Sunday, 23 October 2011

Hermeneutics, Ontology, Post-Structuralist, Semiotic Tri-Partition, Invagination (!), Commodification, Cultural Hegemony... still there?

It's all just a little bit too much, if I may say. These are all topics we're dealing with in Proseminar in Musicology, or as I like to call it, Musicologyology. After complaining to some colleagues that it's all quite absurd ("in the existential or the dadaist sense?"), I realize now that Musicology is just insecure. It's trying to validate itself by situating itself in the domains of literary theory, sociology, and linguistics, taking all their big words.

I realized yesterday that my problem is that, taking a look at the above domains, I don't have any background in any of them. I presume that at one point this was taught in school, I must have been ill that day. So all the musicologyology articles which explore the transposition of their concepts - each with as many contentious meanings as syllables - onto music, I can understand the mapping going on but I don't understand the original concept. They are slowly being taught (actually very well, from a professor who deals very diplomatically with our ignorance), but I have to admit that I find it depressing to be learning these concepts in a music class. I'd much much rather take a literary theory class first where all these concepts are at home, and then have a few sessions on how concepts like "reification" get mapped onto musical discourse (whatever "discourse" is). By learning all these concepts in a music class, we're learning them with all the baggage of musicologists trying to negotiate the awkwardness of making them fit music. I've been leaving every class and going up to the harpsichord rooms to bang around until I feel like living again.

I don't mind that musicological discourse exists on this level, of course people should get embroiled in clever philosophical discussions. What I don't like is that it so easily slips into being antimusical. There was a presentation this week on three articles pertaining to a short Chopin prelude. The presenter managed to talk for about half an hour about three views on this piece, while never once letting the class listen to it, despite every kind of audio-visual device being present in the room. She did affix a one-page photocopy to the back of the handout, though, cementing an implicit message that in the context of this class, music is like children: to be seen and not heard. But music can't be read off a page like a book, and even if I can imagine a great deal of what notated music sounds like (do I dare admit when I can't?) my physical and intuitive reactions are just as valid as anything I might be able to analyze visually, and I'm upset when they're brushed aside and ignored.

It was early in my university career that I figured out that I wasn't going to make it as a professional musician unless I let go of being cerebral all the time and gave some clout to my intuition too. A scary concept back then, and it still is, because it means not being a control freak about the passage of every moment in time. As David McGuinness once helpfully reminded me, we can't dictate everything that's going to happen in performance, the only thing we can guarantee is that Something will happen. This kind of letting go seems a rather obvious pre-requisite to performing, but I think that for academic study it's just as necessary. And just as scary. After all, you can control the words and notes that someone reads, but once you let people listen to music and intuit a response, you lose control over what is going through their heads. In jargon you'd say you're letting your audience collect its own empirical data, which is necessarily different from yours. (But I do like "you lose control over what is going through their head" better.) It's not necessary to have that level of control, fortunately. A musical analysis is about teaching new ways of listening and understanding, and its success is not dependent at all on whether it's the best possible way (though perhaps it was in Theodor Adorno's time) but on whether it could be convincing to someone, that is to say, if it wins its audience over by presenting an idea in such a way that it rings true with what their intuition tells them. (All a question of hermeneutics - someone make it stop). It means that the presenter should have played a recording of the piece in order to awake my intuition and bring it into the conversation. By not doing that she had no hope of winning me over to any single one of the points of view she was presenting.

Fortunately this quote of Albert Einstein is all over Facebook this week to show me I'm not alone in my desire for intuition to be granted validity:

"The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant.
We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift."

(You can decide for yourself if the fallacy of an authoritative appeal makes any difference for you in the force or validity of the statement.)

I apologize profusely for the degree of jargon that has gone into this blog post. I hope it convinces you at least that I'll be an effective spy, infiltrating academia, learning their language if anything in order to stand up convincingly for music to be both seen AND heard. After all, as Frank Zappa said, Music is the Best.

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