Introductory notes on speaking about Music [Thomas Dworschak]

Contemporary music aims at forming sounds in a way that does not always make itself apparent. The way it is fashioned invites the listener to a sort of discovery. This thought might seem obvious, but it is in tension with a presupposition seemingly so evident that it often goes unnoticed: the presupposition that music – like every art – should speak for itself. Taking this into consideration, speaking about music appears to be an unnecessary undertaking – some frivolous discussion continued simply out of habit. It may also even seem to harm the music if it proceeds by imposing theoretical terms on it and thus engrossing the music, fitting it into clichés and forcing it under rules that never reach up to the sounding life of the work, but rather hold it down with pins and let it dry up like a butterfly in a showcase. Speaking about music, it seems, annihilates what is not self-evident in contemporary music, resorting to trite expressions, which, contrary to the music, are only too easily understood. Speaking about music seems to block the way for the true discovery of music.

This thought implies a further, seemingly obvious presupposition. It concerns the questions: What is a theory, and what does it mean to apply the concepts of a theory? It is often believed that a theory and its concepts are like a cupboard with its drawers and shelves. For instance, a psychological theory – not necessarily a scientific theory, but even an informal one as used in everyday life – tries to sort human characteristics into various categories. How does one apply such a theory? Does it work by making us see every single person in the light of its descriptions, so that we can sort them into different shelves and drawers in such a way that later we may take those people out of them again and tell them that they are just someone who shuns risk, likes to command, or doesn’t like to attract attention? And does it therefore allow us to claim – since it tells us what “kind” of person someone is – that we know and can even predict how “this type of person” behaves, thinks and feels ?

This is, of course, part of any kind of theory, whether it be a scientific one (sociological, psychological, economic, political, aesthetic) or rooted in informal, everyday use. It would be useless if it did not claim that its categorizations might lead to some predictions. Now, the thought we started with – that a theory falls short of doing justice to its object simply because it generalizes and categorizes – relies on supposing that a theory cannot be applied without making a certain mistake. This mistake is the thought that a theory is complete as soon as every single case – human characteristics, forms of social interaction, political structures, literary, musical, sculptural or pictorial styles and forms, and any other possible object of theorization – is sorted into its categories and that the resulting order gives us the right to claim that we have understood the single cases and can predict future developments from what we have sorted.

However, humans, markets, governments and (hopefully) art continue to behave and develop in a way unforeseen by theories in their current state. Time and again, they do something that was not evident or predictable. They exceed theorizing. Music does this as well, as it seems to recede into ineffability when we attempt to approach it through language, thereby telling us more than we could have ever said about it afterwards. Should we therefore stop theorizing since the aforementioned fault is an inevitable part of it – the fault of claiming to be complete and afterwards being overtaken by a single event or, in the present case, a piece of art?

One answer to this question reflects more closely on what theory is. Another answer reflects on what would be if there were no theory. The first answer points to the idea of a theory not succumbing to the mistake presupposed above. It points to the idea of a theory that does not seek its correctness in giving a detailed and complete list of categories but instead accepts that it continues to develop and that it might articulate itself in a contradictory fashion. This kind of theory is not a list of propositions and rules but rather an activity, which produces propositions and yet continually considers them anew, asking how they are related to the manifold single cases through which the categories of a theory should help us to find our way. What is printed in books and other texts is therefore not theory in its complete form, but only a stage in the process of theory.

Even here, one might object that the appropriate way to approach art is to confront the single works unprejudiced and unequipped with a network of concepts and propositions, since such a network merely distracts us from paying attention to the single and unique work. The objection says that theory is disruptive, regardless of whether it consideres itself complete or preliminary.

Only the second answer faces this objection and gives light to the sense of theorizing and talking about music. The second answer says that theorizing and talking are not opposed to paying attention to the single and unique case, but rather are the condition for our being able to do precisely this. Arguably, art characteristically outstrips what we say about it, and this outstripping forms an important part of its value. However, this presupposes that there is something to be outstripped, something that forms the background for music to appear not merely as a single [einzeln] object or event, but as a special [besonders] one. [1]

The sense of this distinction may become clear if we reflect on how we can treat what is single and unique – more precisely, one single and unique fact after the other. At any rate, works of music and the other arts do not come alone. If we really wanted to confront them unequipped with theoretical and conceptual thought, we would soon no longer experience the single and unique works and their parts and elements as exciting and colourful. Their manifold colours would mix into the dull grey of confusion and boredom since we could not have noticed and could not tell which feature it was that could have appeared exciting and colourful to us. We might have noticed our own excitement or amazement but not what we had been excited or amazed about – what it was that had outstripped the evident categories.

However, if we consider our amazement, we are on the right track – regardless of how endless it may appear – to capture the single amazing moment and to relate it to a background consisting of everything that had once become understandable or evident in all the music we had listened to during our life and in all the other domains of experience. It is only against this background that we experience music that is new to us not merely as unique but as special. This means that it specifies itself by separating from what we are used to and from what we understand without losing contact to this background of previous understanding, which is the condition for the single work to appear in its peculiar and special form.

This background is shaped in the process of theoretical and theorizing thought, however rudimentarily executed. The (preliminary) result of such a process is a concept; and a concept is that which allows us to see that something is what it is and not something else. What I called special does not appear to be self-evident against the background of a concept: It is not identical to the meaning of the concept, rather something else. However, it remains related to the concept. So, what is it? If we want to say what it is, we rework the concepts we already possess by making them more precise, by differentiating them, by restricting or enhancing their meaning. This process is theory in the ancient sense of the word. It is a process of contemplation, but not with the aim of losing oneself. Instead, its aim is to understand. This process allows us to experience a special work as more than singular. It motivates the refinement of our concepts, which in turn allows us to experience more precisely whatever appears new to us afterwards; it allows us to hear more in it.

Up to now, we have focused on music and how it relates to a background of theory. Now, it is necessary to once more consider theory itself since it may be subject to certain demands. This is due to the fact that contemporary music is talked and written about quite frequently, often with the aim of giving the listener some kind of orientation. The theory used for this purpose tends to be primarily technical: It presents us with lists and tables of pitches, durations, chords, sound events, rules of permutation and combination, it counts, weighs and draws diagrams. By presenting an analysis of this kind, it allows us a glimpse into the composer’s workshop.

However, as one famous musicologist objected, “the workshop is not the work”. Analysing how music has been made does not necessarily do justice to what has been made. After all, music, more than any other of the arts, bears in itself a theoretical aspect whose general concepts are solid, in fact quite rigid. This mainly concerns the names of the tones and the values of duration. They define the elements of music with great precision. Since these fundamental concepts are so solid and definite, the theory of the workshop is quite prestigious, because what has been established through it cannot so easily be refuted. It is the solid framework of the construction of a work of music. This framework allows a foothold to anyone who attempts to speak about it.

Regardless of how important insights into the construction of music may be, they alone are not sufficient to disclose a work of music as special. This concerns particularly contemporary music insofar as it makes little use of principles of construction that had remained a valid and obvious background over a long period of time, such as tonality and metre, but instead claims to establish the principles of structure anew in each work. If explaining the construction starts from the elementary dimensions of pitch and duration, abstaining from further models of interpretation, it just shows what is there– in the music as it is written down –, but it hardly pushes beyond these facts by asking how the music we hear is related to the structure as described and to what extent it is not restricted to it. The latter is what makes it more than construction and therefore something special.

If we hear more than structure in the music, we make use of concepts acquired through our experience and through the subsequent familiarity with music as it appears to our senses. Such concepts are not rigid, but flexible, since they do not define elements. They are concerned with the sensual medium of experience. Therefore, they stem from being in the world and behaviour in the world: from language, from thought, from body movements, from feeling, from expression, from our interactions with living beings, machines or landscapes. Music appears in motion, alive, as a mechanism, as space, and much more. Speaking about music has to grapple with these conceptual fields if it wants to disclose what is special about music. We can understand the fact that the structural elements of a work are connected in a certain way and not in another if we assume that the constructing intellect had enriched itself by means of sensual experience and that it had confronted it. This confrontation generates what is special in a work of contemporary music. What we listen to is more than structure thanks to its conceptual background of worldly experiences. On the other hand, it is more than the general habits of listening thanks to the possibilities of constructing music regardless of these common perceptions and habits. If speaking about music remains in motion between the poles of what we have already acquired and understood and of what outstrips our fixed ideas, it is able to reveal music to us anew every time, instead of pinning it down.

[1] Note to the reader: This is Hegelian terminology, adopted and translated in an idiosyncratic fashion.


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