Sunday 24 March 2024

In the Vineyard of Music Scores

In the wake of the lack of mainstream public comment on the death of one of the world's greatest pianists, Maurizio Pollini, last week, there has been a lot of commentary on the apparent dismissal of classical music by people who should know better. Coupled with the closure of a number of university music departments (with a number of others under threat), alongside the existential threat to some leading orchestras, there does seem to be something going on which bodes ill for music, and for the richness of "culture" - although, as Niklas Luhmann pointed out many years ago, that word "culture" is very slippery indeed.  

Posts on social media talk about the "rot" of the declining civilisation for which they blame the present vogue for revisionist iconoclasm that reads cultural history as essentially colonialist, patriarchal and racist. As is often the case, the sins of those who are accused of destroying culture are very similar to those who make the accusation. The common point of error is that both sides in the debate cannot imagine that contradictory positions can both be true simultaneously. It is true that classical music, like much high culture from past centuries (and like the intellectual roots of many academic disciplines), is sometimes colonialist, patriarchal and racist. Given our history, it is hard to imagine it could be anything else. It is also true that it represents the deepest expression of the basic human condition that humanity has created. Like quantum mechanics, or like the magnificent logic of John Duns Scotus's "synchronic contingency", it is true and not true at the same time. And unfortunately protagonists on both sides the debate cannot deal with it.

If there is a decline in culture, it lies in this very point - the inability to deal with contradiction and ambiguity. It is a symptom of reductionism. Were the artists of the renaissance aware of the ethical contradictions that lay beneath their art? Of course they were. This has always been the essential content of art. 

The art of classical music, represented in the performances, scores, treatises, biographies, etc, is the quintessence of ambiguity -  of "synchronic contingency". A score created by a great composer is an artefact created as a biproduct of an intellectual (for which we might say biological) process dealing with contradiction. A score not only enters into the space of synchronic contingency, but it spins something out of it, without ever resolving a matter as one thing or another: a cadence merely closes - it is not an answer. 

More than any other art, classical music demands the intellectual skill to navigate the indeterminate space of black dots on a page so as to attend (with ears - our organ of balance) the fact of music's internal contradiction. It's rather like Ivan Illich's beautiful book "In the Vineyard of the Text", which discussed Hugh of St Victor's "Didascalicon" as an intellectual journey of appreciating the broad field of religious and secular texts, through entering the minds of their various authors. In entering into the space of the score, we enter into the space of the composer and their experience of grappling with the indeterminacy and contradiction of life. In trying to play the notes, we physically experience exactly the same constraints of human anatomy and emotional reaction that the composer would have known in creating it in the first place. The score is "writing as transmission" across centuries of physiological experience in a way that no other form of human communication can achieve. To be in a library full of scores from all periods of music is to be immersed in the sheer consistency of the endeavour to engage in music's ambiguity over the centuries.  

It is not music which is under threat. It is ambiguity. We will preserve music by seeking to uphold ambiguity. Unfortunately, neither side in the debate about music wishes to do this, and educational institutions have no interest in ambiguity since their business models insist on reproducible and measurable "learning outcomes". Decolonisers attack music with blunt instruments of a shallow "ethical emotivism", while those opposed to them too often appear reactionary and tone-deaf, craving an educational world which force-feeds children a didactic diet of Bach and Beethoven. 

The irony is that this situation is the product of our privileging of text over more refined forms of communication. The privileging of text has also made us very vulnerable to artificial intelligence which appears to be able to select words often better than we can. But AI is not good at ambiguity either, and it is certainly not good at music.   

We will need music in the future precisely because of its ambiguity, and also because of the intellectual demands it makes of us to appreciate its ambiguity. It is this ability to deal with ambiguity and contradiction at a deep physiological level which, in the end, differentiates us from machines. While it is obviously now possible to create a computational mechanism for selecting words which is topologically similar to our own human mechanism for selecting words, the creation of a selection mechanism for selecting sounds, or instructions to make sounds, with a specific meaningful intention, is far more challenging.  Computers are not connected to the universe. But we are. And the skills of understanding our connection to the universe lie in music and its ambiguity.


Neil McS said...

As you point out in this interesting post, there is much debate at the moment in the arts community. However, I think much of this is generated by tensions emerging from shifts in the allocation of resources. This, perfectly understandably, manifests as disagreements about what art and culture actually is and what it is rightly for.

For some, artistic practice is concerned with more or less subjective judgements of excellence (attainment of goals that cannot be measured econometrically), so funding should be allocated on this basis. This calls for the nuanced sensibilities of experts whose opinions should be valued most highly in the decision making processes. However, after years of strategising in the academy, music-related expertise is now distributed beyond those who advocate this position, neutralising its logic somewhat.

For others, public funding should be made available on the basis of social impact, much of which might be possible to measure in terms that are familiar to the treasury (making this position attractive to policymakers and funders alike). Some within this group might be particularly sensitive to the political significance of attracting money away from forms of music that have historically benefitted from public support.

Another broad group aren’t particularly interested in anything but commercial music and tend to think of music as part of the global entertainment industry. Some of them are still opportunistically lobbying for public support, nonetheless.

I think resolving this tension firstly involves properly differentiating ends from means. Economic value is a means. Money must ultimately be spent on something to realise its value. That’s what it’s for, ostensibly at least (it’s also about latent power in its hoarded form). In contrast, cultural value and health are ends.

To add a bit of complexity, creativity and wellbeing, while often treated like synonyms for culture and health, are actually economic factors (they are measured econometrically and the goals are economic) and therefore contribute to means. In addition, some cultural activities are, or can be, economically productive thereby contributing to their own means (they’re to some extent self-sustaining). An example of this from round my way (Sheffield) might be metallurgy.

Perhaps problems emerge (or at least debates!) when we try to argue that ontologically expansive or complex phenomena such as music, education, or research should rightly be perceived as concerned with one form of value only (cultural, social, or economic). Whereas in fact, taken comprehensively, they each actually tend to generate multiple forms of value across these broad categories.

I therefore think we'll be able to advocate more clearly and effectively if we adopt a pragmatic, pluralist stance.

A market fundamentalist perspective commits two errors. Firstly it confuses ends and means and secondly, by limiting complex phenomena to one category of operation, acts to negate forms of value necessary for human society to sustain itself.

If we push back on this by pointing out the first error, the confusion of ends and means, but commit the second error ourselves by arguing that cultural activity is and should be about the creation of only one form of value - e.g. cultural value - then we are less wrong than the market fundamentalist but we are still wrong. This needlessly weakens our position.

In my view, pluralism is the most effective counter-position to fundamentalism. I think this position is sensitive to ambiguity and compatible with contingency and contradiction. I suggest it would therefore accommodate the forms of value you discuss in this article.

Mark Johnson said...

Hi Neil,

I suppose I might be tempted to ask "why resolve the tension?" Is it really in tension, or have we just convinced ourselves that it is? After all, it gives some of us lots to talk about!

Everyone lives with contradictions. Maybe the problem is that academics do too, but we don't want to admit it. Perhaps we're just better at hiding it behind clever words...

Neil McS said...

Thank you for the response, Mark.

Personally, I don't think value pluralism does resolve the tension - I think it proposes a way of accepting it and living with it. As a musician I experience tension as generative. So, as you say, do academics.

However, in our communities, we have disagreements about resource allocation which can seem to call for some kind of resolution one way of the other.

I think this is what can drive people to what I've called 'fundamentalist' positions.

Best wishes

Mark Johnson said...

Maybe it's because we look at resource allocation not as a function of total organisation, but as an operation within the constraints of the status quo.

Since the status quo is always trying to resolve the ambiguities of the environment, resource allocation becomes co-opted to do something it is not appropriate for.

If we could loosen the constraints of the total organisation, the resource allocation question could be addressed in the context of what is required of the system in the actual environment that we are now in.

One of the biggest constraints on us is history... It causes us to see the world as we traditionally imagine it, not as it actually is.

Neil McS said...

With this, sir, I think you are bang on the money. I think it was your writing that introduced me to this Buckminster Fuller quote:

“Wealth is our organized capability to cope effectively with the environment in sustaining our healthy regeneration and decreasing both the physical and metaphysical restrictions of the forward days of our lives.”