what is a nocturne?
what’s become of the nocturne, since its hazy conception?
the nocturne mimes the nocturnal. nocturnal sounds perhaps—but most of all, that veiled, cloudy mood in which it remains undecided whether something is happening or not. i think the question of the nocturne is the question of this mood. john field was the first to use the title nocturne and its recurrence has fostered a more or less defined area for night music to take place in.
if field discovered and named this plot, it was certainly chopin who cultivated it. since his work, the area of the nocturne is defined (however vaguely) by certain technical aspects that i understand to be part of the “nocturnal question” in music and have tried to retain in my own nocturnes: preference of the horizontal over the vertical; melodies, threads of small sounds make up the sound of the nocturne. generous use of the sustain pedal, to ease the knitting-together of these sounds into a nightly quilt. free, floating time—as there is no light to guide us.
i would venture to say that the nocturne is not a genre, and it is certainly not a form. i think it is one of a few ground moods of music, the others being perhaps the light, elegant and the grand, religious, encompassing. perhaps these correspond to night, afternoon and daybreak. these moods place the listener in a particular position in the world, in a particular relation to the world. they seem to reveal a ground condition of life, of how we relate to it. for example, of how our souls are affected by our sometimes faint and doubtful perception of the world. this experience, as revealed in music, is for me the subject matter of the nocturne.
the nocturnes which lie ahead of us will perhaps be fragments of this idea; yet another take on what it is, and will be, to be a nocturne: this inanité sonore, soft, hesitant, embracing, at times disturbing. this uncharted space: no light, no substance, every movement renaming the situation, fed by (as mallarmé has it) “doubt, night’s ancient hoard.”