Musicologists’ Talk

“Gaps found in our speech thinking about music may be suspected of being areas
of music thinking.”
– Charles Seeger

A while ago I listened to a podcast on which two musicologists were talking about the music of a well known living composer whose music I know well.

The musicologists were talking about the usual stuff—what the composer’s music means, what it means to them, how it works, and the issues raised by its sounds.

Something struck me: the composer was not present during the discussion while the musicologists were speaking about his work from positions of knowledge.

How do they come by this knowing? Through their academic training (in music theory, cultural theory) and their own (amateur) musical experience? I assumed they like music, but couldn’t be sure.

Speaking from their positions of knowing, the musicologists critiqued the composer’s music by finding “problematic” issues it raises, by “unpacking” what it’s actually saying (the notes behind the sounding notes, as it were), and by “framing” the music within the wider context of problems of appropriation. 

Appropriation, in fact, was a main issue of the podcast. The musicologists’ critique led them to the question: Does a composer have the “right” to use this or that sound, or to organize sounds in this or that way? The conclusion seemed to be: a composer can do whatever s/he wishes, but it’s the musicologist’s job to tear it apart, to help us, comparatively uninformed listeners, understand what the sounds really mean.

Fair enough. 

As I listened I felt a sense of fascination, because issues always interest me, but also irritation because the way the musicologists were talking is so different from how a composer or performer thinks. (This blog tries to bridge the gap between these different modes of inhabiting musical experience.)

The composer hears sound as sound. S/he hears it as what Robert Plant Armstrong once called an affecting presence. For the composer, sound signifies only insofar as it conjures sensations of one kind or another. The composer pursues those sensations intuitively, for no other reason that they feel good and convey the affect of what needs to be conveyed. At the same time, the composer thinks architecturally by devising ways to organize the sounds; s/he likes to extend and explore sounds—in other words, building structurally upon that initial conjuring. The composer is analytical, but proceeds by intuitive means.

The performer also hears sound as sound and not as signification, but is primarily concerned with devising ways to maximize the impact a sound’s musical line and bring the music to life. The performer has a repertoire of techniques for being expressive—in other words, ways of playing melodies or rhythms so that they have power and impact. (Which I thought about recently as I watched Yo-Yo Ma perform on Inauguration Day.) I think of performers as akin to magicians: the performer can make you believe in the power of a single tone phrased exquisitely, a single rhythm repeated just so. How did she do that?

For the musicologists, there is no such thing as a musical thing in itself because music, like other cultural artifacts, always flows along larger currents. While for the composer and performer, music is first and foremost a thing in itself because that’s the focus of what they do. We are part of larger cultural currents, yes, but that’s not where our moment to moment focus is.

Back to the podcast. As I listened I thought about how the musicologists omitted the perspectives of both the composer and the performer. More alarmingly, I realized that they hadn’t told me anything about what the well known composer’s music—which they were critiquing—really means. Tip: if you’re going to critique something, make the leap into meaning! The musicologists had built a story out of the composer’s music and details of his already documented biography, but not made a dent in my own understanding of his sounds. In sum, it’s as if talking about music and making it are two parallel realms. I know this composer’s music well, and its sounds keep telling me their own story which has unfolded in my listening life independent of critiques, as if music is its own current.

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