Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The "Organic" Metaphor

Barnaby Thieme has been doing some interesting reading, and his decision to share that reading with the San Francisco Social Network has led me down a path I had not previously considered. His source is Joseph Kerman's essay, "How We Got into Analysis, And How to Get Out Again," which was included in a collection of Kerman's writings entitled Write All These Down. My own trigger was the following quote from Kerman:

Schoenberg's really decisive insight was to conceive of a way of continuing the great tradition while negating what everyone else to be at its very core, namely, tonality. He grasped the fact that what was central to the ideology was not the triad and tonality, as Schenker and Tovey believed, but organicism.

My immediate reaction was to consider whether Kerman's decision to place Heinrich Schenker and Donald Francis Tovey in the same sentence could be construed as chutzpah. However, since Kerman's essay appeared in 1980, it is not really in the running for a Chutzpah of the Week award; so I was willing to simply credit it as bold rhetoric. The problem is that it may also be misleading.

I have nothing against "organicism;" but we have to remember that any use of "organic" in the description of musical activities can only be metaphoric. Schenker used the metaphor explicitly. I am not sure I encountered the word actually being used by Tovey, but I can see the logic behind Kerman attributing it to him. The problem is that Schenker and Tovey construe the metaphor in radically different ways, and that is what makes Kerman's text misleading.

Let me begin with my understanding of Schenker's use of the word based on my readings of his texts in various English translations. Schenker's approach is to view a composition as if it were a living organism. His approach to analysis is one that validates that point of view from a "physiological" perspective. In other words the composition has a "structural anatomy," which provides the framework for how that composition "functions" (which, in turn, should inform how performance should present that "functioning"). I have no problem with this particular metaphorical approach to organicism, even if I am not sure I would engage it in my own writing about music.

Tovey, on the other hand, is not so much concerned with the physiology of a particular species as he is with how that species evolved. This is most evident in the "Music" entry that he prepared for the eleventh edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica. Tracing the history of music from the Ancient Greeks to the beginning of the twentieth century, he saw an evolutionary progression through which composers expand their compositions to work with longer and longer durations of time. The fact that Tovey's argument broke down when Arnold Schoenberg, along with his students Alban Berg and Anton Webern, went "back to brevity" is irrelevant to Tovey's understanding of the metaphor. He was working with the data points he had, he put up a reasonably valid hypothesis, and developed an argument that paralleled an evolutionary process (without bring either genetics or natural selection into the picture).

This distinction between Schenker and Tovey revolves around a fundamental difference in thinking about time, which I have explored in previous writing about listening behavior. Schenker's approach is a synchronic one, based on nothing more than the properties of the composition being analyzed, while Tovey's approach is diachronic, placing every composition in the context of the overall flow of music history. Ironically, Tovey's case can be made through Schenkerian methods, since that management of longer durations of time is usually associated with an increase in the number of "layers" between the surface "foreground" structure and the Ursatz in the "background." However, an echt Schenkerian would examine each of Tovey's examples on a case-by-case basis, rather than seeking out a "metalogic" of how the foreground-background relationship changes over time.

Personally, I do not think we should be obliged to choose between synchronic and diachronic thinking. Pragmatist that I am, I believe we choose methods suitable to the nature of the questions whose answers we seek. Mind you, I do not approve of Schenker's approach as a means to determine whether or not a composition is "valid;" but, if we look beyond his rather dogmatic stance in such matters, we find some very useful tools for understanding the syntactic foundations of embellishment; and it is through those foundations that we can begin to make sense of Tovey's evolutionary perspective. In other words informed listening is a matter of seeking out the dialectical synthesis of the "natural" opposition of synchronic and diachronic. That, for me at least, is what analysis is; and, unlike Kerman, I have no desire to get out of it!

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