Thursday, January 15, 2009

Music Form & The Mind

Recently I was reading a book by James Tenney all about "Clangs" and "sequences" in music. Clangs being just groups of sounds, either horizontal or vertical, and sequences where collections of these sounds. There were all kinds of tidbits of a lot of technical jargon about how these groups of sounds effect form and create form etc... 

and then I was reading a book entitled "The Psychology of Music" by Seashore. Where, for an example of the content, there was a lengthy look at vibrato, what makes it pretty, why we like it and how much the average vibrato deviates from the pure tone (using some very complicated graphs). 

This is all well and good, and, for the most part, was actually very cognitively interesting. But it got me thinking. Even though it is all interesting and these two people obviously went to great lengths to break apart music and analyze it on these minute, almost atomic levels and I appreciate their academic research and endeavors, but when it all comes down to it, who cares. In the Seashore he went on about how we can scientifically analyze music on an emotional level. It was really bizarre. I still can't quite understand how he worked that but I have come to grips with my failure. 

I have always had some issues with this kind of analyzation and breakdown of music. I know it is there, it exists, I have had to do quite a bit of it and all that, but when it comes to actually creating something musical, I actually go to some length to disassociate my mind from these aspects and allow things to organically unfold as they see fit. So, outside of the academic world, and geeks like me, what does this atomic level of analyzing really mean, and what are we suppose to do with it. People don't actually compose grouping things into "Clangs" consciously and so forth. 

One thing Tenney did talk about, which I liked, was when he was talking about music forms, traditional forms in particular (i.e. Sonata, Rondo, Fugue etc...) he made the distinction that these are not forms, but formulas

I am not really sure what my point is in writing, but it got me thinking about the purpose of analyzing music in this way, and does it really serve a functional purpose. 

Another fine example is Forte's "Structure of Atonal Music". This book goes beyond the horizon of Set Theory and takes it to levels that I can't even imagine. And in the end, who cares how many times set 3-12 is transposed and smattered throughout "The Rite of Spring". In the end it still caused riots and still is one of the great 20th century pieces and no one is the wiser... especially given the fact that Stravinsky did not do it purposefully. Which further begs the question, why impose analytical and formal functions on music that was written without those tools. Take that Schenker!!!

It really chaps my hide.


Stefan Kac said...

Something we hear all the time these days is that it's not okay to like or dislike a piece without being able to say why. What we never get conclusively from those asking the question, however, is exactly how deep they expect us to dig, or put another way, whether they're looking for an answer in musico-analytic terms or neurological/biochemical ones.

Overall, I consider myself very much to the "rational", scientifically inclined side of the spectrum, yet I don't believe for a second that it is either possible or desirable to merely reason one's way into an aesthetic judgment. That, however, seems to be exactly the implication here, that attraction or aversion without a "good" reason is somehow invalid. To the contrary, I don't think it's a stretch to say that all of us are mystified to some extent or another by the music that we surround ourselves with, and that this is not only acceptable but part and parcel of the experience.

I'm fascinated by biochemistry and hope, someday, to get around to reading more of what is now available pertaining specifically to music and art. However, I don't expect that this will change my aesthetic predilections in the least, and suspect that those who seek such a thing in this realm will end up very disappointed.

James Sproul said...

I agree on the questions that people ask as to how or why you like something. I tend to not dig all that deep as far as making my aesthetic decisions. I like to go with my instincts a lot. But I am not opposed to the idea that, yes, sometimes it takes a good amount of listening to appreciate certain musical moments. So I try and give anything a fair enough amount of time and exposure to say, yes I like that, or no, I don't. I may not really know why I like it, or don't like it, but I hope I give it a chance.

also, I have found, that revisiting certain things later in life may have a profound effect on you. Something you didn't like 10 years ago, you may now be able to appreciate for whatever reason. It is important, to me anyway, to allow myself the chance to like something.

and to be honest, there are times when I really like something, that really doesn't have much going for it other than, "hey, for some reason, that really resonates with me at this moment" sometimes it is just that simple. Tomorrow I may hate it, but right now, it is doing something for me. I think Aesthetic decision making should be flexible from moment to moment. Sometimes I even think about other people "hey, how can you like that crap" or "how can you NOT like this". but in the end, if it doesn't work for them, it doesn't work for them, and I have to respect that, as long as people respect my right to have those decisions.

What bugs me the most about the academic side of it, is that justification you wrote of. I like the Rite of Spring because it is raucous, and exciting and loud, not because Alan Forte says that Stravinsky permeated the piece with such complicated set theory that we should all bow down and marvel at the genius. the Rite is genius because it started a riot, (and does so in my mind each time I listen to it) not because of the imposed theory behind it.