Monday, 6 June 2011

Aristotle Sings The Blues

"In Our Time" on BBC Radio 4 is, for my money, the most intelligent broadcasting there is.  In January Melvyn Bragg and his guests discussed Aristotle's "Poetics" (link here).   As ever, there was much to learn, but these two ideas got me thinking:.

"Poetics" concerns itself with drama, and specifically tragedy (the work on comedy is lost).  Aristotle discusses the purpose of drama, part of which is to achieve "catharsis" (used with the meaning of "cleansing").  So the audience gets to experience tragedy by proxy, and a playwright and players of sufficient skill and artistry will involve us so deeply in the action that we will actually experience the emotions of the characters, albeit in a diluted form.  As if it were a vaccination, we experience this cleansing or catharsis in a safe and controlled way, and thereby deal with some of our own emotions that we bring with us, almost as a form of therapy.

The other striking idea was this: that the drama can actually educate the audience in appropriate responses to situations that they may not have experienced.  In this way we can prepare ourselves for times of loss or grief, by seeing how others have responded and knowing what is appropriate.

This articulated so clearly some of  my own half-formed thoughts about the tunes I have been playing.  Old blues and jazz standards, with lyrics carrying strong emotions of love and pain and loss.  But these songs are not about giving in: we know somehow that the blues are all about surviving tragedy, and enduring the pain.  In a word, catharsis.  (like this)

They say that before you can sing the blues you must have lived the blues.  Maybe so.  But maybe it works a little the other way round also: that by singing, playing or even hearing the blues, we can educate ourselves emotionally.  Isn't this one way how we as teenagers developed an emotional vocabulary, and prepared for life?   So now, when I manage to play a blue phrase on my sax that twists in just the right way, and wrings the heart just a little, I feel am connecting with the main flow of humanity, stretching back, yes, as far as Aristotle.

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