Saturday, April 01, 2017

Leonard B. Meyer on the challenge of global pluralism in the arts, and on the distinction between syntactic and statistical climax in music, and implications for the future of fusion
In 1967, musicologist Leonard Meyer published a fiery book that was widely read at the time: Music, the Arts, and Ideas. In it he predicted “the end of the Renaissance,” by which he meant that there would cease to be a musical mainstream, and that instead we would settle into an ahistorical period of stylistic stasis in which a panoply of styles would coexist. This seemed an outrageous forecast at the time, but Meyer’s prescience has been greatly confirmed.

Thanks to Kyle Gann's blogging I was introduced to Meyer's work and have been benefiting from it in the few years since I read the above.

So here we are in 2017, half a century after Meyer's book was originally published and what was Meyer's assessment of his moment?  A sample:

Leonard B. Meyer
Copyright © 1967. 1994 by The University of Chicago
ISBN 0-226-52143-5

page 179-180
Although diversity had been growing since the seventeenth century, the fact was seldom squarely faced. The very ideology that nurtured pluralism tended, until recently, to eclipse its presence and obscure its significance. To believe in progress, in a dialectic of history, or a divine plan was to acknowledge, at least tacitly, the existence of a single force or principle to which all the seeming diversity would one day be related. To accept the Newtonian world view, or later the theory of evolution, was almost inevitably to subscribe to monism and to look forward to a time when all phenomena would be reduced to, or subsumed under, one basic, encompassing set of laws. The notable achievements of science were taken as proof that Truth was One. Behind the manifest variety of phenomena and events lay, it was supposed, the latent unity of the universe which would eventually be discovered and embodied in a simple, all-embracing model. Because the oneness of things was what was real, surface diversity and incongruity could be disregarded.

But this picture of the world is, as we have seen, no longer entirely convincing. …

page 226
For most men, then, one of the central problems of our time—perhaps the central problem--is, and will continue to be, that of learning how to live in a relativistic and pluralistic world, a world without scientific, metaphysical, or aesthetic absolutes. In such a world the attraction of formalism is obvious.

Decades later Meyer would write a lengthy monograph on the Romantic era and its music.  In that book he made an observation I have found immensely valuable in changing my understanding of sonata forms:
Style and Music: theory, history, and ideology
Leonard B. Meyer
The University of Chicago Press
Copyright © 1989 by Leonard B. Meyer
ISBN 0-226-52152-4
page 304

... In sonata-form movements the chief syntactic climax is the action whereby the instabilities and tensions, the ambiguities and uncertainties of the development section are resolved either directly to the stability and certainty of the recapitulation or through the clearly oriented, regularized tension of a dominant preparation.

...Two characteristics of syntactic climax are particularly pertinent for the present discussion. First, though often congruent with a statistical high point, a syntactic climax essentially involves a change in function. It is an action in which the tensions of instability are resolved to the relaxation of regularity. This being so, a syntactic climax can occur at a low point in a statistical/dynamic curve shaped by the secondary parameters. [Meyer's example in this case was Haydn's Op 76, 4 "Sunrise" quartet, movement 1] The second characteristic--one related to the first--is that a syntactic climax can occur relatively early in a musical structure, as early as halfway in a small form and two-thirds of the way through larger ones.

That observation also went a long way to explaining why I found myself loving 18th century sonatas more than 19th century sonatas. 

There's a very specific set of reasons I'm quoting Meyer on how early a syntactic climax can occur in a musical structure on the centennial anniversary of Scott Joplin's death and it has to do with a case I've been formulating over the last couple of years as to why I believe a synthesis of the vocabulary of ragtime can be used as the basis for sonata forms. 

It has generally been a given, per the John McWhorter article I quoted earlier this weekend, that the idiom of ragtime is incompatible with large-scale musical form.  This reflects a commonplace belief that the vocabulary of vernacular or popular styles is, at some level, impossible to incorporate into what are regarded as the forms of high art music. 

Yet even a self-avowed conservative like Roger Scruton can articulate that the gap between what many would call high and low music seems to be a problem.  As he sees it, there's an impasse, a separation between serious music (i.e. art music) and popular music. 

He proposed that:
... the question that surely troubles all serious music-lovers now, which is whether we can find our way to a musical syntax which is as expressive as the tonal language of [George] Rochberg, but which is not shut off from the surrounding world of popular culture.

We could go either way in how we interpret the phrase "serious music-lovers" now, either as people who are serious about their love of music in general or as people who are lovers of whatever they regard as serious music.  The gap between the world of popular culture and what is regarded as high art culture seems too big to writers like Roger Scruton or Richard Taruskin.  The question they have both posed but have not, as writers or composers, formulated an answer to, is how the gap between popular and high-art musical styles might be bridged.  Since Scruton went to the trouble of mentioning George Rochberg we can let Rochberg speak for himself:

The Aesthetics of Survival: A Composer’s View of Twentieth-Century Music
George Rochberg
Copyright © 1984 by the University of Michigan
ISBN 0-472-10037-8

Page 240
… the twentieth century has pointed—however reluctant we may be to accept it in all areas of life, social as well as political, cultural as well as intellectual—toward a difficult-to-define pluralism, a world of new mixtures and combinations of everything we have inherited from the past and whatever we individually or collectively value in the inventions of our own present, replete with juxtapositions of opposites (or seeming opposites) and contraries. …

Page 241 (from “On the Third String Quartet”)

Granting pluralism, how is a composer to deal with it? From the inside out, i.e., from the internal psychic imagery which becomes the musical gesture to its artistic manifestation. Gesture, singly or in combination, successive or simultaneous, is the determining factor—not style, language, system or method.

Rochberg, for those unfamiliar with his work, wrote at least one rag.

If gesture, not style, nor language, nor system, nor method can be the determining factor of how a composer can deal with a pluralism that must be granted rather than ignored, what kind of gesture would it be?  There are any number of ways this can be done.  We could begin with the gesture and explore the ways it could be transformed by means of a language, style, system, or method.  Or we could survey styles to see what gestures persist across styles.  When I immersed myself in ragtime and in 19th century guitar sonatas I began to notice that many a melodic turn in a guitar sonata theme could sound like the beginnings of a ragtime if a few rhythms were changed.  Or I would notice that many of the harmonic devices deployed in rags were more or less shared in the cadential preparations I would find in guitar sonatas.  In the very long 19th century the sonatas of the early masters of the six-string guitar and the masters of ragtime had far more in common than not. 

Yet there's a great deal of value in learning style, language, system and method before you attempt to work with gesture.  If you don't have all of these then were you to discover a gesture that is on the cusp of almost any musical style you wouldn't know what you could do with it.  If your thought process is constrained by one method of thinking about a sonata form then you're not open to the possibilities that there's more than one way to think of sonata, not merely as a form cast in a plan but as a variable scriptable process. 

Roger Scruton's question as to whether we can find a musical language as expressive as that of Rochberg's that is not shut off from the world of popular culture seems eminently easy to answer if we look to ragtime and to look to ragtime we can hardly ignore Scott Joplin.  If we consider John McWhorter's caution about Joplin's style and ragtime in general, we need to ask whether it's really true that ragtime is somehow incompatible with larger scale music or with the possibilities of sustained developmental musical "argument".  In essence the question that Scruton has asked can receive an answer if we consider the possibility that ragtime, one of the foundations of all sorts of popular music in the United States over the last century, can be used to compose sonata forms, by and large considered the apotheosis of the high art music idiom of the 19th and early 20th centuries. 

I think that between Leonard B. Meyer and George Rochberg the conceptual foundation for a ragtime/sonata fusion could be laid, but that to move further toward such a fusion we need musicology that is not beholden to the 19th century assumptions about musical "argument" and form that Joplin was, according to John McWhorter, in so many ways limited by. 

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