Rethinking Music: Ontologies of Music

Title: Rethinking Music

Editors: Nicholas Cook and Mark Everist

This book is a collection of essays on the same broad theme, written by some of the most prominent musicologists of this generation. The systematic presentation of modern music is useful to any reflective composer. There is nothing like understanding what someone else believes to clarify your own point of view. Here, rather than a review of the whole book, are analyses of three essays.

Essay 1 - The Ontologies of Music by Philip V. Bohlman

Bohlman begins with the strong affirmation that music is subjective, that we all understand it from different points of view. As each of us moulds a perspective, we have our own ontology of music. This makes any objective assessment of music's value impossible. Bohlman does not address this fact, more concerned with the ontologies themselves.

An ontology of music is the theory of its being. What do we know about the nature of music?

Bohlman paints a fairly broad picture. The first ontology is my music. He asserts that we make music into an object when we say that it is mine. Likewise in the corporate ontology of our music. These two are nods towards a Western Classical view of music. After these he turns to a wide and wonderful array of ontologies from around the world. For example, music as something that is "out there", music as a way of knowing about the world, music as a language and music as the voice of God. Is music, as the eskimoes say, finite - does the composer simply discover one of the remaining melodies? Or is music revelatory - does God speak directly to us through music?

We cannot remain neutral on these questions or put them to one side as beyond our remit, for Bohlman is intent on another plan. He wants all of these "ontologies" (some of which are mutually exclusive) to be deemed of equal importance. If we have no other ontological view, we will take this pot pourri by default. And if we like one or two but not others for ourselves, then Bohlman's essay demands that we accept the validity for other people to have another point of view.

He is very generous in his examples from a variety of cultures. He mentions:

  • Flathead Indians who dream songs (p.20)
  • Pariahs of Hindu South India who drum (p.21)
  • Suya people of the Brazilian Amazon who win songs through war (p.21)
  • Guslar (epic singer) of the Balkans who uses formulae in composition (p.22)

And he goes on in this vein of the obscure and diverse, even finding space for several mentions of Islam, which does not approve of music!

With the exception of a passing mention of Protestant Hymns in the south of the USA, he does not mention Christians. He certainly does not acknowledge that there is or could be a Christian ontology of music. What he has woven together are the non-Christian ontologies. They do not really fit together in any sensible way. The only thing that unites them is a sense of confusion about the world, reaching out for an answer in completely the wrong direction.

What could the non-Christian composer take from such an analysis of the ontologies of music? Surely, do whatever you like without thought, and someone, somewhere will make it fit into a big picture. That is unhelpful to say the least. But Bohlman is not interested in helping the production of new compositions. His is a religious war and he is not consistent enough to present it as such.

Essay 2 - Analysis in Context by Jim Samson

Samson's essay is an attempt to explain music anaylsis, not only in order to vindicate its use in music today but to insist upon it.

For those whose knowledge of musicology already outreaches any interest in it, I would recommend stopping and taking note of the purpose and execution of music analysis. Fundamentally, it is not about musicology or composition. It is a deliberate attempt to change our perception of music, in order to give life and a sense of reality to a false pluralistic view of the world. And it has already taken such strong root in our musical thinking, that only a different ideology could allow us to see the true picture.

Samson relates how, in the 19th century, Adler devised the canon of musical works. This means that he determined which composers were the best and which were only second-rate. For instance, many take for granted today that Beethoven's crown is undisputed. But why? Because we have been told that he is good. On what basis is he good? Why, when all other music is a matter of personal taste, is it heresy to doubt Beethoven?

The mantle of objectivity was laid upon the music analysts and their precursors for, during the course of that century, music criticism became part of culture for the first time. This means that people were looking at music retrospectively rather than prospectively. The difference is very significant. It is the difference we see today between the film critic, who may question aspects of a finished film from the point of ignorance of the practicalities involved and the film-maker, who understands the limits of the work and has learned how to do things better in the future. That is not to say that all criticism is entirely parasitical, but where it is separated from activity and tempered by real experience, it is inclined to become pompous and self-serving.

These "canonical" works became regarded as the "text" of music. Just as you cannot conceive of being taken seriously in studying English literature if you do not take notice of Shakespeare, so the new canon was conceived to shape the thinking and to direct it down a particular path. At its crudest, we may use the example of the descent into atonality. Set J. S. Bach at the top and Berg at the bottom, throw in an increase in the use of chromaticism in the middle, and the "progress" away from tonality to atonality appears to be natural and inevitable. The fact that Bach himself made colourful use of chromaticism is ignored. But the enforcement of a new paradigm, to overturn truth is hardly going to worry about facts.

Analysis was born in Germany and gained international credibility once it was accepted in the U.S.A. In many ways, music analysis has given a job in music to unmusical people:

The need for criticism is as fundamental as the need for art. Quite simply, it is the need to share our reactions (especially our enthusiasm and excitement), and there are no restrictions on their authentic expression. (Jim Samson, p.54)

"No restrictions". That is a curious way of making a virtue out of what ought to be a criticism. Music analysis purported to be an objective assessment of music. But it could never do enough:

In the case of music analysis, what we analyse is not a musical work, which embodies all kinds of indeterminate areas not at all susceptible to analysis. ... What we analyse is rather a schematic structure ...When we analyse, in other words, we construct the object of our analysis according to certain presuppositions. (Jim Samson, p.43-44)

It stands to reason that some works of music are going to have no areas "susceptible to analysis", so it logically follows that the means of judgment will change the direction of new compositions. Composers will aspire to write music which can be approved by the establishment. To that end, Samson goes on to explain that only works which aspire to fit according to "type" in the line of music history are worthy for analysis. This accords with my undergraduate memories of being told to select two approved modern composers and to build a style based on their works.

It is as though music must be put under a microscope by analysts in order to discover its value. They can only do so on three assumptions:

  1. that all music fits onto a slide,
  2. that the portion of music that does fit onto a slide is representative of the whole,
  3. that music can be judged by sight at all

We could put the hair of a dog under a miscroscope, but we would get a very false idea of what a dog is if we then attempted to extrapolate our knowledge from the one hair. This is the dilemma of music analysis. But it isn't a dilemma at all. It is a calculated attempt to change the world in which we live.

Analysis, in short, may confront, may be absorbed by, or may itself absorb context. Whatever the strategy, the enterprise involves a relocation of analysis, and with it a frank dismissal of the austerities and exclusions of formalism. The emphasis lies rather on inclusion, the 'bringing together' of disparate perspectives and separated categories, and that speaks of a postmodern world. (Jim Samson, p.51)

Jim Samson's essay makes music analysis proactively pluralistic in its scope and design. He propounds the history of analysis as a journey towards the present musicology and delights in the belief that it is a process without ideology, forgetting that he constantly betrays his own, as he chips away at the Christian heart of the nature of music.

Why should we expect conclusions about functions to be generated from researches into origins? (Jim Samson, p.38)

An odd question, considering that man's chief end has been changed since the day he avowed that he evolved from a monkey.

Essay no. 3 Beyond Privileged Contexts: Intertextuality, Influence and Dialogue by Kevin Korsyn

Kevin Korsyn believes there is a problem in musicology today: the musical analyst looks at a piece of music (“text”) from the inside; the music historian looks at the “text” within the “context” of other musical works; but it is not possible to look from both perspectives simultaneously.

We might ask whether this is a problem at all, or simply a matter of semantics. But delve a little further and we discover how much weight is attached to this “problem”, with consequences across composition today.

We must incorporate the word “intertextuality” into our musical vocabulary. It is an attempt to describe a connection between text and context, by describing every piece of music as growing from one that has come before.

“Any text is constructed as a mosaic of quotations ...” (Julia Kristeva, p.56 of Rethinking Music)

Korsyn relates the realm of “intertextuality” to the literary sphere, where the social language of one person and that of another may be juxtaposed in the same sentence, resulting in a hybrid effect rather than synthesis. To set aside Korsyn’s example for one with more punch, we might think of when Del Boy in Only Fools and Horses says goodbye to a woman by saying, “Bonjour, darling”. 

Apply this to music. Korsyn explains that a work by Brahms may be deemed Mozartian and Beethovenian due to musical quotations found in Brahms. In this way, the “text” can be defined by the “context” and the perceived gap between the two is bridged. But to what purpose? In whose interest is it to understand a piece of music is this way?

The truth is that the musicologist cannot understand it in any other way. So the analyst wants to know the period of the “text”, what other art appeared at the same time, the influences on the composer, as well as the history of the text’s genre. This does not help the analyst to appreciate the work by Brahms. It allows the analyst to see that Brahms follows logically from those who have gone before and, in turn, will prove to have been an influence on those who follow after. As Korsyn writes:

The attribution of influence functions here ‘as a benign, even reverential endorsement of humanism’. (p.70)

The composer is therefore valued according to how well he places himself within an imagined panoply of greatness. This excludes all composers whose works do not explicitly reference the works of previously “approved” composers. This excludes all composers whose works do not operate within a known genres of “string quartet”, “symphony” or “song cycle”. The context is being designed. Just as we saw in the previous essay that the canon of “great composers” was a 19th century construction to eliminate (or relegate) some composers, the idea of context has been developed to stop some composers from ever writing music and certainly from being praised for doing so.

In practice this means that the new composer asserts that he is heavily influenced by x and y, that he is fashioning his work as a reimagining of genre z, that his style owes everything to scene w and he absolutely adores and takes inspiration from the clothes of u and the paintings of t. The composer must express these connections in overflowing programme notes, which may well mention the allusions he has made to composers 1, 2 and 3, to make the task (and approval) of the analyst easier.

As these analysts and composers conspire to build an almost “providentially” perfect continuation of music history from one generation to the next, Korsyn pauses to doubt. After all, such planning and order does not sit well with his anarchistic philosophy of art. So he calls for an allowance of discontinuity in history and diversity in text. So having insisted in the first place on finding continuity where there is none and unity by noting minor quotations from one composer to the next, having built an entire compositional system upon this assumption, he says that it is a light thing that could be abandoned!

See how fickle such thinkers are.

They throw away God only to tell the analyst to adopt a view of music history as though he is a “spectator” on the world, in other words, to become God himself (p.67).

They insisted in the 19th century that any music with a “programme” is very low, that music should never been connected to ideas. Then they reinstate the idea of a programme so that the unintelligible noise of new compositions can be favourably interpreted as strangely meaningful when set in the broader context of music history.

Intertextuality is something of a folly. It is far more profitable to view an individual composer as a religious being, whose cultural work flows from his religious beliefs. If the vast majority of a generation are of the same religious beliefs, then they will construct something that predominates in that culture, as a whole. It does not mean that the views or culture produced are the best. It certainly does not mean that those of different religious beliefs must conform by producing work that belongs to another culture than their own!

There is no liberty in Korsyn’s scheme. The composer may not say (as I once did) that Henry Mancini is the influence on his work. The composer is placed in a strait-jacket of a humanistic musical paradigm. 

It is ironic. Some imagine that a Christian culture would suffocate all non-believers into conformity. But I would not ban John Cage. I would not ban Birtwhistle. I would allow them to produce their drivel for a time so that people may learn that bad roots produce rotten fruit, that this is the “music” of men who despise God. 

Korsyn and his friends cannot allow that space for the Christian composer. They are bent on annhiliation of any Christian viewpoint, even as they construct a perspective on music in a foolish attempt to recreate the world with themselves as normal. When the text of their own lives finds itself laid bare in the context of judgment, they may wish for a better thing that “intertextuality”.