Saturday, February 11, 2017

Culture and Analysis

Every now and then I manage to tear myself away from the Internet long enough to actually read something. No, what we do on the Internet is not so much "reading" as ripping off bleeding chunks and gobbling them down in between skimming lightly over the surface. Actual reading is more contemplative and less hurried.

So right now I am reading a collection of essays by one of the most learnéd and wise writers of the 20th century, Jacques Barzun, titled "The Culture We Deserve". The very first essay, "Culture High and Dry" poses some challenges that are worth considering.

As a long-time professional musician there are certain things that I don't have a lot of patience with and these include things like sloppy amateurism and incompetence generally. Barzun points out that a lot of so-called "professionalism" is really specialization, the dividing up of knowledge into smaller and smaller packets. The accompanying methodology is that of analysis. Now I know the shortcomings of analysis, but still, my training tends to lead me to default to analysis whenever I want to understand something about music or another art form.

I have been long aware of the problems with analysis, and I have talked about them on this blog. I think that they were underlined for me decades ago when I quit a musicology list-serve in disgust because they got caught up in an utterly pointless, but mean and nasty, discussion of the proper pronunciation of vowels in the names of regional Czech composers! I kid you not. A lot of analysis is simply a waste of time. One of the very few who does it well is Charles Rosen (along with Richard Taruskin and Joseph Kerman).

Barzun offers an alternative to analysis that he calls, after Pascal, "intuitive understanding." I need to present an extended quote to convey the idea:
But the same human mind that has created science by the analytical method can work out an entirely different way. The mathematician-philosopher Pascal pointed this out 350 years ago. He called the way of analysis the "geometrical bent." It deals with simple things like angles or straight lines or atoms or molecular pressure ... being well defined, they do not change when they are talked about and can thus be represented by numbers. The principles of mathematics and a few others then supply the rules for dealing with the permutations of these clear and simple unchangeables.
The other use, direction, or bent, Pascal called the esprit de finesse--we might call it "intuitive understanding." It goes about its business just the other way. It does not analyze, does not break things down into parts, but seizes upon the character of the whole altogether, by inspection. Since in this kind of survey there are no definable parts, there is nothing to count and there are no fixed principles to apply. The understanding derived from the experience is direct, and because it lacks definitions, principles, and numbers, this understanding is not readily conveyed to somebody else; it can only be suggested in words that offer analogies--by imagery. Hence no universal agreement is possible on these objects and their significance ... the things that make up culture are understood and remembered and enjoyed by mental finesse; they are for inspection as wholes, not for analysis and measurement; they lack definable, unchangeable parts. [Barzun, op. cit., pp 11-12]
Now before you all jump in and say, but of course music has definable parts, etc., let me just say that Barzun immediately goes on to discuss this objection in the next section. Please go ahead and read further on your own as I have quoted enough for my immediate purpose.

My first reaction to this was to heave a sigh of satisfaction because my most salient method in teaching music over a few decades was to use metaphor to reveal the musical character of passages and to suggest solutions to problems of interpretation. One other teacher who excelled in this was Oscar Ghiglia.

But another part of me thinks that in order to really come to grips with a piece of music, as either a player or a listener, you do have to adopt some technical vocabulary, for precision if nothing else. You do have to say things like, "you see that tonic chord in measure 42--that is really a point of arrival, isn't it?" For how else are you to talk about music? I wrote a scathing review of a book on the orchestral music of Shostakovich because it carefully avoided not only any actual musical notation but any use of technical terms whatsoever. The author ended up talking about "the jumpy theme" and the "long-note theme." The problem with this is that it lacks specificity (Shostakovich wrote a lot of jumpy themes). If I talk about a particular piece and quote passages from it in notation, there can be no doubt about which piece I am considering. But if all you do is use vague metaphors, then the only way we can be sure what piece you are talking about is if you tell us the title.

On the other hand, mere analysis gives us little more than a bloodless facsimile of the original. As Barzun notes:
...the material of modern scholarship is by now not even the work itself, but a curious kind of facsimile, an offprint made up for methodic purposes. What students get is this abstract duplicate and little else ... Any mental finesse that the graduate or undergraduate student might bring to the work lies dormant or is diverted to the minutiae of analytic methodism. [op. cit. p 16]
I think I escaped this particular fate by being a performer: every time I sat down in the practice room I was confronted with the whole finesseable aesthetic work, not a methodological construct.

I want to go to a performance to illustrate this. I played this piece, "Les Tendres Plaintes" by Rameau, for a Spanish-speaking friend the other day and, despite the best efforts of Google translate, was not able to come up with a Spanish translation of the title that my friend could make sense of. So I said, well, never mind, the piece itself is an illustration of what is meant by "tendres plaintes." And so it is. Really, I could talk about the form (rondeau), the harmony (D minor with episodes in A minor and F major), the ornamentation and so on and you would still not have the aesthetic experience. But here it is:


Marc Puckett said...

I can reach back in memory to my long-past youth (a half century ago! and before I knew what theology and philosophy are) and identify with some precision when this philosophical insight hit me: in reading Tolkien's 'Fellowship of the Ring', when Gandalf explains his conversation with Saruman; Saruman, fallen from grace, as it were, has replaced his white robes with iridescent ones because 'white' (as the symbol of the Good) can be marred and over-drawn, can be 'surpassed', in other words, in some Nietzchean way... in which case, as Gandalf points out, it is no longer white. Analysis works when the analyst respects the truths involved and has enough humility to accept their limitations. But the philosophers these days tell us that there's nothing objectively true and that we all make it all up as we go along, generally speaking because we want to keep our hegemonic rights inviolable &c &c. Tsk.

Bryan Townsend said...

Yes, I recall that as well--but your comment provides me with a much fuller understanding of it.

Robert Sterling Gingher said...

Marc Puckett--spot on (not sure Nietzsche gets a fair hearing here but am not going to trouble myself to fish there just now.)

Will Wilkin said...

Please go easy on us "incompetent" and "sloppy amateurs." Having just picked up the violin less than 2 years ago and being a professional solar electrician by day, and being self-taught due to inability to afford a teacher, I already struggle with the fact that I'll "never be classical." But I still buy baroque sheet music and eek out pleasure hacking away at it.

Bryan Townsend said...

Will, thanks to you for reminding me that amateur musicians most certainly deserve our respect! And more power to you.