Music and Truth
I heard a thought-provoking aphorism yesterday: “Music is a language in which one cannot lie.” My initial response was to declare that the proverb is completely false, but upon further consideration, I’m not so sure.
[Disclaimer: This issue is way too big for a few paragraphs on a website to do it justice.]
Let’s take a look at serial music, that popular aesthetic punching bag. (I’m speaking specifically about postwar integral serialism, not earlier dodecaphony.) Insofar as American serialist music was supposed to derive its integrity from the rigorous workings-out of strict compositional systems and was, accordingly, informed by logical positivist thinking, one could make the case that it asserts a view of the world—neat, predictable, Newtonian—that we now know to be patently inaccurate. Is it dishonest, then, to write strictly serial music? Most postwar serial music includes only the twelve equal-tempered chromatic steps. Is it fair to accuse this music of sweeping quarter-tones and just intervals under the carpet even though we know very well that they exist? What about extended techniques?
If serialism is so obviously untrue, is it possible that a composer might be operating from a position of some critical distance in writing such music? To write strictly serial music in 2006 could be construed as a comment on serialism, an exposure of its now-obvious fallacy (although personally I’d argue that the first generation of British complex composers make an even stronger case through hyperbole). Similarly, tonal music written in 2006 is conceivably legible as commentary on tonality. If we are to evaluate tonal music under the “commentary” rubric, however, a separate set of criteria from those we’d use to discuss the “commented-on” tonal music are required.
But what if today’s serial composer still buys into the value of serialism qua serialism (or minimalism qua minimalism, or romanticism qua romanticism, or whatever)? Do these radically different stylistic persuasions point not just to discrepancies in training or taste but to conflicting worldviews? It’s possible that disagreements among composers about techniques of composition articulate profound differences in beliefs about the very universe we inhabit. And there’s always the possibility—remote, I know, but distinct—that my perspective on existence might not be 100 percent dead-on. I suppose one “lies” in music if one presents ostensible facts that turn out to be misapprehensions—but what if we’re only voicing musical opinions?