Friday, December 27, 2019

What are the Percepts When we Listen to Music?

As a result of some exchanges with Stephen Malinowski that followed up on my piece last Sunday about his visualizations of two of the “Razumovsky” quartets of Ludwig van Beethoven, I realized that I was scratching the surface of a landscape of far deeper issues pertaining to the acts of listening to music. However, this also revived earlier thoughts suggesting that the landscape itself could be divided into different regions, each of which could then be “mined” in efforts to understand the nature of listening. As I had mentioned this past July, when I was discussing the writings of James Tenney, one possible way to organize those regions was to appeal to the medieval trivium of logic, grammar, and rhetoric to serve as a foundation of “first principles.”

That said, however, there was a potential shortcoming to such a foundation. One might say that all three of the trivium disciplines are concerned with utterances. More often than not, those utterances are conveyed through text; but, even when they arise through viva voce delivery, those disciplines still treat what has been uttered as static objects. In other words those disciplines are concerned with what, for some time, I was calling “noun-based thinking.” On the other hand one of the key points I tried to make in my critique of Tenney’s efforts was that “the experience of listening to the ‘music-in-itself,’ [is] an experience that must, of necessity be verb-based.” (Tenney had been using Immanuel Kant as his point of departure!) Thus, there may be a fallacy residing in my choice of headline, because the very concept of a percept is noun-based. Making music, on the other hand, entails in-the-moment verb-based activities; and the listener’s response to those activities is just as verb-based.

If we are to think about how a specific performance of a specific piece of music can be realized as a “real-time” animation for which the performance itself provides the sound-track, then I think a case can be made that logic, grammar, and rhetoric provide “first principles” for the real-time visual experience as much as they do for the experience of listening just to the music being performed. Being able to identify those principles, on the other hand, is no easy matter. In the first place the very concept of a “sentential utterance,” which provides the foundation for all three trivium disciplines, is no longer “noun-based.” Nevertheless, there are clearly structural aspects to just about any “musical utterance,” which suggests that we should be able to appeal to basic principles of grammar (without deep-ending on parts of speech and sentence diagrams) to provide a foundation for identifying both the structures themselves and how they are used.

From this point of view, I continue to believe, as I first speculated back in 2007, that the very idea of structure allows us to sort out the embellishing from the embellished. Those who are more experienced in music theory and analysis probably recognize that this approach to sorting can be found in the theoretic writings of Heinrich Schenker, and those that are serious in their Schenker studies will probably be quick to point out that Schenkerian analysis owes much to Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, whose Versuch über die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen (an essay on the true art of playing keyboard instruments) provides a systematic and extensive study of ornamentation. In other words, principles of grammar serve to sort out the embellishing from the embellished (sometimes taking into account the possibility that an embellishment may, itself, be embellished) just as the syntax of a language allows us to sort out the basic nouns and verbs from the adjectives and adverbs that modify them.

If grammar provides the tools for sorting out the embellishments from what they are embellishing, it may be fair to say that logic serves to identify what it is that is being embellished in the first place. Schenker did not seem to regard this issue as relevant. As far as he was concerned, the only construct “worthy” of embellishment in the first place was a basic I-V-I (tonic-dominant-tonic) cadence. Needless to say, this was far too restrictive an ideology, even before the first rumblings of atonality began to emerge from Vienna. My favorite example from one of the composers that Schenker favored comes from the orchestral introduction to Joseph Haydn’s Hoboken XXI/2 oratorio The Creation, which is “faithful” to the key signature of C minor but manages to undermine any attempt to suggest a dominant-to-tonic cadence.

The point is that there are any number of constructs that can be applied to embellishment. Indeed, the final act of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck opera was described as a set of “variations.” What is varied changes from one scene to the next. The act begins with the conventional approach to variations on a theme, but this is followed by a set of variations on a single note. There is then a set of variations on a rhythm. The fourth scene consists of variations on a single chord, and it is followed by an instrumental interlude of variations on the key of D minor. The final scene is then organized as variations of a rhythm consisting only of quavers (eighth notes). Thus, I would argue that it is through logic that one understands part-whole relationships, which may be based on a wide variety of different approaches to embellishment.

This brings us up to role of rhetoric. This is the discipline that it most closely linked to performance. One might say that, when composers like Haydn and Berg choose to go down a rabbit hole of complex grammatical structures, it is up to the performers to make the result accessible to attentive listeners. In Aristotle’s time rhetoric was all about suasion, getting those listening to a speech to accept what a speaker is saying, whether it is a compelling call to action or simply expressing a point of view to be shared. If there is any level of suasion in the performance of music, it probably comes down to just convincing the audience to pay attention to the music one is performing. That task of convincing is probably best appreciated in the performance of opera, where seizing and maintaining audience attention is usually shared by both the conductor and the stage director.

Note that, in the above paragraphs, one could approach matters of both grammar and logic using “noun-based” terminology. However, because rhetoric is more concerned with performing the results of grammar and logic, it is an activity, rather than a construct. This touches on the fallacy that lurks in how Johann Wolfgang von Goethe chose to dramatize the Faust narrative. The contract says that, when Faust declares that a moment is so wonderful that he wishes it to be suspended in time, Mephistopheles will them claim Faust’s soul. The fallacy is that, when a moment is suspended it time, it no longer exists!

Apparently, Goethe forgot any of his past studies of Augustine of Hippo. Anyone that wishes to think about the nature of time would do well to “go back to the basics” of Augustine’s Confessions. I refer specifically to the following passage (in the translation by Henry Chadwick):
What is by now evident and clear is that neither future nor past exists, and it is inexact language to speak of three times—past, present, and future.  Perhaps it would be exact to say:  there are three times, a present of things past, a present of things present, a present of things to come.
This clearly had an impact on Edmund Husserl, since his lectures on time-consciousness explicitly discussed that “present of things past” (which he called “retention”) and the “present of things to come” (which he called “protention”). I doubt that anyone would disagree that both retention and protention are actively “in play” when one engages in attentive listening; but just as important is how those engaged in the act of performance can impact awareness of retention and protention among those listeners.

This allows me now to loop back to my thoughts about the strategies Malinowski engages in creating his visualizations. The mere fact that a visualization is conceived as what amounts to a horizontally-scrolling pattern implies that the viewer always has on the screen representations of not only “things present” but also “things past” and “things to come.” For that matter, as one becomes acquainted with the patterns of the visualization, one may recognize connections between “things to come” and “things past” more readily than if one is only aware of the sounds themselves.

This then raises a challenging question: How do performers deal with those matters of listener awareness in the absence of such “visual aids?”

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