Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Some (Probably) Self-Evident Truths about Listening

I have now made good on my promise to myself and launched into the somewhat opaque French prose of Philippe Hamon's Du Descriptif. My efforts to sort out some basic conclusions from all of that convoluted language may have yielded little more than a few self-evident truths (thus far, at least); but it may be worth taking stock of them, having just vetted them with my neighbor who plays second violin in the San Francisco Opera Orchestra. I shall lay these thoughts out in no particular order (unless, after having set them down, I decided to use copy-and-paste to give them some better structure).

Most important is what may seem like a word game, but I think the game is worth playing for the sake of our priorities. While, in our casual conversation, we readily talk about "listening to music," I believe it is important to recognize that we only listen to performances of music. Abstractions of music, such as score pages, are only enablers of what we experience. Even the recordings we listen to are recordings of performances; and, while it may be worth recognizing that there is some score (say of Gustav Mahler's sixth symphony) that is invariant across all of those performances, only the performance provides the auditory signals that are experienced through listening. (One reason I chose that particular Mahler symphony is that there are different opinions regarding the order of performing its two inner movements, regardless of the order in which they are printed in the score.)

Equally self-evident is the "double bind" problem of the nature of time, itself. I recently wrote about how every performance moves "forward along the time line;" and, indeed, without at least a bare minimum of that forward movement, sound itself ceases to exist for the sake of hearing, let alone listening. However, what happens when we try to describe that experience? Whether we try to abstract that description into a string of words that we write or summon a rich "multimedia" approach to dramaturgical action (as in Donald Schön's account of a master class over the first two sections of Franz Schubert's Opus 15 "Wanderer Fantasy"), description is, itself, a performance that also moves forward along its own time line. The double bind arises because the time consumed in attending to listening to the performance is time detracted from "performing the description," so to speak, and vice versa. We are on the same turf that John Cage encountered in Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki's lecture on how to attend a lecture.

As an aside I should point out that I do not take notes when I listen to a performance. When I write on this blog, I am beholden to no one other than myself. I do my best to write about what I remember and can then avoid writing about what I fail to remember, because I am the only person who can hold myself to task for my negligence!

There still remains the problem of figuring out just what goes into a descriptive text or one of those performances of a description. While my reading of Hamon thus far (which is only the first chapter of a six-chapter book) has concentrated on literary descriptions of static objects (frequently appealing to landscape and still-life painting), some of his insights pertain to the temporal nature of experience. Most important is his conception of a description that "moves" between the specific and the general. Within this conception the performance of a description can be considered in terms of a "strategy" for those moves that guides when one dwells on generality and when one homes in on details. This is rarely either a "top-down" or "bottom-up" systematic "traversal" that we would expect to find in a strictly objective world (which, as Paul Valéry put it, is "indifferent" to ordering). The strategy is motivated less by what is being described and more by the rhetorical setting (such as for one of Aristotle's forensic speeches) that requires the description. In my own efforts I tend to spend more time in the general, simply because there are only so many specific details that I still have with me by the time I get to my keyboard; and now we are back to the double bind. I could take notes to improve that situation; but my note-taking would probably distract from my efforts to apprehend the features of the general!

Finally, there is Hamon's decision to invoke Homer as a model of descriptive text. This is a bit problematic, since I subscribe to the belief that "Homer" is a "fiction of convenience" for a body of texts that emerged from a bardic tradition. Thus, both Iliad and Odyssey are "objectifications" of what was originally a performance practice. Nevertheless, Hamon's observation holds for the practice as well as the resulting text and may be even more relevant to the original practice. Simply put, he argues that there is no explicit description in either Iliad or Odyssey. Instead, description unfolds in the narrative account of the action. The example he gives is that, rather than describing a full suit of armor, "Homer" accounts for how a soldier puts on each of the pieces of that suit in preparing for battle. Description has been "dramatized," but not in the same way that Schön encountered dramatization in the master class he documented. From my point of view, this "narrative stance" is a by-product of bardic performance practice, which was not concerned with the composition of the sorts of texts that constitute Hamon's primary focus of attention but was, instead, concerned with the more nuts-and-bolts problem of holding audience attention. However, it also highlights the interplay between the time-line of the story being told and the time-line of the bardic performance of that story; and the management of that interplay often also has much to do with holding the attention of the audience.

Like a good mathematician, I may have reduced the problem of developing a theory of listening to music (sic, mea maxima culpa) to the problem of a theory of describing music performance. If the only progress I have made towards this latter problem has been a collection of self-evident truths, I feel that I have still made some forward progress, even if that progress can only be measured in inches! At the same time I have built myself a mental state that should serve me as my reading of Hamon progresses, and I hope that will serve my progress towards addressing both my primary and secondary problems!

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