Friday, December 15, 2006

locating the music: past|present|future tense

Still being distracted from that ‘real’ writing I should be doing, but….

This started at surviving the crunch. Well, the entry ‘the past sure is tense’ had this interesting phrase:

At some point in antiquity music only existed in the present tense.
Which is what I queried about. Ted Reichman posted an entry as a reply, and here’s my own response (and some clarification of my short and vague original query).

I understand that TR was “making up these terms as [he] went along,” but sometimes hiding away in little slips like these are the stuff of our culture—how we think about, categorize, and order. It is the kind of thing that, on one occasion, I might say, and, on another occasion, I might question. I queried the statement not because I have any answers, but because it intersects with issues that I’m interested in. Furthermore, since we’ve been handed down a set of beliefs, frameworks and vocabularies to talk about music that might not be one hundred per cent applicable to a given musical practice (in improvised musics, for example), these may be issues that radically affect how we practice and discuss music.
Much musicological discourses, for instance, depend the ‘work’ concept, and values teleological structures. It strikes me, however, that performance, and improvisation in particular, can mess with our ‘normal’ notions of causality and temporality, and question (at the very least) the discrete, autonomous nature of the ‘work.’

I hope this is okay with TR, but I’m not going to reply directly to his entry, but instead use small sections of it as a bounce off point for examining some of these issues, and maybe clarifying (to myself) why I might have asked the question in the first place.
…Until people invented any forms of musical notation, recording etc. and thus became able to fix music, or at least an abstracted representation of music, into a durable physical form, if a specific piece of music, or even a way of making music, faded from the memory of every individual who ever knew it or heard it, poof, it was gone.
As a practicing improviser, I’m pretty sure TR doesn’t mean it in this way, but if we accept this at face value, we’re only a stone’s throw from saying what the very old edition of the Grove Dictionary said:
It [extemporization or improvisation] is… the primitive act of music-making…. Among all primitive peoples… musical composition consists of extemporization subsequently memorized, and the process can proceed no farther until some method of notation is devised to record the composer’s musical thoughts independently of his musical performance. [my emphasis]
entry on ‘extemporization or improvisation’ in Eric Blom ed. (1954), The Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians 5th ed. vol. II, 1975 reprint, (London: MacMillan Press), p. 89.
I wonder if we’ve all been brainwashed here. As performers (and improvisers) do we want to accept these terms? Is improvisation a “primitive act”? Is the recording process the route towards progress/evolution?
Having said all this, I think TR articulates the core issue in the following statement:
We wouldn't be able to do this historical examination without the recorded evidence.
True, true, true, but the most basic recording device/technology in this case has nothing to do directly with those that we have been citing (audio recording and notation). The “applying [of] a set of contemporary ideas, canonizing, critiquing in hindsight” can be done with just two things: Memory and language (floating in a soup of society and culture).
…but I still remember the musical material of this concert (and so do John and Matt because we still talk about it)…
All of which is activated by memory and language (feeding-off of, and feeding-back on, society and culture). You are, in more than one sense, ‘re-experiencing it’ and ‘re-creating it.’ TR is in this case, perhaps, “applying a set of contemporary ideas, canonizing, critiquing in hindsight.”

some unanswered questions:

Am I asking if recording is constitutive or constructed?
Does ‘recorded’ music have “meta-existence”?
I am saying that it existed at that historical moment, and not at others, as molecules vibrating either in the air (active expression), or in peoples' brain cells (memory).
How about if I paraphrase this thus: All music (including ‘recorded’ music) exists at a historical moment as molecules vibrating either in the air, or in peoples’ brain cells.
…a piece of music has been fixed in a physical form that will outlive the people who performed and heard that piece of music, it exists in the past tense. Not that it _existed_, which assumes that at some point it ceased to exist, but that it's simultaneously existing NOW, in physical form, and THEN, in the act of composition (in the case of notation) or performance (in the case of recording).
Okay we need to extricate a couple of (interdependent) issues here.
1. What is “a piece of music”? Does this construction depend on the ‘work’—non-real-time, finite length, single author, autonomous—concept? Or can we define a ‘piece’ to encompass, say, improvised musics as well? In which case, is that redefinition of boundaries unproblematic? If it is problematic, what are the consequences of accepting this redefinition of boundaries?
2. What do we mean by the past and present tense? What are we assuming about causality?

2 comments:

Good Times said...

Grove Dictionary said:It [extemporization or improvisation] is… the primitive act of music-making…. Among all primitive peoples… musical composition consists of extemporization subsequently memorized, and the process can proceed no farther until some method of notation is devised to record the composer’s musical thoughts independently of his musical performance.


To advocate for this devil, let's pretend that there isn't an inherent slight in the use "primitive."

We could read it in a Reich-ian sense, and equate 'primitive' with 'functional' and 'unspoiled by thousands of years of "cultural" baggage.'

Further, one could auger that improvised music (Bill Dixon's music for example) is rife with notation: nods, physical gestures, musical cues--all of these are notation. Sure, not paper (to be sold) but notation just the same.

Anyhoo....

the improvising guitarist said...

“…equate 'primitive' with 'functional' and 'unspoiled by thousands of years of 'cultural' baggage.”

But doesn’t the act/practice of improvisation/extemporization enact, and engage with, personal and collective histories (influences, perhaps)? Can anything be socially or culturally unspoiled?

“Further, one could auger that improvised music (Bill Dixon's music for example) is rife with notation: nods, physical gestures, musical cues--all of these are notation. Sure, not paper (to be sold) but notation just the same.”

Well, there’s the collection of semi-related, semi-autonomous (interesting and problematic) stuff that passes for music notation (in West European Concert Music); but then there’s the notations, or inscriptions, that include the “nods, physical gestures, musical cues.”
…You’re right of course. The idea that material text is the be-all and end-all or notation is chauvinistic.

S, tig