Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Listening to Abstraction

I begin with two embarrassing confessions. First, that I am intensely fond of instrumental mimesis: the cuckoo in Mahler's First, the barrel organ at the end of Bartok's Fifth Quartet, and the music that descends from another world in the second movement of Beethoven's String Quartet in A minor (Op. 132). Second, that I am pretentious enough to listen to Bach on my iPod while jogging.

In each case, there is an obvious challenge. If you are so desperate to hear something else, why are you listening to this? And what is wrong with "Eye of the Tiger"?

The second question is unanswerable. But something can be said about the first. For the logocentric, like me, imitation has the virtue of being a form of expression in music that is readily described: it gives you something to say. And so it gives the illusion of a response to puzzles about the value of instrumental music.

The puzzle I mainly have in mind is raised by Malcolm Budd, in an otherwise disappointing book:
Music seems to be a paradise essentially unrelated to the world in which we live our ordinary lives, deriving its import and sustenance from itself alone; and its effects on us appear unaccountable or out of all proportion to their cause and object.
Budd's formulation is (deliberately) ambiguous between what he calls "psychological" and "constitutive" readings. We are interested in the latter: in aesthetics, not empirical speculation. The task is to explain what makes instrumental music worth listening to, what accounts for its importance in our lives – given that it seems to be, for the most part, abstract or non-representational.

A partial response would appeal to the power of music to express emotion. But this covers so little ground that I propose to set it aside. More interesting is the view, developed by Kendall Walton, that music is more often representational that we might think: it conveys such things as struggle, return, conflict and resolution. What is distinctive of musical expression – what makes it "abstract" – is, in part, its generality.

As Walton remarks, this generality might be offered as virtue of music by the purist, "allowing a work to speak to many different interests and concerns." But the appeal of generality itself is problematic:
Here is a story of great generality, one which abstracts from an enormous number of specifics:

Once upon a time there was a person.
The End.

It is "about" personhood, I suppose. All of us have a considerable interest in people […]; no doubt this is true of everyone in every culture and every age since the beginning of time. But the story I just recited is notable for its excruciating lack of interest. It is vapid.
I think I like Walton's story more than he does: while dull, in certain respects, it doesn't take long to read, and this is an enormous boon. Still, I take his point.

The solution proposed in the rest of Walton's paper – if I understand it – is that the generality of musical expression lies in its being restricted to properties or universals, not particular situations perceived from a particular point of view, but that it is nevertheless capable of being quite specific. (Mendelssohn was on to something when he said that musical meanings are often too precise to be expressed in words.) Thus, the abstractness of instrumental music is consistent with something like mimesis – if not the embarrassing, auditory kind.

Walton ends by claiming that, "since music treats of things that matter to us in ways that are beyond description […] we needn't be any more astonished by its power than by that of the obviously representational arts." I suppose that's true: we needn't be astonished. But it would be wrong to infer that the worth of instrumental music always lies in what it means. I don't prefer Bach's Art of Fugue because its message is more rousing than Survivor's. After all, how could it be?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Although it's clear enough that an aesthetic analysis of "Eye of the Tiger" was quite beside the point of your post, I found it amusing that you used the song in a post about musical mimesis; it happens to be quite mimetic. Cf. the chordal "jabs" in the intro. (This isn't my interpretation, BTW: I have it through conversation with one of the song's writers that this was intended.)

"Q" the Enchanter

11:11 AM  
Anonymous Jimmy Doyle said...

I don't understand why it's "pretentious" to listen to Bach on your iPod while jogging.

7:59 PM  
Blogger Kieran Setiya said...

Fair point, JD; I don't have an answer to that. I guess I felt that I ought to listen to something less cerebral while doing physical exercise, but on reflection, that doesn't make much sense. I was also making a joke.

5:39 PM  
Blogger Kieran Setiya said...

As a follow-up to Q: there is also some irony (not deliberate) in using Bach as my example of "abstract" music. I was recently alerted to the plodding mimesis of his early "Capriccio on the Departure of a Beloved Brother", and reminded of his engagement with the Baroque theory of the musical "affections". Suitably qualified, however, I think the point about the Art of Fugue can stand.

8:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"A partial response would appeal to the power of music to express emotion."

I believe that one important aspect of music which you neglect is its power to invoke emotion (in the listener), which is something different from expressing emotion. Of course, such invocation is always culturally- and temporally-specific. An 18th-century listener with some musical training would understand a piece in D major as being about majesty and stateliness, while one in F# minor would be about death, and the supernatural. How much of the invocation power of western classical music now comes to us from Hollywood?

And the difference between emotions expressed and emotions invoked can itself be used by composers fruitfully -- as in Shostakovich's "Concerto for Piano and Trumpet" (perhaps the funniest long piece of music) or Maxwell Davies' "Eight Songs for a Mad King."

6:37 PM  

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