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Mantra Canon score pages Dennis

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A discussion has been gnawing at the philosophical bones of Theodor Adorno on the Orchestra List, and it's got me riled about one of my favorite topics -- how writing about an artform (as I do here every day) is a nasty business.

The conversation was begun with a simple set of questions -- what did we know of Adorno, where did we learn it, and how does Adorno's thinking about music affect our thinking, listening and playing of music?

Fair questions all, and some of my thoughts appeared just before the "Time Out" in yesterday's observations, when the careening 2-8-2 of commentary was about to jump the tracks.

Aside: Apologies to those who have been reading the O-List conversation and find some of this repetitive.

Adorno's name has a place in the vocabulary of most nonpop composers born before 1960, if only because of relentless proselytizing by part-time artists loud & drunk with Marxist-influenced philosophy. So I too read some Adorno.

As a composer, I did not find Adorno challenging or thrilling, but rather hopelessly in love with words and out of touch with sound in particular and music in general. He studied with Berg, but his adulation of Schoenberg made me wonder what he learned from his studies. Adorno's compositions seem lackluster from the little I (very recently) know, and his inspiration appeared to come not from listening to or making music, but from thinking about music. It was indeed reading Adorno and more recently Arthur Danto and Fredric Jameson that strengthened my understanding that art speaks only in its own language, and attempts to intellectualize through the translation, interpretation, and analysis of art fail utterly, whether or not in pursuit of a sociopolitical point-of-view.

Though many musicians approach music using the intellect, from where do they actually get their ability to grasp the music? Outside the music itself, is it not just a trick pony, like fate knocking at the door in Beethoven's Fifth or the rope snapping around Till Eulenspiegel's neck? Who would know the images if we weren't told? Is there really lightning and thunder in the Pastorale? Perhaps it's metaphor -- but metaphor and lightning are both external.

In terms of intellectualization, it may be helpful to some musicians to expand their worldview in rivers of words, and press it and its effects upon their approach to music. Is it successful? Can you know? For worldview cannot be extracted from the context of the music itself. (I can build a worldview reading "Peanuts" or "The K Chronicles." Some musicians have. Though I never miss Keith Knight's strip, I still prefer to sit by the brook, garden, build a desk or hike a canyon for my worldview. Where is it in my music?)

Jonathan Elliott suggested that talking and thinking critically about music are nevertheless useful pursuits. I'm not so sure. Approaches as Adorno's are musically bankrupt, now as then. These folks are philosophers, just as was Buckminster Fuller, whose work parallels and expands Adorno's (and whose work I did find stimulating in the same strong way I found Adorno tiresome and pedantic). Ultimately, though, philosophers are followers of musical trends, with their influence not by nature of or upon the artform, but by the choices of the successor readers. In other words, musical philosophy is poorly mated to the artform itself.

Further, as one who never personally experienced the German avant-garde composers in my developing years (it wasn't until 1991 at age 42 that I first lived in Europe) and one who certainly didn't follow in their footsteps, I would have found the Adorno cult alien. Yes, I certainly composed in the avant-garde realm for a number of years, and even did a smattering of serial pieces, but they weren't products of Germanic Euro-centrism. They were more finding my way via a pan-national angst. Thus I read Adorno with an American consciousness, and with a kind of incredulousness. (And not everyone was intoxicated with Adorno, although Jeffery Cotton reveals why a generation or several might have been -- and still are.)

It seemed that Adorno had built a detailed, politically based worldview and was attempting to enforce it upon the music, advancing a social and economic agenda and preferring the music not speak for itself, which would be something distastefully bourgeois. So was Adorno influential? You bet. Now show me where in the music such influences can be heard.

Talking about music is about the talking, not about the music. It is impossible to translate the music, and when one does so to benefit philosophical salesmanship, one misrepresents the music itself, which can only speak in its own language.

That's begging the question, isn't it? Several times, even. And it's mightily tough to prove using words that music doesn't speak in or through words. Does a composer think music into being by using words? If not, then where is the insertion of this talk found in music? Or does it change the choices made to arrive at a composition? Choices are another matter, separated by yet another layer from the artform. To pursue these questions, I propose some thought experiments, first in older nonpop.

  • Description. Consider the aforementioned tone-poetic writing in Beethoven's Pastorale symphony. What particular notes and rhythms describe a storm?
  • Intervals. Consider Richard Strauss's Till Eulenspiegels Lustige Streiche. What is the meaning of the trombone falling major seventh?
  • Gestures. Consider the gesture of a string tremolo, used since Monteverdi to indicate tension. Where is the tension found in the sound of the tremolo?
  • Tempo. Consider the slow movement and finale of Shostakovich's Fifth symphony. Are these a lament and a celebration? How do you know?
  • Contours. Consider Bach's use of his own name (B-A-C-H = B-flat, A, C, B-natural). What does the motif tell you? Is it a religious cross motif? Can you see or hear a religious cross?
  • Motives. Consider Wagner's Wehe. Does it speak to emotions? Intellect? What are these sound patterns in life? How is it woeful?
  • Progressions. Consider the IV-I progression. Does it speak to emotions? Intellect? Religious belief? How is the implication formed by the notes?

And now a few from newer nonpop, which are tough if you don't know the music. For the last four, you can saunter over the Kalvos & Damian and find the playlists that include them.

  • Language. Consider Karlheinz Stockhausen's Gesang der Jünglinge. Is there a religious context? Assuming no understanding of the language, how do you know?
  • Concretes. Consider Luciano Berio's Sequenza for solo voice. What is the meaning of the intakes of breath and the laughs? What expression is found in the transitions?
  • Personification. Consider Terry Riley's Salome Dances for Peace. Where is Salome found in this music? Where is the meaning of peace found?
  • Abstraction. Consider Charles Coleman's Absolution. What is absolved? What part of the music identifies this absolution? (Warning: Trick questions.)
  • Layering. Consider Fred Szymanski's Remix of Xenakis's Persepolis. What of Persepolis can be heard in the Szymanski? Where in the music is it found?
  • Reference. Consider the music of Richter, Mälzner and Schneiderheinze (as N.N. und Ähnliche Elemente). What of the original context of the samples is maintained? How can you tell?
  • Evocation. Consider Linda Catlin Smith's Versailles. What of Versailles is evoked? What is described? How is it accomplished?

Which are useful among these experiments? Which represent theory as a collection of common elements? Which represent the translation of events that effectively duplicate notation by description? Which contain a "hidden audio track," so to speak, that might be present or implied or even Schenkerian in character? What would the response of composer, performer, and audience be to each experiment?

One can describe events that may not have been audible under concert conditions, or that may not be obvious in a score, and one may even distill common actions from several pieces. But one cannot extract the music's meaning in translation. It certainly hasn't been my experience that any piece of music I've composed has been translated even in small part into meaningful prose, nor has a piece of music ever been described to me in such a way that it matched the subsequent experience of hearing it.

It might come down to the reasons for composing, including "inspiration."

And so we find ourselves talking about the music. How much of it becomes useful, or is it all peripheral as I believe? It gets complicated, for my approach dismisses what Elliott calls "an entire category of discourse" that he believes should be addressed, "particularly in this age, when there is no longer a common language of music."

But musical language remains common language -- sound passing through time, whether in delayed form (via performed score or electroacoustics) or in real time (via improvisation), and the substitution of talking for doing is the linchpin of my objection to it. Talk is cheap & easy.

Still, talking about music is represented as important, significant -- in some ways more important than the experience of the art, even as it becomes a stream of discourse disconnected from the temporal, syntactical and emotional progress of a musical composition. That the language of music is more difficult than ever is not in question; music has become increasingly diverse and enriched across history and geography and culture.

There is a parallel urge to talk about an artform by analogy or metaphor for those who did not share the experience, but it remains outside the experience, i.e., outside the artwork's actual language of discourse. It is always peripheral.

There is also a creative engagement during the process of making art. Any language might be used, so do artists in all genres use sketches? Musical sketches, miniatures of sculptures, samples of cloth, dance notation & demonstrations, draft scenes from a drama? Some are indeed talkers, but talk alone -- however helpful it may be for the resolution of technical issues, expression of feelings and exposition of philosophy -- remains insufficient to the task of art-making. (I do not object to theory as a description of the commonality of extant concrete activities. But theory is always after the fact, and not a participant in the language of the art. It acts as a shorthand for possible and prior action in the art.)

I am also skeptical of the motives of those who talk about art, especially as an occupation and with a sociopolitical polemic, as with Adorno. What purpose is served by words after the experience of the art? To interpret one's reaction? To what end? To know more about the interpreter? Certainly it does not reveal the piece, which can only reveal itself. If it needed verbal language to reveal itself, would it not use it? So what are the true motivations for the talk? Glorification of the talker?

The truth is that a convincing artwork is always persuasive. Afterwards, I am rarely willing to talk about it or be talked to about it. It just seems like gibberish. On the other hand, if one seeks truth in art, there is a temptation to seek validity as well. But music is neither valid nor invalid. A listener may not agree with the composer on the character of the experience, and so declare the music invalid, but that is a meaningless extension of an experience into an artwork. Some critics emphasize experience as the only measure of art, without taking into account the experiencer's commitment to (or even acceptance of) the musical language. And so there is a tendency to make analogies, to reduce the abstractness while finding unsatisfactory experiences to be the result of music that is 'too abstract.' Music is already abstract, unable to be representative or analogous to other experiences.

Reduction of abstractness will fail, for under the surface of music are never found words, but rather deeper experience of the work.

I'll wrap today with a wonderful quote from Mark Gresham: "There are often times when artists (and composers) shouldn't talk about their own work. One story related to me was of a painter who had completed a very large abstract canvas with a very large commission. The commissioning party at first loved it, until the artist explained it; at which point the commissioning party was so repulsed he refused to accept the completed work. Often, art should be left to speak for itself!"

The world that replaces the word
The world that replaces the word. Can you find it in Quince and Fog Falls?

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