Saturday, January 8, 2011

Listening to Tape Music

As a result of giving myself the assignment of reviewing the first concert in this year’s San Francisco Tape Music Festival for, I found myself following a path of introspection leading back to one of my first refereed journal publications.  I felt it necessary to provide some background material on the process of making tape music, observing that the process “demands a radical shift in how a composer thinks about such matters as grammar, logic, and rhetoric.”  Needless to say, I did not elaborate at great length about the nature of that shift, concentrating instead on trying to make sure that each work on the program received a fair descriptive account (trying, as always to do justice to Plato’s use of “λόγος” in “Theaetetus”);  but, between my efforts to understand better the nature of my own listening experiences and my attempt to identify the role of symbolic forms in those experiences, I realized that I was venturing into territory that had occupied my doctoral research.

Like many who emerge from such research with their degree in hand, I saw my thesis work as a foundation for building up my publication record.  (In retrospect I have to say that I am moderately horrified at the number of people I encountered who seemed to have made a life’s career out of rewriting their initial thesis;  but how I departed from that path is another story.)  Freed from the pressure of completing my thesis and getting it accepted, I gave myself the time to devote a fair chunk of my attention Noam Chomsky’s Aspects of the Theory of Syntax and with the efforts of others in my field to find an analog for his framework of syntax, semantics, and phonology in the structures of music, particularly in the repertoire of electronic music that was forcing that shift in thinking about grammar, logic, and rhetoric.

The result was a paper entitled “Music Programs:  An Approach to Music Theory through Computational Linguistics,” which appeared in 1976 in one of the Volume 20 issues of the Journal of Music Theory.  Much of the paper involved a response to research at a Dutch laboratory called the Institute of Sonology.  I tried to puzzle out how “sonology” would serve as a viable analog for the role of phonology in linguistics.  By taking on how one could represent “sonological data,” I had my first brush with the question of how we might invent symbolic forms to deal with communicating about phenomena that our discourse had not previously needed to address. In my paper I tried to explore the extent to which Music V, the fifth generation of one of the earliest programming languages for composing electronic music (developed at the old Bell Telephone Laboratories), could provide a system of symbolic forms that would facilitate both thinking about and communicating about such music.

In hindsight I would say that my proposal amounted to trying to identify a “phonetic symbol system” that would address electronic music the way phonetic symbols captured subtle differences in speaking practices.  I was struggling with problems that occupied not only the Dutch laboratory but also Pierre Schaeffer in his work on his Traité des Objets Musicaux.  In retrospect I would say that none of us got very far because we were ignoring what musicians actually did by limiting our vision to those artifacts that were products of their efforts (such as scores and recordings).  These days I am more inclined to believe that one cannot provide a satisfactory account of the artifacts without also accounting for the actions behind them.

I have a high level of confidence that those actions are facilitated by our working with some repertoire of symbolic forms.  I am not sure I am any closer to understanding what those forms are than I was in my student days;  but at least I have a better sense of where I want to go, perhaps even attenuated by some intuitions of how I can get there.  Listening to tape music last night, however, turned out to be an important reminder that I should not try to ground any of my theories in familiar intuitions about conventional music notation;  and, having now completed this particular “rehearsal” experience, I realize how much I needed that reminder!

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