Yes, I/You/We Will, Yes Yes We Will YES!*

Am I the only person who sees a similarity between musical climax and human orgasm?

I doubt it. But why have I never heard anyone speak of it, and why has it not come up in the Science Times and other popular venues devoted to the edification of college graduates?

In any case, I’ve given a good deal of notice to what seems more and more an obvious similarity — with some embarrassment in my younger years, I admit, as if it were prurient to think of such things in the realm of art.  Isn’t music supposed to be the purest of the arts, the least related to the nitty-gritty grubby reality of the flesh and other material matters which are so much with us in baser forms like the novel or film (not to be confused with the even baser “movie”).  Music may be romantic, and certainly is sometimes Romantic. But, orgasmic, clearly sexual — and sexual in the most blatant way?

Tchaikovsky’s was the first music that struck me this way, though it seems now not so much orgasm as eternal foreplay, usually of a very intense kind (how very emblematic of Tchaikovsky’s frustrated love life). But all composers engage in the representation of human emotion in musical form. Bach’s climaxes are different from Mahler’s, but they are climaxes nonetheless (my own favorites being in the third and fifth Brandenburg Concertos). Musical climax, like orgasm, like fear and release, like anger and expression, is all about building up tension and then releasing it. There is nothing inherently sexual about it.

Except when there is. And I more than suspect there’s intent at work in some cases, the quintessential example being of course Wagner’s Liebestod, the “love-death” scene from Tristan und Isolde. No great revelation here for me to claim credit for.

But in more recent years I’ve decided there are as well two kinds of orgasmic climaxes in musical composition: male and female. And the Liebestod is clearly an example of the female, which is to say it is attenuated and multiple, as opposed to the slam-bam, thank-you-ma’am climaxes of most other composers who, from their music, I suspect have never been party to a female orgasm, for whatever the reason, or who chose not to appreciate it for what it is (orgasm was not the sort of thing a “lady” experienced in the 19th century).

There is no mistaking Wagner’s long, drawn-out climax in the Liebestod for anything other than an analogue of female orgasm, even though we are to assume, I presume, it’s a climax built for two. I suspect Richard not only appreciated but envied his wife’s ability to experience sexual release in such a …. dare we say “artistic” way, by comparison with the limitations embedded in his own male physiology. If he couldn’t experience that physical experience personally, he could at least duplicate it musically and thus make it accessible to all the rest of us members of the other sex  — of both sexes, actually.

All good music, even the simplest sonatina has a climax or at least a moment of heightened emotional content to which it builds and recedes from or concludes. But sometimes the climax is very subtle and all-but-invisible, if not inaudible. I’m thinking of the few bars in the first movement of Sibelius’s first symphony which, though located toward the end, are the only statement of the theme in the movement, as I listen to it. I have, purely by chance, five versions of that symphony, and it’s remarkable how much difference there is in the way those bars are interpreted — different but subtly so, and yet with as much effect as if the entire symphony were condensed into those few musical phrases (Okko Kamu’s being the stand-alone for me).

Another variation on the short, all-but-missable climax or summing-up of a musical  composition is the two or three phrases toward the end of Rachmaninoff’s third piano concerto and a similar “statement” toward the end of the second movement of his second piano concerto. It’s as if all of what precedes those bars are an elaborate preparation for the profound resolution contained in them.

These, I suppose, are of the more-is-less school of musical love-making — the brief, gentle touching of lips that can mean more, resonate more deeply and transform more thoroughly than any amount of more substantial but less intense erotic activity, as anyone who remembers their first kiss can attest.

Human experience is of a piece, of course. Everything is like everything else in some way. That music should mimic love-making should be no surprise, anymore than that love-making should mimic art. Creating an appetite and then satisfying it, in all the different ways that can be done, is what we do when we add salt to our food or when we sit down to soak in a hot tub, or open an interesting book after a long day of denying ourselves that pleasure so as to earn our livings — or when we sneeze. Recognizing that the same phenomenon is at work in music helps this very amateur musician not only appreciate a particular piece of music better but also gives insight into what a composer is about, the depths of his or her particular inner life and, in however limited a way, some clues to how I can attempt to express it.

(*An approximation of Molly Bloom’s final words at the conclusion of James Joyce’s Ulysses.)

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7 Comments to “Yes, I/You/We Will, Yes Yes We Will YES!*”

  1. What an interesting post! Speaking of research that I don’t think anyone has done, wouldn’t it be fascinating to see if there is a correlation between changing sexual attitudes and music of the day? My hypothesis would be that Gregorian Chant would correlate with a much more straight-laced attitude toward sex (eg: orgasm? what’s that?). Or what about that music that was only allowed to be performed in the Sistine Chapel? Given the antics of medieval popes, perhaps they wanted to keep their climaxes private.

    Seriously, a stimulating post.

  2. Thanks, Terry. I had forgotten about this post. I like your idea about sexual attitudes being mirrored by music. Interestingly, Foucault says the Victorians were steeped in sex, contrary to our present notion of them. He makes a convincing argument too. Personally, I think the popular music of the 1940s was more charged than the more obvious stuff that came after with the “sexual revolution.” Maybe sex needs indirection to be most affective.

  3. Hello. Your comments were very insightful and fit in very nicely with some of my own ideas. I’m a scientist and have done some work which may be relevant to your question; although we have not tackled the sex-music equation directly, we have done so indirectly by showing that brain areas related to pleasure and reward, and mediated by dopamine, are responsive to music, specifically with patterns of anticipation and experience. You can read one of my papers summarizing these ideas here: http://www.zlab.mcgill.ca/docs/salimpoor_2011_nn.pdf
    Best wishes, Robert

  4. I was listening to Liebestod today and, well, if it is not an orgasm, a cosmic one, I don’t know what it is. So I couldn’t agree more with your post. Congratulations

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