Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Counterpoint and Absence

I was until fairly recently a skeptic regarding absence. How can something that's "not there" be causal? Indeed, if we think in terms of absences, surely the pinpointing of absence makes it non-absent? With regard to the 1st point, however, I'm become more keenly aware of the causal impact of what's 'not there'. Regarding the 2nd point, however, I think there are deep problems with trying to pinpoint absences. But that is for another time. Here, as with all my thinking about learning, education, etc, I want to test the abstraction of absence and the thinking about the causality of non-being on my understanding of music.

Here, I have begun to find some compelling reasons to take absence seriously. My last post was about the role of absences on patterns of thought, and how patterns of thought are shaped by an environment which cannot be properly determined. Certainly those patterns of thought are not merely the product of their own internal arguments.

This seems counter-intuitive until you consider that the pattern of thought of a supposedly 'logical' argument bears some resemblance to a counter-melody in counterpoint. The progress of the melody is only partly due to it's internal logic and motivation; it is also determined by its relationship with whatever else was there in the first place. So consider that the following in there in the first place...
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Now this provides the 'absence' or the 'constraint' for whatever might be laid on top of it.. So I might write:

I could continue the process by doing this...
and so on. 

What's going on here? Each part that is added is added against a context which constrains what it is it might do. Whilst there is an inner requirement for each part to move in a logical way, sometimes the counterpoint demands that certain movements are required (I was never very good at this kind of thing!)

But the philosophical point is one about how what isn't there is causal. Now we might say that an existing melody isn't absent, but clearly present. Yet I think only part of it is present. One of the key things about writing any kind of counterpoint is a process of revealing qualities in the melody against which one is writing the counterpoint. That 'revealing' suggests to me that there are qualities and phenomena present in the melody which are not immediately present when the melody is played. They are discovered on interacting with the melody.

Straight counterpoint like this, though, is only one way of revealing the absence in a melody. There are other ways of doing this.. For example, harmonic effects might be added like this..
What does that do? Well, once again, it changes the character of the 'absent' melody... it reveals something new. But the point is that all the time that these new 'moves' are made, new implications are realised, and those implications (psychological expectations, for example) carry with them new patterns of thought (new meanings?) which are shaped by what was there and what isn't there.

I think it is thinking about this that I am beginning to appreciate that there is something quite deep in the renaissance practice of 'species counterpoint'. It may be that this encounter with absence (within which the absence that is God is one factor), was very much in the minds of composers who composed with traditional counterpoint, and that this may have had a bearing of that particular style of music.

But having got to the point of starting to unpick this, I think I am searching for some technique for understanding it a bit more clearly and  (perhaps) a bit more analytically.. 

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