Music and Truth

Music and Truth

I heard a thought-provoking aphorism yesterday: “Music is a language in which one cannot lie.” My initial response was to declare that the proverb is completely false, but upon further consideration, I’m not so sure.

[Disclaimer: This issue is way too big for a few paragraphs on a website to do it justice.]

Let’s take a look at serial music, that popular aesthetic punching bag. (I’m speaking specifically about postwar integral serialism, not earlier dodecaphony.) Insofar as American serialist music was supposed to derive its integrity from the rigorous workings-out of strict compositional systems and was, accordingly, informed by logical positivist thinking, one could make the case that it asserts a view of the world—neat, predictable, Newtonian—that we now know to be patently inaccurate. Is it dishonest, then, to write strictly serial music? Most postwar serial music includes only the twelve equal-tempered chromatic steps. Is it fair to accuse this music of sweeping quarter-tones and just intervals under the carpet even though we know very well that they exist? What about extended techniques?

If serialism is so obviously untrue, is it possible that a composer might be operating from a position of some critical distance in writing such music? To write strictly serial music in 2006 could be construed as a comment on serialism, an exposure of its now-obvious fallacy (although personally I’d argue that the first generation of British complex composers make an even stronger case through hyperbole). Similarly, tonal music written in 2006 is conceivably legible as commentary on tonality. If we are to evaluate tonal music under the “commentary” rubric, however, a separate set of criteria from those we’d use to discuss the “commented-on” tonal music are required.

But what if today’s serial composer still buys into the value of serialism qua serialism (or minimalism qua minimalism, or romanticism qua romanticism, or whatever)? Do these radically different stylistic persuasions point not just to discrepancies in training or taste but to conflicting worldviews? It’s possible that disagreements among composers about techniques of composition articulate profound differences in beliefs about the very universe we inhabit. And there’s always the possibility—remote, I know, but distinct—that my perspective on existence might not be 100 percent dead-on. I suppose one “lies” in music if one presents ostensible facts that turn out to be misapprehensions—but what if we’re only voicing musical opinions?

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25 thoughts on “Music and Truth

  1. JKG

    Fancy, fancy!….
    Wow, Colin. That;s certainly a mouthful there. Of course you know my beliefs whether one’s music constitutes a world view – just like any artistic expression, the very nature of art is to give forth a distillation of what one believes to be the essence of one’s interests and perspective, even moral and spiritual. On the matter of “truth in music,” that is a different story altogether. If Beethoven and the early Romantics were indeed reacting against a veneer of intellectual and bourgeois expression, such a trend towards the expression of “the real” would have had to’ve had a complete break from classical styles at some juncture. That, of course, never happened. The “truth” of the matter is that all art is a lie, in the sense that all art works towards expressing an ideal outside of an actual life experience. Even the most serious artistic experiences are in essence entertainment, even in the producing of them. Only the details inherent towards expressing particular thoughts at a particular time are relevant towards the production of music, and that fact is no doubt shadowed within the experience of listening to the same.

  2. dalgas

    Gee Colin, usually guys like you end up as Poli-Sci or Philosophy majors!… ;-)

    Music can tell any lie or any truth. All you need to do is define which is which for you.

    Notice that Mozart also sweeps microtones and extended techniques under the rug. Notice that Wagner sweeps Dufay under the rug. Notice that Reich sweeps Wagner under the rug.

    Of course it all often reflects our own particular world-view; just pick your world.

    Steve Layton

  3. pgblu

    It isn’t my intention to defend integral serialism here — but what is the ‘now-obvious fallacy’ of it, and what do we ‘know to be untrue’ about it? That pianissimo is the E-flat of dynamics? That the clarinet is the dotted whole note of timbres? Prove it to be untrue! I think that is only ‘invalid’ when it is musically uninteresting. Actually it sounds very interesting.

    You imply also that tonality is somehow fallacious. What is untrue about tonality? Is it that under-the-rug sweeping thing? That dissonances are un-emancipated? Is music supposed to represent all the possibilities of the universe or die trying? Should we simply think of music as a metaphorical, liberating lifting up of the rug under which everything has been swept? *cough* *hack*

    I say music is not a language (though it shares some attributes therewith), there are no musical ‘facts’ (the closest thing is laws of acoustics, which are interesting but not a self-sufficient basis for a musical practice), and thus no possibility for music to misrepresent those facts, i.e. lie.

    And when someone says music can tell any lie or any truth, that person is not disagreeing with me, they’re just spouting the same nonsense that I am, but it’s neither of our faults, it’s Colin’s.

  4. Colin Holter

    The issue isn’t whether tonal pieces or serial pieces are successful and interesting works-

    (Well, actually, in every other conversation about music it is. But it’s not the issue of this disagreement.)

    -it’s whether they embody principles representative of the way we understand the world to work. Postwar serial music, for instance, exists in a landscape with only twelve objects; tonal music requires us to buy into the (eschatological? well, maybe not) notion that we will be delivered unfailingly from dissonant harmonies to consonant ones. Life would be way easier if there were only twelve objects to worry about and all the dissonant events gave way, inexorably, to consonant ones, but that just ain’t the case.

    Pgblu is right: Music isn’t a language, nor does it contain facts. I’ll gladly concede that we use music as much to misapprehend life (i.e. to imagine those innocent pastures of tonality or serialism) as to apprehend it accurately. In either case, however, we offer listeners a window on a view – real or ideal, James Nachtwey or Norman Rockwell – of the human condition. This is something for which we have to take responsibility.

  5. pgblu

    “There is no absolute truth; the truth always manifests itself as the debunking of a specific untruth of its time.” That’s Hegel, or a paraphrase, or an epigone. Anyhow, when the product of that debunking is elevated to an absolute, it becomes dogma; then a new truth (i.e., a nuance of evolving truth) must be found. Voila! History is made.

    In music this is also true: every ‘movement’ in composition that had any momentum has been a reaction to dogma, or at least perceived dogma. That’s just as true for ‘post-classical’ character-pieces as for ‘post-Wagner’ Satie, ‘post-serial’ minimalism, as for ‘post-Uptown’ Downtown…or vice versa…. On a more interdisciplinary level, post-World-War-I neoclassicism, post-World-War-II integral serialism, or post-World-War-III plainchant and back-to-banging-on-rocks…On a side note, there are certain untruths so hideous and formidable and omnipresent that the gentle debunking possible through music is not enough. Critical music becomes quainter than the Geneva Convention.

    I shudder for the day that the composer community (let’s pretend there is just one) sees through this pendulum-like process and becomes so hopelessly fragmentary (let’s pretend it hasn’t yet) that it’s no longer possible to spot the latest trend and debunk it. Heaven forfend! Then each of us will have to debunk each other individually. An endless back-and-forth. Anyone for a game of tetherball?

  6. EvanJohnson

    Postwar serial music, for instance, exists in a landscape with only twelve objects; tonal music requires us to buy into the (eschatological? well, maybe not) notion that we will be delivered unfailingly from dissonant harmonies to consonant ones.

    Colin, you’re falling into a very common and very pernicious trap here. You’re equating a sophisticated, hard-earned and not-at-all-obvious summary of tonal harmony with a (deliberately, I hope) bone-headedly reductive description of what serialism, let alone integral serialism, is all about.

    Integral serialism “exists in a landscape with only twelve objects” only in the sense that common-practice tonal music does the exact same thing (at least, post-equal temperament) — in the sense that they both use the chromatic gamut. You can’t pretend that one stops there and the other doesn’t.

  7. Colin Holter

    That’s a fair allegation. Generalizing about music (and I guess about anything else) is always a dicey proposition, if I may speak generally.

    When it comes to serialism, my complaint really rests with what Richard Toop called the “kindergarten” phase of postwar music – the Structures, the Kreuzspiels, Charles Wuorinen’s entire catalogue, etc. I still feel, however, that in a more general sense, serial music is supposed to derive its integrity from its wholly rational nature, and that there’s something deceptive (or, if we allow for irony, nostalgic) about this.

  8. Colin Holter

    Also, I would add that for many years tonal music was performed with many more than twelve notes: Whereas equal temperament is a sine qua non for serial music’s successful realization, pre-ET tonal performance practice was characterized by a wealth of intonational possibilities depending on region, era, taste, etc. An A# and a Bb are the same thing in Gruppen, but three hundred years before, they would not only have sounded different but also meant different things. Big distinction.

  9. pgblu

    Ha! or rather Har!
    There IS no B-flat in Gruppen. Really. He only notates sharps (except for the harp, though, probably). Unless there’s some revised edition I don’t know about. Not that that destroys your point in any way. No one expects you to know that. Who studies Gruppen anymore nowadays?

    You’re right that serialism took a ‘rational’ approach as its source of legitimacy, but that doesn’t mean that the serialists were seeking a more universally understandable, or even more beautiful, language than common practice, just one that wasn’t rooted in the past, and (this is what’s key) didn’t presuppose a cultural milieu. That’s right: they understood themselves as anti-elitist! Serialism expressed an urgent need to reconstruct culture from the ground up. Beauty and comprehensibility, or the feeling of ‘truth’, if present, were just welcome side effects. That’s true, at least, for the Europeans, who had just witnessed an ugly cultural upheaval firsthand. In the postwar era, cultural positivism was helluva taboo. Note that I do NOT speak for the American serial tradition, whose motives I am not as familiar with.

    Now, if I may be so bold: the untruth in serialism was not its upholding of a new rational ideal, but the fact that serial processes constituted a kind of ‘abstract negation’ of the norm. The only way to speak truth to power, though, is through concrete negation, i.e., through careful (and imaginative) deconstruction of old truths that had been elevated into myth (it’s painstaking and piecemeal, i.e., not very sexy and revolutionary). Having said that, at least a few of the most important proponents of serialism sort of understood this, and drew imaginative conclusions.

    P.S. Follow my example and don’t apologize for generalizing anymore.

  10. wright

    Seems to me these arguments are missing the point of the original quote. Saying that Music Cannot Lie is not the same as saying Musical Systems Can’t Be Finite. If I say my hair is turning gray, I am telling the truth, regardless of how many other truths I am leaving out. If a composer writes a piece that is completely rationalized, that piece will tell the truth about what that composer can, and cannot, accomplish through complete rationalization. It’s the music, not the system, that can’t help telling the truth.

  11. JKG

    Pretty neat thread, this one…
    and revealing, too. It goes without saying that artistic freedom mandates that we all get a chance to speak musically in forms and content which serve our particular views. If I am “closed-minded” regarding certain twentieth-century styles, for example, that is because I choose to contain my expression within a certain rigorous modus operandi. Of course I must concede to others the same liberties, but that by no means serves as obligation for me to listen to their work (which in any event I would do at my convenience). If I listen to something out of curiosity, I do plumb it for its truthfulness and aesthetic honesty. Yet that also depends upon my own concerns and reservations regarding what is meaningful to me, based upon my own life experience. All of this is precisely true for every one of us who take art seriously. If progressive tonality is not good enough for a particular writer, who am I to debunk his/her expressive efforts? My understanding and appreciation of Stockhausen might not be particularly flattering for him, yet the very reason I avoid listening to his work IN THE NORMAL CONTEXT OF MY DAY is precisely because I find his expressed philosophy of music to be UNUSEFUL and generally UNINTERESTING to me. Perhaps one day that will change, but for now I will not soil my ears with ANY music I cannot make good sense of or ANY technique I cannot use to express how I actually think and feel. If I am closed-minded amongst my academic peers, that may may have a lot to do with their own institutional expectations that they listen to EVERYTHING before casting any judgment upon a work or composer. I do not have the time to sample music by composers whose well-known world views are meaningless to me, and I am certainly not constrained by some well-meaning professor who happens to consider himself an expert on things musical. There are things we can all agree upon, and it is worthwhile to pursue those things and othewise leave well-enough alone where another’s style or artistic motivation is concerned. In short, your “truth” may be essentially none of my business, and vice-versa.

  12. Frank J. Oteri

    There’s been a lot of talk on this thread about Stockhausen’s early orchestral composition Gruppen, to which, most recently, JKG has added: “My understanding and appreciation of Stockhausen might not be particularly flattering for him, yet the very reason I avoid listening to his work IN THE NORMAL CONTEXT OF MY DAY is precisely because I find his expressed philosophy of music to be UNUSEFUL and generally UNINTERESTING to me.”

    Of all composers to choose as a rhetorical punching bag for integral serialism, Stockhausen seems a poor representative. Pretty early on, Stockhausen eschewed the formal constraints of 12-tone paradigms; even a contemporaneous electronic work of his
    uses a 25-note scale with no octaves. Soon after Gruppen, Stockhausen embraced indeterminacy which has played a key role in most of his subsequent work. And later works such as Stimmung (1968) and Sternklang (1971), employ just intonation scales and techniques that are far more akin to minimalism than serialism, both in terms of the application of the various musical parameters (pitch, duration, etc) and in terms of the resultant sound.

    In Stockhausen’s slightly earlier electronic epics of the 1960s—I’m thinking here of Hymnen and Telemusik—as well as the cycle of operas which dominate his musical thinking to this day, Stockhausen has endeavored to create music that did in fact attempt to address universal truths. The last movement of Hymnen states these goals rather explicitly. Of course, whether or not the music actually does attain universal truths, is a totally subjective matter of opinion. No need to regurgitate my thoughts about the inevitable limitation of so-called opinions here, but in the early years of the 21st century, it would seem that most “truths” have a subjective component.

  13. pgblu

    There was no derision of Gruppen intended, and I do wish more people would study it. I applaud Kyle Gann for giving it to his students.

    Just because I impute a philosophical error to postwar European serialism doesn’t mean I condemn it. It is great music, no question in my mind.

  14. philmusic

    “To write strictly serial music in 2006 could be construed as a comment on serialism, an exposure of its now-obvious fallacy …”

    Colin, all this talk about musical truth seems to revolve around a very simple point. Either we like a musical work or we don’t. Love of music is so personal. In High School we define our friends and our social groups by the music we listen to and also by the music we don’t listen too. As a composer of serial music and a performer of experimental music I strive to keep an open ear and an open mind to the sounds around me. Though its been tried, I doubt that any kind of music can be defined out of existence merely because someone powerful or persuasive doesn’t like it. What we say as composers about ourselves and others, either for or against a style or a particular composer, is moot. As Roger Sessions said “composers are doers of deeds.” It is the music composition is primary. The editorial comes after.

  15. davidcoll

    seems to me that debating between music telling the truth or not is just as pointless as saying if the music is good or bad…i’d rather stay away from all that, its better to just concern yourself w/the music at hand- why am i interested in this

    I assume everyone will agree with me on this, its not much of a point, but…

  16. Colin Holter

    I see your point, David – but for me, the interesting thing about this discussion is that “false” music can be good music too. We read both fiction and nonfiction; I guess all music is fiction, but even the musical fictions that don’t seem to contain a universal truth (or one with which we can agree) can be meaningful and appreciable works. The “true/false” argument is kind of parallel to the “good/bad” argument, I think.

    Parallel to, and less important than.

  17. pgblu

    I don’t think this discussion is over. When people start saying ‘can’t we all just get along’ and ‘ya can’t account fer taste’ then it’s clear we are hitting a kind of nerve.

    Just because I come in with that Hegel statement about truth being negation rather than affirmation doesn’t mean truth is relative rather than absolute. This is a tough distinction to get, but a crucial one. It’s the difference between modernism and post-modernism. Or so I read it. A lot of what motivates us aesthetically is not the search for truth but the dissolution of falsehood. Morton Feldman says “The purpose of art is to shatter illusions about things.” That could be said similarly as ‘we are motivated by bad music to make better music’ — so the parallel to good/bad is apropos.

  18. kacattac

    “The issue isn’t whether tonal pieces or serial pieces are successful and interesting works…it’s whether they embody principles representative of the way we understand the world to work.” …or whether any piece of absolute music embodies anything?(!) It seems there are two kinds of people in the world: those that would care about such embodiment and those that wouldn’t. I fall into the latter category. That’s not to say that it’s invalid to view a piece as embodying something in this way; if the idea comes to you while listening then so be it, but is it really that important just because YOU thought it up? Some of you want so badly for your music to matter in and of itself, to hold significance beyond the realm of sound. Why? Why is it not enough by itself?

  19. Colin Holter

    “…or whether any piece of absolute music embodies anything?(!)”

    There’s no such thing as absolute music – only unsuccessful program music.

  20. JKG

    Good or bad….
    The entire issue of whether music is qualitatively good or bad has a lot to do with the listener. Such aesthetic judgments in and of themselves are value judgments, which is the precise reason I choose not to listen to some composers until I’m good and ready. I’m sure I could learn a lot from Luigi Nono, but does that mean I rush to listen to anything he ever wrote? Same with Frank Zappa. Even music I once loved in the past gets ignored, while lately I find myself interested in Rachmaninoff’s symphonies and the very occasional Prokofiev work. Those of you who maintain the argument over whose music is more “correct” in its “truthfulness,” say more about yourselves than you do about the music itself. I detest twelve-tone, but that is only because each listening thus far has proven ridiculously disappointing. While I am reviled amongst academics for identifying with “the masses,” I happen to think the masses are absolutely correct in their assessment of twelve-tone as a viable means of expression for anything hopeful or good. And so what if I think that way? What difference should that ever make to someone who finds a great deal of hope and meaning in serial or atonal styles? I have had numerous modernist writers express getting their feelings hurt by my expresses OPINION, but that doesn’t mean I think their bad people for writing music I don’t like, nor does it mean I think their preferred music is bad FOR THEM. It simply means their aesthetic choices are flatly meaningless to me personally. Its funny how in the news lately there’s a lot of talk about the left being all for dissent, and then being completely unable to tolerate dissent when it is directed at themselves. Is there an analogy here?

  21. JKG

    Oh, and thanks, Frank…
    It was not my intention at all to berate Stockhausen as a serial composer, because frankly I don’t know (or care) enough about Stockhausen’s modus operandi to pursue listening to his work. He just ain’t my bag o’ tea. What we love and adhere to as artists is frequently what we’ve come to associate as having givin meaning and expression to our own lives – as a “non-academic,” let me just mention that my own foray into various serious styles and passions have left me aptly satisfied. If I had little use for schooling after a certain point, then what need would I ever have for some well-meaning professor encouraging me to listen to anything and everything I could get my hands on? That’s HIS job. *wild cackle*.

  22. philmusic

    A few years back a famous cultural critic (I forgot the name) was found in his youth to have written for an academic journal supported by the Nazis. There was some consternation about this at the time and some thoughts about a reevaluation of his work due to these facts. A large book of essays on this subject by leading textural critics was then published.
    The content of these essays can be summarized as follows: those critics who had supported his work before these revelations came out continue to do so and those critics who did not support his work before these revelations also continued not to support his ideas.

    It seemed that the “truth” was irrelevant here. What mattered was ones support (like or dislike of his theories.

  23. pgblu

    Dear JKG,

    I don’t know how many people are actually offended by your posts. If they are, then you’re right; it’s their problem.

    If I were to regularly visit a discussion board about trimming hedges, though, and five times a week someone came in to post that they hate hedges and much prefer giant oleander bushes that spill out onto the sidewalk, meanwhile deriding hedges as elitist, meaningless, or just plain ugly, I imagine I’d be mostly annoyed rather than offended.

    Rest assured that a large percentage of the world’s population agrees with you that Stockhausen never did anything meaningful. They are with you. They are on your side. You’re with the majority. Which puts you in the bizarre position of acting as a voice of the majority at a discussion board pretty much dominated by minority opinions. Hey, knock yourself out.

  24. JKG

    Why, thank you!
    I do not think in the least that others are pretentious regarding their personal convictions concerning contemporary music, so I hope no one will feel derided when I maintain I also am not pretentious concerning my own views. Majority, scmajority I say. There needs to be those who are willing to venture far beyond convention, just as there needs to be some who hold steadfastly to tradition. I am primarily here to LEARN, and have actually been affected thus far in my short two months or so within this group. While I may disagree with a few things, I generally find it fascinating to discourse and glean information from other composers. Hey, perhaps the one thing you folks DON’T NEED is a “workingman’s composer” in your midst, and perhaps I am incredibly dense where experimentalism is concerned. However, isn’t revealing that, if I get my hands on sonething really useful, I just can’t wait to lay it to score? Heck, I’ve even started actually reading some of ADORNO’s writings, even if I don’t give a fig about most of his philosophies thus far. A predecessor of his, by the way, Gianbattista Vico, is a total hero of mine! I may actually blurt out the occasional useful sentence fragment some of you may find use of, just as I have begun making notes of some of the subjects mentioned in these posts. The world does not revolve around me – I like you folks. I am here to learn, despite my sometimes course and brutish manner. I sincerely apologize if I have offended the sensibilities of anyone *dancing wildly to Telemann*.


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