Watch Your Language

Though I pretty much am always in the middle of reading a book (I usually begin reading another immediately after finishing the one I had been reading), the only time I ever participated in anything remotely like a “book club”-type experience is a decade ago when a friend and I set out to simultaneously read Gertrude Stein’s massive 925-page “novel” The Making of Americans (first published in 1925, but already begun by 1902 and completed no later than 1911). Having a friend along for the ride was a great form of moral support since although there are many significant works of literature that are much longer than Stein’s tome (e.g. War and Peace, Remembrance of Things Past), they’re not filled with sentences like this (which is hardly the longest therein):

This is now to be a description of another one having resisting being, not engulfing resisting being, just resisting being, this one was a very nice one, a very pleasant, gentle, sensitive, fairly resisting, sometimes angrily resisting one, this one had some suspicion in her in living, this one could have very often an injured feeling, this one had quite a deal of inquisitive feeling in her, this one needed to own to a considerable degree those this one needed for loving, this one had children and children were to this one a piece of her cut off from her that were as it were equal to her and she was as they were, the same in living, thinking, feeling and being.

Sure, books like James Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegans Wake contain even more erudite prose constructions, but their difficulty is perhaps assuaged by the fact that everything in those books actually “means something.” In The Making of Americans, Gertrude Stein began writing an epic novel and somewhere along the way realized that words no longer needed to mean anything. In subsequent writings she often dispensed with coherent syntactical formations altogether. After completing The Making of Americans, I read the next two books in her oeuvre, the collection Matisse, Picasso and Gertrude Stein—containing A Long Gay Book (1909-1912), the relentlessly repetitive Many Many Women (1910), and G.M.P. (1911-1912)—and the impenetrable yet often delightful 1911 (published 1914) Tender Buttons (which is now public domain and can be read in its entirety here). But after that I had to stop because I felt my own sense of being able to put words together had started to become unhinged. (If every now and then when you read my writing you feel like you are beginning to get lost in a maze, this is why.) However, inspired by a conversation I had with German composer Heiner Goebbels (whose Stein-based Songs of Wars I Have Seen will be done at Lincoln Center in March) and my trip to France (the Pennsylvania-born Stein’s adopted homeland), I began immersing myself in her writings once again these past few weeks.

It has been particularly instructive to read Stein as I’ve been formulating some post-MIDEM thoughts about people’s perception of music, an art form which on its own never has any meaning. During my time at MIDEM I heard many different musical groups from all over the world, some of whom sung in their native language but most of whom sung in English, which is now the whole world’s second language. I began to realize that Continental European groups do not sing in English as an attempt to break into the American market (a somewhat xenocentric myth I had foolishly bought into once upon a time), but rather to be able to communicate with the rest of the world. And indeed for music to reach a wide audience, it has to communicate which means in order to be popular it must have words. (When’s the last time an “instrumental” charted?) And if those words are in English—which a plurality of the world can comprehend to some degree—then all the better.

Among the folks who create so-called avant-garde instrumental music, it is often quipped that folks who claim that they can’t bear things like atonality, microtonality, indeterminacy, etc., are perfectly content to hear such music when it is the soundtrack of a horror film. But once again, the presence of a verbal narrative (the plot of the movie) provides a context for the otherwise incomprehensible sounds they’re hearing. All the folks who talk about accessibility, audience friendliness, etc., might do well to ponder why vocal music, or music that accompanies narratives of some sort, reaches more people than instrumental music of any kind. (It doesn’t matter whether that music is unabashedly tonal or is some strange post-serial Frankenstein monster using 72-tone rows.) We seem to be hard-wired to desire meanings in things. Yet strangely the text I want to set to music more than any other these days is actually Tender Buttons.

5 thoughts on “Watch Your Language

  1. philmusic

    “…folks who claim that they can’t bear things like atonality, microtonality, indeterminacy, etc., are perfectly content to hear such music when it is the soundtrack of a horror film. ..”

    This is quite true Frank. Something to ponder when considering the different challenges of composing theatrical, vocal, and instrumental music.

    As to setting text, which I’ve done quite a bit, the first question for me is always:

    does the text need music?

    Many texts seem to have the music built in. Or seem to call for a very specific type of setting. I find those uncongenial.

    Fortunately there is more then one way to set the text.

    Phil Fried

    Listen to my settings here:
    Phil’s juke box

    Phil’s vids

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  2. MarkNGrant

    A useful skeleton key to Gertrude Stein
    Frank, have you read Janet Malcolm’s articles about Gertrude Stein in the New Yorker (6/2/2003, 6/13/2005, 11/13/2006)? For those of us who have attempted to penetrate the impenetrable Stein, Malcolm’s articles — which are about both her prose style and her astounding if malodorous survival inside Vichy France– can be of indispensable help.

    Further apropos of your premise about reception depending on context is the recording of Stein reading her own poetry– her own voice demure, ladylike, and feminine, sounding more like one would expect Virginia Woolf to sound. For me at least, it changed how I mentally hear her prose on the printed page as I read it.

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  3. mdwcomposer

    An interesting experience I’ve had is when one of my choral pieces without text (just phonemes) is performed, and I get comments from listeners who are sure they heard words. I try to be careful in such pieces to avoid constructs that will result in words (well, result in English words, anyway). I think that “meaning” thing is pretty intense whenever we hear vocal sounds, and our aural processing will try real hard to pattern the sounds that way as we’re listening.

        – Mark Winges

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  4. MrCutTime

    I read an article recently confirming that we humans are indeed “meaning creating machines”. Our brains continually look for patterns from which to draw significance for presumably survival advantage. Perhaps we’ve extended that to mean intellectual advantage, moral advantage, cultural advantage, certainly financial advantage.
    Instrumental music requires the most imagination to find meaning. (Lawrence Kramer in his book Why Classical Music Still Matters observes that we discover meaning at the same TIME that we create meaning in music.)
    I think if we are to GAIN audiences outside of the formal concert setting, we DO have to give them something to hang their hat on. Setting a context, esp. a NEW context, with a spoken introduction can be an effective way to draw newbies in. And the more personal (less technical, depending on your audience) the better. Dumbing it down or warming it up? BOTH, I suppose.

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  5. scraggo

    representing the other side
    Instrumental music may not be as popular, but it certainly has its niche amongst listeners outside of the normal casually listening audience. Instrumental jazz, techno+other types of dance music, classical symphonies and smaller ensemble music may not chart, but are heard everywhere. Pachelbel’s canon is heard at almost every wedding. Some rock/pop has even charted including “Frankenstein” “Wipeout” “Incident At Neshabur”. Any popular TV or movie theme can be enjoyed without the narrative it accompanies. Granted, there are far fewer examples of instrumentals charting, but it’s not an absolute law or human truth that instrumentals could never be on the level of lyrically-driven music. While the brain may create coherence in lyrical music through meaning, it may also create coherence with instrumental music through imagery. I know when I hear great instrumental music, I have a cinematic visual that accompanies it. Pierrot Lunaire will likely never be as accessible as Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” despite it having words+meaning. There are also cultural considerations. In summary, popularity is not as cut and dry as you have presented here.

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