Can dialectics be expressed musically? That is, can an idea be translated into emotions? How would that be? In the beginning of the 19th Century, the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel developed dialectics as the movement of opposites that merge to give birth to something new, which is not one of the opposites and yet it comes out of them—a quantum leap, a true change in the quality of matter. Around the same time, musicians such as Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms and others developed “the Sonata form,” which is based precisely on two contrasting musical figures that unfold independently until they reach back to each other, thus creating a new beginning. Coincidence or a scent in the air of the epoch?
When I was listening to Internal Melodies (2023), the new album from pianist Dan Tepfer and saxophonist Miguel Zenón, I realized one of its tracks is called “A Thing and Its Opposite.” I couldn´t but think it was born out of a page of Hegel’s Logic used as musical sheet by Beethoven, turned into ashes during the revolutions of 1848-1849, and then flown all the way to America to be blown by the great jazz saxophonists of the past century. All this comes together in this piece, a musical manifesto which broadens the ear to listen to all the oppositions that surround us: piano and saxophone, cold and warm, purple and red, sadness and joy. When each one has gone its way, then it turns into the other and experiences the cycle from this new position, just to arrive back to the starting point, which is not the same, but something totally new: the circle become spiral.
“La izquierda latinoamericana” (“The Latin-American Left”) has more of a Marxian touch, with two contrasting realities: the rigid, severe one played by the piano, and the free, joyful one played by the saxophone. This composition connects with Zenón’s 2022 Music of the Americas, especially with its track “Oppression and Revolution,” which synthesizes the two opposing movements that have defined the history of this continent since the 16th Century: repression and resistance. Since it was written in 2018, one could fancy that “The Latin-American Left” is the piece out of which Music of the Americas emerged: a whole album that portrays musically 500+ years of Latin American drama.
The set of three pieces at the heart of Internal Melodies—the eponymous one, “Center of Gravity” and “I Know”—open a new layer of dialectics, referring not just to opposite musical figures, but to the structure of the album. Here we are brought back from externality, in the deepest grounds of the inner self, which is both rational and emotional. “Internal Melodies” with its pure lyricism, “I know” as the first affirmation of self-consciousness, and “Center of Gravity” as the middle term that connects both, form a three-step journey from the outside to the inside, and then back to the former. That is so because “knowing” is a human act that relates subject to object, inner self with external reality, the comprehending mind with the diversity of the world surrounding us.
“La Libertad” (“Freedom”) is the piece that begins to take us back to actuality. Freedom could always be internal, but its full potential is only reached when it expresses itself as a social system, a historic stage in which the development of the whole is at the same time the development of each individual. This piece has sweet and profound notes, smooth and high, just like freedom itself.
“Frontline”—whose title reminds us of the need to struggle for liberty, to defend it—“Solstice” and “317 E 32nd St.” set us plainly once again in the external world, with one of the pieces pointing to an astronomical phenomenon and the other to a specific location in a city. But even the most objective things are ingrained with subjectivity: What is a solstice but our perception of it, our emotions and conceptions in the face of a change of season, either from yellow Spring to blue Summer, or from gray Autumn to white Winter? What is an address but our feelings and memories attached to it?
In a word, Internal Melodies is a full journey around the human being: from one’s outermost external reality to one’s closest self, from one’s reason to one’s emotion, from the social to the individual and back again. It is a manifestation of how the game of opposites (dialectics) can be developed musically, for sense and sensibility are part of the same unity: the human mind. Dialectics is also about that.
The New Acropolis, December 13th 2023