Why Words Work for Music

Reader and like-minded spirit Jean Lawton has written a response to my blog entry “Leave No Term Unstoned.” I e-print it here because it’s not just an answer but a beautifully written article, despite the fact that it says a couple of flattering things about me, and because she makes so many points I wish I had made, and supports them so compellingly. Thanks, Jean – for this and for the Wittgenstein line I had already quoted.

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“What makes a subject difficult to understand… is not that some special instruction about abstruse things is necessary to understand it. Rather it is the contrast between the understanding of the subject and what most people want to see. Because of this the very things that are most obvious can become the most difficult to understand.” [Ludwig Wittgenstein, Section 86, pg. 405 of the “Big Typescript,” von Wright catalogue number 213 ]

Kyle Gann continues to rescue music criticism from the swamp into which the pseudoscience of the set theorists had cast it for nigh on 50 years. Descriptive terms for musical genres prove not only useful but essential. The only alternatives to necessarily vague isms like “impressionism” and minimalism”? Refuse to talk about music at all… or reduce music to equations and logic.

Been there. Done that. Dead end.

Composers often take the former path — “shut up ‘n play yer guitar!” (Frank Zappa). Fun. But unproductive.

A few unaccountably influential pseudoscientists in yakademia from ca. 1950 onward chose the latter, trudging ever deeper into “that Serbonian bog,” as James Clerk Maxwell called it in his 1878 Rede Lecture at Cambridge, “where whole armies of scientific musicians and musical men of science have sunk without filling it up.”

Neither alternative works. So that leaves us with labeling musical genres. That works, because language and music interact in powerful ways. Back in the 1960s, Kenneth Gaburo passed out bowls filled with sand, water, steel bolts, rice, silk. He had composition students close their eyes, stir their fingers around in the bowls, then
compose music based on the sensations. Afterward everyone could instantly identify each composition with each sensation. Simple words like “rough” and “sharp” and “silky” and “liquid” sufficed to accurately describe each composition. More recently, a McNeil-Lehrer News Hour piece showed a class of 4th graders listening to modern
music from the 2000s. The kids instinctively used plain descriptive terms. One said “I like fluffy music.” Language is vague and imprecise, but captures important aspects of the musical experience.

These anecdotes tells us something about the power and value of non-musical ways of being to illuminate music — particularly language. So using (admittedly
nebulous) terms to describe genres remains useful, and more to the point, necessary. Spoken and written language, like music, iridesces and ignites distant meanings by creating a web of associations.

Applied to music, math murders to dissect. Language breathes life into music, or, as the Greeks put it, inspires. Only human language captures the countless microuniverses of sight and sound and touch and taste and smell which music evokes. In language, as in music, context reigns. So using terms for musical genres

Musical Josef Mengeles like Milton Babbitt and Alan Forte and Robert Morris who tried to flense away the ligaments of language, the tendons of cultural connotations, the muscles of synaesthaesia, and all the skin of extra-mathematical supra-logical aspects from music left us with set of bleached bones. The attempt to reduce music to dead math and silent logic yielded unlistenable swill and unreadable jargon.

People talk about music and musical styles using inchoate descriptive terms for reasons which brain science has only recently revealed. For example, the colorful metaphor of pitch “height” actually parallels the hard-wiring of the human auditory cortex. PET scans show that the human brain’s pitch detection apparatus shares brain circuitry with Brodmann’s Area 19 (commonly known as “the mind’s eye” or “the visual theater”). (See http://cogweb.ucla.edu/Abstracts/Music_00.html.) Talking about pitch as “high” or “low” is thus more than vaguely descriptive. It limns the basic neurophysiology of the human brain.

Likewise, we’re now finding that describing musical timbres as “sharp” or “dull” results from similar links to other hard-wired brain structures. [For details, see the article “A Universe of Universals,” Leonard B. Meyer, The Journal of Musicology, Volume XVI, Number 1, Winter 1998, pp. 3-25] Terms describing general musical movements capture important aspects of the experience of listening to that music.

Unlike mathematical equations, which tell us nothing of significance about a musical style or a musical composition, descriptive terms like “minimalism” or “totalism” reveal important facets of these styles.

Minimalism, for instance, typically trades off a reduced pitch set for increased rhythmic complexity. Pieces like Reich’s Piano Phase dial up rhythmic intricacy (way up) while dialing down the number of pitches. “The New Romanticism” typically heads in the other direction, twirling the pitch dial farther toward 11 and punching in the LOUDNESS button for emphasis but punching the MUTE button on rhythmic complexity (compared to Piano Phase, anyway).

Totalists use both techniques, and for obvious reasons. Understandably entranced by the Dedalaean rhythmic labyrinths discovered by Arts Subtilis and rediscovered by Conlon Nancarrow, totalists quickly figured out that complex nested tuplets sound incoherent without a regular rhythmic grid for background. So totalists do both. They ramp up the number of chromatic pitches and the complexity of the rhythm, but also keep a regular rhythm (a la minimalism) with close to zero complexity so you can hear the embedded tuplets offset from a Euclidean grid – as in Michael Gordon’s Yo, Shakespeare! Most important of all, descriptive terms capture the crucial human qualities of the musical styles.

Minimalist music sounds what the name implied – chopped. Channeled. A cholo
lowrider among musical styles. Retro chic, stripped down compared to previous tonal
music, but pumped up with invisible hydraulics under the chassis. Totalist music sounds as the word implies – totalist composers want it all. It pushes forward on both fronts, as though it does want to have its minimalist cake and eat it too. By contrast, the term “set theoretic music” captures none of the crucial human qualities of such music. Instead, we should call set theoretic music like that of Milton Babbitt “sludge-ism.” The music sounds like undifferentiated glop. No perceptible melodies, no functional harmonies, no discernible rhythmic pulse, no audible organization. It sounds like oil looks when it drains out of an engine: dull. Turgid. Undifferentiated. Boring. Tom Johnson even wrote a review in 1976 in which he remarked on how interesting it was that the music sounded so supernally boring.

There’s a solid reason for that. By trying to push rhythmic complexity and pitch complexity and timbral complexity to the max simultaneously, set theoretic atonal music ran afoul of the basic neuro-cognitive constrains of the human nervous system. Faced with information overload, the human brain dumps *all* incoming information. Instead of perceiving complexity, the brain perceives chaos – boring chaos.

Well, music history offers us a kind of chaos. As J. J. Nattiez remarked, “I have said it before and I say it again – there is no progress and no regress in music, only change.” The illusion of progress held sway for a while, but now that illusion has shattered. The Hegelian historicist delusions of the pseudoscientists who envisioned music as an endless upward ramp scaling ever higher levels of harmonic and rhythmic complexity, forever and ever, amen, have collapsed. But now that musical history has fallen off that imaginary upward ramp into the fluctuating steady state prophetically described in Leonard B. Meyer’s Music, The Arts and Ideas (1967),
how to convey the savor and piquancy of the individual fluctuations we call distinct musical styles?

Math fails. The last 50 years of music “theory” prove it, as L. S. Lloyd’s article “Pseudo-Science and Music `Theory'” predicted (Proceedings Of the Royal Academy of Music, 1940). What remains? The delicate glistening web of language, whose ductile threads of meaning retain their freshness even when submerged in the alien ocean of sound. Kudos to Gann for pointing that out. As George Orwell remarked, “It requires an unusual mind to analyze the obvious” – particularly after 50 years of flat-out denial by set theorists like Babbitt.