Thursday, April 26, 2007

More about Rhetoric in Music

The idea that we should be able to take a rhetorical stance in responding to a musical performance continues to fascinate me. My initial position was that rhetoric is all about suasion, so the role of rhetoric in music is one of convincing the audience to pay attention. However, if we wish to draw analogies between musical performances and spoken utterances, then it may be necessary to draw distinctions between (at least) two separate categories in the domain of utterances:

  1. Utterances of oratory
  2. Utterances of conversation

The first category is the one I had in mind when I proposed my argument based on suasion; and, indeed, this is the context in which most principles of rhetoric have been framed. However, I believe there are many settings in which it may make better more sense to think of those of us sitting in the audience of a musical performance as eavesdropping on a conversation. Much of what we experience at the opera falls in this category; and, in that respect, there is a lot to be gained in examining how the best composers of opera, such as Mozart, have managed to anticipate the insights of far more recent analytical work in conversation theory by social theorists such as Erving Goffman. However, in the world of music we do not need singers (or, for that matter, speakers) to have a conversation. When I wrote about the Artemis Quartet, I wrote about the "dramatic crutch" I used to engage when trying to "make sense" of Schoenberg's first string quartet and the way in which the Artemis relieved me of the need for that crutch. The fact is, however, that much is to be gained by listening to the voices of any contrapuntal composition as if they were voices of a conversation, even if the conversation does not necessarily have a well-defined "topic." (The validity of such a stance can be seen in the work of playwrights, such as Samuel Beckett, who have turned the proposition on its head, assigning texts to their characters that are driven more by musical than by dramatic motives.) Furthermore, such conversations are not restricted to the scale of chamber music. Once again, we can turn (as I recently did) to Mozart and the extent to which the conceptions of his concertos, particularly those for piano, are so conversational in nature. Of course not all music is, by nature, contrapuntal; and, in the case of Bach's sacred music, which for voice or strictly instrumental, contrapuntal techniques may be engaged for oratorical purposes. Nevertheless, there is probably value in accepting the fact that we, as audiences, are frequently eavesdroppers and that our understanding of this role may help us to be better listeners.

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