Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Absolute music? Absolutely!

ACD has written a response to my post below. I want to offer a correction and a few comments in response to his response of my response to his (and Kyle's) posts. Got it?

First, the correction: ACD refers to me as a musicologist, which would be correct if I lived in Europe. However, in the United States there has been a distinction made between musicologists and music theorists for at least 25 years (over fifty years if you consider the first Ph.D.'s in music theory at Yale U.) In the US, musicologists study the cultural contexts in which music is created and received. They teach music history, are members of the American Musicological Society, and usually get chills when ear training is mentioned. Music theorists study aspects of music itself, from compositional theory to analysis to perception and cognition. They teach music theory and aural skills, are members of the Society for Music Theory, and usually get chills when historiography is mentioned. There certainly is some overlap in research pursuits, but graduate programs and professional outlooks are decidedly different. So, my correct job description is "Music theorist" with a research emphasis in music perception and cognition.

Now some comments. ACD says that it is okay to talk about the nuts and bolts of music-drama, as it has a drama to affect audiences that absolute music does not.
I wouldn't for an instant have even thought of discussing, say, a symphony of Mozart's or Beethoven's in such technical terms as, outside a specialist's interest, that sort of technical detail means diddly in terms of explaining how such so-called "absolute" music works to affect a receiver. One can, however, profitably use words to explain how a drama works to affect a receiver. Words are helpless to do the same for absolute music. In such a case, only the music itself will do, and it either works or it doesn't.

The problem with this claim is that there is no basis to it. ACD does not supply any reasons why technical aspects of music can affect its reception only when it is wedded to drama. The persistence of program notes and liner notes argues against this claim, as does the popularity of pre-concert lectures, such as Robert Kapilow's "What Makes It Great?" series. I would ask ACD (but can't, since he doesn't have comments enabled) what the cutoff is. Does the discussion of the programmatic elements in Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique affect aesthetic response? How about the programmatic elements in Beethoven's Sixth Symphony? Or his Seventh Symphony? (Many commentators from Beethoven's time attached the story of a rustic wedding to this work.) And what about Charles Ives' Concord Sonata? This is absolute music, in that there is not a specific story or any text attached to the work. But Ives did use extensive use of musical quotes, as he did in the majority of his works. These quotes were from Beethoven, Scottish folk music, and from other pieces by Ives. Ives provided a description of images for each movement, such as the family home of the Alcott's. A listener who does not know about any of these facts would have one type of response to the music. A listener who does know some of these facts would have a different response to the music.

One concrete example: two weeks ago I played a DVD of the second movement of Debussy's La Mer for some students and had them write down reactions to the performance and the piece. I told them what the title meant, but nothing beyond that. All of the students reacted to the movement as a play of water, or by commenting on how they did not associate the music with water. During discussion afterward, they all said that if I had not told them what "la mer" meant, they would have had completely different reactions to the piece. This is a simple example of how the knowledge about what inspired Debussy in this composition affected the aesthetic response. There are countless others.

As a second comment, ACD directly contradicts himself. In justifying why he talks about Wagner's biography and compositional process, ACD says that it was necessary to counter misinformation about those subjects.

... I did so principally because I'm not only discussing an immortal work written by a music immortal, but by a composer about whom so much malicious misinformation is the lingua franca of discussion ...

If ACD is concerned that misinformation about biography and compositional influences will affect the listener's response, then any information about composers' biographies or influences will have an affect, whether positive or negative. You can't have one without the other. If ACD feels that in makes no difference whether the composer took three hours or three decades to create a work, then why does it make a difference whether Wagner came up with the ideas for Das Rheingold in a half-dream state? If technical aspects of the composition mean diddly-squat, why talk about the fact that the opening E flat requires scordatura tuning in the double basses?

As a final thought, I challenge A.C. Douglas to define what he means by "aesthetic value" and to clarify what the boundaries are of "the artwork." Where does Mozart's 40th Symphony exist? How do you define it, what is its aesthetic value, and how is it separate from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart? Maybe I'll learn something.

Update: ACD has responded to this post. I do not see anything that effectively continued the discussion, other than a clarification that by "words" ACD means "technical language." But I have no idea what he means by "technical language" since he allows discussions of programmatic material, historical anecdote, metaphors, or the musical quotes by Ives. If he thinks these are not technical comments, he has not read Peter Burkholder's book on Ives, Robert Hatten's book on Beethoven, or countless other academic works on these very subjects. ACD's explanation about Wagner's biography provides no clarification whatsoever, and his definition of "aesthetic value" merely parroted what he said before, "everything the artwork has to say of itself..." What does Mozart's 40th Symphony say? It is not a live being, so how can it say something? A book does not say anything, it is a means for the author to say something. This blog is not speaking to you, I am speaking to you through this medium. So, how does an artwork speak for itself? What is it's aesthetic value, and how is it determined?

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