Friday, March 11, 2011

"Listening" and Composition


Is music writing? Is music signifying? If not, how can we teach students to 'interpret' it? How might we use the concepts of "production" and "composition" in the musical sense? Is this "aesthetic" dimension to writing--what we usually reduce to 'style'--an essential component to teach students?

While reading a recent interview with D. Diane Davis on her recent book "Inessential Solidarity" (a book, by the way, I am very excited about reading) I came across the name Jean-Luc Nancy: "I started reading everything I could get my hands on about this notion of a rapport sans rapport, an inoperative (Nancy) or unavowable (Blanchot) “community” that has nothing to do with identity or identification, with communion or contracts" (Davis)

This "community" reminded me of my recent reading of Giorgio Agamben's The Coming Community and so I decided I would check out a book by Nancy (I had already encountered Blanchot). I chose the very short book (really just a couple short essays) called Listening.

Nancy has forced me to reconsider the non-signifying aspects of music and how they might be related to the teaching of or the theory of "composition."

If, as we have argued in class, "visual rhetoric" is a difficult terminology to keep for what we are doing in this class because rhetoric is about "breaking it into its parts" I would like to suggest that we consider the (im)possibility of musical rhetoric--all of this prompted by Nancy's poetic philosophizing as the relative inattention given to music (rather than reading lyrics like a poem, etc.) in the composition classroom and theory. (See a future post re-interpreting Do the Right Thing from the musical rather than visual perspective)

For now, I will content myself with commenting on a few key quotations from Nancy:

    "I would say that timbre is communication of the incommunicable: provided it is understood that the incommunicable is nothing other, in a perfectly logical way, than communication itself, that thing by which a subject makes an echo--of self, of the other, its all one--its all one in the plural.
     Communication is not transmission, but a sharing that becomes subject: sharing as subject of all 'subjects'. An unfolding, a dance, a resonance. Sound in general is first of all communication in this sense [. . .] In a body that opens up and closes at the same time, that arranges itself and exposes itself with others, the noise of its sharing (with itself, with others) resounds" (Nancy 41).

Thus, communication in sound (as well as in the visual) is not a transmission of content--a "vehicle" or "medium" for the transmission of signs or meaning. This is what D. Diane Davis attempts to get at when she uses the Levinasian distinction between the saying and the said. Davis attempts to describe the saying--which is a difficult, if not (im)possible task. The communication of communication--the intent to communicate--the desire to be-with (mitsein?). In a way, the performative dimension of language.

However, music, does seem to be divided into its parts more than the visual--music has its own time whereas painting (or the visual) is determined by the perceiving subject. This thought stems from Nancy's observation:

"Whereas visible or tactile presence occurs in a motionless 'at the same time', sonorous presence is an essentially mobile 'at the same time,' vibrating from the come-and-go between the source and the ear, through open space, the present of presence rather than pure presence. One might say: there is a simultaneity of the visible and a contemporaneity of the audible" (16).

Timbre and Arrangement

For both the visual and the audible, it seems that we can locate an "excess" outside of signification. For the visible, we have Barthes "obtuse meaning"--for the audible we have Nancy's concept of timbre.

 Timbre is defined as "the quality of a musical note or sound or tone that distinguishes different types of sound production, such as voices of musical instruments. The physical characteristics of sound that mediate perception of timbre include spectrum and envelope. Timbre is also known in psychoacoustics as tone quality or tone color" (wikipedia)

In other words, timbre is the quality of an instrument that distinguishes it as that instrument even if instruments can only play a certain number of notes (in the Western scale) (see Nancy's note on the word 'instrument' with reference to Deleuze pg 78 in Listening). Indeed, the different 'voices' of instruments is what makes possible the compositional activity of "arrangement".

Arrangment asks the question: what instrument should play this note? how many of them? How many different parts should there be per instrument (this is tied up in the 'composing' process proper)? Where should the instruments be placed?

In other words, arrangement is in a way the invisible part of the composing process--it involves just as much selection (and perhaps more) as pointing a camera at a group of objects!

Anyone who has played in a symphony can tell you that giving a typical "clarinet" part to a bassoon has technical as well as aesthetic consequences. For example, listen to the bassoon at the beginning of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring:

Look at homeboy's face! that is hard as all hell to play well on bassoon. The bassoon is typically a lower instrument, but the timbre of the bassoon in the higher register makes for a particularly unsettling experience. If a usual clarinet had made these sounds, a completely different effect would take place. These are arrangement issues. Imagine, for instance, if the 3 bassoons were playing that opening line? The same effect? the same musical piece? no.

Arrangement, incidentally, is one of the 5 rhetorical canons. In rhetoric, arrangement  "concerns how one orders speech or writing." In composition, this has meant that we pay attention to the order of sentences and the order of paragraphs. We have typical ways of organizing paragraphs--particularly in closed-form prose--the form we primarily teach our students is essential to academic writing.

But arrangement, if taken in its musical sense, is not merely providing a linear and temporal order to one's writing, but concerns the entire process of composition--you may write the melody, the harmony--the notes are there--now who's going to play them? How are they going to sound? How is performance possible. How will the music be (re)pre-sented?

We all know the cliche that no music performance is exactly like another one. Furthermore, we know that no "reading" of a text is the same one everytime. In the case of texts, we usually think of the multiple readings by a perceiving subject as the variable element.

However--in music we see that variation occurs on both sides. The listener of music will get 'new' things out of the piece as the piece is repeated--snatches of melody will stick in the head, key moments will become moments for interpretation--the composition and the performance will take on some sort of order and arrangement. BUT ALSO--besides the listener--we have to take into account that in a concert there are many "invisible" choices made about the performance of the music on the "production" side--on the "musician" side. How does each musician "attack" the note? How does each music phrase the notes? How does the conductor speed up or slow down--in short, how is the page performed?

Why not think about writing in this light? How are the pages of theory "performed" in composition studies? What invisible "arrangement" (in the musical sense) choices are being made when we (re)present a theory on the page. How do we musically perform Foucault or Derrida on the page? in our words?

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