‘Applicability’ in music: towards a definition

The ‘relevance’ debate rolls on in comments to my earlier post. I think some clarifications and some concrete examples might be needed. First of all, my thoughts on all this have kind of spun away from the original Greg Sandow post that set them off, so they probably shouldn’t taken as endorsement or otherwise of what he said back there.

OK. I want to get away (on these pages at least, if nowhere else) from the word ‘relevance’ because it is misleading and doesn’t completely express what I would like of it. The word I chose to replace it with is ‘applicability’, borrowing, as I say, from Tolkien. These are his words, from the foreword to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings:

As for any inner means or ‘message’, [The Lord of the Rings] has in the intention of the author none. It is neither allegorical nor topical. … It was written long before the foreshadow of 1939 had yet become a threat of inevitable disaster, and from that point the story would have developed along essentially the same lines, if that disaster had been averted. Its sources are things long before in the mind, or in some cases already written, and little or nothing in it was modified by the war that began in 1939 or its sequels.

… I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.*

In my earlier comments, I make a comparison with the other arts, all of which readily accept that they are at their best when they introduce something into people’s lives that makes them see the world slightly differently. Thinking about it this morning, Hamlet is one of those examples. It is a certainty that if Hamlet was just 5 acts-worth of pretty speeches, it would not be as revered or as popular as it is today. You’d see it, enjoy it immensely (they would be very pretty speeches) and mostly forget about it. You might occasionally recall a verse or two in dull moments to lift your spirits – ‘Isn’t that beautiful?’ you would ask people, and they would agree, and perhaps learn a few lines themselves. What a tonic.

But you see, the thing about Hamlet is that it isn’t just a string of pretty speeches. They’re all very fine, and give it that extra push into the stratosphere which it rightly occupies, but what really makes Hamlet is the man himself. There can be very few people who have really watched a good Hamlet play his part and haven’t felt their world shift just one little bit. Not, I repeat, because of the pretty lines, but because there is something in that character on stage, whose mind is splayed before us, and whose every decision is pushed to its conclusion, that we recognise. If not in ourselves, then at least in someone we love. How we subsequently react to this ‘applicable’ character is up to each member of the audience, as Tolkien explains, and as Shakespeare would no doubt grant if he worried about these things; but the fact is that something private has been lodged that will remain when the curtain goes down and the words have been forgotten. Shakespeare discovered in Hamlet some essential truths about human nature that have proved themselves reasonably timeless, and that audiences still recognise. No one involved in literature has a problem with this: Hamlet‘s enduring success rests upon its continuing applicability; he still speaks to modern audiences.

Of course, theatre is a particularly non-abstract medium, as a rule. Real people are making recognisable actions and explaining themselves in the audience’s native language. The same goes for film. But what about visual art? If we are to find ‘relevance’ or ‘applicability’, we have to look for them in the channels in which art itself moves. Painting deals with, for starters, light, space, form, colour. Putting the rotting fruit bowls and martyred saints to one side for the moment, these are all things that contribute to our daily experience. There is, therefore, no reason why a good painting should not aid or alter our understanding of light, space, colour, etc; and there is certainly no reason why we should not interrogate a painting to see if it does have anything new to say about these things (and others). I actually regard it as my responsibility, to some degree, as a visitor to a gallery to take these things seriously and to probe the painting to find out what, if anything, it has to say about those aspects of life that overlap with painting. Different periods in art prioritise different things of course – it would be nonsensical to find a study of the light of Christian faith in cubist Picasso, just as it would be missing the point to begin reading a Rembrandt from the point of view of his interrogation of three-dimensional space. A little bit of information certainly helps; experience and familiarity help even more. Hence gallery guides, exhibition catalogues, gift shops selling posters and postcards, little notices on the walls, and so on.

So what about music? Well, a bugbear of mine is that music (especially classical music) is almost invariably talked about as though its components are such things as melody, harmony and rhythm, when in fact it is more useful to talk about music as formed of time, sound, memory, quotation, distortion, and so on. What’s more, these terms actually apply to all music, rather than the small subset of Western art music 1600-1900, so they’re doubly useful (if admittedly nebulous). These are qualities, like light, colour and space in the visual arts, that listeners encounter in every moment of their daily lives, and it is at these conjunctions that music can attain ‘applicability’. Because when a work has something to say, or to reveal, about one of these things, that revelation can be passed through the listener into their daily experience. I have had such experiences with, for example, Messiaen: quite aside from the Catholic symbolism, the birdsong, the synaesthesia, and all the rest, what Messiaen’s music has to say about time and our moment-by-moment experience of it is quite profound, and something that has changed not just my approach to other pieces of music, but on occasion how I see the world around me. This is a notion of applicability, or ‘relevance’ that goes much deeper than, say, writing operas about nuclear war or terrorism. What is more, it is an idea that also finds a place for both the contemporary and the historical, as long as there is something in each, beyond mere superficial pleasure, that speaks to human experience today.

I’m also arguing that music is, can be, should be more than just an enjoyable distraction, an experience that, no matter how aesthetically profound, is essentially self-regarding and therefore shallow. Listening to music on a more-or-less surface level is not a problem; I do it at least 95% of the time, but this doesn’t mean that we should neglect the greater possibilities of which music is capable. Music has to be regarded as something more than a world unto itself; it has to be rediscovered as a part of the wider, lived-in world. One of the enduring themes of Western art is that beauty will fade and die. For those orchestras and promoters who insist, to ever-dwindling audiences, that classical must prevail simply on the strength of its beauty (and other equally transient qualities), this seems like both an important example of the continuing value of finding applicability in art, and an important lesson to learn.

*As long ago as 1966, even stuffy Middle English professors cloistered at Oxford could acknowledge the role of the reader, which goes to show how far behind musicology really is!


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