Deserter’s Songs – Bye Bye Binaries (Music and Żal)

In this week's Deserter's Songs column, David Bell considers the way in which music can cut across binary distinctions, and considers a Polish term which may help us understand the complex, contradictory emotions that music can throw up.

Deserter's Songs, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Saturday, October 23, 2010 17:59 - 0 Comments

Tags: ,
Share

By David Bell

As a child, I was a huge fan of Simon & Garfunkel, but one song of theirs bothered me to the point where I could barely bring myself to listen to it. It was their cover of Felice and Boudleaux Bryant’s ‘Bye Bye Love’ (made famous by The Everley Brothers).

My refusal to listen to it stemmed not from a dislike of the song (indeed, I really liked the melody), but from my inability to process the juxtaposition between the upbeat, chirpy melody and the sorrow of the song’s subject matter. Happiness and sorrow were two different feelings, and they should not be mixed.

Songs with jolly melodies and sad lyrics are, of course, fairly commonplace in pop music, and over the years I’ve come to really enjoy them. Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours (which, despite my love of free improv is one my favourite albums) contains more than its fair share.

Then there’s Simon & Garfunkel’s own Cecilia and Cat Stevens’ ‘Here Comes My Baby’, which I find particularly affecting. Their power, it seems to me, comes from the trade-off of expectations against results: in maintaining the veneer of happiness through a melody they expose the warts of love (and these songs are invariably love songs): the shallowness and hurt that comes from being a jilted or lonely lover.

The happy melody which, in the classic pop song, promotes a certain worldview in which love plays a central role, becomes nothing more than a sarcastic inflection; a sneer at a world which has abandoned you. The desperate lyrics aren’t nullified by the jauntiness of tune- rather, they’re even more affecting; throwing the tune into a vacuous realm, as if to shun the pop song and its casual promise of love and happiness. It’s childish, nasty and full of resentment (and as a result rather satisfying).

Maintaining the apparently conflicting emotions of these songs but in a more considered manner are songs that would perhaps best be called ‘bittersweet’. Here, the emotional interest is at a greater remove: they’re reflective rather than resentful; regretful rather than angry.

Love is often the subject although perhaps the perfect form of this kind of song is The Beatles’ ‘In My Life’; a rumination on happiness past which expresses both gratitude for the good times and sorrow at their passing, and whose melody and chord structure perfectly captures the juxtaposition of happiness and sorrow experienced when you look back on the past.

Whilst they may be less cathartic than songs which combine happy melodies with sad lyrics, ambiguity in these ‘bittersweet’ songs offers a greater level of emotional sophistication. With the first kind of happy-sad song, the emotions are kept separate; the hurt of the jilted lover contrasted with the happiness they hoped to find.

The happiness and the sorrow have separate sources. With the bittersweet song, there’s an acknowledgment that the source of the conflicting emotions is singular: the melody and lyrics capture two responses to the same event (the initial happiness and the sorrow of looking back). It is time that marks the transition from ‘sweet’ to ‘bitter’.

These songs- and the word I’ve used to describe them (‘bittersweet’)- are troubling for the binary thought which- as Derrida and others have shown- predominates in western thinking. Such thought constructs binary opposites, and meaning is defined in relation to that which it is not: our sadness is only sad in reference to a happiness we have once experienced, for example: it is dependent on a negation of its other.

This play of meaning, as I’ve tried to demonstrate, is clearly seen in songs like ‘Bye Bye Love’: the happiness on which the sadness of the lyrics is dependent is present in the shape of the melody. It is less obvious in the bittersweet song, where the sadness is still dependent on a happiness but cannot properly be defined as a ‘not happiness’ because it stems from the same trigger and has merely been distorted over time. Nonetheless, there is still a separation taking place between the happiness and the sadness; the latter a negation of the former which has taken place over time.

If we consider the etymology of the word ‘bittersweet’ and relate it to food, we can imagine a more instantaneous experience and this negative mode of definition collapses. When we taste orange zest, for example, you cannot temporally separate the bitter from the sweet: they are experienced as one and we cannot say that the bitter is an experience of ‘not sweet’ and the sweet an experience of ‘not bitter’. It may be possible to chemically separate the bitter and the sweet on a molecular level, but these primary properties of the orange zest are not available to us when we taste it.

It is not a question of the zest being bitter or sweet, but of being bitter and sweet (it is for this reason that Deleuze sees philosophy as being about the and, rather than the or). As such, it strikes me that if the term ‘deconstructive gastronomy’ is to mean anything it should refer to something as simple as the eating of humble orange, and not the elaborately bourgeois (though admittedly fun) experiments of Ferran Adria (who defines his cooking using that term) and his ilk.

To return to the proper subject of this column, however: I wish to make a case for the ability of music to offer up instantaneous deconstruction of binaries in much the same way the taste of orange zest can. In my column on nostalgia I remarked that the distorted drone which enters around 1:23 into Labradford’s ‘Everlast’ cuts across the apparent binary opposition between pleasure and pain, but since the rest of this column has been concerned with the apparent binary between happiness and sorrow, that is what I will continue to focus on here.

In so doing, I wish to move east. The first port of call on this journey will be Poland, where I spent some time earlier in the year. Whilst there, I saw a quite wonderful concert by the folk ensemble Orkiestra Św. Mikołaja. Their music was frenzied and frequently celebratory, but even at its most ecstatic was marked by a darkness; a great sorrow. This sorrow and joy were not separate, though: they seemed to feed each other and neither was based on the negation of the other.

It’s a feeling I’ve often had when hearing music from Eastern Europe and the Jewish tradition, and something I rather clumsily tried to explains to one of the concert organisers after the show, and she instantly knew what I was talking about. “Ah yes”, she said “we have a word for this in Polish. ‘Żal’. It is untranslatable, and it means the combination of sorrow and joy you’ve heard in the music”.

If you look in a Polish-English dictionary you’ll find that they do attempt to translate żal, and offer ‘bittersweet’ as its English equivalent. But I prefer żal; a single word which refers to a single feeling: not a combination of two opposites like bittersweet. It seems our language, with its reliance on binaries, cannot construct a world which accommodates this concept.

At the risk of romanticising, I would say that perhaps Polish has succeeded in this regard (even if only in this one instance): a word which, like music, is able to go beyond the binary structure of the English language.

I will end this column by letting various examples of such music speak for itself, but before then I’ll offer a quote which perhaps speaks of the futility of translation: either of feelings from music to language, or from one language to another. using language to describe emotions and music. It comes from a 1921 essay by Michael J. Piduch entitled ‘The Soul of Music in Poland’:

‘[What] a realistic world of pleasure do we find in this – pleasurable pain! On hearing a typical Polish melody, I recall that I smiled even through oncoming tears. Could I say more about this unexplainable feeling? Could I say more about the effects of hearing Polish music? Oh, yes, I feel as though I could write and write, – but what?
There is much, very much to write, but the human intellect seems to call my thoughts back and say: so far and no farther. The task of delving deeply and successfully into the quintessence of Polish music is a hopeless as an endeavor to translate literally the Italian term “dolce far niente”, the German “Gemütlichkeit”, or the Polish word “żal.”

David Bell is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham. His work seeks to rethink utopianism through the work of Gilles Deleuze and anarchist thought. He is currently writing a book on the politics of improvising music for Zer0 Books. Deserter’s Song, his column on music, is published every Saturday.

Share

Leave a Reply

Comment

 

More Ideas

More In Politics

More In Features

More In Profiles

More In Arts & Culture