Monday, May 10, 2021

Ethan Hein on music not being a universal language, Leonard Meyer back in the 20th C on the Western theoretical scholarly penchant to synthesize Romantic ideology with 20th C scientistic positivism in music theory

Anyway. The idea of “musical universals” very quickly devolves into “Western European music is universal”, and that is some white nonsense. There might be some broad overlaps between disparate forms of human music, just as there are similarities in our cooking and clothing and languages and so on. But the particulars are always going to be culturally specific.

Back in the last century Leonard Meyer made some comments about the legacy of Romanticism and its quest for musical "oneness": 

The Spheres of Music: A Gathering of Essays
Leonard B. Meyer
Copyright (c) 2000 by the University of Chicago
ISBN: 0-226-52153-2 (cloth)
ISBN: 0-226-52154-0 (paper)

From A Pride of Prejudices; or, Delight in Diversity  (1991)

Page 262

In the late, late Romantic ideology of our time oneness is All, and all is Oneness. A composition is considered to be more coherent and intelligible, more significant and aesthetically valuable, if every pitch and every pattern can be traced to a single germinal cell and if all relationships can be understood as instantiations of a single, underlying principle or scheme. In the Romantic view, the oneness of art is organic, and this belief is bedded with others growing in the ideological garden—for instance, nourishing notions about a composition’s logic and inevitability, a bourgeois infatuation with the virtues of artistic economy, and, above all, a deeply rooted belief in the fertile force and necessity of natural relationships as opposed to the contingency and conventionality of cultural constraints.

Page 263
Because a sense of unity is the result of a concatenation of conditions, different epochs have attributed it to different aspects of music. Indeed, what any epoch takes to be the important sources of unity might serve as a touchstone for its central aesthetic/ideological concerns. For instance, eighteenth century music theorists considered unity to be a matter of coherent character and expression.  Thus, J. S. Bach might well have been appalled by the contrasts of affect present in a symphonic movement by Mozart; and, even if Rudolf Reti himself had relentlessly reasoned, demonstrating the derivation of every pattern, Bach might still have refused to acknowledge the unity of the movement. And, in our own century, Schoenberg would surely have considered the stylistic/affective disparities present in some of Berio’s recent works incompatible with musical unity. Yet, once cultural belief sanctions such disparity, unity ceases to be problematic. 
[These observations call attention to the role of affect, gesture, and topic in musical experience. The question is not, as is sometimes supposed, how to relate character, affect, or topic to the musical pattern. For, when the claims of convention, as well as those of nature, are acknowledged, this is not a daunting difficulty …

Page 264
3. The denigration of convention, coupled with the failure to develop a viable theory of motivic succession, may in part explain the tendency of theorist/critics to devise narrative rationales for instrumental music. For what verbal narrative programs supply may precisely be “reasons” for such succession.

Page 265
In the eighteenth century the nature of unity was not a pressing problem. This was so for two main reasons: first, because differences and contrasts in musical patterning and expression could be subsumed as parts of functional, syntactic hierarchies and, second, because such relationships were understood and explained in terms of conventions of form and genre.  For instance, the relationships among the different movements of a symphony were taken for granted by both theorists and composers as being in the nature of the genre.

But the Romantic repudiation of convention, coupled with the denigration and weakening of syntactic constraints, highlighted the presence of diversity. Questions arose about the nature and basis of musical coherence and unity. What made the several parts of a composition—the movements of a symphony or the components of a collection of characteristic pieces—form an aesthetically satisfactory whole?  Within movements, the problems were no less pressing. For the Romantic depreciation of convention made syntax per se seem a doubtful basis for coherence. What, other than unoriginal , uninspired convention, could account for the kinds and order of events, in, say, a sonata-form movement? How could earlier themes be related to later ones if syntax seemed suspect and conventions of form were deemed arbitrary?

Pages 265-266
Of the many strategies thought to enhance musical unity, none was more important during the last 150 years than that which was based upon similarity relationships. The importance of similarity relationships—usually through derivation from, or transformation of, a single germinal motivic seed, was emphasized by theorists and composers. …

The idea of coherence and unity through similarity relationships prevailed because  it as consonant with the ideology of Romanticism and with the needs of the novices in the bourgeois audience.

The first, and perhaps most important, point is that the apprehension of pattern similarity is not essentially dependent upon the constraints of tonal syntax or the conventions of musical form. In this sense, the unity created by similarity is a natural one, based upon classlike identity rather than upon learned constraints.

Page 267
… The depreciation of conventional constraints, together with the Romantic valuing of originality and individuality, led to a burgeoning of compositional possibilities.  The result was a significant increase in the number of deliberate, time-consuming choices that composers had to make. One symptom of this increase is that, since the eighteenth century, there has been a marked decrease in the output of composers:  from Bach to Beethoven to Brahms to Boulez. There is no reason to attribute this decrease to a decline in the genius of composers. Rather, it occurred because the weaker the constraints of any style, the more difficult compositional decisions become. Unity through similarity was one way of coping with the proliferation of possibilities since, once a theme or motive had been adopted, its conservation served as a constraint that reduced the number of consequent compositional choices.

Page 277
… There are no innocent eyes or naïve ears for any member of any culture—and to be human is to be a member of some culture. John Cage’s aleatory music, for instance, tries to foist auditory innocence upon us. But his Romantic enterprise is an exercise in futility. What we know we cannot ignore: the sound of an oboe is not that of a nightingale; a cavernous auditorium is not a canyon; the rustling silence of an audience at a concert of Cage’s 4’33” is not that of a Maine seashore on a summer’s evening. Innocence was lost not when Eve at the apple but when she knew that it was an apple that she had eaten.

It is the nature of human beings to be nurtured by cultural constraints. And the time has come, this Walrus thinks, for music theorists and psychologists to consider seriously the claims of culture and of history. After all, our primary data—pieces of music—are a result of choices made by composers, choices that are made in terms of both prevalent constraints and of guiding goals. Such constraints and goals are always significantly affected by culture and history.

I've written about this in the past but it bears repeating. Meyer proposed back in the last century that Western music theory was suffering from a hang-over (my description) from the following:

To read Meyer is to get a sense that we in Western musicology, but particularly in the United States, may be suffering from some kind of granddaddy of meta-historical Romantic hangovers in Spheres of Music:
Page 291

The relatively recent concern of music theorists with the detailed analysis of hierarchic structure has led to an incongruous coupling—a coupling of nineteenth-century ideology and twentieth-century science. What seems to have happened is this: the Romantic esteem for the mysteries of the “profound”—in Wordsworth’s words, of “thoughts that do often lie too deep for words”—led to the valuing of what lay beneath the surface of things.  Misconstruing this belief, theorists in more than one field have been beguiled into believing that the “deepest level of structure”—for instance, the Schenkerian Ursatz or Jung’s archetypes—is “profound” and hence more significant than the patent patterning of the phenomenal foreground. 
In other words, as I've explained in past disagreement with Ted Gioia, the quest for musical universals has been rejected by musicologists in the West because it's so easy to establish the Western impulse behind that and because, for instance, Leonard Meyer, one of the more influential and respected musicologists in the United States in the last sixty years, made a compelling argument that there are no musical universals, just the physical acoustics of sound on the one hand and the cognitive patterns that prevail in the human brain on the other, points he made in the previous century.

Conceding that musical conventions are just conventions rather than "universal" doesn't confine us, it lets us recognize that musical conventions are human constructs and that they can be modified accordingly.  If a dour Calvinist can recognize this then those who advocate "universal" music who can't may be stuck on the idea of an essentially Romanticist post-Wagnerian "art religion" that "needs" universals for their art-religion to be that, art-religion, something the rest of us don't necessarily need.  

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