I attended a "practice" piano recital today, given by the relative of a local resident who is preparing to perform a concert required for her Master's degree in music. She presented works by Mozart, Brahms, Bach, and Debussy in an informal atmosphere, with an audience of ten! For those of us listening, it was a unique experience to be in such a small group and only twenty feet from the piano. The circumstances gave me an opportunity to enter into the music at a level that is rarely possible in a "live" situation, when the venue is usually fairly intrusive and can play an active role in the event.
I was able to let go, at least for brief periods, and just listen. I played a bit with consciously quieting the verbal side of my mind and listening without words. It was surprisingly easy, leading me to think that it is perhaps mostly habit that has my mind rattling along in phrases and sentences while I'm doing something else. Paul Davis once told me that he likes to have talk radio (such as NPR) playing in the background while he paints because it is almost as though the verbiage occupies and quiets down that verbal side of his mind, freeing the nonverbal side to create.
I realized in a new way that music does have a language, a non-verbal one. Or, at least, for me, western music does, perhaps because I "speak" it. I understand the progressions, the relative keys, the chords, the conventions of composers such as those whose works I heard today. I understand it in the sense that there is a logic to it, so that even unfamiliar pieces speak to me. I had heard none of today's pieces before, yet I could follow the structures and even anticipate the flows of sound. Non-western music communicates to me to the extent that it uses keys, sequences, dissonances, harmonies that also occur in the musical language that I know. The resolution at the end of a complex passage is intensely satisfying. It's kind of like speaking one Romance language and to some extent therefore understanding all of them, and understanding a branch language to the extent that it shares those Latin roots.
So . . . what about abstract painting? What are the elements of its "language"? Colors and how they interact. Values and how they interact. What a color "means" (blue is serenity, red is heat, at least in some cultures). The tension of black against white, the softness of shades of gray. More to ponder, here.