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.