On the way in to work this morning I was listening to a cd and one track in particular (my favourite, “Ha Uma Musica Da Povo”) moved me almost to tears. There are few pieces of music that can do this (other examples being Tori Amos’ “Winter” and Radiohead’s “Let Down”), but what is unusual about this one is that I have no idea whatsoever what she is singing about.
The formidable lady who serves coffee in the cafeteria in our building is Portuguese, so maybe she could translate, although part of me would prefer it to remain a mystery. The feeling of the song comes across perfectly well through the singer’s delivery. Besides, it’s part of a musical genre not exactly renowned for songs about raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens. Whenever I listened to Italian opera in the past (which was basically whenever it was featured in a commercial or a movie), it was untainted by understanding on my part. “Nessun Dorma”, used by the BBC during its coverage of the World Cup in Italy some years ago communicates its emotional message perfectly well. When, years later and having learnt Italian in the meantime, I heard it again, being able to understand the words Pavarotti was singing didn’t really add to my enjoyment of the music. I can appreciate the human voice as a musical instrument without necessarily wanting to decode the sounds it’s making, in the same way that I don’t need to understand anatomy in order to appreciate a good portrtait.
As regards those artists whose lyrics I do enjoy (Suzanne Vega, Loudon Wainwright 3, They Might Be Giants), the pleasure I get from the lyrics and the pleasure I get from the music are two separate things. In fact, a lot of my favourite stuff is entirely instrumental, or features incomprehensible lyrics.