- 00:00:00 — Opening
- 00:05:53 — The futility of counting senses
- 00:14:25 — AIs and barriers of senses
- 00:22:24 — Mushrooms
- 00:26:33 — Writing, the smoothest barrier-breaker + audiophile
- 00:56:05 — Finally, some Chopin + how Zach died
- 01:39:03 — Other renditions of the sonata
Hello, everyone. I am Ithaka. And this is Sponge, a podcast where we absorb elements from the world to form a perspective of our own and find beauty.
The theme for today’s episode is this: Until we find a way to safely and reliably break down the barriers of what we have come to call “the five senses,” the easiest way to see something that can’t be seen, taste something that can’t be tasted, touch something that can’t be touched, smell something that can’t be smelled, and hear something that can’t be heard is through writing. That is what I absorbed while writing “Final Fugue.”
In this episode, we’re going to listen to some Chopin. But, before we get to that point, we gotta start from the beginning.
The five senses. I think I included all five. Seeing, tasting, touching, smelling, and hearing. But see, it’s not really “all five.” We’re so used to the concept of humans having five senses, we just sort of accept it as truth—at least I did, for a long time. In fact, we’re so used to “the five senses” that the phrase “sixth sense” is listed in Oxford Languages, defined as, quote, “a supposed intuitive faculty giving awareness not explicable in terms of normal perception.” End quote.
Look at this definition. It uses the word “supposed.” And it also uses the words “normal perception.” It’s as if whoever created this definition thinks that people are imagining the sixth sense. Which, by the way, I think is wrong. I think the implication that this definition is making is outright wrong. Humans definitely have a sixth sense; at least humans who pay attention to themselves and the world around them have a sixth sense. But perhaps we should more correctly call the sixth sense the twentieth sense or the fiftieth sense, because we have so many more senses than the commonly accepted five, anyway.
Notably, hellahealth.com lists thermoception, which is, quote, the “ability to sense heat and cold. This also is thought of as more than one sense—not just because of the two hot/cold receptors, but also because there is a completely different type of thermoceptor, in terms of the mechanism for detection, in the brain. These thermoceptors in the brain are used for monitoring internal body temperature.” End quote.
Also, there is equilibrioception, which is, quote, “The sense that allows you to keep your balance and sense body movement in terms of acceleration and directional changes. This sense also allows for perceiving gravity. This sensory system is found in your inner ears and is called the vestibular labyrinthine system. Anyone who’s ever had this sense go out on them knows how important it is. When it’s not working or malfunctioning, you literally can’t tell up from down. Moving from one location to another without aid is nearly impossible.” End quote.
This particular article also includes thirst and hunger, as well as many other senses, in its list of 18 senses.
And just by hearing something like this… The first time I heard that humans have more than five senses, or six senses, was… it was a couple of decades ago, maybe. So, this isn’t anything new, that the “five senses” concept is, by now, just wrong. But with a word like the “sixth sense” listed in the dictionary, and widely used, I am guessing it will be a while, or never, until society as a whole moves away from the limiting view of humans only having five senses.
The futility of counting senses
Perhaps it is futile to count the number of senses. In “The Doors of Perception,” Aldous Huxley writes about, quote from Wikipedia, “his psychedelic experience under the influence of mescaline in May 1953. Huxley recalls the insights he experienced, ranging from the “purely aesthetic” to “sacramental vision,” and reflects on their philosophical and psychological implications. In 1956, he published “Heaven and Hell,” another essay which elaborates these reflections further.” End quote.
This is a very short book. Usually, “The Doors of Perception” and “Heaven and Hell” are published together, as one book, and so it was in the version that I read. Mescaline is, quote, “the principal active psychedelic agent of the peyote and San Pedro cacti, which have been used in Native American religious ceremonies for thousands of years.” End quote. And the reason Huxley wanted to try this is that he believed, quote, “the brain is a reducing valve that restricts consciousness,” and his hope that “mescaline might help access a greater degree of awareness.” End quote.
The title, “Heaven and Hell,” is taken from William Blake’s poem, “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.” Quote, “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is: Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern,” end quote.
And, you know, many people take psychedelic trips, but how many can be articulate the way Mr. Huxley is? Not many. At least not all, definitely. So, this is a fascinating book, written by a writer more than capable of expressing what a potentially confusing psychedelic trip is like. And the… vision of the world expanding is astounding.
But see, I used the word “vision,” as if it’s about seeing with my eyes, but it isn’t. It isn’t as limiting as that. The whole entire world opening up—that sense, neither part of the five senses nor the eighteen senses that are accepted as being granted the species Homo sapiens, is conveyed in a somewhat dry but also heartfelt way in Mr. Huxley’s book.
But normally, when we’re not on psychedelic trips, we humans, in order to keep ourselves from going crazy, create nonexistent barriers. Our brain cannot process everything all at the same time, so it puts stimuli into little categories.
Nevertheless, synesthesia is by now a known phenomenon. According to our beloved Wikipedia, it is, quote, “a perceptual phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway,” end quote. Thus, for example, quote, “letters or numbers are perceived as inherently colored.” Or, “numbers, months of the year, or days of the week elicit precise locations in space” so that “1980 may be ‘farther away’ than 1990” or “may appear as a three-dimensional map (clockwise or counterclockwise).” End quote. Not only that, a person with chromesthesia—sound-to-color synesthesia—may “see an orange triangle in space” when they hear a trumpet.
Isn’t that fascinating? Now, perceiving these involuntarily to the point of having difficulty living in the world of averages would suck. I mean, think about it. There are studies about how left-handed people get hurt more than right-handed people, because the world revolves around right-handed people. So, imagine having synesthesia. Well no, I cannot begin to imagine what it’s like, should this condition/ability be severe/great.
At any rate, my point is this. We talk about the five senses a lot. We even talk about the eighteen senses. But perhaps human perception cannot be neatly counted. Five, eighteen, a hundred, it does not matter. Maybe we’re built with the potential to sense seeable things through senses other than sight. And maybe we’re built with the potential to sense touchable things through senses other than touch. And the potential to sense smellable things through senses other than smell. So on and so forth.
Not only that, maybe what we call “smell” isn’t just smell, at all. You know, for the longest time, the story was that you tasted food with your tongue. But by now, it’s commonly accepted that smelling food is as important in tasting food as… actually tasting food with the tongue. They go together, the nose and the tongue.
And with something like sound, it’s not just the ears. Some sounds, many sounds, actually, you can feel on your skin. The vibrations. I mean, no surprise, because sound waves are… waves. They vibrate.
AIs and barriers of senses
Also interestingly, we are now living in the age of easily-accessible AI… ish. AI technology has become more accessible by the non-techie normal folks in recent years, like never before.
And what some of these tools do is, they take words to create images. They take static images to create moving images. So, pretty soon, why not images to music? Music to images? Are AI tools going to show humans how human barriers can be broken down?
I believe that the sooner we accept that we have a lot more than a certain number of senses, the better. Even if AIs end up being able to translate visuals to audio, audio to smell, smell to touch, and so on and so forth, wouldn’t it take longer for them to simulate everything that happens in-between those senses? The totality of the human experience—can AIs replicate that? Also, for what reason?
See, that is what I wonder often. What would be the point of making AIs do the same things as humans, only on a larger scale?
Maybe this is why I don’t worry that much about AIs taking over everything humans do. There is enough stuff in this world already. As in, I am in no shortage of films to watch. It doesn’t matter how many more awesome movies AIs make. I think the more stuff there is, the more people will be interested in the people who made that stuff—which is what has been happening in the past twenty years anyway. I think that is exactly why we came to live in the world of influencer culture and creator economy. There is so much stuff, we care more about the people who make them, than the stuff. So, if AIs come along and create more stuff—I can’t imagine myself being that much interested in that stuff. Now, if AIs were to pretend to be human, that would be worrisome. But will they be able to do it, when human perception cannot be as easily categorized as the 20th-century wisdom used to dictate? Perhaps AIs could have some other “perception” that humans cannot fathom—but that, to humans, would be mostly irrelevant.
Humans watch a movie like “Arrival,” which is a science fiction movie in which a linguist tries to figure out a way to communicate with extraterrestrials. And these aliens have a completely different comprehension of time. Humans cannot begin to fathom what their existence is like. And that is probably why in this film as well as in many other stories, the protagonists are human. Humans are so uniquely uninterested in species other than humans, it does not matter how interesting the aliens are—there needs to be a human doing the translation. In the case of this movie, the translation is literal and comprehensive, because the language that these aliens use is based on an entirely different set of biological, cultural, and personal features. I’m not even sure if biology and culture and personality apply to these aliens.
So, in short, AIs are beginning to break down barriers of the senses and will continue to do so, probably—but that isn’t to say that ooh, AIs are going to eliminate humans because humans will be worthless. I truly don’t think so, and it is not because of some so-called positive spin that I am obsessed with, or because I feel sorry for the humans, or because I look down upon the AIs.
I simply have faith in humanity’s utter indifference to non-human entities.
If some humans utilize the tools that are available to them—AI tools or, hey, psychedelic drugs, who knows—and they expand the world of the humans, by the humans, for the humans, then… I don’t see why the majority of humanity would be more interested in the works generated by AIs. Pure AIs. AIs without human intervention.
Recently, I came across a Youtube video titled, “High Dose SHROOMS Trip Simulation (POV).” It is exactly what it sounds like. For 7 minutes and 46 seconds, the video takes us on a POV shroom trip. According to the comments, apparently this rendering is extremely authentic. Roro McGorro writes, quote, “Some dude with 10k subs on YouTube was able to do what hundreds of millions dollar Hollywood movies couldn’t get even kind of close to. I’m Impressed!!” End quote.
Also, if you’re interested in this topic of expanding your perception, check out the documentary “Fantastic Fungi.” I watched it before Sponge became a podcast—when there only used to be short blog posts about stuff I absorbed. So there probably will not be a separate episode on “Fantastic Fungi,” but it’s a beautiful, gorgeous documentary. So many pretty mushrooms. Life-changing research going on here. Not only do the mushrooms present a path in which perceptual barriers may be broken down, but also, the very barrier of life and death may be broken down. The usual fear of death or fear of end that you see in mainstream content is nowhere to be found in this documentary.
Looking back at what I wrote on June 13, 2022 about this documentary, quote, “It seems that the mainstream culture might be so terrified of The End because a lot of it depends on various pyramid schemes that must continue on forever, otherwise the whole system will collapse.
At some point, stuff just gotta end.
Infinite expansion isn’t possible.
Infinite existence isn’t possible.
Existence isn’t good.
Death isn’t evil.” End quote.
Yeah. There is a lot of death talk in this documentary. It’s not morbid, but it definitely doesn’t shy away from the topic of death. And ironically, therein, it finds more life than the stories that obsess about life.
Also, they did a great job with their website, with their store and all. Whoever is managing the marketing and money-generating side of this endeavor is doing great work. The website is not only stunning, but it also functions. You know, sometimes websites try too hard to be stunning and they just don’t work. But this one does both. It is stunning and it works.
So, if you’re interested in expanding your human perception, breaking down your barriers, and all kinds of things that happen due to such various shroomy, psychedelic phenomena, check out the book “The Doors of Perception,” the movie “Arrival,” the trippy simulation video on Youtube, and “Fantastic Fungi.” All links are in the show notes, and as always, the link to a full transcript is also in the show notes.
Writing, the smoothest barrier-breaker + audiophile
Before we continue, a reminder. Please leave a review and/or rating where you listen to this podcast, so that other Thursday’s children can find it.
And while you do that, at this point, you might ask, “But Ithaka, didn’t you say that you were gonna talk about what you absorbed while writing your book, ‘Final Fugue’?”
Indeed, my fellow Thursday’s children, indeed.
Also, today’s theme, reiterated: Until we find a way to safely and reliably break down the barriers of what we have come to call “the five senses,” the easiest way to see something that can’t be seen, taste something that can’t be tasted, touch something that can’t be touched, smell something that can’t be smelled, and hear something that can’t be heard is through writing.
Ah, writing. I think, to this day, writing is the medium in which sensory barriers can be broken down most effectively and easily. Music—you gotta hear it. Film—you gotta see it. But writing?
Very early in life, we get used to the fact that writing is not about the font, the font size, the line spacing, or the paragraph design. Handwritten or typed writing also isn’t what we call writing when we say “the writing is to my taste.” Writing is the message itself. Thus, a person could be hearing the writing in audio format, and still they would get the message. You could be listening to what I am saying in podcast format, but also you could be reading the transcript page. Sure, there may be additional information to perceive in my voice—but the core of the message, you will get, through the text transcript. In fact, one could argue that audio versions of written text take away as much as they add. That’s what happens with narrated audiobooks. There are great narrators in this world, and even so, for me, the most pleasurable way to read is by actually reading, without the narrator adding their own layer of interpretation. This is especially so for fiction books. I like to have only the writer, me, and the words between us. No one else, nothing else.
But. Again. Even with this interesting layer that narration adds to written text, the text itself, the writing itself, it is the most neutral medium I know. The very fact that it can be turned into audio format and keep the same message, more or less, shows just how neutral writing is. You cannot tell the writer’s physical state or cultural background just from the writing alone, unless the message itself is about the physical state or cultural background. If I am sick and I write about being healthy, there is just no way for anybody else to know how I am.
And thus, I thoroughly enjoyed writing “Final Fugue,” which features a pianist living in New York in the 1920s. I will give you the blurb.
Quote, “Murder means the end of the world for the murdered person… …except when they enter another world.
재카라이아스Zacharias Steele dreams of making it big as a professional pianist. In the 1920s, the most dazzling place in which to accomplish that dream is New York City.
Once there, Zach auditions, interviews, tries out, you name it. But mysteriously, something always goes wrong.
Ten years later, he ends up dejected and unsuccessful in a small town. There, one night, unexpectedly, he has the opportunity to perform to a full house.
Problem? His girlfriend stops by his dressing room and gives him a mysterious warning: don’t wear the new suit.
Zach should have listened to her.
This will be the last time he’ll play in this world.” End quote.
This book is book 2 in the Hotel Between Worlds series that includes “Undoing Cycles,” which we talked about in Episode 22, titled, “You walk in the forest.” “Final Fugue” is set in the same universe where murdered people go to the hotel between worlds and await the death of their murderer, to do whatever they see fit: take revenge or forgive or whatever else that might happen.
“Final Fugue” is double the length of “Undoing Cycles.” In fact, “Final Fugue” is the longest book I have ever written. It is 150,000-words-ish long. And one of the reasons it got so long was that, I like writing about sound.
I think partly it’s because I’ve been around music, growing up. My mother played the piano and at home, we always had classical music playing. There was this collection of CDs, which were on constant repeat, all the time. That’s how I often recognize the music when I hear it, but I don’t know the title. I don’t know who composed it.
And then I learned to play the piano and the violin. I never got to be good, but I did play them for about… ten years? Fifteen years?
And I also played the drum. Like, rock band type of drum, for, like a month. That instrument is difficult. So difficult. I felt like an octopus with only four legs instead of eight legs, and even the four legs that I did have, I couldn’t use very well. But I could imagine that if a person were to play the drum for many years, they would become really smart. Like, not only in the music area, but in general life, I think playing the drum would be good for brain development.
Anyway, recently, I tried to learn the guitar, but then it always sits on the back burner, so, it’s like, by now, it’s an insult to the guitar for me to say that I’m trying to learn it. I think at some point, I will have to get a teacher, otherwise I just will not practice. Actually, even when I do practice, the biggest reason I wanted to pick up an instrument again was for scale practice. I used to hate it, but now, I love it. I love scale practice. I like repetitive practicing with answers. All I need to do is follow the scale and try to make clean sounds. I love that. So, weirdly, I’m less interested in playing songs on the guitar, and more interested in its therapeutic effect. It also feels very soothing against my body because of its little vibrations. It feels very different from the piano or the violin or the drum. A guitar is pressed against the body and it’s not too large like a cello either.
Anyway, music has been everywhere in my life, since childhood. I make a playlist for every story I have ever written and published, unless it’s one of the shorts from Agora Phantasmagoria, which is what I call the collection where I put the short stories, which were written by having three random words selected, either by people around me or randomly from a dictionary. Those stories are so random, and their title is simply the three seed words that were used, so they don’t have their own playlist. But all other stories have their playlists. So, even now, music is somewhat everywhere in my life—as much as it can be, without me being a professional musician.
Actually, I like sound, in general. I like ASMRs, especially the more atmospheric ones, less the tingle-focused ones. I like the sound of rice cooking, or water boiling, or sprinklers sprinkling; the sound of the breeze blowing through the foliage, the meowing of cats, the purring of cats; I like how sound is so specific that your ears can tell the difference between hot water and cold water. True facts. I’ll link to an article about this in the show notes.
Anyway, I like sound so much that under my Korean pen name, I have a newsletter called 고막사람gomaksaram, which literally means “Eardrum person.” It’s sort of a wordplay on 고막여친gomakyeochin or 고막남친gomaknamchin, which mean “eardrum girlfriend” or “eardrum boyfriend,” which is what Korean speakers call singers with attractive voices. You know, some singers just have this… honey voice. Also, some people have a honey voice, even when they’re not singing. And some sounds in our environment are pure honey. And so, me and my friend who do this newsletter, we’re neither your girlfriend nor boyfriend—probably, unless you are and you subscribed—but anyway, probably to most people, we’re neither your girlfriend nor your boyfriend, we’re just two people, two persons, and thus the name of the newsletter is “Eardrum person.”
Anyway. So. I like audio. I like podcasts. I like music. I like human voices that are… nice human voices. Hence I’ve always wanted to write something about music, and that is what I did in “Final Fugue.”
And I like New York in the 1920s too. If I were to time travel, the 1920s is the earliest time I would want to travel back to. I’m not interested in the Renaissance, I am not interested in the Enlightenment, and I am also not interested in any other cultural period in any other part of the world before the 1920s, because, the 1920s was the earliest time when somewhat-readily-usable electricity entered the picture. I cannot live without electricity. I also cannot live without modern plumbing.
According to sanitary.nyc, quote, “Although the first patent for a flush lavatory dates to 1775, New York did not have indoor toilets as the norm until the late 1800s. There were several hurdles to be cleared first. As well as the construction of bathrooms and finding the funds to do so, the city needed a sewage system for waste removal. …
“There was also a fear of sewer gasses making their way into people’s homes, as it was mistakenly thought at the time that such gas was a source of illness. Fortunately, the invention of the sewer vent in 1874 solved that problem. Finally, the Tenement Act of 1901 required the inclusion of at least one water closet in each unit, although it took several decades for all families to reap the benefits of this landmark legislation.” End quote.
So, yeah, it sounds like by the 1920s, there probably were restrooms of some kind in New York. Thus, New York in the 1920s: it’s about as far back as I am willing to go, should time travel become available.
Here is a quote from “Final Fugue,” from its Prelude, as I call the Prologue of this book—because, music. It’s about music.
“Look at that flapper with her boyishly short hair, short dress, and short everything, such as her temper and the amount of time she’s required to spend wasting on “proper” “ladylike” “education.” Also short? The time she has to wait until she can vote: eighteen years, instead of never. Look at her strolling down the icy streets overflowing with music so that she can frequent the basements brimming with illegal liquor. She barely notices that her legs are freezing because she’s constantly on the move.
And there, the shiny, honking, soon-to-be-classic motorcars that aren’t classic yet because they’re new. They’re fuming exhaust and nobody cares because nobody has seen or done proper research on the deadliness of exhaust fumes yet. In fact, some men in suits and fedoras (men of this era sure like their hats) linger behind the cars to feel a moment of warm comfort in the otherwise freezing night.
Lights, everywhere. In the theaters, in the speakeasies, in the shops. Jazz music everywhere. Skyscrapers.
A wonderful city, at the peak of city pride, just before the crash. Sophisticated yet sinful, immoral with undeniable virtues.”
So, here, there are elements that can be seen, temperature, and I would say, vibrations, sounds, a sense of time—which also has to do with the overall story setup of this book, because this particular passage is from the POV of a reaper, who, she is free from the barriers of time, more or less—and there is the sense of touch, and things in between.
Writing. I don’t know of any other medium through which everything you like, and I mean, everything, can be put into one work. My love for audio, my inexplicable attraction to New York in the 1920s, my interest in the concept of afterlife and beforelife, opposing things, cycles, repetitions, rejuvenations, reincarnations—how else would I put these things together? Add to that time travel. Writing allows for that, and time travel doesn’t even exist in the real world. Writing allows for experiencing sound without any sound entering through our ears or the vibrations of any sound being perceptible by our skin.
So, I think it is only logical that Aldous Huxley chose writing as the medium to describe his psychedelic experience, in “The Doors of Perception.” It’s not purely because he was a writer. If there was a better way to describe the experience, I believe he would have used that. Because, there are priorities. There is writing for the sake of writing, and writing like “The Doors of Perception” where the main purpose is to try to convey what it’s like to be on this psychedelic trip. Since an important part of such a trip is that barriers are being broken down, the medium of expression cannot be bound to one sense.
That video that I mentioned, of the shroom trip—it couldn’t possibly describe what it’s like to be inside that body. The tactile sensations, the taste in your mouth—there is no way that video can describe it. Even the visuals—yes, video can attempt to replicate what is seen. But what it’s like to see something—that, video cannot convey. When it tries to convey it, it usually—at least for me—gets really confusing, like, physically nauseating. Imagination and first-hand experience are both different from second-hand experience. We can access first-hand experience by taking shrooms ourselves. We can imagine what it’s like to take shrooms by reading about it. Video—it’s more like a second-hand experience. No matter how realistic video gets, it is outside of us. It cannot get inside us.
Now, potentially, there might appear new technologies using some kind of video technologies in our heads. I don’t know. Who knows. But right now, in 2023, video always exists outside of us. Whereas, writing. The words. They’re in us. They can be us. There is no sensory boundary, no time boundary, there needn’t even be a boundary between you and me. Actually, this book and this whole series, because it’s about murdered people finding their memories again at the hotel between worlds, talks a lot about shells.
Actually, I talk about shells in all of my stories, in one way or another. I guess I am very much interested in the idea of barriers or barriers being broken down. I never try to write about that, I never try to write about anything, I write and it ends up being about shells or lack thereof, in one way or another. And because these characters in this series are in their afterlife bodies, but their beforelife bodies are gone, because of that, there is a lot of shell talk. Sometimes the shell disappears, in which case, there is only a questionable, vague idea of a boundary. And when even that idea disappears, then perhaps there is no boundary at all. There is only a distant memory of two people having been two people, when they are now one.
Oh, and. Final Fugue has one of the more disgusting villains, and I thoroughly enjoyed writing him. Oh. I love the guy. That’s why I wrote him. Even the shittiest of the shitty villains in my books, I love them, or I wouldn’t be writing them into the stories. But I also like the protagonist, Zacharias.
Mostly the book is in Zach’s POV, but there are some POV chapters from the villain. This concept of POV, too—it can only be done in writing. Movies have POVs, kind of, but I always think more of the perspective of whoever is holding the camera, more than the characters. The characters are being observed; again, we’re outside of their heads. In books—we’re inside.
So, writing from the POV of both the protagonist and the villain is a sadomasochistic experience. It’s barriers being broken down, on another level. Reading about it is also a sadomasochistic experience. You cause pain and you take pain in both directions. And… supposedly, you do it for fun and pleasure.
And add to that the whole death and life idea—and the ultimate barrier is being broken down, through writing. In our life, we cannot reach the end unless we are no more, and therefore we cannot experience that life has ended, at least not in the way we’re used to in this world. But through writing, we can. Again and again. Every time we read a story, we live another life, and by the end, we die—to be born again for the next story.
Finally, some Chopin + how Zach died
Because dear Zach in “Final Fugue” is a pianist, there is a lot of talk about piano music. Specifically, he dies while playing the piano. Pretty much the ultimate… pianist… death. You know, like, for a writer, the equivalent would be to die while typing on a keyboard. But Zach, because he’s a pianist, dies while he plays the piano.
And the final piece that he plays is The Piano Sonata No. 2 in B♭ minor, Op. 35. According to Wikipedia, quote, “The Piano Sonata No. 2 in B♭ minor, Op. 35, is a piano sonata in four movements by Polish composer Frédéric Chopin. Chopin completed the work while living in George Sand’s manor. … The first of the composer’s three mature sonatas … the work is considered to be one of the greatest piano sonatas of the literature.
“The third movement of the Piano Sonata No. 2 is Chopin’s famous funeral march … which was composed at least two years before the remainder of the work and has remained, by itself, one of Chopin’s most popular compositions.“ End quote.
I asked ChatGPT where I might get some royalty-free recordings of this sonata. ChatGPT told me something along the lines of how it wasn’t allowed to search online? Something like that? But it gave me a list of websites where such recordings might exist. And on one of them, indeed, did I find a recording in the public domain. It is played by Mr. Josef Hofmann.
And since today’s theme is that, until we find a way to safely and reliably break down the barriers of what we have come to call “the five senses,” the easiest way to experience the senses for things that cannot be sensed is through writing, I shall read from the book, and then play the recording, movement by movement. Yes, we’re going to listen to the sonata in its entirety. It consists of four movements. And as to the writing—there are some things about the music, but mostly it is the experience of Zach playing this piece. It’s not about the actual notes—because, hey, if people wanted to know the actual notes, they can get the music itself for free, the scores, because Mr. Chopin has been dead for quite some time—but the experience, that is what we read fiction stories for, in my opinion.
I’ll begin with when Zach gets on stage. And Angeline, who is mentioned in the quote, is his girlfriend—the one who warned him not to wear the suit, the one to whom he does not listen.
The first thing Zacharias noticed when he walked out to the stage was the brilliant spotlight that followed him all the way to the piano. Then he noticed the thundering in his ears. After a few seconds, he realized that it was an actual, real, genuine applause.
He stopped next to the piano. The stage lights were so bright that he couldn’t discern the faces of the people in the audience, but he could tell that the velvet-red seats were all occupied, from the front row to the very last row in the back. All arms and all hands were busy clapping. A bizarre sight, people so eagerly working in unison. Such a thing didn’t happen very often.
From time to time, when people leaned left and right to whisper at their neighbors over the applause, Zach could see the lipsticked lips moving, mustaches twisting, and golden earrings glittering. But the detailed facial expressions were all buried in light. Women’s perfume, men’s cologne, and the smell of melting snow or ice, watery and wet, filled the Luminary tonight.
Zach bowed. The applause swelled, then subsided until it completely stopped. People expected him to sit down by the piano.
So he did. How unreal. The effect of the applause had been positively numbing. He rubbed his palms. They felt cold. Pinky to pinky, his fingers cramped and spasmed. They weren’t ready to labor, yet wanted to so badly.
Zach thought about the first piece he was about to play: Chopin Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor, one of the darkest sonatas of the Romantic period. It’d been criticized for being too un-sonata-like. Zach thought that was nonsense. In his opinion, this sonata was the most ingenious, the most subtle in terms of how the movements were linked. It was about twenty-five minutes long, its four movements sweeping like a storm. Zach liked that, the idea of sweeping storms.
Like Angeline, his darling love.
Thunder rumbled outside, loud enough to penetrate the thick walls. The people in the audience barely noticed. They were all adults here, and not scared. Although the Luminary was no luxury theater, it was sturdy enough to withstand a typical, fleeting storm.
Zach, too, didn’t worry. He gazed down at his deep purple suit—his arms, enveloped in fine cashmere. Back in the dressing room, Zach had been so very cold, but now it was only his hands that resisted against this glorious moment. All other body parts were enveloped in the warmth they’d clamored for and seemed to absorb it eagerly. Even his feet in the brand-new dress shoes felt warmer than ever. The shoes were made of exquisite leather, deep brown to the point of being black.
But Zach’s skin felt uncomfortable, just a little. It itched under the black shirt and under the suit pants. A defense mechanism against nervousness, perhaps? Something that his body did to make him forget that he was tense? A side effect of blood vessels expanding to allow for better circulation?
Zach had no idea. Playing in front of a full house and the resulting nervousness—both were firsts for him, and he had no reference point to compare the current situation against.
He placed his hands on the keys. His elbows felt stiff. The suit fit too well—or rather, fit poorly for a piano player who needed to freely move the arms to precisely produce the desired musical effect.
But the audience held its breath and wasn’t going to wait for Zach to say, Excuse me, this suit was a bad idea after all; let me get changed quickly. Zach could hear the expectation from their silence. Quiet smiles. All the ends of lips going up in unison. Maybe in admiration, because Zach had decided to go through with the concert despite his injury. Maybe out of curiosity; wonder at how he thought he was going to play the pieces tonight when the bruises shone so clearly under the bright lights.
Zach wondered if Angeline had stayed. Since she had come all the way from the City to Carningsby, she might as well. But the tickets had sold out, so she might not have found a seat. But if Angeline had introduced herself as his lover to Mr. Todd and used her charm, he might have allowed her to stand in the back.
Could Zach catch just a little glimpse of her? Even though the light shone directly into Zach’s eyes, her fluffy white mink coat was hard to miss. Besides, he could spot her in a crowd of a million, no matter what, so if he turned slightly, to quickly see—
His neck felt stiff. Mild panic ran through his veins. Just seconds ago, he’d thought that the usual pre-playing jitters were sweeping over him. Such jitters reliably faded as soon as he began playing. Tonight, they only seemed worse because they were magnified by however many times the audience size had increased—or so he’d thought. But now it was clear that he was nervous to the point of paralysis.
Zach clenched his hands into fists, then unclenched them. His fingers moved perfectly fine, considering the bruises.
But his neck. His elbows. The itching. The pressure against his chest.
He couldn’t delay.
Zach inhaled. With the exhale, he slammed the keys to play the opening cords, then the next…
The dramatic exposition of the first movement began: Grave—Doppio movimento.
Zach’s fingers moved as if they were beyond his control. This was the best part about being on stage—forgetting that there was a stage at all. Before getting on the stage (while practicing, while pacing in the dressing room, while changing clothes) one thought about the performance to come. After getting off the stage (while undressing, on the way home, then at home), one thought about the performance that had just happened.
But on the stage, Zach didn’t think about the stage. Here, it was as if he faded. Even the piano, that shiny black creature with white teeth punctuated by black crowns, lost its significance in Zach’s consciousness.
All that was left was the music in its purest form.
His hands moved…
1: Grave – Doppio movimento
Then they ceased to move because the first movement had come to an end. This was his brief chance to catch a breath.
Then once again, his fingers moved. The discomfort in his elbows had multiplied threefold by now. The itching all over his body had exacerbated. Very strange. Clearly, the physical pain had nothing to do with mental stress. Because mentally, Zach wasn’t stressed at all. Not anymore.
Hell, he was in heaven.
Oddly, the strangling sensation around his neck amplified that sense. He’d heard about people who liked to be strangled for pleasure. Kinky. But maybe he’d learned to empathize. That thought briefly took him out of concentration before the second movement ended.
Another little pause for breathing—an act that had become considerably more difficult over the past few minutes. Zach cleared his throat.
The third movement was Marche funèbre: Lento. A slow funeral march. But there were documents in which Chopin simply called this movement “a march,” without the additional descriptor. The movement began in the minor and switched to major, then back to minor, back to major…
…as any funeral, birth, or life in general tended to switch from happiness to sadness, then back to happiness. Maybe that was why the word “funeral” wasn’t necessary.
Zach could feel the sweat creeping down his forehead. Playing for twenty-five minutes straight was no walk in the park and he’d just entered the eighteenth minute—
—for another brief pause before the last movement.
3: Marche funèbre: Lento
Zach pushed his index and middle fingers between the front of his neck and the shirt collar. He couldn’t breathe. His hands were shaking. He wiped the sweat from his face with the sleeves of his suit. A shame to have to use cashmere for such a purpose, but it couldn’t be helped. He heaved in and out.
What on earth was going on?
He glanced at the audience. As before, it existed more like a concept rather than with any concrete reality because the stage lights prevented Zach from discerning the individual faces.
But Zach did notice a few sets of lips once more. Some were bright red, orange, or almost violet according to the latest lipstick-color fads; others moved together with thick or thin mustaches, brown or black or gray, well-groomed or messy. But the lips had one thing in common: they formed smiles.
Good. No one had noticed how odd Zach was acting. Everyone had been happy about the march.
Now, if only Zach managed to finish playing the fourth movement, he could take a longer break, albeit only for two or three minutes, backstage. Drink some water. Take off this stupid jacket that was way too tight, making him all dizzy.
The final movement began. Once again, his fingers danced without his brain needing to process anything consciously. The music carried him. It had to. He had barely any energy left inside him for presto, presto, presto, which the Finale required.
4: Finale: Presto
What a weakling, to break down under the pressure of a hundred-person audience. At thirty-two years old, he’d finally faced the biggest audience of his life and this was how he failed to make the most of it.
Maybe Angeline had just tried to save him from embarrassment. She’d never told to his face but she’d known that he was too weak for tonight’s performance.
The Finale had barely any discernible melody. And it definitely lacked any pause. Zach’s heart hammered—
—until he slammed the final chord—
—his torso tipped forward—
—he slammed on the keys—
—he slipped from the seat and fell on the floor.
And that is how he dies. After slamming the final chord of the final movement.
So… yeah. After he dies this way, he still stays a pianist, he just doesn’t know that he used to be a pianist in his beforelife. Some things are so inherent to people that those elements stay with them after death. That’s the idea. That’s my idea, which is used in the Hotel Between Worlds series. So throughout the rest of the book, there is music, constantly, never-ending. Music connects these characters, through the barrier of life and death, of the very concept of a linear time.
Other renditions of the sonata
There are many wonderful renditions of the Chopin sonata that we listened to. Especially the more modern ones, I believe, might be enjoyable to hear. Because, definitely, playing styles come and go. And I do think there is such a thing as a classical Zeitgeist. Where… classical music from Chopin’s times is old, but how it is played reflects the contemporary Zeitgeist.
And at a more rudimentary level, recording techniques improve over time. So I find that more modern recordings are crisper, cleaner, and just… more live, even when they’re recordings.
Also, I think that visuals cannot be ignored. Concerts happen live, for a reason, multiple reasons, and one of them is sound, sure, but another aspect is the visuals. Seeing the pianist adds another layer to the appreciation of music.
Thus, I will include links in the show notes for Evgeny Kissin’s play and Cho Seong-Jin’s play. The first one only has audio, but the second one has both audio and video. It’s a beautiful sonata, and it’s fun to listen to different versions and figure out how the pianists interpreted different passages, and what you, as the listener, like. And in that process, sound ceases to be pure sound. It becomes our thoughts, and from them, it can be reborn as paintings, writings, food, dance, new songs, and many other things.
Thus, I will end this episode by reiterating the quote from earlier. “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is: Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”
Let us open the doors of perception. We don’t necessarily need to take shroom trips. Or mescaline trips. Although they certainly do sound and look fascinating. We can get a glimpse of what it’s like, what anything is like, by reading and writing. Words get into our heads. Let us invite the words that take us to new places into our heads. Then we can cease to see all things through the narrow chinks of our cavern. We can see fully. The entirety, the wholeness—of the universe.
And that is all for this episode. Thank you for listening.
If you liked this episode of Sponge, please share it with a human.
You can find a link to the full transcript in the show notes. Also, visit ithakaonmymind.com to find out more about everything else I do, besides Sponge.
Stay true, everybody.
- “Final Fugue” by Ithaka O.
- “Humans have a lot more than five senses—here are 18”
- “The Doors of Perception” and “Heaven and Hell” by Aldous Huxley
- “High Dose SHROOMS Trip Simulation (POV)”
- “Fantastic Fungi”
- “Fantastic Fungi” post from June 13, 2022
- Hotel Between Worlds series
- “Undoing Cycles” by Ithaka O.
- Episode 22, “You walk in the forest.”
- Ithaka On My Mind on Spotify (for the story playlists)
- “Agora Phantasmagoria” by Ithaka O.
- “Your Ears Can Actually Tell The Difference Between Hot And Cold water”
- “The History of Plumbing in New York City”
- The Piano Sonata No. 2 in B♭ minor, Op. 35
- The Piano Sonata No. 2 in B♭ minor, Op. 35 played by Josef Hofmann (Publisher info: Everest LP, 1929.)
- Evgeny Kissin’s play
- Cho Seong-Jin’s play
- Simon Berggren – Promenage
- Fryderyk HD – Little Prince
- David Gives – Views from Palermo
- Stav Goldberg – Fields
- Simon Berggren – Ephemeralda in the Glade
- Sun – Yotam Agam
- Kashido – When You Wake Up
- sinphonia – BΔΔ RΔΔ
Everything I do is organized here:
© 2023 Ithaka O.