making art, but at twenty, this frantic method was perfect for 'finding' small pieces of something bigger and more powerful than myself. I believed then, as I do now, that the purpose of an artist is to create living evidence of a larger reality. I hoped that this small 'sketch' of the larger organization, this quick view of a more sublime structure than our conscious reality, would be well enough formed to have some meaning to others. The purpose of this painted evidence is to be looked at and studied by other humans. As a human culture, we look at these modest artistic creations together and see if we can 'grasp' a little of this 'bigger something'.

If the artwork is real, the new piece will 'fit' together with some other pieces, by some other artists, or with science, or with philosophy, or even with the sacred. If the artist can truly create some view or aspect of a larger reality, then we are compelled to compare and contrast one artist's work to another. We do this to discover if the whole world history of art can direct our minds towards a clearer sense of where and who we are. Art exists to help us to perceive that which is normally not available for observation. Art inspires us to imagine the larger structure of the universe in which we live. Art shows us our place in the larger reality.

New York City: 1982

Picture a skylit, cavernous, factory space, with thirty feet between me and the ceiling and a hundred foot walk to the door. My footsteps echo in the darkness as I walk to switch on the light. The windows, like stage props, float in the shadows beyond the throw of the lights. Like all artists, I walk ALONE to a place where, to find success, I must face my personal demons straight on. The voices in my head must stop. If I entertain doubt - I will fail. There is no choice but to act deliberately. Standing in front of the canvas, I can feel the layers of dark and light vibrating space between myself and the entire rest of the world. I have walked away from everyone. If I don't turn the music up loud, the orchestra of ambient, indifferent noises will build slowly around me. The sweet tones of Fritz Kreisler and the squeal of Jimi Hendrix keep me centered on my purpose.

Sitting there, small and apart, at three in the morning, in front of a blank canvas...I now must address those few simple questions the materialist and the objectivist are afraid to ask..."Where do we come from? What is our purpose? And where are we going?" If I choose NOT to address these questions, the most I can hope to achieve is decoration or amusement.

The Rhythmic Bond

The above describes my own experience but I doubt that it differs greatly from that of any other young artist alone at night in his workplace. To hope to understand the meaningfulness of any type of art, we must first imagine the psychic environment of the creator. While listening to music, reading a novel, or standing in front of a painting we naturally, without provocation, stop and wonder what it was like to create this art. On the simplest level we just ask ourselves, "Was this difficult to create?" On the next level we might ask, "How did it feel to be the artist and create this work?" Some of us think, "What force, what talent, what inspiration led to the finished artwork?" If we find the work inspiring, we may, for a moment, wish WE had created this masterpiece. When we think the work lacking we may be glad we didn't! We may be grateful we are not such a fool as this artist. I think all of us ask ourselves, "Is this really art? Am I being fooled? Am I so unevolved that I cannot understand what others can? Is this creation worth my effort to try to understand?" Sometimes the opposite happens; without knowing why, you just know this is a great work of art.

For many of us, I am afraid, the experience of fine art goes no deeper than this. You know the old story..."I don't know much about ______, but I know what I like". I would like to show you that the experience of music or painting or literature can be far more inspiring and provocative than these approaches suggest. The reality of art is natural and is as easy to appreciate as the Grand Canyon, Marilyn Monroe, or the design of a Ferrari. Furthermore, a fundamental understanding of art and a working comfortability with the experience of art will lead to a clearer sense of who we are and where we belong in the universe.

For the purposes of this article I will address the issues of meaning and understanding as they apply to music and musical performance. This is not to say that these observations do not apply to the visual, literary, or performing arts but rather that I feel I can make my points more clearly by speaking mainly about one art form.

Poco a Poco

To date, no branch of science, philosophy or religion has 'won a consensus' on the "what are we here for?" question. However present culture does seem to be in possession of a few natural laws. Working with only those observations I feel we can all agree on, I would like to 'build' a picture in your mind that will show you how art, by reflecting the structure of the universe, is an expression of natural laws.

Let us start with the simplest notions of matter and energy. Matter and energy are interchangeable. You can convert matter to energy and vice versa. You can convert ice into water and water into steam and as you continue in this direction the atomic "particles" vibrate faster and faster. The electron activity becomes higher pitched. If we heat a horseshoe in a fire, and pull it out. We can feel the heat by putting our hand near it. If we heat the shoe some more, it will began to glow red - the longest wavelength we can see (33,000 waves per inch). If we could continue to heat the horseshoe, it would soon 'vaporize' like the water. Before it vaporized completely, it would turn yellow, blue, green, and finally violet (66,000 waves per inch). We have just heated the horse shoe through the entire visible spectrum; one octave! Different colors of light are produced by light waves of different lengths and sounds of different pitch are produced by sound waves of different lengths. We can see only one octave but we can hear more than ten octaves (16 - 32,000 cycles per second). Notice that light and sound are measured over space and time. Notice also that both light and sound are produced by vibrations - or periodic disturbances in a medium. Looking at The Table of Vibrations, we can see that the known universe can be divided into roughly 61 octaves. Our bodies can feel or respond to at least 50 octaves!

So, let's assume that the nature of our bodies and the nature of the environment we function in is vibratory. Let us also assume that the nature of the information we process, with our nervous systems and with our minds, is also vibratory. If we take this one step further, we can see that ALL of these vibrations are mathematically related to one another. In other words there is a structure to this vibratory activity. This organization extends from the small vibrations inside the atom to the largest pulsations and expansions of the universe. These vastly different scales of activity are related by time. They share time. Everything is vibrating all the time. The smallest and the biggest parts of the universe are sympathetically vibrating at varying frequencies and varying energy levels at every point in time. Time is what connects these 'events' together. Time is actually the plastic or 'material' element that a creator manipulates. I tell you this because picturing how vibratory events are related is essential to understanding music - weather it is Mick Jager or Mozart. For now, just imagine that time is the canvas on which the artist paints or the loom on which the musical composer weaves his score.

Next, imagine you are forty years old and you expect to live to be eighty years or older. You think you are approaching the 'half way through' point in your life. You can remember some of the first forty years. You can reflect on the quality of decisions you have made and you have a rough idea how you got to be in the lifestyle situation you are in. You might even have enough information about who you are and what you have done to speculate about what might lie ahead for you. You might also be able to draw a timeline for your first forty years marking key events like marriages, graduations, deaths and births. No one (I know) can predict the future but many can see relationships between events. For example; if I do 'A' and 'B', then 'C' is likely to result. With this kind of thinking, we can fill in some points on the future part of the timeline. At any given moment in our lives we are able to stop and reflect and create in our minds a big picture or larger structure to our lives. I think many of us do this from time to time just to see "how are we doing?"

When we listen to an opera or a symphony, our mind stops periodically, to reflect on where the music (or story) has been, where it is now and where it is going. Doing this is part of the process of grasping the form or structure of the artist's creation. This process of picturing the past, present and future is fundamental to human nature. We do it with the eight-hour work day. We do it with personal relationships. We do it with politics and economics. We can't stop ourselves from doing it. Even the most intellectually challenged among us uses this model to grasp the structure of his environment.

Art must be perceived in terms of both time and space - simultaneously! This timeline projection is the simple 'armature' on which we hang the vibratory events so as to organize them. When they are laid out simply in the mind, in order of time, we can compare these events to see how big or small they are, how often they occur, how loud or quiet they are, how dense or thin they are. We can see how different or the same they are. Our mind does this in a semi-conscious, semi-visual fashion. This kind of reverie gives birth to reason and creative imagination.

Rhythm, Melody and Harmonic Series

If we let our musical timeline start with silence, followed by vibratory activity, then more silence - we have rhythm. Rhythm is action in time. In music we have patterns of vibratory activity interspersed with silence. The action flows towards and away from periods of silence. The energy builds up and comes down. There are many details of this movement of energy that cause us to perceive order or unity, but even without being able to identify these details, we can sense that these events are organized in relation to time and silence. This is musical rhythm. Tempo is the rate or period of musical rhythm. Our ability to recognize or sense these changes and periods in vibratory activity is critical to grasping the form or structure of musical art. Musical form is perceived simultaneously at short- and long- range levels of awareness. The small metrical groupings of the score support the individual rhythmic motives, which, in turn, become the longer phrases and movements. The composer's job is to conceive the relationships between the small and larger scaled vibratory events. This related succession of events is called melody.

The form of a painting begins to take shape as the artist's brush first touches the canvas. Musical form begins with rhythm: its canvas is silence; its space is time. Rhythm animates form and creates the opportunity for this form to have meaning.

At this point the reader should note that we have only established that the universe is essentially vibratory in nature and that periodic changes in energy or frequency allow us to perceive contrasts which may be recognized as pattern or form. We have also suggested that these patterns of change develop into larger wholes that can be studied by science, art or religion. The universe and the symphony are two examples of these developed forms. How we interpret these patterns and what value we give these interpretations are moral and ethical questions. We cannot began to assume that any arrangement, form, or structure has meaning or ethical value if we cannot establish a natural law by which we can measure this value. Therefore we must dig a little deeper into the organization and patterns of change that the artist creates.

The composer of music exercises one of life's most inspiring prerogatives: freedom of choice. As the composer builds his creation he can make it long or short, soft or loud, rich or lean - he can make it ALMOST any way he wants. Within limits. His freedom exists within certain natural boundaries. For example, gravity is a natural boundary. We are born into a world where every action is limited by and organized by a force we know exists but cannot measure directly. Similarly, the composer of music is governed by the natural laws of dynamics and harmonic series. When a string is plucked it vibrates at a single frequency or tone determined by its length. If we pluck the string while touching it at precisely the halfway point, it produces a tone exactly one octave higher. If we compare these tones by playing them one after another we experience a remarkable sensation. While the tones are definitely different - one is high and one is low - they are so consonant that they seem to form a unity - so much so, that they almost sound the same. What we hear in the octave interval is a sensation of two tones that sound both different and the same. This might seem like a contradiction, but really what we have here is a very simple example of the mathematically related patterns of nature. The consonance or harmony inherent to the octave interval is the matrix upon which the forces of nature are organized. Look again at the table of vibrations and imagine this unity between say, heat and light or electricity and sound.

Just as the calendar organizes itself into a endless pattern of seven day weeks, the universe organizes itself into a endless pattern of seven tone octaves. All related by a mathematical and perceptual consonance. This organization is a dynamic force that affects music in much the same way as gravity affects objects - drawing them towards a center of attraction. In music this center of attraction is called a tonic and its "magnetic power" can be easily sensed as it draws the various tones chosen by the composer towards itself. We call this force tonality. Tonality is what organizes the vibrating whole.

The artists job is to manipulate and arrange periodic and naturally related forces, like the ones I have just described, into active structures that can be recognized and comprehended by other humans. In a sense, the composer of music is "making visible" the cosmic underpinnings of the universe. He 'sculpts' a portion of the vibratory matrix. The musical score is the equation that defines the shape of the new matrix. If the artist is successful, and the composition is meaningful, then the music 'connects' the listener to the larger matrix of the universe.


Now that we have some idea of how the artists palette of musical tones can connect to the larger pulsating reality of the universe we live in - we must ask, "how do we know if the work is true, or vital, or meaningful, or worthy of our extended attention? For most of us this is the hard part - mainly because our natural tendency is to analyze what we experience with our cultural filters in place. Our 'normal' means of defining truth comes from our intellectual and spiritual upbringing. Our family, our peers and our teachers give us cultural clues as to what are the 'correct' responses to our experiences. However, to understand art fully, to find the universal truths that art can demonstrate, we must make a conscious effort to rise above and suspend these cultural filters. This is not nearly as impossible as it might seem. Let me describe a simple method.

Like the continuum of our lives, the artist's composition consists of a series of decisions. Some are very direct and simple like; "I think I will compose a sonata in the key of 'A'." Others are made unconsciously and very quickly like the ones I described in the beginning of this essay. Each of these decisions, no matter how big or how small, affect the drama and the potential meaning of the artistic construction. Each of these decisions 'steers' the course of the work and creates the final form. This is pretty obvious. What is not so obvious and very important to understand is: every decision also has a moral and ethical component. The series of decisions that the artist makes while creating the work, reflect his personal and his shared cultural values. Now, if art ONLY represented a series of decisions that reflected the moral and ethical cultural values of the would be just - very interesting. I mean VERY interesting. But, the series of decisions that go into the making of any artform represent something much more important - they represent the values that the artist and his culture aspire to! In other words, the finest creations of any culture represent not what the culture has achieved, but what it aspires to achieve! When we listen to Beethoven, we can experience directly the aspirations of a whole generation. Artists are just ordinary people - they have no extraordinary powers. Their special ability is a willingness to explore the unknown and an overpowering sense of idealism. What the artist creates for the world is an opportunity to share in the strength of his desire to understand the larger reality. What the artist really expresses is a sentiment.

If this is true, then we can transcend our cultural filters while appreciating artistic creation. All of us, whether from stone-age or modern cultures, whether from western or eastern cultures, need and aspire to the same thing: to feel like a important or significant part of a larger reality. All conscious beings, from all cultures and all periods of time have a overwhelming need to understand, or feel it is possible to understand, where they 'fit in' to the larger scheme of things. Any quick survey of world art will easily illustrate the truth of what I am saying.

This still doesn't completely address the issue of artistic quality. How do we 'qualitatively' compare the creations of diverse artists? Simple: we compare the levels of sentiment expressed in the individual works. How noble is the feeling? How universal is the form? Unconditional love may be the highest sentiment. Deep hatred, envy, or selfishness may be among the lowest. Each of us is born with a strong internal reference for levels of sentiment. Our first feelings for our mother are the archetype on which this internal reference is formed.

Based on the notions explained in this essay we can see that the artist arranges contrasts like big and small, hard and soft, long and short, dark and light, cool and warm, etc. into patterns and forms that might reflect the structure of a larger reality. If we can agree that he does this hoping to add to our understanding of the universe we can then compare the aspirations of any artist in any culture to the aspirations of any other artist in any other culture. No specialized education is required, we just ask ourselves, "how high are the artist's aspirations?" The stone-age painter, the early African sculptor, the ancient Chinese painter/poet, and the modern classical composer ALL manipulated those elements of nature which were at their disposal, towards helping their fellow man understand his position in the universe.

As we explore the fine arts we should first; try to imagine the creative process - identify with the artist. Then ask ourselves; is there is a feeling of sympathy or consonance with natural laws to the form and structure? Does the work feel unified and complete? Does it shape energy over time in a natural and coherent way? Does the work appear to reflect a larger reality? Most importantly, we must ask if the work inspires? Do we feel as if we have shared in something larger and more fundamental than ourselves? This obvious sense of importance or essential 'rightness' is always there in great art. Great art presents itself as Great Art. I urge you to experience the arts in a simple and direct fashion - looking only for inspiration, a sense of wholeness, natural order and high ethical decision making.

Herbert E. Reichert