Literate music revisited

I’ve just been reading Robert Fink’s January blogpost for Musicology Now, the latest in a chain of erudite posts spinning out from this Mark Oppenheimer article from last September’s New Republic. The stepping stone between the two is John Halle’s article for Jacobin.

To be honest, I’m struggling a little with Fink here. He takes issue with Halle’s defence of Western art music, which he summarizes roughly as that it is not only “a different style of music, but [also] a completely different medium than popular music, characterized by its literate infrastructure and a unique extensional concept of form”. This kind of thinking, Fink argues, leads us towards a teleological essentialism that “reproduces the logic of the ‘one-drop’ rule” and is thus useless as a defence.

Fink writes: “if classical music is equated, as in Halle’s argument, with the entire literate musical tradition of the West, then, after some decades of looking, I can find no special musicological correlation between classical music and some essential quality of having goal-direction.” But I’m not sure why literate composition should be equated with goal-directedness, and goal-directedness alone. Certainly that’s one thing you can do as a composer once you start writing things down, but it’s not the only one. Fink’s complaint seems to stem from Halle’s comment that

These are works of “pure” music which cohere, not by a text with its own self-contained expressive content and narrative logic, but by a logic entirely based on the abstract relationships inherent in the pitches and rhythms. They are composed within abstract forms, large-scale plans dictating their unfolding in time of which at least an intuitive awareness is required for them to be fully appreciated by audiences.

… but I don’t read that as necessarily a description of musical teleology. Ferneyhough’s Les froissements d’ailes de Gabriel unfolds in time, and an awareness of that happening is necessary to its full appreciation, but it certainly isn’t a goal-directed sort of time. Neither is that of Messiaen, or Cage, or Feldman. Yet all of these composers, I would argue, needed to write things down in order to achieve what they wanted to do. (Which in each case was actually to undermine our natural propensity to think in terms of goals etc.)

It seems to me that there is an array of things that you can do within a literate musical tradition that are hard to accomplish outside of it (and vice versa of course). And these contribute to its continuing cultural value. While we should be wary of teleological essentialism, isn’t there a risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater here? Or are we obliged to talk about music in its global totality, even when we actually want to talk about a relatively well-defined (if fuzzy) subset of it?

2 thoughts on “Literate music revisited

  1. Bernard Holland makes much sense here:

    “Music is terrifyingly simple, something the inquiring intellectual has a hard time dealing with. Its effects can be profound and lasting, but its processes render the word ”meaning” meaningless. Music bypasses reason. It attacks us directly and unthinkingly. Music wears its illiteracy proudly, like a medal. I know this from my work as a music critic. I am helpless to write about what music is; I can only record the aftershocks it leaves behind”

  2. A teleological argument for written music has never made much sense to me; above and beyond the fact that written music requires reading, which is interpretation, which all but insures variants in reading, riding roughshod on whatever end that teleology was supposed to lead to, isn’t the major distinguishing characteristic of written notation the fact that it’s not done in real time and that gives the composer/writer the ability to edit, to go backwards in the temporal dimension of the piece and change, add to or remove material? When this is done in awareness of future score-chronological events, this is not teleological at all, all directed to some end, but rather integrative, which may be part of or complement to what what Halle was getting at with an “extensional concept of form.”

    (That said, the literate/oral division is hardly a clear one. What are we then to make of works by literate composers who compose into their memories and for whom notation is a secondary and even provisional record of the piece — the solo piano musics of Leon Ornstein and Henry Cowell are examples, improvised but definitely conditioned by a literate practice? (La Monte Young may also be an example (I use the conditional form here because Young’s work both incorporates extemporaneous playing and uses elaborate systems of mnemonics for the various sections of a piece, something akin to a theatre of memory)) On the other hand, a supposed improvised culture may be much more notational than it appears: for example. very sophisticated rhythmic “improvisations” by the best mrdangam players, for example, are usually worked out in detail in advance and committed to memory, with cycles of incommensurate rhythms often worked out on paper. Or how about some of the early jazz recordings, which had to be planned in detail to fit onto the recorded medium with its limited duration? That is certainly musical performance designed around around a kind of notation.) .

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