Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Abstractions and Concretes in Music

...if creative fiction writing is a process of translating an abstraction into the concrete, there are three possible grades of such writing: translating an old (known) abstraction (theme or thesis) through the medium of old fiction means (that is, characters, events or situations used before for that same purpose, that same translation)–this is most of the popular trash; translating an old abstraction through new, original fiction means–this is most of the good literature; creating a new, original abstraction and translating it through new, original mean....A fourth possibility–translating a new abstraction through old means–is impossible, by definition: if the abstraction is new, there can be no means used by anybody else before to translate it.-Ayn Rand
Now, Rand was talking specifically about literature here, but I think it could apply to all the arts. But what about music? I was thinking about how the above could be used to judge developments in music. Then I started to think about what it meant to concretize an abstraction in music, or abstract a concrete...Anyway, considering this in light of Rand's theories on music, it brings us back to the difficulties of comparing music to the other arts.

First, let's define out terms:
Abstraction (Process of) : The act of isolation involved [in concept-formation] is a process of abstraction: i.e., a selective mental focus that takes out or separates a certain aspect of reality from all others (e.g., isolates a certain attribute from the entities possessing it, or a certain action from the entities performing it, etc.). -Ayn Rand Lexicon
Now, remember what Rand wrote about abstractions and concretes in music:
Music cannot tell a story, it cannot deal with concretes, it cannot convey a specific existential phenomenon, such as a peaceful countryside or a stormy sea. The theme of a composition entitled “Spring Song” is not spring, but the emotions which spring evoked in the composer. Even concepts which, intellectually, belong to a complex level of abstraction, such as “peace,” “revolution,” “religion,” are too specific, too concrete to be expressed in music. All that music can do with such themes is convey the emotions of serenity, or defiance, or exaltation. Liszt’s “St. Francis Walking on the Waters” was inspired by a specific legend, but what it conveys is a passionately dedicated struggle and triumph—by whom and in the name of what, is for each individual listener to supply.

WHA??? Music cannot deal with concretes? So does that mean it only deals in abstractions? Well, let's see what else Rand says:
Music gives man’s consciousness the same experience as the other arts: a concretization of his sense of life. But the abstraction being concretized is primarily epistemological, rather than metaphysical; the abstraction is man’s consciousness, i.e., his method of cognitive functioning, which he experiences in the concrete form of hearing a specific piece of music. A man’s acceptance or rejection of that music depends on whether it calls upon or clashes with, confirms or contradicts, his mind’s way of working. The metaphysical aspect of the experience is the sense of a world which he is able to grasp, to which his mind’s working is appropriate.
Geez...music cannot deal with concretes, but it concretizes a sense of life? Which is it??? :P Anyway, we can see that this is part of Rand's "cognitive theory" of music. And it's right on, I think, as far as the cognitive part goes. But as I argued before, I think that there's another side to the story, a "projection theory." And after considering the statement at the start of this post, I'm wondering if the projection theory can show that music CAN deal with concretes and abstractions. I theorize that emotions are best understood through the concept of motion. Music depicts, auditorily, the motion of tones through space (up and down) and time. In a nutshell, music concretizes motion, which are based on the abstractions of feelings (eg., happy emotions go up and down in a certain manner, exited emotions are equated with fast, jittery motions, or sad emotions associated with slow, lumbering motions.) In that sense, through the auditory depictions of motions, music CAN tell a story, via association.

So, back to the opening of this post: How would a composition present old or new themes through new means? The "theme" would, musically, have to correspond to movement. What would a new theme be, then? Well, as they say, "there's nothing new under the sun." There are basic, axiomatic "themes" of movement; we can call them the "archetypal" elements. We can compare here to elements and molecules. Any new themes would be complex combinations of the "building blocks" of musical life. Those more complex themes would require new means, via form. Simple themes require simple tunes, more complex themes require juxtaposition of themes (happy versus sad, for starters) and would require say, counterpoint via a fugue or maybe via bitonality. Sonatas and symphonies are perhaps the height of these complex combinations.

Now, that's speaking of the musical combinations as the means. But what about the "subjects" of these themes? Perhaps an architectural example is in order. A shack, a modular house, an church, an office, and a skyscraper are all structures built on the same laws of physics, and same archetypal principals, yet they all convey differerent "themes." A shack is of a primitive variety, a simple, sufficient shelter. A modular house is a more modern variant, built with the same goal in mind, but more sophisticated then a simple shack; and it may have different forms, more rooms, etc. A church has a different purpose, a "house for God," and is meant to inspire an "upward awe"; as a result, it has high walls, large spaces, and spires reaching to the heavens. Offices and skyscrapers are meant for business, but a simple office building may be short and inviting, while a skyscraper is large, like a church, and "religious" in its own way. They all share certain features like walls or ceilings, but their sense of purpose is symbiotic with their sense of life; a church inspires a feeling of "smallness" in God's presence; so does Donald Trump's Trump Tower. The boardroom and the pulpit share an archetypal form, yet they diverge in their style; one is "otherworldly,"the other oriented to earthly success.

So too, in music: religious music may be spacious and upward-oriented, but the theme to The Apprentice ("For the Love of Money" by the O'Jays), while also upward-oriented, is more "boisterous" and "funky" (suggesting "earthiness" via sexuality, connecting the concept of money to status and power and attractiveness to the opposite sex.) With those examples in mind, it becomes easier to see how "new themes" can become new "musical" themes; a song like "For the Love of Money" could not have been written, philosophically, in the Medieval period. The point is, a new "theme" amounts to nothing less than a change or development in philosophical thought. A musical example of this would be the development of "serial music" as a counterpart to the ideas of "equality," or "rock and roll" as a counterpart to teen rebellion and sexuality. (There are even musical depictions of quantum physics, that challenge the notion of linear progression in favor of a "layering" or "simultaneous" perception.)

As for the "grading" aspect of Rand's comment, it becomes easier to see how this applies to music. The creator of a "funky" bassline uses the archetypal elements of human motion to suggest an emotional state, one that other bassplayers can utilize. Because of the "archetypal" element (the reference to reality being human motion), other bassplayers can utilize those funky lines. They can remain "performance artists," playing it as the composer wrote it. (As long as they recognize the authorship, they are not secondhanders, but they are not creators, or innovators, they are more like "employees" distributing the composer's work. Or, as Rand puts it: "In these arts, the medium employed is the person of the artist. His task is not to re-create reality, but to implement the re-creation made by one of the primary arts.) But they can switch up the notes, or syncopate, or modulate, and put their individual spin on it, such as changing the emotional "feel," thus contributing to the creative process (via interpration), this would be akin to Rand's "new means for old themes." Rand again:

This does not mean that the performing arts are secondary in esthetic value or importance, but only that they are an extension of and dependent on the primary arts. Nor does it mean that performers are mere “interpreters”: on the higher levels of his art, a performer contributes a creative element which the primary work could not convey by itself; he becomes a partner, almost a co-creator—if and when he is guided by the principle that he is the means to the end set by the work.

As to finding new themes and new means: well, Rand hoped that it was not a "mistaken conceit," but believed that, as a philosopher-novelist, was, "as far as I know...only me–my kind of fiction writing." Whether or not one agrees with her status, considering all that's come before, in music AND literature, one has to admit that the bar is set pretty high; not simply because of the personalities and talent preceding us, but because if there is, indeed, "nothing new under the sun," and it's all a matter of "ever-increasing" combinations and complexity of basic elements, the bar is set higher and higher exponentially (like compound-interest on a savings rate...or credit card statement...). Or...we can use an evolutionary analogy here. Animals have evolved different physical features over time, teeth, claws, poisons, colors...but man is the first animal to significantly evolve cognitively. But still, in order for those mental abstractions to have significance, they still have to relate somehow to the material side of life on earth (at least, from the Objectivist point of view; a Platonist might argue otherwise.) But that's a matter for the another post, one that will discuss the tug-of-war between the physical and the mental, the cognitive and the somatic...

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