Sunday, July 20, 2014

Music Description Recapitulates Philosophy?

I noticed that yesterday, while writing an piece about the performance of George Frideric Handel's HWV 55, L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato as part of the 2014 American Bach Soloists Festival, that I let slip the phrase "listening experiences in which one’s sense of 'inner time' seems to stand still." This was probably an inevitable consequence of the fact that I had been reading the paper "Mozart and the Philosophers" by Alfred Schutz, in which Schutz cited Henri Bergson's concept of durée, which is basically the psychological sense of time, rather than the physical sense of time defined by, for example, the steady ticking of a clock. I realized that, by now, I have gotten so used to this terminology that I tend to use it without citation. Thus, the above hyperlink is not about Bergson but about how Verdi could achieve the same effect and how he probably learned it from his bedtime reading (which were the scores of the string quartets of Ludwig van Beethoven)!

This reminded me of an observation I had made when I was an undergraduate mathematics major. While there were these books of sample problems and how they were solved that could be a valuable reference for engineering students, they did not take you very far in pure mathematics. I realized that getting to understand pure mathematics was a matter of building up your working vocabulary. It was all very well to be introduced to abstruse terminology, such as "eigenvalue" or "Skolemization;" but what really mattered was whether or not your internalization of the concepts had an impact on how your actually did your mathematics. (For Ludwig Wittgenstein this was true of language in general, rather than just specialized terminology.) This also had a parallel in music theory: The truly advanced music theorist knew how to work "Neapolitan" into any paper (s)he wrote in a manner that really made sense in the context of a harmonic progression.

To be fair, the context of the phrase I quoted in that first paragraph was then qualified through comparison with a ticking clock. I like to think I am in this game to provide readers with thoughts they can understand, rather than trying to convince them that I know more than they do. Another memory from my undergraduate years was a physics recitation instructor who liked to say:
Remember, there is always someone who knows more than you do!
Nevertheless, I think it is important that no single discipline has a lock on all verbal terminology that may serve us. Every now and then we have to raid someone else's larder. I think what I like about the way in which I work is that I am as like to direct my rant at Bergson as I am at Henry Miller (or, in the case of another recent article, Wayne's World)!

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