Saturday, July 13, 2019

An Encounter with Thomas Clifton’s Text

Reading James Tenney’s review of Thomas Clifton’s Music as Heard: A Study in Applied Phenomenology, I came away curious about what it would be like to read one of Clifton’s texts. On the basis of Tenney’s account, I decided that I would not try to take on the book he had reviewed without some sense of what sort of a writer Clifton was. As a result, I turned to an article that Tenney had cited entitled “Some Comparisons between Intuitive and Scientific Descriptions of Music.” After all, this site has, for all intents and purposes, served as my “field notes” in exploring how one describes the performance of music; and, every now and then, I turn my attention to how musicians themselves approach the task of description. One of my favorite examples of that latter case has been György Ligeti’s approach to describing Pierre Boulez’ “Structure Ia,” which turned out to be an engaging exercise in the relationship between pure logic and the rhetoric of expression.

Clifton’s paper was published in the Spring, 1975 (Volume 19, Number 1) issue of the Journal of Music Theory. It involved a quest for an approach to description that would serve as a viable alternative to the rigor of scientific description, in which the description itself amounts to an assertion (albeit a large and complex one) whose consistency can be validated through the tools of formal logic. Having once encountered a doctoral thesis that used formal logic to validate compositions by Arnold Schoenberg based on his twelve-tone technique, I could appreciate Clifton’s objective. However, formal logic is basically a tool for analysis of symbol structures; and the only symbol structures in music are the marks on the score pages. I have previously cited Jonathan Biss for observing that the music resides not in the marks on paper but on how those marks are realized through performance.

Unfortunately, reading Clifton turned out of be a rather frustrating experience. This was probably due, in no small part, to his invoking the term “intuitive” as a dialectical opposition to “scientific.” There are probably about as many different ways to interpret what “intuitive” means as there are disciplines that invoke the adjective. As one reads through Clifton’s paper, one realizes that he is weaving his way in and around all of those disciplines; and it is not difficult for the reader to feel that (s)he is getting lost in the midst of all that weaving. Not only is this understandable, but I came away with the distinct impression that Clifton himself had gotten just as lost and had not been able to find his way to a satisfying conclusion at the end of this article.

The good news is that he tries to make his case through musical examples, rather than resorting entirely to prose-based argumentation. Sadly, the insights that emerge from those examples seldom have much impact on the “mission statement” embodied in the paper’s title. The examples amount to Clifton saying, “Here is an imaginative way to describe this particular musical excerpt,” to which I would reply, “I agree that it is imaginative, but what point is it making?” By the time I reached the end of the paper, I felt that Clifton had led me into a dark forest in which I could not figure out which path would lead me back to daylight.

In many respects the concept of “intuition” seems to have led Clifton away from his goal, rather than toward it. Thus, he has the same predicament that Tenney has encountered in his work with computers, in which he had to use programming languages that allowed the evaluation of complex numerical forms but not the manipulation of symbolic structures. Rather than focus on “intuition” and what the many different schools of thought have to say about it, Clifton would have done better to go “back to the basics” of description itself. Specifically, description should be approached as a text type through which individuals can communicate with each other.

There is a discipline in literary theory concerned with the nature of text types. What is relevant in this case is that the text type of argumentation, which is basically the text type behind “scientific” reasoning, is distinctly different from that of description. The other two text types are exposition, found in topic-based essays, and narrative. Note that narrative is the only time-dependent text type, suggesting that discourse about “music as heard” probably requires a synthesis of description and narrative, amounting to the use of narrative for means other than storytelling.

Most likely we are now swimming in waters that were unknown to Clifton when he was working on the paper that would appear in the Journal of Music Theory. Indeed, those waters become known to me only during the final decade of the twentieth century; and I still cannot claim that I have come to terms with them. Nevertheless, I can appreciate that Clifton’s own swimming took him into a considerable amount of turbulence. My own thoughts about these matters are also contending with that turbulence; but I am hoping that, with enough persistence, I shall eventually be able to chart and pursue a more viable course that I can swim!

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