Pain and writing music

January 24, 2007

I spent 12 hours writhing in sheer pain on Monday from a stubborn kidney stone that refused to push into the bladder. Imagine getting kicked in the balls and sustaining that pain for long periods of time. I ended up once again in the ER, got hooked up to an IV with fluids and some pain medication and was discharged at 12:30 in the morning. A speedy cab drove me home. I got in bed and slept well. I saw a urologist today who told me I had a 80% chance of passing it and that if I can’t take it anymore, he can do “an intervention” the details of which I will spare you. The past two days have been better, but it is a strange feeling knowing that at any moment I could keel over and go back into it all.

I don’t know this for a fact, but I suspect that the experience of the full gamut of sensation, from resplendent and ecstatic health to sheer and utter pain, from emotional joy to the depths of despair, has shaped much of the great art on this planet. There is no substitute for it. In applications to music or art schools, there don’t seem to be questions that ask you to confess what emotional or physical pain you have experienced, or what the happiest moments of your life have been. Is this important to consider?

Humans at their very beginnings evolved vocal cords to communicate a large variety of grunts, sounds and moans. One of the primal vocal sounds that has been in us forever is the sound of a person in pain, ranging from steady quiet moaning, to hysterical screaming and crying.

I listen to Bach’s final Contrapunctus in “The Art of the Fugue” and hear his pain. I hear pain in Beethoven’s “Die Grosse Fuge.” Although some may differ, I don’t hear pain in late Stravinsky: awe, fear, terror, yes; but not pain. Shostakovich’s late string quartets and symphonies are filled with, what? political pain? Emotional despair, anger? Schoenberg’s String Trio has pain in it, as well as a musical reenactment of his near-death experience. We even know the measure where the needle was injected to bring him back to life. Berg’s Violin Concerto features the death of the young girl in the last movement. The death-rhythm wells up and finally takes her life. And of course, the unfinished and magnificent Mozart Requiem was written in pain.

I am moved when a composer in a weakened state can produce a work of art that helps him/her transcend their pain. I know that music can distract us from pain, even if for only a short time. I hope that when I face my end, that I can tap into that reserve of strength to compose my last musical offering. With the pain I’ve experienced the last week, I am even more impressed with composers (like Mozart) who can produce profound music despite their pain and sickness.

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