“That cannot be expressed or described in language; too great for words; transcending expression; unspeakable, unutterable, inexpressible.” (Oxford English Dictionary)
It was a hot night in May and I was driving through the streets of Miami in the convertible Chrysler Sebring we had rented for our family vacation. The car was terrible—small, uncomfortable, with terrible visibility for the drive. But it was fund to be driving with roof down, feeling the breeze, seeing the art deco buildings, and listening to the babble of the night clubs, roaring car engines, and squealing tires blending with the music playing on the car radio. We were listening to a jazz radio station I had found by scanning the lower FM frequencies. The music had been but background sounds until the most beautiful song came on. Suddenly I had shut out all the other city sounds and was drawn into the radio. This was the most beautiful song I had heard on the radio. When the song ended I stayed focused on the radio, waiting for the DJ to tell me what I had just heard. The information didn’t come immediately; many songs rolled over the airways—I counted each one. I carefully counted back with the DJ until my number coincided with his naming Charlie Haden as the musician responsible for the splendid song.
I was somewhat familiar with Haden. I had already purchased the serene collaboration with Pat Metheny, Beyond the Missouri Sky: Short Stories. Not only had I purchased the album I had absorbed it. The album became my Balm of Gilead, displacing Monteverdi’s Vespers as the solace that would let my mind let go of its frantic concerns each night. I become obsessed, in a way, with finding that song. I purchased Land of the Sun and then the more likely Nocturnes. Neither of these albums had the song, and with those failures I moved on, although with the creation of Spotify and Google Play, I’ve been able to renew my hunt at much lower cost. I’m not sure if the song I heard in Miami was actually Charlie Haden. In that pre-Shazam era, there is an inescapable uncertainty in identifying songs on the radio. After all, with a long play list, the distribution of my counting error is not negligible. Now, some 10 years later, I’m not sure I would even recognize a song as being that song. In any case, that night in Miami launched one of my many pursuits of the ineffable: I didn’t want to find that song as much as I wanted to recreate the mood, the feeling of that night.
The philosopher Vladimir Jankélévitch has described the ineffable as follows:
The ineffable…cannot be explained because there are infinite and interminable things to be said of it: such is the mystery of God, whose depths cannot be sounded, the inexhaustible mystery of love, both Eros and caritas, the poetic mystery par excellence. (Music and the Ineffable, p. 72)
In music Jankélévitch finds an art form particularly given to the ineffable:
Thus music, at an extreme, develops an inexpressible perfume, the scent of all the memories that disturb and age a soul slowly suffused by knowledge of the past-ness of its own past. (Music and the Ineffable, p. 96)
I experience the inexpressible perfume of music when I listen to David Bowie, evoking a blend of mostly inarticulate memories stretching back to when I was fourteen and first heard Heroes/Helden (German version of Heroes) on KRCL. In different ways X, The English Beat, Count Basie, and Beethoven all remind me of my past-ness, evoking different blends of anger, joy, and awe.
Moving back to Utah I have rediscovered how Utah’s landscape has been infused into my self, and how music-like it can call forth ineffable memories. The varieties of landscape—desert, mountains, lakes, and red rocks—like my play lists with Charlie Haden and Joe Strummer resurrect different ghosts—partial ephemeral—of my past selfs.
Last Friday evening I hiked up to Red Pine Lake in Little Cottonwood Canyon. With my iPhone I took the panoramic photograph below. The photograph hints at the rich colors, lush life and grand alpine structures surround the lake. It is beautiful, and I’m glad I now have the photograph to recall the hike. But the photograph is pale substitute for the experience of being at the lake, where there is more than the richer colors that the camera doesn’t capture: the feel of the breeze, the fragrance of the flowers and pines, and the cumulative memories at the lake.
The first time I hiked up to Red Pine Lake in Little Cottonwood Canyon I was eighteen and recovering from years of poor health. Now in good health, I reveled in proving my physical vitality: I rode my bike from my Cottonwood home to a friend’s father’s house in Logan. I skied the (nearest) steepest slopes at Snowbird. And when I hiked to Red Pine Lake I ran. The hike was intended to be a physical exertion, but what it became was an aesthetic experience. The lake is above 9000 feet, nearly a full mile higher than the Salt Lake Valley. At that altitude the sky was a deep blue, around the lake were ferns, wildflowers, evergreens and scree. The north face of the mountains were still covered with snow that had calfed a Matterhorn-shaped iceberg that serenely floated in the partially frozen lake, all to shortly disappear with the progress of summer. I’ve always regretted that I didn’t have a camera with me on that initial hike.
When Wendy and I were first in graduate school we would often drive out to the west desert of Utah. The drive kept our son entertained while Wendy and I studied our physiology. One night we drove out farther than usual. When we passed the Grassy and Cedar Mountains a surreal scene opened before us as the blues, violets, reds, pinks, and oranges of the sunset reflected perfectly, as if the whole ground was a polished mirror. With my 35 mm camera I snapped pictures of this magnificent moment. When the film was developed the pictures came out OK, but nothing close to capturing the reality of that night.
The desert became a pilgrimage for me. Years later when we lived in Pittsburgh, I would drive out to the desert with my parents when I was visiting Utah. Usually we would drive to a rest stop at the edge of the Great Salt Lake Desert and watch the sunset. Sometimes storms kept us from seeing what I sought, but usually we would be treated to an awe inspiring sight as the sun set the desert on fire with golds and reds I never saw in Pittsburgh. I would watch as 360 degrees of mountains caught and threw back the dying light. Once I partially caught the evolving sunset, serially photographing the Silver Island Mountains as they transformed from yellow to purple, framed against the dark silhouettes of the Pilot Range. In addition to the photographs, I’ve tried painting the sunsets or writing imagist poetry or even writing a blog entry, but all these efforts have convinced me that these desert sunsets cannot be captured, even though I keep trying.
Technology transforms time and by transforming time transforms us. What was once left to blend into our memories, we now capture, albeit it partially, with words or sketches or photographs or videos. I wonder what the implications of I wonder what the implications of these transformations are. Do we run the risk of mistaking the part for the whole? Do we rob our souls of the richness of our blended memories? Do we rob ourselves of our full experiences by our obsessions with capturing the moment?
Which brings me back to music. As an art form, music seems singular in its ability to to remind us that life is flux it is change. When it is paused, it disappears. Music can only be appreciated by letting it pass and then disappear. Like sunsets or icebergs, life exists and passes into the next moment, never to be re-experienced again. Can music with its inevitable ineffable transience be the key artistic form to teach us to live life rather than to miss it by trying to memorialize it?