Saturday, January 12, 2013

"Radical New Musical Languages"

Reading Alex Ross' blog this morning I notice that he is giving several talks inspired by his book The Rest is Noise.
On January 19th, The Rest Is Noise, a year-long festival inspired by the book of the same title, opens at Southbank Centre in London. I'll give four allied lectures over the course of the year; the first of these, "The Big Bang," is at noon on the 19th, in Queen Elizabeth Hall. It will survey the emergence of radical new musical languages in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Expect audio snippets of Debussy, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Bartók, and many others, though Salome, featured that night at the London Philharmonic, will be the center of attention.
I think it may be time to have a closer look at the book, which seems to be having quite an influence on the way people look at music. But can you pick out the words in the above quote that caused my hackles to rise? Sure you can; I picked them for my title: "radical new musical languages." What's wrong with that?

Underneath the cool exterior and mellifluous writing style, Alex Ross is, I suspect, deeply conventional. He is not really a musicologist, but rather a journalist. But since musicologists these days are chasing one another down various rabbit holes, Alex Ross tends to fulfill the function of a public intellectual in music. Richard Taruskin is another, but as he sometimes expresses unusual, contrary opinions, he is less popular with the mass media. Alex Ross, however, seems more and more popular, so I think I will take a run through The Rest is Noise to see what assumptions he is operating under. In the meantime, though, let's just deconstruct that phrase "radical new musical languages."

That was most certainly not what was happening in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. You may recall that on several occasions I have made the seemingly trivial point that music is NOT a language? Have a look here and here and here for some examples. Most of the time when people refer to music as a language they are simply making a metaphor and there is no real problem with it. But if someone is not aware that it is nothing but a metaphor, then some strange conclusions appear. You might start thinking that a composer can simply invent a new musical language. If music were a language, then that would simply not be possible for the very same reason that I cannot invent a new language. (Let me qualify that: of course, I can invent a new language. People have done so and Esperanto is an example. But these invented 'languages' are not languages in the sense that they are used by any community of humans. The most you could say is that someone invented the framework for a language--which was then ignored. Languages evolve naturally, they are not 'invented'.)

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein came up with a very famous argument about why you can't invent your own private language, known as the private language argument. The concept of a language understood by only one person is incoherent: it violates the very notion of a language, a central concept of which is shared meaning. A language is a language if it has words and a dictionary you can look them up in. Now of course there are languages that are not even written, but they have the equivalent of dictionaries in tribal elders: "Grandma, what does "spadoinkle" mean?" If the idea of a private language is incoherent, then it would follow that all language is essentially public: that language is at its core a social phenomenon.

Music is also, at its core, a social phenomenon. Think about what that means for a moment. One consequence is that you cannot simply invent a new musical 'language'. While music is not a 'language', it has some language-like qualities. One of these is that it is a social phenomenon, perhaps a bit more so than the other arts. Take for example two fundamental kinds of music-making: singing and dancing. I talked about this here. Both song and dance are social. We sing words to other people to communicate with them. We prefer to dance with other people rather than alone for the same reason. Just what you communicate when you sing or dance with another might be hard to put into words, but the communication itself is undeniable.

So I think the consequence of all this is that a composer cannot simply invent a radical new musical language, though he can do something perhaps a bit less radical in re-shaping the way music is structured in some fundamental way. This is what those composers Alex Ross mentioned were doing. If you take a close look at Debussy you will see the music absolutely permeated on every level with the fundamental elements of tonal music. But you will also see how he has re-thought and re-shaped these elements.

Well, enough for today on this. Let's end with some Debussy so you can see what I mean.


Anonymous said...

Interesting. Perhaps Ross should have replaced the word language by syntax. A language requires both syntax and semantics. While music has no semantics to speak of, it has some sort of syntax: think of the rules of counterpoint and all that. Then one can talk about new syntactical rules for music in a semi-meaningful way.

As for music being a social phenomenon, that is clearly the case. But I wonder if it's necessary. To go back to Wittgenstein, suppose you were the only person who ever lived on earth (so you have no language). Could you make and enjoy music? I think you could. The "pleasure" of C-E-G is rooted in physics, and it wouldn't stop with no one else to share it. That said, I don't deny the fact that music -- as we practice it -- is a social phenomenon that can only be understood as such.

Bryan Townsend said...

What a brilliant comment! This syntax/semantic distinction is one I have used. After a composer explained the details of how he derived all the rhythms in a piece for percussion from an algorithm of the overtones of each instrument I said, "that's the syntax, what's the semantic?" But I'm not sure he got my point...

Thanks so much!

Yes, if you were the Omega Man, you could certainly enjoy music, but if you were the only person who ever lived it is likely to be pretty primitive. You won't be listening to recordings, or playing Bach or even playing the piano (no Steinway corporation).

Nathan Shirley said...

Even though it has become a cliché, I've always liked the saying, "music is the universal language". A metaphor sure, although it could be argued music is a language which communicates emotion (the semantic).

And so I've always hated this idea of "musical languages", which is often used by academic composers to suggest most people don't understand their music because they don't understand their personal "musical language".

Musical dialects- now that's a different story.

Anonymous said...

I would hope the music of the only person who ever lived would be mediocre. Isn't it one of the biggest urges of humans that, when you hear music that blows you away, you feel this primal need to share it with someone. Perhaps the ultimate form of loneliness is that: the inability to share great music.

Bryan Townsend said...

I never can guess what post will spark the most comments. Some very interesting ones here!

Nathan, I have trouble with the saying "music is the universal language". Now sure, everyone who is part of the Western European tradition can enjoy the music of that tradition unhampered by language. French, Hungarian, English speakers can all enjoy Mozart or Beethoven with no barrier. That is because they share the musical traditions. But a European can't listen to Balinese gamelan music with the same understanding because it is a different musical tradition.

Anonymous, what an interesting observation. I share your feeling entirely. That's why I do this blog! Contemplating the music of a single, lonely human makes us realize how music is the creation of multitudinous generations of humans. The very idea of C-E-G took much time and thought by many, many people to create.

Nathan Shirley said...

But I love Balinese gamelan music, and I didn't hear any of that until I was an adult. Not only did I not have to know anything about the culture, but I also liked it after only having heard a little.

I can understand why many westerners can't appreciate it, it is certainly a very different musical dialect, but it's still the same "language". Music from every culture is based on the overtone series which all humans and animals hear constantly in the natural world. If you are an experienced active listener, you can come to understand any music of any culture without too much effort... but most people are not trained to listen this way. You as an experienced active listener may not like gamelan music that much, but it's likely more about taste than understanding the musical tradition. For example, between Javanese and Balinese gamelan music, I tend to greatly prefer Balinese, just a matter of taste.

In fact I tend to really dislike the music of my own culture- I heard quite a bit of american folk music throughout my life, and I never did really like it. But that's a matter of taste, too much bouncy major for me.

I might have a lot of trouble understanding someone from east London, but given enough exposure I'll get it much sooner than I would another language.

Bryan Townsend said...

I so enjoy it when someone has an interesting counterpoint. I hear what you are saying, Nathan. As a matter of fact, I Ioved Balinese and Javanese gamelan the first time I heard it as well. And so did Claude Debussy way back in 1889 at the Exposition Universelle in Paris where this kind of music was heard in Europe for possibly the first time. But let me just point out that you and I and Debussy are not typical listeners as we are all composers!

How do you feel about Japanese music? When I am listening to the soundtrack to a film by Takemitsu I often think to myself that I haven't got a clue about what this music is about. None of it makes any sense to me.

Or what about mbira music from Zimbabwe? Does that make any sense to you?

You see where I am going with this? There are a lot of musical traditions that we might not 'get' at first because we don't have any of the musical context.

Talking about music of our culture, the sad truth is that young people growing up today in an environment consisting solely of pop music are unlikely to have the ability to appreciate classical music of their own culture.

Nathan Shirley said...

I love Japanese music! Although a large part of the focus in Japanese music is on timbre, so you get a lot of very meditative/timeless/formless music, but the scales, rhythms, and expression can be fantastic. I'd start with shakuhachi flute music as a great introduction to the Japanese musical dialect.

And in fact I'm a huge fan of mbira music, some of the most beautiful non-western melodies I've heard were played on mbira. That music can change radically from country to country, or even instrument to instrument of course.

But I do see what you are getting at, and sure, you and I are likely not typical listeners! But here is one more way I look at it-

Many English speakers today would have never appreciated Shakespeare (and most never do) if it weren't for the fact that their English teachers explained every single sentence of half a dozen different plays to them. Shakespeare was writing for a completely different culture, but all in English (just a different dialect).

I think music teachers introducing kids to gamelan music would find students getting it a lot quicker than they would get Shakespeare.

I'm sure part of my interest in world music is a result of the age we live, where art from any corner of the world can be explored by anyone... but most of us don't necessarily need to understand much, if anything about the cultural traditions that helped shape that art in order to appreciate it. It doesn't hurt of course!

And yes, I love a good thought provoking discussion... that's the reason this Blog is so great!

Bryan Townsend said...

I think you are saying that appreciation of non-Western musical traditions is not so hard and may just need a bit of an introduction. You know, you could be absolutely right about that. Perhaps there is sufficient overlap guaranteed by the fundamentals of pitch to allow us access to the music of many cultures. I still have a nagging doubt that we can appreciate much Chinese opera without more exposure, but I'll take your point!