Friday, March 19, 2010

A different imagination

One of the reasons I was attracted to Cage's music at an early age is that he famously declared to have no feeling for harmony, a sentiment I recognize clearly in myself. A few years ago, I had a piano teacher who claimed that he could hear the tonal structures in big romantic symphonic works, a feat I find staggering. Despite many years of enthusiastic and studied involvement, I can't hear key changes or any of the other great harmonic movements that constitute nineteenth-century tonality as demonstrated by Schenker, Rosen, and numerous other well-respected musicologists. While this hasn't impaired my enjoyment of listening to music generally, I believe that my inability to hear the elements widely proclaimed to be the very essence of the music steered me to a music that didn't hold these values with as much importance.

Nicholas Cook starts his book Music, Imagination and Culture from the observation that the majority of listeners don't hear the formal structures of classical pieces, despite the near ubiquity of program notes and education that leads us in this direction. He spends considerable time providing evidence from ad hoc and formal academic psychological studies as well as his own experiences, many of which I lived as well. But rather than approach this discrepancy as a problem that needs to be solved, Cook finds that it is one of the defining attributes of musical culture.

Deep structure commentators often draw on language metaphors for music, divided into phrases and sentences, but the language comparison is rooted in production. Looking at reception, the comparison falls apart. The knowledge required to produce music is extremely complex, but generally irrelevant to the listening experience. Piano fingering is a superb examples of a detailed and deep musical competence that is completely unnecessary for a listener, completely essential for a pianist. More generally, the asymmetry between production and reception for music is "embodied in the very means by which musicians imagine sound as music" (85). An examples of non-musical imagination is the dreaded earworm, a piece of music that gets stuck in our head in an endless cycle of half-choruses and melodic fragments. Cook dissects these fairly well, showing that they aren't really complete pieces of music, just isolated fragments in a dream-like state. A musician has a whole other imagination portfolio, a multiplicity extending beyond simple technical matters and extending all the way to the deep structure so highly touted in theory and musical criticism.

At least within the context of western art music , the great stimulus for the musical imagination and the depositor of the deep structure is the score. But the surface details vary from one performer, or even from one performance, to the next. Every performance becomes an improvisation, a marked contrast from an electronic realization or a recording, which is the same every time. "A fluent performance means that the notational symbols are stripped off their burden of signification and then jettisoned" (129). This is especially true for chamber music, where the performers achieve a level of synchronicity that is absent from a complex orchestral composition, such as Stockhausen's Gruppen, where the individual performers have no innate sense of what role they play in the overall musical fabric.

The western art music culture tells us what's important, what to listen for, based from the musician's perspective, but doesn't account for the way people really listen to music. Cook calls the former 'musicological' listening ("whose purpose is the establishment of facts or the formulation of theories") to distinguish the 'musical' way, "listening to music for purposes of direct aesthetic gratification". Virtually all academic music psychology and perception research speaks to musicological listening, which we all do when we read a score along with a performance, or even listen to music in preparation for a review. Of a completely different order is the deep, immersive trance we get alone in our headphones. Although we engage in many types of listening, at best the musicological listening should enhance our musical listening, not substitute for it. This is why music appreciation classes don't have much success in teaching people to enjoy music. "To think that one can understand music in some abstract, symbolical sense that can be separated from such aesthetic participation is simply to misunderstand the whole nature of the enterprise" (186).

Placing the value of music on its abstract relationships as specified in the score does more than evade how people actually listen to music, it emphasizes notes, intervals and fancy chords as if they are more than notational conventions with no objective foundation in reality. Violinists and singers, unconstrained by the equal-tempered system, demonstrably diverge from the rigid tuning systems, simply based on what sounds right at the time. These unspecified intonational variations are what separate the good from the great, the mechanical from the human. The score is discarded, left behind as the music is created. The confusion arises between the rationalizations and the tools used for creation, and their inchoate effects, where the musical significance is found.

Music, Imagination and Culture is available from Amazon, as a paperback, for $74! Check your local university library instead. Thanks to the anonymous commenter way back when who recommended it.


Dan said...

Honestly, I'm getting weary of this attitude (which I've seen regularly on American composer blogs), that generally goes "I can't hear harmony, but Cage couldn't either, so therefore harmony is irrelevant."

You can. Unless you're tone-deaf, you are hearing harmony. Perhaps you can't identify it precisely because you haven't been trained to do so. But as sure as a person notices dark from light, they notice harmony. It's intuitive.

Dumbing down American music isn't going to help it's cause. Especially when some of the most adventurous music from America goes out on a limb to advance the potential of harmony (ie. Ben Johnston.)

The score might be abstract, but it's influence is heard. If it's not heard the music fails.

Caleb Deupree said...

Hi Dan, thanks for the comment. I apologize if the wearying Cage quote sent you in the wrong direction, as Cage and Schoenberg may have been discussing harmony in the small scale. Cook was specifically discussing large-scale harmonic movements such as one might find in a Beethoven symphony. For example, he reports findings that tonal closure as practiced by Beethoven, Brahms, and Haydn is only perceptible on very small scales, and certainly not in movements that last several minutes. I'm happy that this scale of harmony is intuitive for you, but it isn't for me or for the listeners in psychological tests.

maready said...

I've been thinking about this post and Dan's response almost non-stop since it was posted. First off I was very impressed by Caleb's honest statement. I guess I'm not looking at the same blogs as Dan, because I haven't run across all that many non-rock musicians willing to make an admission of this sort in a public forum, straightforwardly and without qualification. Despite my initial exhilaration at Caleb's statement, I immediately found myself swayed by Dan's objection --- I spend an awful amount of time having dead-end arguments about notated music with people who can't read the scores, and it's tiresome and pointless.

HOWEVER, the question, as stated by Caleb and challenged by Dan, has been at the center of my entire adult musical life. As a 'trained' composer who then spent the 15 years after school playing in rock groups of an experimental bent, I became acutely aware of the different sonic worlds that people live in. A band I played in consisted of two trained musicians (myself and a guitarist), one untrained musician with an exceptional ear (another guitarist) and two untrained members who had no need or interest in developing their ear in order to make valid and appropriate musical contributions. The mysterious process of communicating between the three 'blocs' in that group left its mark on me for life, and taught me to remain aware that what I hear in music is highly subjective and may have little in common with another person's perception.

As for the specific question of harmony, I have no doubt that, within common practice tonality, most people hear the familiar cadential formulas of western music whether they know the correct names for them or not. I suspect that Caleb (and Cage) object to the idea that a harmonic analysis of the Schenkerian variety can actually be heard over a large time span (a symphony, for example.) That, I think, is true for many people, even trained musicians: at that length, memory becomes involved in a different way than it does on a local level --- some people make those long-distance connections and some don't.

In the band I mentioned above, my sister was the singer. She was completely untrained in music and I often tried to get her to describe to me what she heard when she listened to music. She was most aware of rhythm and the melody, but claimed that, above all, the bass line was what she heard, whether on the radio or in rehearsal. She was completely unaware that anything was "going on" between the 'top' and 'bottom' of the music. To her, the interlocking and rather complex guitar parts, which I held to be the most important part of the band's 'sound' because of the harmonic information they conveyed, was a mystery --- she apparently heard them only as a kind of banged and strummed reinforcement of the beat of the drums.

The untrained but musical guitarist in the band was a straight arrow, but very into psychedelia. More than once, he took advantage of my own prodigious experimentation with acid to position me between the speakers and put on a psychedelic classic like 'Sgt Pepper' to ask me, as I'd asked my sister, to describe in detail what I was hearing while listening to music made by people who'd taken drugs to make music for people to take drugs to (while my friend took notes!)

Anyway, thanks Caleb for laying down the gauntlet and Dan for your rejoinder. I suspect that memory and synanthaesia, along with constant exposure to the formulas of western harmony, play varying roles in people's individual responses to music. And of course, after the breakdown of tonality in classical music (and after the abandonment of jazz forms and tropes in improvisation), each musical experience that we undergo requires all of us, whatever our degree of training, to re-invent our method of hearing again and again.