Sunday 4 May 2014

Mind and Nature: Von Uexküll on the Counterpoint of Meaning and the Nature of Counterpoint

Von Uexküll's use of the term 'counterpoint' in 1940 when talking about an organism's perception of its environment (Umwelt) is very striking to a musician. Von Uexküll argues that the organism and its umwelt must be composed in a contrapuntal harmony with those objects that enter the animal's life as meaning-carriers. Hoffmeyer explains that this "contrapuntal harmony lets Uexküll call the flower beelike and the bee flowerlike, or the spider flylike, and the tick mammallike" (Hoffmeyer: Biosemiotics, p 172). For all the accusations that this characterisation is 'vitalistic' (and therefore a reason to reject Von Uexküll), my guess is the rejection is done by people who haven't thought very much about music. It makes sense to a musician - but it poses a bigger question: What is counterpoint?

The essential idea of Von Uexküll is that organisms communicate with their environment. The idea of privileging communication has gained much traction in recent years. Von Uexküll can be seen as the founder of 'biosemiotics', which many others including Jesper Hoffmeyer, Terry Deacon, Susan Oyama and Thomas Seboek have devoted much effort. This issue of communication goes back to the dissonance between Darwinian and Lamarkian evolutionary theory. In my last post, I discussed Gregory Bateson's point that it was Lamark whose project was essentially to describe mind from nature, whilst Darwin's natural selection excluded mind altogether. Bateson's judgement was the Darwin can't be right, and that Lamark's question was a good one not addressed by Darwin, but his (Lamark's) answer was silly (the inheritance of acquired characteristics). Von Uexküll's contribution to this, and it seems to me that this is the essential contribution of Biosemiotics since, is to suggest that mind is somehow immanent in nature in the form of communicative processes. For Hoffmeyer, these communicative processes are semiotic in the way described by C.S. Pierce. If I have doubts about this last move, it's because I've never found Pierce particularly helpful in explaining music. This leads me to a different approach, whilst maintaining Von Uexküll's essential idea.

When I was a music student, the difference between "Counterpoint" and "Harmony" troubled me quite deeply. To a beginner, they are both difficult, and they are distinct - but they are also inter-related. Counterpoint produces harmony. Successive harmonies produce counterpoint. But what are they? What's going on?

The fundamental question is about the relation between figure and ground. The figure is the thing that we attend to at a particular moment (like a melody). The ground is the stuff going on which somehow supports it. Melody and accompaniment are a very simple form of counterpoint. With simple situations, a melody wanders around, and (usually below it) the accompaniment repeats a pattern. I think the repetition is important. In the visual arts, we might have a figure (a reclining nude, say) lying on a green couch. The lines of the figure wander; the couch is continually green, maybe displaying some repeated motif. What is important here is that whilst we are drawn to the figure, the figure exists because of what the ground does. The melody grows because of the fertility of the repetition of the accompaniment. Any improvisation proceeds by establishing pattern and it is from the pattern that growth occurs.

In information theory, pattern and repetition are often termed 'redundancy'. In Shannon's theory, redundancy is the thing that constrains messages that are communicated. Redundancy is the frame for grammar (think about the frequency of words in a grammatically correct English sentence, and how "incorrect" grammar is framed by different redundancies).

In counterpoint, melodies exchange redundancies. One melody will establish a pattern which gives rise to the other's growth. At some point, the other melody will settle into a pattern, giving its counterpart freedom to escape its pattern and grow itself. Furthermore, in music, there are redundancies at many different levels. Tonal structures and harmonic patterns form their own redundancies and drive the emergence of the form of a piece. But the interesting thing is that these things are analysable. It seems to me (particularly from my improvising experience) that the moment of exchange of figure and ground is a particular moment of overlap between the redundancies of each part. These, I think (and I experience) are the meaningful parts of the music: where redundancies overlap.

There's a theory for this which has been developed by Loet Leydesdorff: the redundancies of communication are redundancies of anticipatory systems. What becomes redundant are expectations of future possibilities. When my expectations overlap with your expectations then meaning is communicated: it's the moment when lovers' eyes meet, they smell each other and feel others' breath, and are about to kiss. That's overlapping redundancy (although to say it at that moment would almost certainly be a passion killer!)

When we look at signs and their communications, we look at figures. That, I think, leads down a dead-end. We'd be better looking at the ground. Von Uexküll's poetic metaphor was spot-on I think. Mind is immanent in nature. But the real challenge is to understand the poetry.

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