Listen to the music of the night.
No, I’m not talking about some phantom. I’m not even talking about “Nights in White Satin” by the Moody Blues. I mean a nocturne. A quiet, moody composition, often for solo piano, evocative of the night: a solo instrument like a single light, a sound perhaps reminiscent of the arpeggiated strumming of a guitar, perhaps the call of a nightbird floating on top of it. “A expressive melody in the right hand is accompanied in the left by broken chords,” says Michael Kennedy in the Oxford Concise Dictionary of Music.
Broken chords. The cords are broken, the bonds, the harmony. This can be a hard word, nocturne, giving you a knock and a turn; such things happen nocturnally… JK Rowling knows it, for she named the street of the darker arts Knockturn Alley. Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The shadow knows. And night is all shadow.
No, not all. Night is a beautiful time for photography: lamps are lit, and the light is clear, directional, moody, angular; I’ve taken many pictures I like at that time, such as this one and this one. Night is a beautiful time for painting, too: James McNeill Whistler painted several works he called nocturnes depicting nighttime scenes with a fantastic half-seen moodiness; see Night in Black and Gold, The falling Rocket. Night is when light is not taken for granted.
So night is not just the school of hard knocks. It is also the school of soft nox – Latin for ‘night’, related via Proto-Indo-European to the word night, and root of nocturnus, source of French nocturne. It is not all white satin, but sometimes we want the night of the soul, because night is a time for mystery and love and focus and quiet. Sometimes we want to savour the complex and half-known emotions, when we cannot not yearn and doubt; we want to taste the times when there is no turn or no return, when bonds are weak or broken and nothing can be taken for granted, when we do not know if we will ever again find the welcoming threshold, the times when the only answer is music and art. Music like one of Chopin’s nocturnes – this one, maybe: Nocturne no. 20 in C minor, performed by Valentina Lisitsa.
Can you hold a candle to a beautiful nocturne? You can hold a candle because of one: You are walking through the dark, holding a dim candle, the doubtful music playing in the distance, lightly trilling on your heartstrings, and you don’t know where you are going. You continue unsteadily forward, one hand barely able to see the other, a step, a step, a step, and before you, now, you see a door, framed with a soft glow. And so you knock, turn the handle…