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Questions on Music for Five Experts – Part Five

Questions on Music for Five Experts – Part Five

niin & näin 3/15

[ks. suomenkielinen versio]


Max Paddison
Professor Emeritus of Music Aesthetics
Durham University
Author of Adorno’s Aesthetics of Music (1993) & Adorno, Modernism and Mass Culture (1996)


What is music? What does it mean?

Music is sometimes defined as “the experience of organized sound unfolding through time”, but this doesn’t really help very much because it’s such a broad generalization and seems to contradict our actual experience of music, which is always that of something very individual and particular. It’s also probably better not to talk about ‘music’ in general terms, but rather about different ‘musics’ in different ‘contexts of meaning’. But all music certainly seems to shape our experience of time in one way or another, and it enables us to have a particular kind of sensory experience that is both non-conceptual and coherent. This has the value of showing us something new and particular that is difficult to generalize in terms of our usual available conceptual categories. Perhaps for this reason the experience can feel liberating and, for an instant, can show us something different about the world. To this extent you could say that it is a non-conceptual mode of cognition, a form of knowing through the articulation of relationships between sounds within the relatively closed world of a piece of music. At the same time, however, I think it’s important that we recognize that the sense of ‘meaningful continuity through time’ that seems to us to be the dominant characteristic of music is not really a property of a piece of music in itself, but is something we bring to it. I agree with Gaston Bachelard in this respect, when he argues in La Dialectique de la Durée that, while music might be imbued with causality through its construction, the experience of duration as continuity is not an automatic given, but is itself psychologically constructed through having been learned. Furthermore, the sense of continuity and duration is an experience constructed in reverse, and is a result of a combination of memory and expectation – in effect, the sense of the ‘form’ of a piece of music is as much the result of a psychological process of ‘re-forming’ as it is of the facticity of the piece as structure ‘in itself’.

So, in view of all of this, what does music mean? It could well be that it doesn’t ‘mean’ anything at all, at least in general terms and in the normal dictionary sense of the word, as Peter Kivy has argued. If what you mean by ‘meaning’ is that a particular piece of music corresponds directly to something outside itself, then this takes us down the blind alley of claiming, for example, that the meaning of the sixth piece from Schönberg’s 6 Kleine Klavierstücke (Op.19) is fully explained by the historical fact that Schönberg wrote it shortly after returning from Mahler’s funeral in the Spring of 1911, and that the slow pianissimo dissonant chords in this tiny work are meant to evoke the sound of funeral bells. To say that this is what the piece 'means' – and this is a position reinforced in some areas of musicology taking their lead from semiotics and semiology in the form of ‘topic theory’ – seems to me to be totally inadequate. But the term ‘meaning’ is itself a very loose concept, and is used in a range of very different ways. As is widely recognized, music can be ‘meaningful’ to us through associations aroused in us because of where, when, and with whom we first heard it. Music can also appear to ‘make sense’ in itself through our perception of correspondences, interconnections, repetitions and developments of particular musical ‘ideas’ at a structural level in a piece. Music can also be central to ritual, religious, ceremonial or celebratory occasions, where it means something to us in a collective context through taking us out of ourselves as individuals.

While these might all be aspects of the ways in which music means something to us, none of them can be said to constitute the ‘meaning’ of a piece of music in any definitive and absolute sense. It seems to me that our experience of a piece of music, as with any artwork, is characterized by a fundamental and intrinsic ambiguity that confronts us anew each time we listen to it.

Why do we keep listening to it?

We keep listening to music presumably, in the first instance, because it’s pleasurable, although over time this might cease to be the main motivation, so that we are able to become more experimental and interested in trying out new kinds of music and new experiences. We might also therefore choose to listen to music we don’t find immediately appealing, perhaps in the hope of discovering something new and finding ourselves somewhere else.

Another reason is because we hear music differently with each re-hearing, especially if we’re talking about a particular piece of music, as, for instance, a complex work like Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata, or one of the late recordings of John Coltrane, in the same way that we might re-read a novel and get to know it differently on each subsequent reading.

And a further reason is because in listening to music we also experience ourselves in relation to the music. The encounter with music, as with any art form, is a kind of silent dialogue with ourselves – ‘silent’ in the paradoxical sense that, while music is self-evidently a ‘sounding’ phenomenon, our experience of it can also be that of a silent and possibly conceptless relationship to something that is both completely independent of us and simultaneously ‘inside’ us.

What has not been comprehended about music?

The most difficult thing to grasp about music (and indeed about any artwork) is that there always remains something that resists our attempt to comprehend it fully, if by the word 'comprehend' you mean to discover the correct answer, or the solution to a problem. We might think we’ve understood all there is to understand about a piece, especially as musicologists or philosophers, or indeed even as performers and interpreters, but if we’re honest, when we turn back to the piece we realize with some trepidation that we have not really understood or explained anything substantial about it at all. The piece appears before us as if we had never really heard it before.

A further unexplained thing about music concerns the ways in which people experience it very differently. Some people seem to have an instinctive capacity to grasp music as structures unfolding in time, while others don’t hear it like that at all, and hear it in a more ‘spatial’ way, as circling around a point in space.

And finally, it seems to me that ‘musical understanding’ (as opposed to ‘understanding music’) is a constantly expanding process through an accumulation of experience (which is, of course, partly cultural, but also partly an accumulation of personal experiences). In a very real sense, therefore, we ‘learn’ how to listen to music as an open-ended and continuing process. If our experience remains open to change, how can we ever feel that we have fully comprehended a piece of music?

What is the most deplorable misunderstanding concerning music? What is the most important goal for musicology or philosophy of music?

I think that the most deplorable misunderstanding that seems to accompany all systematic and disciplinary attempts to interpret art (and music in particular) is a failure to grasp that the truly defining feature of all art is its built-in resistance to interpretation. By this I don’t mean something airy-fairy; what I’m referring to is the structural, material, thing-like qualities of art, the ‘physiognomy’ of a piece of music.

At the same time, however, we cannot abandon the attempt to interpret art works because they demand that we try again and again to understand our experience of them. Boulez, speaking as a composer, has said that there is an “impenetrable kernel of darkness” (un noyau infracassable de nuit) at the heart of the activity of composition, and I suggest that this also characterizes our experience of music as listeners. It's perhaps what Adorno meant when he said that to make art is “to make things of which we do not know what they are” (Dinge machen, von denen wir nicht wissen was sie sind). The most important goal for musicology and the philosophy of music is to address this built-in ‘moment of resistance’ without simply trying to explain it away.

Why do we still need to listen to Mozart? Why would it be advisable to try to
fathom Stockhausen’s pieces? 

I don’t think I can answer this question directly. All that I can say is that the beguiling surface familiarity and fluency of Mozart’s music can also make it difficult for us today to perceive its underlying complexity and even strangeness (a piece like the Phantasie in C minor for Piano (K.475) is an example of such strangeness, in spite of the temptation to try to explain this away in musicological terms by pointing to the ‘fantastical’ and improvisatory implications that belong to the genre of the fantasia). On the other hand, the self-evident strangeness and overwhelming diversity of Stockhausen’s sound world can act as a barrier to our penetrating further to grasp its remarkable and exhilarating structural coherence, the way the composer creates interpenetrating worlds within worlds, from the microscopic to the macroscopic (as is the case, for instance, with his 1970 work Mantra for 2 Pianos, Sine-wave Generators and Ring Modulators).

Is the distinction between absolute or autonomous music on the one hand, and non-absolute or non-autonomous music on the other, a serviceable tool in making sense of the topic?

This is a very complex issue! The distinction between 'autonomous music' and various notions of what might constitute 'heteronomy' in music' does not make immediate sense without critically unpicking these concepts. The concept of ‘autonomous music’ is much misunderstood and has become very contentious, so that it is frequently used now by some musicologists as a stick with which to beat (Western) classical music. One aspect of this misunderstanding is that it's never clear exactly what might be regarded as the opposite of autonomous music (popular musics? Non-Western musics? Music that has some kind of social function? The possibilities created by new technologies?).

Another aspect that is usually overlooked is that the division is not fixed and final. It’s perfectly clear that nothing is completely autonomous, in the sense of being totally free-standing and uninfluenced by anything else, and in the case of ‘autonomous music’ things have not been helped by the tendency in certain areas of both musicology and analytic philosophy to ignore the historical, social and political context of art and its various social functions, including its commercial commodification and its historical mediation.

I think it’s important to recognize that so-called ‘autonomous music’ is a product of a particular historical period in European history, and is inseparable from the division of labour that arose out of the industrial revolution in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. These conditions inevitably affected the arts in the rapidly industrializing parts of the world to the extent that they became hived off into separate and highly specialized spheres of activity.

I agree with Adorno on this, that there's no way back to some imagined community, a pre-industrial collective music-making that probably never existed anyway – and even if it appears to exist in one form or another today it's quickly made to conform to the needs of globalized capitalism. In the case of ‘art music’ we appear to be stuck with the division for the time being, I’m afraid, so I think it’s important to try to make sense of it. In my view the only way to do this is to penetrate the historically and socially mediated character of so-called autonomous or absolute music, and to trace the ways in which its materials, forms, and technical means both derive from and relate to the larger socio-economic tendencies of their historical period. Such an approach can reveal that ‘autonomous music’ of the classical tradition is not really autonomous at all because it is mediated by the dominant modes of production of its period in very material ways (for instance, by its technical means). At the same time, however, I think that it is a great mistake to think that ‘autonomous music’ simply conforms to the dominant norms and hierarchies of its period. The ‘moment of resistance’ that I’ve suggested can be encountered in particular pieces of music of this kind is also, in a sense, a resistance to domination as well as to conceptualization.

What are you studying currently?

I’m working on concepts of musical meaning at the moment.

What are you listening to right now?

Currently I’m listening to several different things. One is jazz – the alto saxophonist and clarinettist Art Pepper’s recordings at Ronnie Scott’s club in London in the early 1980s.These recordings have been an illumination for me, and the sheer inventiveness of Art Pepper’s playing with the Bulgarian pianist Milcho Leviev is astonishing, and has produced some of the most creative jazz I’ve ever heard. Another thing I’m listening to is the music of the German contemporary composer Helmut Lachenmann, in particular his orchestral work Schwankungen am Rand. Lachenmann’s completely original approach to using the familiar instruments of the orchestra to create an entirely new world of sound becomes ever more engaging each time I listen to this work.

And for quite other reasons I’m also listening a lot to Leonard Cohen’s most recent album Popular Problems (2014) – but I won’t go into that now.


[cf. the other four staccato interviews: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four]


Asiasanat: in English, music, an interview, musiikki, haastattelut, [HTML]
Teema/osio: Musiikki
Henkilöviitteet: Paddison, Max

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