Friday, May 29, 2009

Notes and Music

On the whole I tend to be happy with the level of understanding that Michael Tilson Thomas brings to the podium of the San Francisco Symphony, and this was certainly the case for the first concert in the Dawn to Twilight Schubert/Berg Festival, currently taking place at Davies Symphony Hall. However, Steven Winn's account of that concert in the San Francisco Chronicle reminded me that it is easier for me to take issue with some of the things Thomas says, rather than performs. Thomas is never shy about picking up a microphone and offering his personal thoughts on music the audience is about to hear. On Wednesday night he chose to do this for Alban Berg's Opus 6 three pieces for orchestra, and it was interesting that those remarks were not simply a replay of the observations he made when he last performed the work in January.

I suppose one reason why his remarks went off in a new direction was that he was now talking about Berg in the context of a series of concerts shared with Franz Schubert. My own reaction, even taking those remarks into account, has been to put aside too many thoughts about any connection between Schubert and Berg along with any thoughts about that dawn/twilight metaphor; but it took Winn to remind me that my dismissive attitude may have had something to do with one of Thomas' comments. This was his suggestion that Schubert and Berg shared a "profound belief in the meaning of notes." This is one of those turns of phrase that sounds so elegant that one almost feels guilty in questioning it, but question it I must.

The basis for my questioning takes me back to my study of Noam Chomsky's Aspects of the Theory of Syntax, to which I appealed in one of my most recent attempts to rough out a theory of musical performance. Like many of his contemporaries, Chomsky wished to view the structure of language in terms of three layers, the phonological, the syntactic, and the semantic. Chomsky believed that each of these layers was rule-based. His work on phonological rules was performed in collaboration with Morris Halle, while his structural approach to syntax was pretty much on his own nickel, as was his ideological conviction that any model of semantics could be grounded in a model of syntactic competence.

From this point of view, I would raise the question: What is a note; and where is it situated in Chomsky's three-layer model? One way to answer the question is by dismissing a note as nothing more than an artifact of notation, which, by virtue of its role as signifier (rather than signified), has no place at all in Chomsky's model. That however begs the more interesting question about what the signified is in that semiotic framework. Having first occupied myself with this question in the area of computer music (and having published the results of that occupation in the Journal of Music Theory back in 1974), I continue to hold to the premise that the note-as-signifier signifies an event, more specifically a sound-producing event. Any competence in such sound production resides almost exclusively on Chomsky's phonological level (although there have been many experiments, some of which have been quite interesting, in which the performance of music seemed to involve nothing more than the production of specific sounds according to highly rigorous specifications). I would then argue that (disregarding any of those sound-based experiments), the production of sound is two levels removed from the semantic layer; and it is only at the semantic layer that we can talk about meaning in any "meaningful" way. Thus, from a strictly logical point of view, the very phrase "meaning of notes" is inconsistent with the axioms of any model we might try to develop for a semantic perspective on music.

Having undermined this phrase, I shall now muster up enough chutzpah to suggest what Thomas may have been meaning to say in this deficient choice of words: I would suggest that the "profound belief" that Schubert and Berg shared was in the significance of the moment, however brief that moment may be. This was particularly evident in his coupling of Berg's Opus 6 with Schubert's B minor D. 759 symphony ("Unfinished") in the second half of the program he had arranged. He performed both of these works in such a way that the management of orchestral color, even over the briefest intervals of time, carried as much "semantic significance" as the elements of themes, harmonies, and overall structure. Indeed (as long as I am on a roll with my chutzpah) it may be that Schubert never finished D. 759 because this approach to "being in the moment with every sound" was so demanding that he could not keep it up for another two movements; and, in a similar way, Berg could only focus on individual movements without worrying about organizing them under a larger structure. (In Berg's case, however, that larger structure eventually emerged. It was his opera Wozzeck.)

I realize that to frame all of these observations as hypotheses will not lessen the impact of their chutzpah. However, hypotheses are meant to start conversations; and I cannot imagine that Thomas intended his statement about the "meaning of notes" to be anything more than a hypothesis (even if it had been declaimed as an assertion for its dramatic impact on his audience). That being the case, then all I have done has been to pick up the conversation and offer an alternative hypothesis as the next move. As a rule I do not believe it is the role of the critic to speak to the power of the maestro, but it is the role of the writer to seek out questions that are worth asking and try to follow where they lead!

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