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Music and the Absolute: A Composer's Thoughts

February 10, 2017

 

The London School of Economics has an excellent podcast series, in which university lectures on a broad array of topics are broadcast to a wider public.  This week they released a panel discussion called "Music and the Absolute," in which the composer/performer Nimrod Borenstein answered questions about the absolute qualities of music that were posed by Philosophy Professor Adrian Moore of Oxford University.  

 

Professor Moore posed intelligent questions in an attempt to form some kind of metaphysical groundwork by which the discussion might be elaborated on. Here I muse on alternatives to Mr. Borenstein's replies, which although illuminating of the composer's creative process, also opened fertile ground for thought.

 

Q: What do you mean by the absolute [in music]?

 

A: The term 'absolute' has different meanings in musical jargon, depending on which piece and time period you are applying the term to.  But the most common use of the term is one that was put forward by the 19th century Vienesse critic Eduard Hanslick, who asserted that absolute music is, "music for music's sake".  Though the expression may sound like a circular statement, it is not without its subtleties, and furthermore it is the metaphysical floor that many philosophical arguments in music stand on. 

 

Because music is a fundamentally abstract art, being expressed in written form through its own unique system of notation (notice that I avoid the word 'language' to describe music) for expediency's sake, we most often talk about music in terms that can be empirically named: crotchets, period phrases, harmonies, timbres, and the like.  Why not speak about music in less technical terms? While there is certainly a connection between written note, heard sound, and spoken language up to a certain point, to make any certain statements about music would require the construction of a new, standardized lexicon.  While there is a case to be made for this approach, ultimately, because many of those who speak about music are themselves musicians, music is usually described in its own terms.  The advantage of this mode of expression is an ease of communication between specialists, but unfortunately this advantage comes with the considerable expense of usually excluding non-specialists from the conversation.

 

In an attempt to answer the question- what is "absolute" in music is that which makes it so.  In other words, music defines itself.  To say anything else--even though I personally suspect music is much more than just music--would require metaphysical assumptions about what music "is".  

 

Q: How important is the position and development of the idea germ in the piece?

 

A: Mr. Borenstein's answer that each piece is its own process and world, true as it may be, deserves some elaboration.  Here I sensed the underlying assumption in the question is that if a given passage of music occured indiscriminately at any point in the musical structure, the idea of the absolute would be undermined.  Traditionally music theorists have answered this assumption in the affirmative.  Moving forward from this assumption, two relevant questions quickly emerge.  The first and most important is, what are the criterion that qualify a "musical germ"? The secondary question might be, what is the relationship between syntax and music?  I will answer the former first, and allude to the latter in response to the next question.

 

In the canon of classical music traditionally revered most by music theorists and philosophers (Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, generally anything written between 1775 and 1830), the ideal work of musical art is one that manifests the principal of "organic unity".  The concept is as follows.  In an organically unified piece of music, the germ relates to the whole work in much the same way as DNA relates to any living creature.  One is an inextricable expression of the other.  So while it is in one way possible to talk about different "idea levels" of the germ- and for a century now, theorists have made it their game to find ever more total connections within the pieces of music they study- in the other way, because the whole work and each part represents a complete and total thought in itself, the two are inseparable.  This idea has its roots in the aesthetic practice of the ancient music of the medieval and renaissance- the aesthetic idea being that a piece of music should avoid meaningless repetition in favor of creating, as the 17th century theorist Joseph Fux says (I paraphrase), a "sound garden bearing the most exquisite variety of flowers".

 

Q: Are there composers who have great "seeds" but not very "good" works?

 

A: Absolutely.  Think about any piece of popular music that one hears today.  The "hook" of any pop song is a perfectly fertile musical seed that propagates in the minds of its listeners with a fecundity that is several orders of magnitude greater than the music of what we generally refer to as "art" music, assuming that musical seeds come in different shapes and sizes.  Of course, there are hooks in the western musical canon as well; anyone can recognize the opening to Beethoven's 5th Symphony or the finale theme from Rossinni's William Tell Overture.  Cultural exposure has an element to play here.  But suffice it to say that the same element of "good seeds" is at work in both western art music, and the popular music of today.  The difference between the two, as musicologists say, is that the seeds of the masters are rendered with such exquisite and articulate expressiveness that their "meaning" is able to transcend the ages and remain eternally relevant, whereas popular music is ephemeral because the ideas contained therein are fatally simple, randomly ordered nonsense.  There are linguistic parallels here, and this question could eventually run into the syntax/meaning question that I alluded to above, as well as the nature/nurture debate.

 

So as you can see there is much more ground that can be explored from this discussion, to say nothing of the creative process which was discussed at length in the course of the lecture. Here I leave it to you to listen to the podcast and decide for yourself.

 

In closing I would like to comment that Mr. Borenstein's musical ideology as articulated during his interview is one that seemingly looks to the past for inspiration and, if not dogmatic, belies a profound respect for the western musical canon.  While there is much to be said for valuing the excellences of our musical predecessors, a perspective that so strongly values the past, and particularly, the subjective emotional aspect of music, in my opinion, relies too heavily on "common sense" and antiquated ideas to be of much philosophical value.  And while I believe it is important for performers and composers to have a deep understanding of historical and emotional aspects of music, this face, which is by definition extremely subjective and difficult to speak about with certainty, is perhaps not the ideal musical face to be seen by the wider intelectual public.

 

And finally, it is vitally important that we give due consideration to the many other contemporary composers who, in addition to Mr. Borenstein, are focused on exploring the new intellectual ground laid down over the past hundred years.  I assert that we must listen to the music of future, and not the past, if we wish to find compelling new truths between the overlapping spheres of music, the humanities at large, science, and philosophy.

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