Friday, July 5, 2019

Thomas Clifton’s Impact on James Tenney

My journey through From Scratch: Writings in Music Theory, the University of Illinois Press collection of articles by music theorist and composer James Tenney, has now come to what quickly became the most significant of my encounters with Tenney’s writings. Readers may recall that my last article examined a five-year period of “struggle” (my word choice) to develop a theory of harmony that would apply to contemporary music as effectively as it did to the traditions of the nineteenth and preceding centuries. The year after that period seemed to have marked Tenney’s awakening from “metaphysical slumbers” (paraphrasing the traditional account of David Hume’s impact on Immanuel Kant) by virtue of his reading and reviewing the book Music as Heard: A Study in Applied Phenomenology by Thomas Clifton. Clifton died in 1978, and this book was not published until 1983. Tenney’s review appeared in the Journal of Music Theory in 1985.

In the second paragraph of his review, Tenney described the book as “at times brilliant, insightful, and thought-provoking; at other times irritating, exasperating, even embarrassing.” Nevertheless, Tenney is impressively persistent in seeking out the insights while glossing over the exasperations, reminding me of my favorite admonition from one of the pioneers in studying the relationship between brain and mind, Warren Sturgis McCulloch, “Don’t bite my finger, look where I am pointing.” Tenney clearly wanted his readers to grasp just where Clifton was pointing. Over 30 years later I still feel that he did an admirable job, but returning to that review also left me disconcerted at how little has been done to follow up on Clifton’s phenomenological stance.

Indeed, having presented the reader with both pans of the balance required for reading Clifton’s book, Tenney then makes it clear why he believes the book is so important:
A new kind of music theory is needed that deals with the question of what we actually hear when we listen to a piece of music, as well as how or why we hear as we do. To the extent that music theory involves the development and application of a descriptive language for music, this means that both the things named and the relations between things described by such a language must be much more precisely correlated than they are now with things and relations actually perceived or experienced.
Ever since I created this site, I have struggled with the challenges confronting anyone trying to describe “music as heard.” Those who have followed that struggle known that I have, from time to time, tried to take a phenomenological stance; but, at the end of the day, I feel as if what I have been doing all these years amounts to anthropological field work. There are, of course, anthropologists who respect the insights of phenomenology; and some of them have had a definite impact on my own efforts. Nevertheless, as I know from my interactions with “working musicians,” there is a wide gulf between the thought processes behind making music and those behind listening to it; and neither phenomenology nor anthropology currently goes very far in efforts to narrow that gulf.

As those who know a thing or two about phenomenology may guess, Clifton’s primary influence came from, as Tenney puts it, “the methods, insights, and terminology of Edmund Husserl.” Tenney goes on to name others; but Husserl was the one to get the ball rolling, so to speak, particularly through Vorlesungen zur Phänomenologie des inneren Zeitbewusstseins (lectures on the phenomenology of the consciousness of internal time), which was published in 1928, based on Martin Heidegger editing notes taken from Husserl’s lectures. The best source in English is the translation by James S. Churchill in 1964, The Phenomenology of Internal Time-Consciousness, published by Indiana University Press. Tenney’s chapter-by-chapter examination of Clifton’s book suggests that Tenney himself was at least adequately, if not sufficiently, acquainted with both Husserl in general and the question of time-consciousness in particular.

Nevertheless, when one gets to the end of Tenney’s review, the major “lesson” is that there are no easy answers to questions about what happens between ears and mind during acts of listening to music. Presumably, Clifton did not live long enough to take the next steps along the path delineated by his book; and, on the basis of the remaining chapters in From Scratch, I would suggest that Tenney was more interested in pursuing the composition of music than in picking up the baton that Clifton had prematurely dropped. Personally, I feel as if I continue to acknowledge the phenomenological stance, even if I do not follow Husserl’s discipline faithfully, whenever I try to account for my own acts of listening to music; and rereading Tenney’s review has given me an encouraging boost to keep at my own efforts, even when they do not (yet?) seem to yield deep insights!

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