every sound in danger of disappearing

“For many people, music is here to let them forget the daily chores of life …. People have a difficult day at the office, they have a fight with their wife or their mistress, or both, they get bad news from their accountant. So they come home, exhausted, put their feet up, and put on their favourite Chopin Nocturne – preferably played by me – and within three minutes they have forgotten their troubles. But I maintain music is not here to make us forget about life. It’s also here to teach us about life: the fact that everything starts and ends, the fact that every sound is in danger of disappearing, the fact that everything is connected – the fact that we live and we die.

–          Daniel Barenboim, interviewed in The Guardian (bold print mine)

I’ve written about the intersections between music, bodies and life writing before. And now, as I read through Daniel Barenboim’s words, captured in an article in The Guardian, I feel the need to return.

There is much that unites the letter writer with the composer. Both are struggling to articulate, in text, their experiences, emotions, bodily tremblings, slivers of thoughts, ideas… trying to put down, in some sort of fixed way, things that resist fixity. What happens in that translation process? What happens when bodily experience becomes word? When thoughts, ideas, emotions, trembling become musical notes? When gestures move from body into language?

Letter writers, like composers of music, all have unique voices. They use the same tools, but to very different ends. Pen. Ink. Paper. Words. Spaces. And in the process, they tell different stories, opening their readers/listeners to different ways of thinking, perceiving, experiencing, living.

There is much that unites the letter writers that wrote to Tissot. Suffering, social class, and accepted notions of propriety. They follow similar patterns and structure their letters in similar ways. But the letters are also surprisingly diverse.  There are sudden bumps. And intriguing twists. And just when you’ve figured something out, the letter changes direction.

So it is, too, with composers. In his Guardian interview, Barenboim talks about concert programming. More specifically, he considers the potential in combining the first ‘great Romantic’, Beethoven (as we were taught in music school), with Pierre Boulez, a scion of contemporary music. Putting the two into conversation with one another transforms the listeners’ (and the performers’) understanding of each composer. Beethoven’s first symphony is changed upon hearing Boulez’s Dérive II. And the work of Boulez, too, is shaped by our intimate experience with Beethoven. If, as Barenboim argues, “every sound is in danger of disappearing,” the careful juxtaposition of compositions allows for sounds to expand and multiply as new meanings emerge.

But what does any of this have to do with letters?

Letters, like concerts, can (on the one hand) be seen as nothing more than entertainment. Quiet pleasures accompanied with a good cup of tea. Moments of respite from the day’s cares and concerns. Opportunities to look in a different direction. Put your feet up. Disappear into another world.

But what happens if we take Mr. Barenboim’s words seriously? Can the art of letter reading be imagined as something akin to the art of listening to music? Can reading letters “teach us about life”? Can letters –and our reading of them – serve to remind us that “everything starts and ends, …that every sound is in danger of disappearing,…that everything is connected …. that we live and we die”?

Collections of letters – whether exchanged by intimate friends or, like the ones I’m reading, directed by hundreds of individuals to one common recipient – offer us new ways of listening. Juxtaposing letters allows us to examine harmonies and dissonances, to plumb the depths of melody, gesture, silence and sound. Like the encounter between Beethoven and Boulez, letters challenge and confirm one another, asking to be read anew, over and over and over again.

What might we lose by not taking letters seriously?

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