Sunday, November 26, 2017

Timey Wimey Stuff

My title comes from an episode of Doctor Who, who says:
People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to affect, but actually, from a non-linear, non-subjective point of view it is more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly timey wimey...stuff
I was recently reminded by a commentator of the dispute between Peter Kivy and Jerrold Levinson as to the architectonic versus the concatenationist nature of music and our appreciation of it. I've been reading a collection of essays by Levinson titled Musical Concerns: Essays in the Philosophy of Music which contains his reply to Kivy's critique. I find that the extremely abstract nature of the arguments leaves me rather puzzled. This quote makes things a bit clearer:
A few square inches of the sleeve of a duke in a portrait by Titian, for instance, may attract our gaze and cause us to marvel at the painter’s skill, but it is the way the achievement of those few square inches fits with the rest of the canvas that is the primary focus of appreciation. The main theme of the opening movement of Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony, however, is no mere detail, and retains an extraordinary value even when the rest of the movement is put to the side, because its value is not, in anywhere the same degree as with static works of visual art, tied to its architectonic relationship to the rest of the composition.
Levinson, Jerrold. Musical Concerns: Essays in Philosophy of Music (Kindle Locations 954-959). OUP Oxford. Kindle Edition.
Ok, yes, a painting is in one way a kind of map of reality that we look at in a synoptic way. But a piece of music is like a journey through the landscape itself--a journey that takes place in time. You might want to claim that the musical score is the "map" of the composition, but musical scores themselves cannot be viewed synoptically, but only in bits:

Beginning of Symphony in B minor "Unfinished" by Franz Schubert
You can recall earlier parts of the journey and anticipate later stages, but your experience is overwhelmingly of that part of the trek that you are in at the moment. In this sense, I quite agree with Levinson's claim:
Why do we listen to music, how do we listen to music, and what is the main source of our satisfaction in listening to music? The answer to these three closely related questions, I believe, is to be found in the phenomenon of following music, that is to say, of attending closely to, and getting involved in, its specific movement, flow, or progression, moment by moment. That is to say, it is not so much a matter of thinking articulately about the music as it passes, or contemplating it in its architectural aspect, as it is a matter of reacting to and interacting with the musical stream, perceptually and somatically, on a non-analytical, pre-reflective level.
Levinson, Jerrold. Musical Concerns: Essays in Philosophy of Music (Kindle Locations 736-741). OUP Oxford. Kindle Edition.
Music is a bit like Heraclitus' stream that we can never step into twice. But at the same time it is not like a stream, but is instead the creation, according to a plan, by a human composer. Music is not simply running downhill; it is moving and gesturing expressively toward a goal.

My problem with so much writing about the philosophy of music is that it moves the discussion up to an abstract level where the individuality of compositions and composers tends to vanish into a grey goo of homogeneity.

Bach's music is extremely architectonic while Debussy's is extremely moment-to-moment. Bach is Kivian while Debussy is Levinsonian! Music can be intensely unified, as in some compositions by Beethoven, or very episodic, as in other compositions by Beethoven. There is an odd sense in which every single philosophic assertion about the nature of music is true: for some particular pieces! And false for a whole lot of other pieces.

You know, I think this is why I did not transfer from the music department to the philosophy department back when I was contemplating that change in major as an undergraduate. In some unconscious way I sensed the concrete variety and complexity of music and that was what attracted me.

Our envoi is the Symphony in B minor, "Unfinished" by Schubert in a performance by the Staatskapelle Dresden conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch:


Patrick said...

Great post, Bryan, thanks. I once read a description of the music of Messiaen as a reaching for stasis. I see music sometimes as perhaps narrow views, glimpses, intimations into the nature of reality, most of which remains outside our realm of understanding. Can music such as Messiaen (and perhaps Morton Feldman) be said to be goal oriented with a sense of timelessness that goal? Or just the creation of and maintenance of a sense of stasis? Whatever, I find it compelling.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Patrick! Great point about Messiaen and Feldman. You can write music that is about the creation of stasis, or you can write music that frenetically impels you forward. Or does something completely different. But yes, glimpses of reality.