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?