Ostinato in D Minor

Written by Phil Sroka

It’s been six days since I last used hard drugs, and I have still another four before I begin an intensive outpatient dual-diagnosis program for mental illness and substance abuse. I came to a breaking point four days ago and tried to have myself committed but was told that I did not meet the criteria for inpatient treatment (apparently such “criteria” are whether or not they are legally obligated to Baker-Act you, i.e., it would be a liability not to treat you). To add to my predicament is that if I use between now and my intake they will not be able to take me into the program. Aside from a two-month break I took from the drugs, I have not gone longer than a week without using since I relapsed some eight months ago on my 30th birthday. A system that forces those who have all but given up on themselves to then rely on themselves before they are provided the help it took all their strength just to seek out in the first place does not seem very humane. So it goes.

Now what does all that have to do with music? I’ve been asking myself that for the past few days. I honestly don’t know much about music per se. My taste is appallingly ill-conceived, and I have zero musical talent. When I was around ten years old, I asked for a classical music CD for Christmas. I can’t recall exactly where my curiosity for classical music arose. I come from a working-class background, and other than hearing Guns-N-Roses or Warrant waft in from my father’s garage music wasn’t much a part of my life. My early music collection consisted of cassettes of Weird Al Yankovic, and my first CD was Beck’s Odelay. Not exactly a paragon of taste. My aunt and uncle bought me a CD called “Classical Chill” that year. On that album was a piece by the composer Philip Glass. It was the second movement to his violin concerto. That was the first time I ever cried from a piece of music. I cry to it still.

Ever since hearing that concerto, I dreamt of playing the violin. However, the school band in the southeast suburbs of Chicago lacked the funds to provide a string section. I ended up choosing the oboe (I was in the gifted program, which meant that I was a white kid in a Chicago public school, which therefore meant I was obliged to play something), but I had such performance anxiety that I would pretend I was playing during performances. In time a broken arm gave me an excuse to fall so far behind the rest of the band that I was allowed to quit. I eventually bought several violins of my own and would occasionally attempt to teach myself how to play. I have since hocked those for drug money. This childhood anxiety taught me how to deceive people. It was a survival mechanism. In case of emergency – lie.

Music, and art in general, are essentially lies. And if I am anything it is an inveterate liar. Not that I am particularly good at lying; I just do it a lot. As an addict, it’s a damn near prerequisite. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates banned poets from his ideal city because they are liars. In Platonic metaphysics, life is already an imitation. Existence is composed of ideal forms of which we are imperfect cases. Art, therefore, is not only an imitation, but an imitation of an imitation, and consequently not suited for bringing humankind towards truth. Now granted, art in this sense isn’t exactly a lie in the colloquial sense. But it isn’t the truth either. Maybe the word ‘fiction’ is closer to what we mean when we talk about art. The pejorative sense of ‘lie’ as we typically use it means that we are purposefully attempting to deceive. This, of course, implies that we know in the first place what the truth is and that we could ever know or come close to the truth. And yet still everybody lies. And if you are thinking right now that you don’t then you are lying to yourself as well. 

I am going to propose something that I have only slowly been coming to realize myself: there is more truth in a lie than not. After all, what would there be to life if all we said were things that were true? We have fetishized the truth to such an extent without ever questioning what we mean when we use such a word. When we speak of truth today what we are really talking about is validity. These are two distinct terms in formal logic. All validity means is that the conclusion follows from the premise. But here’s the catch – those premises can be whatever you damn well please. When we fetishize the truth all we are really doing is apotheosizing our initial premises in order to make our prejudices appear foundational. Truth, therefore, comes down to control. The fact of the matter is that a liar doesn’t have to craft good lies at all so long as you can read people’s hopes and fears. We crave validity (read: truth) for our lives. Lies provide us the narrative necessary to justify our choices.

Moreover, music allows for shared moods. It does this through fabrication and bricolage. It gathers things that are familiar and juxtaposes them in such a way that their relations invoke novel affective states. How is this possible? How do we share subjective experiences with one another? Philosophers have long struggled to come to terms with the transition from the ideal to the phenomenal. This is what we typically refer to as genesis. One way that rhetoricians have been able to surmount this dilemma is through the concept of the chora. The chora is the space that allows for an event to take place, the receptacle that recedes. It is in so far as it allows events to unfold out of which it disappears from sight. The womb of experience. The problem with the colloquial conception of truth is that it suggests that there is a 1-to-1 correspondence between an event and what it is to experience that event. We can talk about the frequencies of notes and the relations between them, but that will never convey how it feels to hear a song. It is a question of transition. Transition from one person to another. From thought to action. Communication is at bottom (re)mediation. We have to find a way to (re)present the experience. Think of the difference between a book and its movie adaptation. The director has to make different choices than the author in order to produce similar effects. Each one is both liberated and limited by means of the medium they are using. The point is not to replicate the other exactly. The point is to transmit the feeling. To capture the mood. And this is done by lying.

The good liars don’t simply distort facts. They create moods. They open up spaces that allow us to feel. The good liar can read what people want to believe and then gives them what they need to do so. The good liar is an architect. Music isn’t just temporal; it is spatial, too. It creates spaces in which being is allowed to unfold. Ultimately truth comes down to trust. And trust has everything to do with what we want. We trust in those who validate how we feel. And that’s okay. Lies are okay. For at bottom the issue isn’t so much what is “true” as it is the motivation behind that truth. This is why people get so upset when their favorite bands “sell out.” For when a musician begins to round off the edges of the spaces they created in order to appeal to a wider audience, that piece no longer fits so comfortably into the hole that it initially filled in your life. It seems like a betrayal. It feels personal. Who knows, maybe it is. And maybe sometimes what we need to get through is to put our trust in a lie in order to become who we are.

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