Sunday, October 25, 2009

Music as Language

For all of my ongoing efforts to invoke the concepts of syntax, logic, and rhetoric, trying to view music as if it were some form of language is a risky business. I continue to feel that the best example of a perfectly reputable music scholar creating an absolute shambles by venturing into linguistics is Deryck Cooke's The Language of Music, which Oxford University Press first published in 1959 and continues to release in reprint. To be fair, however, Cooke's problem may run deeper than its inability to grasp the linguistic theory of his day or any of that theory's precedents. Having just completed The Aesthetic as the Science of Expressions and of the Linguistic in General (for the second time), I realize that, as early as 1901 (when this book was first published), Benedetto Croce proposed that linguistic theory itself was flawed at the lowest level of basic foundations for studying language.

The nature of the flaw can be captured in a single sentence from the final chapter of Croce's book:

Language is perpetual creation; what is expressed at one time in words is not repeated save in the reproduction of what has already been produced; ever new impressions give rise to a continually changing set of sounds and meanings, that is, to ever new expressions.

This resonates nicely with my own predilection for seeking out the appropriate balance of "noun-based" (or object-based) and "verb-based" thinking. True to the positivist mind-set that can be traced back to Enlightenment thinking, linguistic theorists were disposed to view any language as an object, which could then be analyzed in terms of attributes, components parts, and a vast web of relationships. This is not to say that a language lacks objective properties; but, from Croce's point of view, it was a great mistake to place those properties at the center of attention. The real center of attention was the more "verb-based" examination of language-in-use, particularly to the extent that "what is expressed" was rarely, if ever, reduced to properties of objective elements. (Croce was so forceful about this position that he even attacked the very concepts of "noun" and "verb" for their capacity to distract attention from "what is expressed.") This alternative point of view would gradually emerge, first through Ludwig Wittgenstein's decision to focus on how signs are used and eventually through Jürgen Habermas' efforts to extrapolate his theories of pragmatics to a general "theory of communicative action."

Croce's own concern had to do with the poor fit between what linguistics could tell us about language-in-use and what literature could tell us. This led to one of his better punch lines:

To write according to a theory is not really to write, but at most to put on literary airs, – and not very good ones.

With a minor shift in words, this could well be an observation about what I have called "a preoccupation with theory in preference to practice" in music composition, which was particularly popular in academic circles in the roughly half-century following the end of the Second World War. From this point of view, we might do well to view Cooke's book as a minor symptom of a far more pernicious state of confusion.

I suspect we have much of the avant-garde movement to thank for freeing us from that confusion. Admittedly, those in the movement were more interested in shaking trees than in taking stock of what might then fall from those trees; but harvesting has always involved its own set of activities. This is not to say that our ability to understand or describe "what is expressed" is any better than it was in Croce's time; but at least we are now willing to grant that his particular priorities may have had some merit (and it only took a century to come by that insight)!

No comments: