Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Problem of Dissonance

It's been a while since my last attempt to be true to the purpose of my blog. A couple of times, I've dabbled with topics that deal with reason and revelation and the doubts of my faith, but nothing I've written so far can really count as sincere wrestling; not the direct wrestling with divine issues that I had hoped to accomplish for this blog. I think my reasons for staying so shallow on this blog thus far are two parts laziness, two parts fear, and one part I honestly don't know where to start. Well I've decided to get over my laziness. I don't know what it is I truly fear about writing my thoughts. One part is, I am anxious about people knowing that I struggle with such deep-seated doubts concerning my faith. Another part is, some of the things I believe and some of the things that I claim will be considered far-fetched, theologically unsound, doctrinally dangerous, and even blasphemous, especially because I am associated with such an orthodox, reformed church. But I think I've decided that if I do have beliefs that are wrong, they won't right themselves unless I subject them to the scrutiny of others anyway. And I always hope that what I write will resonate with someone else who ponders the same issues.

Having said all that, I still haven't a clue where to start. I feel like all the questions I have are webbed into an intricate network of issues with no discernible center or focus. Therefore, I've decided to do something that I'm not good at: approach all my issues haphazardly and unsystematically and hope my readers will see all the issues together as they bleed into one another.

Today I wanted to ask a question that I formulated one year and six months ago: "Why is dissonance beautiful?" Why do pleasure and pain, joy and suffering cling onto each other so inseparably that you cannot have one without the other?

The question as it exists in my mind is really difficult for me to explain because there are so many different levels and contexts in which I can ask it; yet I believe they are all related and all ultimately the same question. I suppose I'll approach it from three different angles.

1) One of the things you learn in literature 101 is that all good stories have a conflict. How interesting would it be if you read a story that began "Once upon a time", went on with "and, encountering no problems of disturbances from their current condition, they lived happily" and then ended with "and continuing their happy living, they lived happily ever after"? That tired old way of ending fairy tales is only meaningful if there were some conflict that needed resolving.

One thing I've become more and more aware of is a plot trope that you find in a lot of action-adventure movies. Towards the last third of the film, the protagonists have come up with a plan to resolve the conflict, whatever it is. But if the rest of the movie just showed the good guys pulling off their plan without a hitch; it would leave the last part lacking. So they throw a hitch into the plan in which a final turn in the plot can take place. One example of this is the movie Armageddon. At the end, just as they finally overcome all the other problems in their plan and is ready to take off from the asteroid, they find that they can't remotely detonate the bomb, so someone has to stay behind and play the sacrificial lamb. Another example is the movie Independence Day. At the end, they finally figure out a way to overcome the alien invader's shields, but after engaging the alien spaceship for a while, they realize that they're not doing enough damage and running out of missiles, thus necessitating a sacrificial lamb to fly into the alien craft as it's about to fire and blow it up.

My point is this: conflict drives the plot of a story. Without it, it would be incomplete. What is essential in a good story, whether it's a movie, book, or even something that happened in real life, is dissonance.

2) I've always HATED classical music. Not classical music in general. I love that. Classical music as in music written during the classical period; Mozart and Haydn and Salieri and the like. The mathematical precision of each piece, the perfect harmonies and most importantly, the lack of musical dissonance. Everything was perfect fifths and major thirds; all the chord progressions were neatly cadenced, all the ornaments and variations - predictably constructed. Every time I listen to Mozart, it always gave me the same sick feeling; the feeling you get when you eat too much candy all at once. Like the stomach-ache that follows an over-indulgence of sweets, classical-period music left me with an emptiness, a yearning for something more savory.

What's my favorite genre of classical music? I've always been a huge fan of late Romantic and Impressionist. My favorite composer is Chopin. Why? Because after Beethoven, classical music evolved and a new element was added. In the music, there was bitterness, there was discord, there were chords that don't work with each other. But it wasn't chaos. It wasn't the unintelligible, chaotic dribble of Schoenberg's atonal music; music without a center. There were absolutes. There were still key signatures, time signatures based in double and triple meter; there were still cadences and structures and stories; but the stories had more moods. If classical-period music was about unicorns and butterflies and fairy tales with happy-endings; Romantic music introduced sorrow and pain and darkness and told real-life stories. Classical-period music puked rainbows and lived in a dream world of pastel colors and unending sunshine; Romantic music grasped the ugliness of life and embraced rain and hail when it came.

I know there are people who find Mozart delightful. I am not calling them shallow people. I am, however, calling Mozart's music, standalone, shallow music. It's too perfect. It's too harmonious. It's too happy. And because of that, it's incomplete. What is the depth that Mozart is lacking? Dissonance.

3) My strength is music, so I have more metaphors from music to explain what I mean by dissonance. Even in its fundamental structure, music as the relation of certain sounds with others, there is the concept of consonance and dissonance. In music theory, the fifth interval (C to G, D to A, E to B and so on), is called a "perfect fifth" because there is a mathematical perfection in the relations of their frequencies. The fifth of a note is always 3/2 its frequency in hertz. Thus if A is 440kHz, the E above it is 660kHz. If I played a fifth interval on the piano for you, even if you were completely unmusical, you would say to me, "That's nice". You might not know the right words, but you would agree if I told you that it was "harmonious". But if I played for you two notes that were a half-step away from each other, you would say to me, "That's ugly" or "That sounds bad". If you heard it inadvertently, you might think that someone just accidentally sat on the keyboard.

My point is, even in the fundamental building blocks of music, in the theory and the math and physics that constitute its very structure, there is ingrained the idea of consonance and dissonance*. YET, dissonance is necessary! If we didn't have dissonance, we wouldn't have music. We would have harmonious chords; we'd have various nice sounds that can be created by instruments, but we wouldn't have music.

In a grander manner, if we didn't have dissonant chord progressions and conflicts in the plot of a musical piece, we would have nice-sounding music, but we wouldn't have beautiful music.

Dissonance is needed for beauty. Pain is needed for pleasure. Conflict is needed for resolution. But WHY?

You might be thinking, "Well this is not a big deal; all you've said so far is that in order to appreciate goodness, you need badness. In order for cadences to mean anything, you need a progression. In order for 'happily ever after' to mean anything, you need a problem" What's the big deal? It just means you need to hear some bad news first. It just means you need to hear some dissonant sounds in your musical piece. What's so bad about that?

But don't you see? In the grand picture, bad news isn't simply bad sounds. It's death, and pain and suffering! It's warfare and murder. It's selfishness and greed. It's theft, it's pride. It's envy and sorrow. It's the loss of one's children, the loss of one's parents. Dissonance in life is being born in a nation that's not the USA and being condemned to a life of hunger and extreme poverty. Dissonance in life is being born blind or being born without the ability to use your legs. Dissonance is unrequited love. Dissonance is splinters and canker sores. Dissonance is death. Dissonance is the knowledge that if you do everything right in life, you'll end up in the same cemetery as the guy who did everything wrong in life.

In one sense, this is no real revelation to the astute liver of life. We all know that life is pleasure and life is pain. "You take the good, you take the bad, you take 'em both and there you have: the facts of life". How do you measure a year? "In inches, in miles, in laughter and strife". To enjoy the sun is the run the risk of getting sunburn. To each a watermelon is to pick out the seeds. To eat steak is to kill a cow. To ask a girl out is to run the risk of being rejected. You can't separate out the pains of life. To do so would be to make it less beautiful, or less colorful. Read "The Giver", watch "Pleasantville", and they illustrate this idea better than I can ever do.

Yet, WHY? Why is it this way? Why is pain inextricable in life? Why is a life without pain bland and shallow and undesirable?

I have some answers. I have unsatisfying answers. They relate to our God. I'll bring the issue back to theodicy in my next post.

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