Somebody Help Me Understand
For the last three weeks, Randy, Molly, and I have been engaged in an intense debate as to whether or not music has any meaning and whether or not that meaning can be conveyed to a listener exclusively through music.
Call it the post-post-modernist version of the timeworn classical vs. romantic debate. Although I’d be loathe to describe any of us as classicists or romantics, for the sake of argument I’ll call Randy—who doesn’t believe in musical meaning—a classicist, and myself a romantic since I buy into all sorts of musical iconography. (Ironically he’s the more intuitive composer making him a romantic, and I’m obsessed with form and structure making me a classicist. But we have the same fights about uptown and downtown. See how foolish categories are!) Molly, always the level-headed journalist-type, maintains a cautious middle ground.
To temper this debate, I’d like to suggest that music can have profound meaning, but it requires a contextual framework in which to understand it which is usually the result of a process of acculturation, much like learning a verbal language.
In Modal Subjectivities, a recent book about 16th century Italian madrigals, the always provocative UCLA-based musicologist Susan McClary asserts that Monteverdi’s compositional process is “nearly as organic as any by a latter-day serialist, except that he has a commitment not only to the saturated integrity of his piece but also to the conventions that make it publicly intelligible.” (emphasis added).
Is this fair? Can the compositional process of any music, from 12-bar blues to spectralism, be “publicly intelligible” without some kind of grounding in its conventions? And, once you are grounded in those conventions, couldn’t even the music of Brian Ferneyhough make perfectly simple sense? Similarly, if you’ve never heard a nursery rhyme in your life (difficult I know, for arguments sake imagine an extraterrestrial sentient being), wouldn’t it seem baffling on first listen?
As I read McClary’s pronouncement on an overcrowded subway this morning, several lightbulbs went off. I wanted to scream “A-ha!” to nearby passengers but that probably would not have been advisable in a climate of “Orange Alert.”
Whether or not music can be publicly intelligible has also played a role in a chain of emails I’ve been having with composer Christopher Adler which he has published on his web site. Chris had issues with some of the comments I made last year about his Tzadik CD and assumed they were the result of my lack of familiarity with the traditional Lao-Thai khaen (mouth organ) music that inspires him. Ironically, while I’ve never studied it formally, this is music I’ve heard a fair amount of and I even possess a khaen (although I usually get hopelessly out of breath after only a minute of trying to play it). My tête-à-tête with Adler would seemingly prove Randy’s contention. I thought I understood Adler’s music but without sufficient explanatory words to guide me, the music was not able to convey its meaning on its own. Before I generate another downpour of emails, I am not implying here that this is the fault of Adler’s music.
I would contend that any lapse in understanding between music and its listeners is partially the result of our over-dependence on verbal language and our automatic assumptions derived from experiential memory. These alone cannot provide immediate acculturation any more than reading a Berlitz book can keep you from being snubbed when you try to speak French in Paris. Verbal language can only go so far in expressing the meanings that music can convey. However, as primarily language-based communicators, we’re stuck with words for everything we do. Randy would say that explanatory words are a waste of time and that they get in the way of the musical experience which is ultimately not about comprehension on any level, but something else. But without some attempt at analysis (which unfortunately will inevitably have to use words at some point), how can we make sense out of anything?
When I listen to music, any music, I usually respond to details I am able to analyze. Despite my admiration for Brian Eno, no music is ambient when I listen to it. All music is foreground, even the horrid MuzakTM I was subjected to on the phone earlier this week while on-hold in which a series of parallel thirds caught my attention. I can’t turn off this mode of listening. It is how I process music and that processing is why I am perpetually fascinated by music. But I also know all too well that my methods are far from universal. So is anything about music universal?
What does McClary mean by “public intelligibility”? Is it the Common Practice-era cliché of major means happy and minor means sad? Could most angular twelve-tone music be turning potential listeners off because trichords that reject major and minor implications sound frustrated and angry? (Despite my wishes for the contrary, most people listen to music just to relax.) How far can you go with a compositional process and have listeners know what you’re doing without having to explain it by other means?