Saturday, August 21, 2010

Phenomenological Music Theory

Yesterday afternoon, while gathering background material for an review of a recent Brilliant Classics collection of Pyotr Tchaikovsky's ballet music (along with a few other selections) performed by Ernest Ansermet conducting his Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, I found an interesting sentence in the Wikipedia entry for Ansermet:

In Ansermet's book, Les fondements de la musique dans la conscience humaine (1961), he sought to prove, using Husserlian phenomenology and partly his own mathematical studies [Ansermet began as a mathematics professor at the University of Lausanne], that Schoenberg's idiom was false and irrational.

Arnold Schoenberg died in 1951; but, even ten years after his death, there were still strong factions willing to attack him at the drop of a hat. Furthermore, not only was Schoenberg not around to defend himself in 1961 but also many of his staunchest defenders were probably more deserving of attack on grounds of the nature of human consciousness than Schoenberg was.

Consider, for example, the misconceived enthusiasm of René Leibowitz, who got caught up in the mathematics behind the permutation of twelve tone rows and lost all awareness of the music that employed those rows. In 1945 Schoenberg wrote a letter to him that tried to reprimand him with the words:

I do not compose principles, but music.

This is very much in the same league as another of my favorite Schoenberg quotations:

My music is not modern; it's just badly played.

I suspect that what bothered Ansermet most about Schoenberg's music was not the music itself but the scholarly obsession with only talking about that music in the most objective terms. Since he was no slouch in mathematics, he probably figured he could take on all of those amateurs fooling around with permutation groups on the mathematical ground they so cherished and understood so poorly. Furthermore, when it comes to confronting the inadequacies of the objective world, Husserlian phenomenology is as good a weapon as any.

The problem is that, if we follow Edmund Husserl's guidance into the subjective world, we find ourselves on turf where words like "false" and "irrational" do not amount to very much. In what Friedrich Hayek called the phenomenal world in The Sensory Order, there is no true-or-false about the way in which our consciousness organizes physical sensations, nor does the rationality of a logical calculus pertain to how that organization is achieved. Ultimately, Ansermet did not need to resort to mathematics to bash in the skulls of those who recognized only permutation groups. All he needed was a platform to enjoin those "amateurs" to spend less time looking at the score pages and more time listening to well-played performances. From a theoretical point of view, Husserl offers some interesting lenses through which we may consider the act of listening; but, considering the patience it takes to negotiate many of his texts, Ansermet probably could have selected a better advocate. On the other hand, had he been more willing to embrace the full scope of Husserlian phenomenology, Ansermet would probably have been less inclined to attack Schoenberg himself in the first place!

1 comment:

paul said...

i wonder if Schoenberg's venture into atonalism might have had more to do with having an obsessive compulsive personality disorder

than an artistic impulse to explore a new musical frontier

certainly his well documented fear of the number 13 (which one could argue played a significant role in his death) may very well have been but one feature of a larger OCD landscape