My preceding post has (so far) received comments from two readers who were kind to share their thoughts on the subject matter discussed there. Both comments raise interesting, even fascinating music-related issues, which is why I thought it might be well to give these comments - along with my replies to them - a post of their own, rather than keeping them hidden in the comments section. (After all, the subtitle of this blog promises "Music and Other Food for Thought"...)
If there will be more comments, I will transfer them to this post as well, adding my replies if I can.
From Caleb Deupree (December 10, 2009):
Studying a score is only relevant for music from a certain period anyway, considerably less so for those pieces labeled aleatoric, as well as for jazz or other works that involve improvisation or substantial real-time performer modification. A musical work means something completely different for Bach (who often wrote functional music to fulfill a contract using musical materials that he had lying around), Beethoven (who needed to assert his financial and artistic independence) and Cage (who never wanted to hear the same music twice, and therefore built decision trees into his works).
I think Caleb is absolutely right to point out that the score/work dichotomy is peculiar to discussions of classical music (which usually, and conveniently, exclude such 'problem' cases as Cage's 4'33"). Our good friend Maready has pointed this out to me as well (in private communication), and I am certainly aware of how less-than-universal the score/work related issues really are.
I think that philosophers who get into this issue tacitly assume that jazz, rock, folk or non-Western music (where there may be no score involved at all) are genres which do not qualify as real music in some relevant (but never explained) sense. If so, I think it is silly (or stupid, or arrogant), even if I myself do not listen much to music outside the so-called serious/academic/classical music. In any case, I think Caleb's (and Maready's) remark is of great interest because if such genres are accepted as genuine music (as I think they should be, even if such music is not 'sophisticated enough'), then neither the Platonist's nor the nominalist's views would make any sense at all if applied to this kind of music. With a significant improvisatory (or aleatoric) content in such music, it makes no sense to speak of the abstract structure physically realized by performances - not because of some difficulties of epistemic access to Plato's Heaven, but because there is no uniquely determined structure corresponding to all possible performances of such pieces. And since there is no score, the score=work thesis of the nominalist would be as nonsensical when applied to such cases as the claim that the square root of 2 is hungry on Thursdays.
From Tassilo (December 11, 2009):
Boom rightly claims that the production of sounds characteristic of a musical performance results in a “sequence of physical events.” Unfortunately, he goes much further and claims that, while the “sequence of physical events may have an abstract formal structure […] this structure is entirely secondary to the physical events[.]” In fact, this structure is NOT entirely secondary: it is the whole point.
Music is not made up of sounds but of certain kinds of relationships among sounds, including above all syntactic relationships, although it is easier to illustrate my point with language than with music.
Like the performance of a piece of music, speaking a sentence results in a series of physical events, but, if you don’t grasp the grammatical relationships among the syntactic elements projected by means of these physical events, you haven’t grasped the sentence as such. Furthermore, there are other semantic and even rhetorical structures conveyed by the same series of physical events, and the result is not “language” unless all of these structures are grasped as such. Language is not a mere “sequence of physical events,” and neither is music.
Tassilo makes some fascinating claims, so I hope to be forgiven for a somewhat lengthy response.
When I said that abstract structure is entirely secondary to the sound events produced in the course of a performance, I meant this in an ontological sense: i.e., that neither the existence nor the particular physical properties of these sound events are determined by some abstract entity in Plato's Heaven. All that determines what sound events take place and in what order are the instructions given in the score.
This is not to deny that we may impose (project) a structure on these sound events through analysis. But structures which we impose on sound events are like colors which we attribute to physical objects: in both cases the 'external' physical world in itself does not have either - there are only frequencies of electromagnetic radiation (which we crudely differentiate and classify via our color sensations), and airwaves with certain frequencies, amplitudes, etc. (which we differentiate and classify via our hearing sensations).
Having clarified my earlier statement, I now want to explain why I think that Tassilo's claim - that structure is the whole point of music - is unconvincing (at least as stated).
1. Grasping the relevant structure in the series of sound events is not a necessary condition for experiencing these sound events as music.
Plenty of people enjoy Beethoven's Pathetique sonata without having the foggiest idea about any of the formal structural aspects of that piece (i.e., the sonata-form, tonality, counterpoint, modulation, etc). I claim that these people are having genuine musical experiences when listening to that sonata, precisely because producing certain phenomenologically meaningful emotional responses in the listener is the primary objective of just about every composer who cared to discuss 'the aims and goals' of his trade.
Moreover, all this applies not just to naive listeners, but to highly trained musicologists as well. After all, it took more than twenty years since the premiere of Le Marteau sans Maitre before some Russian musicologist identified the tone row of that composition. And because on Tassilo's above quoted view (with 'music' substituted for 'language' according to his analogy) the result is not “music” unless [the relevant] structures are grasped as such, we would have to conclude that none of the performances of Le Marteau in the years prior to the identification of its tone row were "music". Such a conclusion, I am afraid, amounts to a reductio ad absurdum of Tassilo's view.
It won't help, by the way, to say that folks who simply (non-analytically) enjoy Beethoven's Pathetique or Boulez's Le Marteau are still grasping the relevant structure of sound events, albeit unconsciously. Here is why:
The only empirically justifiable unconscious cognitive mechanisms involved in processing musical information are those responsible for very low level (rudimentary) structural features, such as pitch interval and direction, identification/recognition of rhythmic patterns and melodic segments, and key apprehension (ability to identify 'wrong' notes in a tonal melody). Such low-level unconscious structure-grasping is obviously insufficient to support non-trivial philosophical claims about music, e.g., those conferring the status of "music" on the serial Le Marteau, or explaining why Beethoven sonatas elicit vastly stronger responses than those of Ries, Moscheles or Hummel. On the other hand, grasping the higher-level structural features of music is clearly a matter of conscious learning and practice. To deny this is to turn every neurologically normal human into an unconscious expert musicologist by postulating unconscious cognitive mechanisms for grasping, say, the sonata form or retrograde inversions of the tone row. This would be as vacuous as imputing the unconscious mastery of quantum optics to every human capable of emotionally responding to colors in a Rothko paining.
The second reason why I find Tassilo's claim unconvincing is this:
2. A series of sound events may be (and be perceived as) music without having any formal structure whatsoever for the listener to grasp (or for the musicologist to identify).
No, I don't have Cage's 4'33" in mind here (and anyway, this piece can be conceivably argued to have "the null structure", just as the null set in mathematics is a perfectly good set despite having no elements).
What I do have in mind is something like Stockhausen's Kurzwellen. In that 'process composition', the actual series of sound events produced in performances consists of
(a) sounds randomly generated by the scanning of short-wave radios, and
(b) the instrumentalists' imitation, modulation, transposition and other modifications of such randomly generated initial sound events according to instructions given in the score.
The only meaningful similarity between the two recorded performances of Kurzwellen that I have (Bremen 1968, Cologne 1969) is in their sonic surface textures: radio static and transient blips produced by scanning between stations, plus the timbral characteristics of the specified instruments. Otherwise, these performances differ in just about everything else: duration, random snippets of scanned radio programs, the actual sounds produced by instrumentalists in response to radio outputs, and so on.
Which is as it should be, since there is no prescribed pitch set, no themes, no development procedures - in short there is absolutely nothing in Kurzwellen which could support attributions of higher-level structural properties. Yet both performances of that piece generated sound events which struck me as being undeniably music (and an amazingly imaginative music at that!): the unfolding of sound events was utterly absorbing over short time spans as well as over long ones, these sound events elicited from me strong emotional responses, and each performance left a generalized phenomenological imprint in my mind vivid and attractive enough to guarantee many repeated hearings.
All this convinces me that what makes Kurzwellen 'work' is what makes any great music 'work': namely, the way in which the sound events produced according to the composer's instructions manage to elicit significant emotional responses from the listener (and to leave a lasting phenomenological imprint in the listener's mind). And for the purpose of perceiving sounds as music, it does not matter in the least whether the listener can identify higher-level structural properties of the perceived sound events, or even if there is any higher-level structure to identify at all.
In the end, I think the root of my disagreement with Tassilo is what I see as the mistake of conflating two very distinct kinds of experiences associated with music: the analytic experiences (produced by contemplating the structural properties of a series of sound events) and the musical experiences (produced by emotional responses to a series of sound events). What makes these experiences strictly independent is not just the fact that many people have the latter without the former. There is also the fact that if we assume that the relevant physical properties of each sound event are specified by at most n parameters (pitch, amplitude, duration, etc.), then the entire series of sound events can be thought of as a dynamical process modeled by the motion of a point in n-dimensional phase-space. And it is entirely conceivable that the relevant formal/structural properties of that series can be represented by suitably chosen mathematical (geometric, topological, algebraic) properties of trajectories in the phase-space of the associated dynamical model.
A mathematically competent person may then be given the structural properties of a piece of music directly - i.e., in the form of a suitable dynamical model, and without any sound events whatsoever. For this mathematically competent person, contemplating thus given structural properties will amount to an analytic experience identical to that obtained by expert musicologists from contemplating the structure of the sound events which make up the corresponding piece of music. But obviously our mathematician will have no chance of deriving any musical experiences from this kind of analytic activity.
To end on a metaphorical note, I'm sure we all agree that whatever joys can be found in contemplating the anatomical (or genetic) structure of reproductive organs will never amount to the joys of having sex. Lets apply the same common sense to the 'joys of music'.
From Tassilo (December 20, 2009):
- You can arrange these seven elements so that an ascending series of perfect 5ths results: F – C – G – D – A – E – B.
- You can create exactly three major triads using this collection, F-A-C, C-E-G, & G-B-D.
- You can create exactly three minor triads using this collection, D-F-A, A-C-E, & E-G-B.
- You can create exactly one diminished fifth or augmented fourth using this collection, B-F or F-B.
First: notation began as a crude way of transmitting music by fixing oral practice in a kind of shorthand. As early as Perotin and Dufay, composers discovered that they could use musical notation for an entirely different purpose: to create music of a contrapuntal complexity that would not have been possible without pen and paper. I am not a trained philosopher, so I can only give you the perspective of a trained composer --- a composer, to some extent, hears music in his mind which, thanks to ear-training he is able to commit to paper, even in the absence of an instrument. But much of a composer's work takes place ON paper ... crude musical ideas take form in the hand of the composer, so to speak, and by the late 20th century, it is not unusual for some of the ramifications of a composer's written notation to reach a complexity that eludes even its creator's ears until he is able to hear it performed. Nevertheless, a composer regards his score AS the work. Once he has written the final note of the final bar, the hard part begins: getting a performance.
Secondly, and most importantly: much of the discussion thus far supposed that one's idea of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is formed by the numerous performances and recordings one has heard in one's lifetime. Before Edison's invention, classical music was only accessible to those who were fortunate enough to live in large musical capitols, with access to opera houses and concert halls. Most people's contact with the 'great works' came about through 'amateur' performances in churches, and, most importantly, in the growing upper middle classes, at the household piano. Before the invention of recording, to hear Beethoven's Fifth Symphony meant, for the great majority of music-lovers, playing a reduction on the household piano (or other keyboard instrument.) Unless one could read music, or had a family member or friend who could read music, and had reasonable facility at the keyboard, one simply did not have access to classical music. Even famous composers considered themselves lucky to hear a Beethoven symphony more than a handful of times in their life. Witness, for instance, the pilgrimages of numerous composers, musicians and music lovers to Bayreuth to hear Parsifal or the Ring ... an experience that, for most, only happened once, however often they were able to play through a piano/vocal reduction at home.
To sum up my "argument": much of what has been said by Boom and Tassilo is manifestly true, but ONLY in historical context. Yes, in the 20th century it became possible for a listener who doesn't read music to listen to a score as complex as a Mahler symphony or a Beethoven quartet repeatedly, as often as desired, and simply, by putting their memory and ears to work, come to know a piece of music at a profound and meaningful level, without reading a score. And, in the other point that keeps coming up, sound recording has enabled the listener to hear many different interpreters perform the same work; one forms a kind of composite idea of the 'work in itself' by comparison and by the superimposition of aural memory of the numerous performances heard in a lifetime. (Footnote: a warning which should not be forgotten, although it is easy to do so --- much recent music has only received one or two recordings. There is no guarantee that the single recording one has heard of a difficult and recent piece is an adequate one.)
To return to Caleb's original point: only in western classical music is their a score/performance problem, akin to the celebrated mind/body problem. In my opinion, the most important invention in 20th century musical history was not, to take the most commonly mentioned contender, Schoenberg's "12-note" method --- it was recording technology. To make it simple: you don't have to read music or have ear-training to know a piece of classical music anymore. And the greatest contribution that Edison's invention has made has been in non-notated music --- i.e. all the many musics OTHER than classical music. If recording technology vanished off the face of the earth tomorrow, classical music still has the written score, and as I have said, if one is a classical composer, it is with pen and paper that one does one's musical thinking. The past century, however, may not be remembered for its recordings of classical music as much as for the many kinds of scoreless music that was either:
1) documented by recording: jazz, folk, 'world' musics OR
2) created with the recording technology itself, i.e., electronic music, pop music post-Beatles, and --- since the creation of the kind of set-up Varese always dreamt of, with software packages created for the home computer --- "serious" music itself, which, for composers born in 1970 and after, is just as likely to be conceived and notated at a computer as by hand, the result being either a work generated by the digital manipulation of recorded and synthesized sound, OR as a traditional score, printed by notation software, which is, as it has for centuries, then given to performers to recreate (and record!)
One final thing that has come up that is of particular interest to me: a recording fixes a certain group of sounds forever. Using one's own listening skills and memories, ANYTHING --- from a recording of an indeterminate score by Stockhausen to a performance by an improvising laptop ensemble to a field recording of people walking and talking on an esplanade will, if listened to often enough, take on a gestalt that gives the recording, retrospectively, an inevitability. As with notes on paper, recorded sound takes on the status of a "work".
Those are my contributions, as a listener, and an erstwhile composer, to the debate at hand. Back to you folks ...