Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The Meaning of the Text

This week's current events lead one to muse a bit on the question of text and meaning. In a reply to a comment on this post I wrote the following:
Beardsley is famous for being the co-author of the enormously influential paper, "The Intentional Fallacy". He points out that we must make a crucial distinction between the author's intent and the aesthetic object. When the author says he is going to write a poem about trees and we look at the poem and indeed, it is about trees, there is no real problem. But if the artist says he is making a sculpture that will symbolize inhumanity and oppression and we go and look and all we see is a granite sphere two feet in diameter, then we have a problem and the proper solution to the problem is to discount the artist's intention and whatever he or anyone else says about it. All we really have to work with is the aesthetic object itself.
However, the issue is not quite so easily resolved. Here is another take on intentionalism with regards to legal reasoning from this blog:
...the very notion that a text can speak apart from the signification of that text by some agency — some human with some intent that he attaches to a set of arbitrary marks or sounds — is an absurdity: A text is no more alive and capable of speech than a lump of coal, and documents are no more alive than the paper or pixels they’re written on.
Is the only difference here between the ontological status of something as an aesthetic object, hence something apart from and different than a "moral agent", and something else that is a record of a speech act of a moral agent?

What is the difference between a musical score and things a composer says or writes? That there is a real and considerable difference I think is clear. Mind you, a musical score may contain speech acts, but it is not itself a speech act, but rather an aesthetic object or the instructions for creating an aesthetic object. (The ontological status of a piece of music is always a bit ambiguous...) Also, the speech acts contained in a musical score have a special status themselves. A composer may write a melodic line and append the word "dolorously" to it, indicating to the performer the kind of expression that he desires. The notation is exact in terms of pitch and duration (quarter note B flat at tempo quarter note equal to 60 beats per minute), but just how do you play the melody "dolorously" as opposed to "cheerfully"? Well, that's what we pay performers the big bucks for! The answer is context-dependent. In other words, show me the melody and I can suggest a way of playing it that might be "dolorous". The composer might not have written that instruction, but just the melody itself and a performer might decide on his own to play it in a dolorous fashion. Here is the interesting bit: the composer might intend and the performer play in such a way as to express dolor with the melody without either of them actually thinking of the word "dolorous"! I say this because neither composers nor performers "translate" music into speech or text as a typical activity. We just do music.

Music is not, therefore a "speech act" though a musical score may contain items that look a lot like speech acts: the tempo word Allegro for example or the instruction pizzicato. But these are not garden-variety speech acts, rather they are more like the instructions that come with your Ikea furniture: connect panel A with panel B using connectors C and screws D.

When a composer talks about a piece he has composed, perhaps giving it a program as Berlioz did his Symphonie fantastique, what status should we assign to his remarks? Take these comments by Berlioz on the first movement of his symphony:
The author imagines that a young musician, afflicted by the sickness of spirit which a famous writer has called the vagueness of passions [le vague des passions], sees for the first time a woman who unites all the charms of the ideal person his imagination was dreaming of, and falls desperately in love with her. By a strange anomaly, the beloved image never presents itself to the artist’s mind without being associated with a musical idea, in which he recognises a certain quality of passion, but endowed with the nobility and shyness which he credits to the object of his love.
This melodic image and its model keep haunting him ceaselessly like a double idée fixe. This explains the constant recurrence in all the movements of the symphony of the melody which launches the first allegro. The transitions from this state of dreamy melancholy, interrupted by occasional upsurges of aimless joy, to delirious passion, with its outbursts of fury and jealousy, its returns of tenderness, its tears, its religious consolations – all this forms the subject of the first movement.
How should they be taken? Are they part of the aesthetic object? Separate from? A mere autobiographical revelation of how he thought he was inspired to write the music? Later composers like Mahler who had similar inspirations went to some lengths to bury them so that audiences could simply take the music as it was. Program note writers, of course, then proceed to dig out the supposed "programs" for the works.

For my money, I think that everything that Berlioz said about his symphony other than what is contained in the score is not part of the aesthetic object but instead relates events surrounding the creation of the aesthetic object, what the composer thinks about it, suggestions for interpretation of the aesthetic object and so on. In other words, externalities, not internalities.

I wanted to put a facsimile of the original edition of the symphony here, showing the page before page one of the score, where composers put the instrumentation and any special instructions, but that does not seem to be available on IMSLP so here is the first page of the score:

Notice there is nothing there about "sickness of spirit" or "passions" or "beloved image" or any of the other things mentioned in Berlioz' note. Nor do we hear any of those texts during the performance. So these are all externalities that are not part of the musical aesthetic object.

Let's have a listen. This is the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France together with the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra conducted by Gustavo Dudamel:

UPDATE: Ok, yes, the word "passions" appears as part of the title of the first movement: which raises the very interesting question of the ontological status vis-à-vis the aesthetic object itself of the title appended to the aesthetic object. Is it part or not? Is the designation "Symphonie fantastique" part of the Symphonie fantastique? Is "Symphony No. 98 in B flat major" part of the aesthetic object that we hear as the Symphony No. 98 in B flat major. I don't actually think so any more than the word "Cinnamon" on the spice jar is the spice itself.


Gabriel Amaral said...

Hi Bryan,

I was thinking about the exact same thing regarding titles and music! I once posted a comment here, saying I thought music was just the sound of it.

Quoting your reply: "(...) La Marseillaise is about a lot more than just the sound of it. But instrumental music can also suggest non-musical moods or images. Many pieces by Debussy, for example. Even so-called abstract instrumental music can act in this way such as the "Pathétique" sonata by Beethoven."

It is true that music can suggest the extra-musical. But is that ability part of music? Is what something can do part of it? I can think of no example in which this is true. Therefore I argue that music's ability to suggest is not part of music.

Another question: is the title part of a piece of music?

It is logical that something should be judged for what it is. Let titles be part of music. That means that a piece of music of certain aesthetic value could become better if you changed it's title! (Of course, I make the assumption that any changes to a piece of music necessarily alter it's aesthetic value). Changing the number of a Beethoven symphony doesn't alter it's quality. So one can conclude that, if my assumption is right, titles are not part of music.

I would love to hear your thoughts! Especially on my underlying assumption.

Bryan Townsend said...

Very thoughtful comment, thanks Gabriel!

When I said that La Marseillaise is about a lot more than just the sound of it, I was referring to the context of its creation and reception. Yes, it is certainly arguable that these things are not part of the aesthetic object strictly speaking. But La Marseillaise, the original title of which was "Chant de guerre pour l'Armée du Rhin" has and had an extramusical function. There are many pieces of what you might call absolute music, with no text or obvious extramusical function, that are best considered from a strictly aesthetic point of view. In some cases where these works have accreted nicknames like the "Moonlight" Sonata, it is likely best to ignore these accretions. But other pieces of music, especially ones with text like La Marseillaise or a mass or opera, have an extramusical reference or function that you could argue is inherent in the piece of music. La Marseillaise was a revolutionary marching song and is now the national anthem of France--these facts are inherent in its history, reception and fundamental characteristics.

Now let's take a less-obvious example: the Preludes for piano of Debussy. Each of these has an evocative title that Debussy intended to be read when the music was performed. Number 6 from Book 1 is "...des pas sur la neige" which evokes a particular kind of mood. Contained within the score are expressive markings that enhance this atmosphere such as the instruction: "Ce rhythme doit avoir la valeur sonore d'un fond de paysage triste et glacé" ("this rhythm needs to have the sonic value of the depths of a countryside sad and frozen").

Imagine that we have two aesthetic objects: one is called "Prelude No. 6, Bk 1" and the other is called "...des pas sur la neige". How different are they as aesthetic objects? Also, in order to completely purify the prelude of extramusical associations we would have to remove a number of expressive indications in the score, such as the one I quoted. Now, to my mind these two pieces are not quite the same: one has an evocative aura and mystery that the other does not. So, they are somewhat different aesthetic objects even though the notes and rhythms are the same.

Changing the number of a Beethoven symphony does not alter its quality, true, but removing the dynamics and tempo words would. For Beethoven, these things are part of the score and therefore of the aesthetic object. For Debussy his very evocative titles and expressive indications are also part of the score.

So, I guess I am slightly in disagreement with myself on this! Music is so darned complex...