Somebody Help Me Understand

Somebody Help Me Understand

For the last three weeks, Randy, Molly, and I have been engaged in an intense debate as to whether or not music has any meaning and whether or not that meaning can be conveyed to a listener exclusively through music.

Call it the post-post-modernist version of the timeworn classical vs. romantic debate. Although I’d be loathe to describe any of us as classicists or romantics, for the sake of argument I’ll call Randy—who doesn’t believe in musical meaning—a classicist, and myself a romantic since I buy into all sorts of musical iconography. (Ironically he’s the more intuitive composer making him a romantic, and I’m obsessed with form and structure making me a classicist. But we have the same fights about uptown and downtown. See how foolish categories are!) Molly, always the level-headed journalist-type, maintains a cautious middle ground.

To temper this debate, I’d like to suggest that music can have profound meaning, but it requires a contextual framework in which to understand it which is usually the result of a process of acculturation, much like learning a verbal language.

In Modal Subjectivities, a recent book about 16th century Italian madrigals, the always provocative UCLA-based musicologist Susan McClary asserts that Monteverdi’s compositional process is “nearly as organic as any by a latter-day serialist, except that he has a commitment not only to the saturated integrity of his piece but also to the conventions that make it publicly intelligible.” (emphasis added).

Is this fair? Can the compositional process of any music, from 12-bar blues to spectralism, be “publicly intelligible” without some kind of grounding in its conventions? And, once you are grounded in those conventions, couldn’t even the music of Brian Ferneyhough make perfectly simple sense? Similarly, if you’ve never heard a nursery rhyme in your life (difficult I know, for arguments sake imagine an extraterrestrial sentient being), wouldn’t it seem baffling on first listen?

As I read McClary’s pronouncement on an overcrowded subway this morning, several lightbulbs went off. I wanted to scream “A-ha!” to nearby passengers but that probably would not have been advisable in a climate of “Orange Alert.”

Whether or not music can be publicly intelligible has also played a role in a chain of emails I’ve been having with composer Christopher Adler which he has published on his web site. Chris had issues with some of the comments I made last year about his Tzadik CD and assumed they were the result of my lack of familiarity with the traditional Lao-Thai khaen (mouth organ) music that inspires him. Ironically, while I’ve never studied it formally, this is music I’ve heard a fair amount of and I even possess a khaen (although I usually get hopelessly out of breath after only a minute of trying to play it). My tête-à-tête with Adler would seemingly prove Randy’s contention. I thought I understood Adler’s music but without sufficient explanatory words to guide me, the music was not able to convey its meaning on its own. Before I generate another downpour of emails, I am not implying here that this is the fault of Adler’s music.

I would contend that any lapse in understanding between music and its listeners is partially the result of our over-dependence on verbal language and our automatic assumptions derived from experiential memory. These alone cannot provide immediate acculturation any more than reading a Berlitz book can keep you from being snubbed when you try to speak French in Paris. Verbal language can only go so far in expressing the meanings that music can convey. However, as primarily language-based communicators, we’re stuck with words for everything we do. Randy would say that explanatory words are a waste of time and that they get in the way of the musical experience which is ultimately not about comprehension on any level, but something else. But without some attempt at analysis (which unfortunately will inevitably have to use words at some point), how can we make sense out of anything?

When I listen to music, any music, I usually respond to details I am able to analyze. Despite my admiration for Brian Eno, no music is ambient when I listen to it. All music is foreground, even the horrid MuzakTM I was subjected to on the phone earlier this week while on-hold in which a series of parallel thirds caught my attention. I can’t turn off this mode of listening. It is how I process music and that processing is why I am perpetually fascinated by music. But I also know all too well that my methods are far from universal. So is anything about music universal?

What does McClary mean by “public intelligibility”? Is it the Common Practice-era cliché of major means happy and minor means sad? Could most angular twelve-tone music be turning potential listeners off because trichords that reject major and minor implications sound frustrated and angry? (Despite my wishes for the contrary, most people listen to music just to relax.) How far can you go with a compositional process and have listeners know what you’re doing without having to explain it by other means?

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

8 thoughts on “Somebody Help Me Understand

  1. rama gottfried

    DNA – psychotherapy etc.
    I think that there is a common subconscious language that all humans comprehend at some level. It could be that due to cultural influences, we are not always aware of it directly but our DNA is all about the same.

    Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell et. al. … I was once told by a anthropology teacher that the visual patterns people see when they have migraine headaches are identical to the patterns found in ancient etchings. Shaman and mystics from various cultures far removed share similar visions. Why not in music?

    The way we react to a piece of “evil” music can vary greatly. If you grew up listening to the Dead Kennedys and Slayer what some people call “evil” may seem rather tame to you. Maybe these are all aspects of the human psyche: the sense of balance in form, chaos and confusion, happy, sad, zombie, clarity, evil, and how we react to them is equal to how comfortable we are with these aspects of ourselves. Buddha and Stravinsky would be unmoved.

  2. nathanbibb

    I think in this, like most similar debates, there is truth to bith sides of the issue. Put me in Molly’s camp.

    I think that we are all influenced more than we realize by our own musical experience when it comes to how we experience music. What Debussy got from the Gamelan ensemble at the Paris World’s Fair in 1889 was very different from what Lou Harrison got from it in the more globalized and culturaly pluralist post-war period.

    That being said, I think there are some basic common denominators in music that all people react two. The harmonic series is an obvious one – while the smaller intervals may not have the emotional meanings Western music has traditionally placed on them (6/5=sad, 5/4=happy), it is hard to argue the harmonic gravity posed by octaves and fifths.

    Similarly, there is the matter of energy – I really think that slower music slows one’s energy. A trip a few years ago to LaMonte Young’s Dream house proved this to me – there were half a dozen people listening to the solid tone, and they seemed to be completely comotose. The effect was hard to resist.

    Another example of this is traditional shakuhachi music. In a Shakuhachi performance at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden’s wonderful annual Cherry Blossom festival, one of the musicians explained that the purpose of the shakuhachi was not to create a “music”, but a series of tones conducive to meditation.

    My question is: Are there any other forms of meaning that may or may not be conveyed with music? I’d like to hear some more examples from your heated debates!


  3. philbga

    connote vs. denote
    It seems this comes down to a question of if the meaning of music is inherent and objective (a priori if you will) or if musical meaning only exists in perception and is subjective.

    One must consider connotation vs. denotation. Music can easily connote, and certainly inculturation or an associative palette is necessary for one to perceive the meaning that is being connoted, but nonetheless, at this point (a posteriori) music does have meaning. Denotation is trickier-perhaps only a leitmotiv or military bugle call comes close to this type of meaning, the type of link between “tree” and the object we know that word represents.

  4. Every Color of Hate

    “‘Despite my wishes for the contrary most people listen to music to relax.’

    “I do not believe that this is a correct statement.”

    Actually, he’s pretty much on the right track, but a better way of saying it is that most people see music as a disposable commodity/pleasure that they use/view as background noise as they go about their daily lives.

  5. kekuja

    >To temper this debate, I’d like to suggest that music can have profound

    >meaning, but it requires a contextual framework in which to understand

    >it which is usually the result of a
    process of acculturation, much like

    >learning a verbal language.

    to continue this thought what do y’all
    consider the deep structure (using
    naom chomsky’s analysis of language)
    of music? in another forum i argued
    that tonal, consonant rhythmic music
    (consider most folk musics) as embodying the deep structure of music

    here are the links:

    ptrad msg 27

    ptrad msg 29

    ptrad msg 35

    n.b. they stopped talking to me after these posts…

  6. Christoferus

    Mr. Oteri’s question: “whether or not music has any meaning and whether or not that meaning can be conveyed to a listener exclusively through music.”

    Yes, music has meaning; however, on a multidimensional plane that is inhabited by paradigms that are networked. In simple terms: there is a storyline, the storyline has form, and the each listener appends their life experiences to these sonic simuli, shaping these sonic experiences into unified whole “story” that is as personal as a fingerprint.

    The great masters create the most fluid paradigms that are in flux–always adapting to the environment–in this case the listner brings the environment to the music and the music is given an identity. The result is the same as what happens when we read–we bring our schemata to the text to derive our meanings. This process occurs when we hear sounds.

    Remember, “no man is an island.” And neither is music created in a vacuum.

    Hope this helps!


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