Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Validating Music

Yesterday, in writing about the analytic approach of Heinrich Schenker, I declared that I did not accept his view of analysis as a means of "validating" a piece of music, equating the "validity" of the composition with the "success" of the analysis. What I had not realized, until I did some further digging, was that Donald Francis Tovey, whose methods of analysis were quite different, was as obsessed with "validity" as Schenker was. A paragraph of Tovey writing about Schoenberg, which led me to this conclusion, can be read in a comment I posted this morning to the San Francisco Symphony Social Network. I also realized that, beyond yesterday's comparison of Schenker's synchronic approach to Tovey's diachronic one, Tovey, being more of an English gentleman than a scholar, tended to resort to methods of rhetoric, in contrast to Schenker's efforts to make his points (not always successfully) through logic.

Consequently, any "emancipated dissonance" is "off the map" for both of these analysts. Thus, as far as Schenker was concerned, Arnold Schoenberg never existed, while Tovey was generous enough to acknowledge Schoenberg for his Gurrelieder (probably because it fit so nicely into his evolutionary view of music history). Perhaps one of the reasons for Joseph Kerman offering the prospect of "getting out of analysis" in the title of the essay that triggered this recent round of thoughts was concerned less with analysis itself and more with a tradition embraced by both Schenker and Tovey under which analysts were "gatekeepers of validity." Having established what we really need to escape, my favorite proposition, that we begin with the nature of listening, as opposed to structures in printed score pages, still seems like the best escape hatch. We may then examine the nature of listening through Gerald Edelman's biologically-based model of consciousness, which seems to have its origins in some of the final research undertaken by Friedrich Hayek. As I have observed, Edelman's approach "involves not only our capacity for forming perceptual categories but also the interplay of those categories that arise from 'sensation of the world' with categories based on 'sensation of self.'" We are thus as likely to find perceptual categories in our listening to Schoenberg's "Ode to Napoleon Bonaparte" as we are to find them in those symphonies of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven through which Schenker could demonstrate his methods so excellently. Furthermore, Schenker's self-appointed gatekeeper role is soundly thrashed by the subjective nature of those perceptual categories. To put it aphoristically, we hear what we hear because we hear it in terms of what we have heard. If Schenker's method "works" at all, it is because his Ursatz is nothing more than the barest abstraction of an authentic cadence, which most of us have heard for as long as we have been listening to music. However, experiences in listening to music composed after the Second World War have endowed us with a subjectivity that does not require authentic cadences as passionately as Schenker did. Perhaps, then, the goal of Kerman's title has some merit. We can get out of analysis (or at least the analytic practices that dominated music theory during the twentieth century). Each of us can do so by pulling him(her)self up with the bootstraps of his(her) own consciousness!

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