Friday 23 December 2011

What can we reasonably say about music? (a response to Dmitri Tymoczko)

I've always thought there is something very unreasonable about music. It consumes experience but defies reasoned understanding. My intellectual life began by trying (in vain) to seek reasoned understanding. Many many others have gone before me, and recently my attention was drawn to Dmitri Tymoczko's book "The geometry of music" by a rather unflattering review in the Musical Times by Arnold Whittall.

I think what bothered Whittall was the shear confidence with which the theory is presented. And the confidence is evident from this conference presentation:

Tymoczko has 5 basic principles of "what makes music sound good". They are:
1. melodies should move by short distances
2. simultaneous sounds should have consistent harmonic configurations over time
3. simultaneous sounding notes should be consonant
4. notes over time should fall within a statistically limited number of notes (5-7.. not 12)
5. there should be an uneven distribution of probability of emphasis across a range of notes - some should be stronger than others (i.e. tonal centres)

Much as I agree with Whittall, for me there is a more interesting question than whether Tymoczko is right or not (which he clearly isn't!). Because if you ask the wrong questions then being right or wrong with regard to your question is irrelevant. But what are the 'right' questions about music? Are there sensible things to say?

That's the question I want to address here. When I think about sensible questions, I think about the sensible people who talk about music. Whittall is one of them, but then so is Schoenberg (Tymoczko hasn't got much time for him!), so is d'Indy, so is Schenker (in small doses) and so were many of my favourite composers in the 20th century including Tippett (although I gained most through the eminently sensible interpretations of his music by Ian Kemp), Messaien (how would his music stack up with Tymoczko?), Norgard, Birtwistle, Boulez, Cage, etc, etc...

When looked at in its totality, music asks one question: "What's it all about?". My questions about music are questions about myself. Music does extraordinary things to me. Those extraordinary things are fundamental to my whole being. Moreover, the things that music does are closely related to the things that other elemental experiences have on me, most notably sex and religion. There are, as Wittgenstein would say, strong 'family resemblances' between the types of experience. What you might sensibly say about music is related to what you might sensibly say about sex, or what you might sensibly say about religion. And there we are left with little else sensible to say other than to quote Blaise Pascal:
"Le cœur a ses raisons, que la raison ne connaît point"
Is Pascal is saying something about the left and right brain here? Maybe (McGilchrist would approve!). Tymoczko is definitely in the left-brain camp. For some reason, art seems to escape him (he's a composer, though.. but personally I find the same deficiencies in his music as in his thinking).

Pascal presents a challenge to cyberneticians like me. Cybernetics too can be very much in the left brain game. But I believe it doesn't have to be there. The recent emphasis on art and performance at the American Society for Cybernetics conferences in 2010 and 2011 have been very refreshing (if not a bit challenging sometimes). To me, cybernetics (done well) is the best way of reasoning with (not about) the unreasonable, because it seeks to identify and specify the reasonable rather than trying to reason about the unreasonable. In this way, cybernetics is about the negative space of experience. It tries to create spaces where the unreasonableness of the world can do its thing, whilst ensuring that our reasonableness sticks to what it knows and prevents it from entering domains where it can do more harm than good. To quote Wittgenstein once again:
"Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."
To me, this means that the sensible things to say about music are not 'about' music. They are the things which we can know. Some of those things are musical: scores, biographies of composers, journalism, performances. There are other things which can be sensibly spoken about which are not musical: anthropological issues for example. But then there's the fascinating class of things which we can talk about which are 'self-organising systems' - the stuff of cybernetics. I think that digging into these is the best way of mapping the ground from where the great mystery of music unfolds.

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