Sunday, August 16, 2009

Description through Poetry

At the beginning of this year, having already explored the hypothesis of the extent to which description may be achieved through music, I found myself intensely occupied with the nature of description itself and how (if at all) it could be applied to communicating about both the execution of music and the act of listening to that music. Following the advice of a former colleague, I deep-ended on Philippe Hamon's book Du Descriptif, reading it in French, from which I concluded that "the terrain through which one makes descriptive 'moves' (to invoke the terminology of Erving Goffman) is littered with mine fields." As a result, Hamon left me with a big stick that I could use to beat down many inadequate instances of descriptive language that I subsequently encountered; and, for better or worse, I took that stick with me to a Piano Master Class that Stephen Hough conducted at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where it struck me that he was having serious communication problems in his interactions with the students who performed for him. Looking back on what I wrote at the time, I suspect that, had I to do it again, I would still take Hough to task for stepping on some of those metaphorical mines but might have been more tactful in my own choice of words.

In addition to inspiring my mine-field metaphor, Hamon left me with several references that I thought might be worth reading. They found their way into my pile of reprints, where they received almost no attention until I decided to take them with me on my trip to Maine and Pennsylvania over these last two weeks. The two reprints I took with me turned out to be delightful eye-openers. One of them, a chapter on landscape description from European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages by Ernst Robert Curtius, ended up inspiring a preview piece I wrote for Examiner.com about Gustav Mahler's first symphony, which will be featured in the first concert in the San Francisco Mahler Festival at Davies Symphony Hall. However, when it came to the practical problems of negotiating that hazardous "terrain" on which description takes place, the real kicker came from a 1973 paper by Michael Riffaterre based on his interpretative analysis of the poem "Yew-Trees" by William Wordsworth.

Riffaterre's objective was to take on what he called "The Referential Fallacy," based on the premise that one read a poem to determine what it was "about" through its references to objects and acts in the objective world of both poet and reader. The nature of the fallacy is that, if a poem is concerned with representing reality at all (which is not always necessarily the case), that "representation of reality is a verbal construct in which meaning is achieved by reference from words to words, not to things." Thus, in terms of my oft-cited references to the trivium, meaning is achieved through syntactic, rather than logical, constructs. This leads to the corollary (not explicitly acknowledged by Riffaterre) that meaning resides in the power of grammar to distinguish embellishing features from those constructs that are being embellished, regardless of whether or not there is any logical consistency to what those features represent (as in the classic example of syntax without semantics, "curious green ideas sleep furiously").
This was enough to tweak my own thoughts into hypothesizing that what Riffaterre had to say about poetry (or at least descriptive poetry) might also apply to the composition of music. Having been hooked, I then realized that the continuation of Riffaterre's referential-fallacy argument could then be applied to the performance of music:
A secondary weakness of this sort of interpretation is that in defining significance as opposed to subject matter, it pays too little attention to the verbal process whereby that significance is actually perceived when the poem is read.  This process too, I think, can best be understood as an awareness of verbal structures, rather than in terms of referentiality.  The form a text imposes upon a meaning is also the key to decipherment of that meaning.
Could the performance of music thus bear a strong family resemblance to the sort of "verbal process" that Riffaterre had in mind in the reading of a poem, whether we are talking about someone reading a poem to an audience (which is the usual paradigm for musical performance) or a process that engages the mind of the "reader" (which would then apply to the act of listening)? In other words my own efforts to integrate my parallel concerns with the nature of listening and the nature of performance may ultimately benefit from Riffaterre's approach to descriptive poetry. Whether or not I continue to feel this way when his essay is no longer fresh in my mind remains to be seen. However, through Riffaterre I discovered that Wordsworth had written another poem entitled "On the Power of Sound." I certainly intend to read the poem (without letting it languish on my pile of reprints too long), even if I do not approach it with the full battery of Riffaterre's analytical machinery!

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