A Theoretical Sortie into Musical Aesthetics
(Disclaimer: this is a rather long essay in musical aesthetics, and it is not explicitly related to faith issues. However, I thought it might be of interest here, and there are certainly implications in my argument for the way we view music from a integrative, faith-oriented perspective. The presentation included here is a shorter version of the main points.)
Music theorists are interested in – to paint in extremely broad strokes – the explanation of music through the musical operations which either generate or describe a given work, oeuvre, or genre, and/or the development of ever more elegant, coherent, and potentially true systematic theories of the same. As a matter of course, anyone who talks about music uses a variety of metaphors and analogies to explain what they experience as music; among theorists’ models of Western tonal art music, these frequently take the form of literary or organic metaphors. Perhaps, it is inevitable that our models of music are lacking in precision in some area or another with regard to music, relying as they do on other forms which relate to music through similarity but ultimately retain an alternate identity. Yet we persist in trying to explain what music is like because we continually seek to explain our experience of music, and it appears to be impossible to explain that in purely musical terms.1 That said, in search of the truth of what music is, we should examine our metaphorical models and note the profound places at which they lack similarity to music. Philosopher Peter Kivy has in fact challenged the prevalent theoretical metaphors for music, particularly with respect to non-programmatic, instrumental Western tonal art music. In their place, he proposes a “wallpaper” model, which seems to ameliorate the flaws in the other models, and – at least in Kivy’s hands – also manages to deflect its own potential flaws (The Fine Art of Repetition, 327-359). This essay will explore Kivy’s argument, its practical implications for theory and performance, and its problematic elements. Ultimately, his argument provides us with a profound understanding of music that nevertheless does not fully explain our experience of this art. From within the paradigm he sets up, I propose that we do not need to fully abandon some of the ideas found in literary models of music; instead, we need to modify them to explain more clearly our perceptions of meaning in music.
Why does Peter Kivy take issue with common theoretical models of music? As a philosopher, he is reacting against what he perceives as the fundamental flaw of all literary and organic theories: neither of these models offer an explanation for the phenomenon of repetition in music. He also criticizes both types of theories for their bestowal of value, suggesting that they convey the impression of music as meaningful knowledge without delivering any actual explanations. Yet theorists have been, if not satisfied with these systems, at least able to wield them with some explanatory success. In particular, literary models have been attractive to music theorists since at least the middle of the eighteenth century (Fine Art, 330). Kivy briefly distinguishes between three sub-categories of literary models: “discourse,” “dramatic,” and “narrative.” Currently, narrative theory is prominent in music theoretical discussions in the particular form of Sonata Theory, originated by James Hepokoski and Warren Darcy (Elements of Sonata Theory). The basic premises of this particular version of narrative theory depends on the denial or fulfillment of expectations generated by sonata prototypes, and in general, narrative theory employs some similar sort of expectation/fulfillment process. Along with other literary models, it accounts for the ordered nature of musical events, somewhat like events in a narrative, and corresponds to music’s temporal nature. This model is particularly attractive because it allows the listener to actively engage with the dialectic between the expected form or “plot” of the music and the actual form. As a result, it offers the potential explanation of affective moments as fulfillment, denial, or other manipulations of a listener’s expectations, and even provides interpretive options to a performer, who might wish to enhance prominent moments in the musical narrative.
To some extent, all literary models of music rely on a sense of directionality, a progression through events toward an end. For Kivy, this aspect of literary models is completely undermined by the prevalence of repetition in the slice of Western music he is interested in: functionally tonal music without words. He claims that “so long as we retain this essential directionality, the literary model will be incompatible with the sonata-allegro principle, or any of the other repeats in instrumental music. … Give up this principle of directionality, this ‘continuous flow,’ however, and you simply give up the literary model altogether” (Fine Art, 337). In addition to this flaw, Kivy also calls into question the impression of ‘content’ suggested by the literary models. Because literature is held in great esteem as a fine art for the depth of its semantic content and the interaction between its content and its form, literary models of music convey value by suggesting that the content of music is somehow ineffably meaningful. The unutterable nature of musical content renders it highly suspect from a rational perspective because ultimately, the ‘meaning’ conveyed by literary models is nowhere evident.
What, then, of organic models? While sought out by theorists and composers as an explanation in place of literary forms, this model suffers from the same basic flaws. While it may be appealing to think of a germ or motive generating an entire piece or section of a piece (such as a sonata development), according to Kivy the very teleology of such a model again fails to account for repetitions, both on the small scale and on the formal level. Furthermore, Kivy finds the organic model to be devoid of any ability to ascribe value to music, relying as it does simply on a metaphor with biological processes. For Kivy, the transformation from slight resemblance to meaningful metaphor is a non-sequitur (Fine Art, 343).
So, according to Kivy’s argument, music is not actually modeled well by literary or organic models. These models, for all their explanatory power, completely ignore repetition, a mistake that may be due to the fact that most theorists view music through lenses that emphasize harmonic progression, motivic development, and large-scale tonal direction. By not addressing repetition, theorists in fact claim that this device has no bearing on anything of structural or overarching importance. Those who do acknowledge and interact with repetition – for example, proponents of Sonata Theory, who would argue that the “narrative” of the sonata prototype is contingent upon repetition occurring or not occurring where we expect it to – still face the difficulty of explaining the formal repeat of the exposition. They are limited to suggesting that a lack of an expositional repeat in early sonatas is a deformation, whereas late usages of expositional repeats – as in works by Brahms – should indicate a reference to expectations from an earlier period, suggesting intentional conservatism (Elements of Sonata Theory, 20-22). In all cases, these theoretical treatments of repetition fail to note that repetition defines this type of music, that without it on the small and large scale, music would be something entirely different – a fact that is born out in some post-tonal musics that eschew altogether anything resembling literal repetition. Certainly, such a theoretical treatment is at odds with a performer’s perspective on music, which constantly requires making decisions concerning how to interpret repetition.
Kivy’s wallpaper model attempts to rectify this situation by beginning with repetition as the defining feature of this type of music. However, as he points out, this model runs the risk of demoting music’s status as a fine art (Fine Art, 329, 354). Certainly, by choosing the word “wallpaper,” Kivy is immediately challenging the current understanding of music, implying not merely that music is decorative, but that music is primarily decorative in function and that without words, music does not belong to the class of art distinguished as “fine” (“Is Music an Art?,” Fine Art, 360-373). His claim is by no means unique; in fact, it stems from arguments given by such highly regarded scholars as Kant and Hanslick. Untroubled by concerns about the status of music as fine art, Kant did not hesitate to place it alongside decorative designs in architecture and wallpaper, claiming that such designs “have no intrinsic meaning; they represent nothing – no Object under a definite concept – and are free beauties” (Quoted in Fine Art, 344). By contrast, Hanslick was deeply concerned about music’s aesthetic value. Although substantially the same as Kant’s, his conclusion attempted to retain an explanation of the status of music via the circular argument that musical decoration is superior to visual decoration because composers’ minds (those which create musical decoration) are creative whereas ordinary minds (those which create visual decoration) are not (Fine Art, 346). Thus, the wallpaper model apparently cannot explain why human beings value music so greatly, and in fact, it seems to imply that we should value it less.
Kivy explains that the wallpaper model does allow for musical value, even if it does not strictly speaking ‘explain’ it, an argument we will explore below. But the model itself elegantly accounts for musical truths incongruent with both competing models. First, this model accounts for repetition by positing that music is basically a complex pattern in which, due to the temporality of music, repetition is both the means by which we apprehend the pattern and the pattern itself:
Musical repeats, then, perform an obvious and vital function in that they are the composer’s way of allowing us, indeed compelling us to linger; to retrace our steps so that we can fix the fleeting sonic pattern; they allow us to grope so that we can grasp… Groping and grasping are, indeed part of musical experience… But groping, although a means to grasping, is an end in itself as well. And grasping, although the end of groping, is not a termination, but part of an ongoing experience. … repetition is the means of grasping pattern; but, by definition, pattern is that very repetition, and to dispense with the remainder after it has been grasped would be to dispense with it, whereas it, the pattern, is the whole point of the exercise (Fine Art, 352-353). (italics original)
Thus, instead of being left out as something extraneous to the “actual” music, repetition becomes essential to its make-up and legitimizes theoretically the real interpretive issues with repetition that performers may encounter. Second, in contrast to the literary model in particular, this model unabashedly accounts for the lack of propositional content in music. Positively put, music contains “content” more similar in kind to the patterned, abstract designs encountered in wallpaper, architectural filigree, and Persian carpets than to the representational and semantic content found in linguistic models (Fine Art, 350-358).
This design-oriented model may be flexible enough to also encompass the kinds of musical properties observed in both literary and organic models. By claiming repetition and pattern as definitive, the potential directionality or developmental organization of a piece is subsumed under the category of the design. In other words, the pattern of a sonata is designed to have a certain kind of directionality, which nevertheless ends with a distinctive, large-scale repetition that completes a tonal motion. A more organic approach to a sonata might incorporate into the design a motive that is repeated, varied, and fragmented, especially the during the development, and may continue such a process into the recapitulation, undermining to some extent the large-scale repetition, but not entirely obscuring the form. In either of these abstract cases, the directionality, development, and repetition may easily coexist without contradicting each other.
As elegant as this model is and as potentially flexible as it seems to be, the problem of music’s status or value remains. For Kivy, the explanation lies in the complex properties of music within the overarching decorative function of music as wallpaper, music as pattern. Music is at the forefront of the decorative arts because it is multi-dimensional, quasi-grammatical, deeply expressive, and deeply moving (Fine Art, 354-358). First, the dimensionality of music is extremely complex, ranging from the multiplicity of parts to the wide of variety of timbres, registers, and their layered combinations in orchestration – a dazzling array of dimensions that far surpasses the possibilities in other decorative arts. Second, tonal music (which we are discussing exclusively here) appears to have a kind of grammar, although it is not as “universal” and clear as linguistic grammars tend to be. It is quasi-syntactic; that is, there are apparent ordering conventions, which differ depending on whether one is dealing with local harmonies or global keys. While its clarity may be questionable, there is still a conventional understanding that allows for the perception of grammatical “errors,” devices which may not only reflect poor composition but may also be used to great dramatic effect. Third, music is deeply expressive, as exemplified in the previous idea that a surprising chord progression may convey a sense of drama via its affective impact on the listener. In other words, music, according to Kivy, possesses “garden-variety emotions” (Kivy, “Auditor’s Emotions: Contention, Concession, and Compromise,” 1) as part of the syntactical structure, which listeners may perceive, a fact he derives from general consensus. Finally, listeners are often deeply moved when listening to music; somehow music possesses the power not only to reflect but also to affect our inner states, although Kivy admits that he is not sure why. The sum of the parts in the above argument suggests that, while “wallpaper” as a model does not itself explain why music is highly valued, it allows these other significant elements of music to be integrated into the model in order to explain why this type of pattern is so much more complex and beautiful and important to our human identity than other decorative arts. Significantly, the first two of the four categories can easily be grafted into the larger idea of pattern, while the other two suggest another kind of content not explicitly in the wallpaper model, namely affective content, which nevertheless may be understood as somehow resulting from the pattern.
Kivy does not only enter the theoretical arena; he also addresses more practical matters. In his book Authenticities, he responds to the controversial relationship between historical authenticity and personal interpretation in performance practice of the 1970s-90s. Kivy reacts to the concerns expressed by Richard Taruskin that historical authenticity as preached and practiced is in fact an entirely modern exercise that is unnecessarily restrictive on performance (Kivy, Authenticities, 13). Taruskin claims that the authenticist approach bases its authority on the intentions of the composer, along with the performance practice and often the instrumentation of the original era of composition. For Taruskin, these intentions are unknowable in any meaningful sense and, in any case, unquestioning obedience to them denies music’s processual nature, instead objectifying music and devaluing the artistic role of the performer.2 That is not to say that historical knowledge has no role in aiding performance, but that “modernist objectivity” is not necessarily what music is about (Taruskin, “On Letting the Music Speak for Itself,” Text and Act, 61). Kivy is also responding to the Goodmanian perspective that performing a single wrong note is tantamount to performing an object that is not the work, a position that has much in common with the narrowest versions of historical authenticity because both positions specify rigid definitions of musical objects as art (Authenticities, 158; Goodman, Languages of Art).
Kivy argues for multiple authenticities, three of which are obviously “historical”: faithfulness with regard to composers’ intentions, contemporaneous performance practice, and contemporaneous sound. Kivy’s argument concerning composer intentions reveals the impetus for his pluralist approach to authenticity. Essentially, his argument claims the following: composers’ “intentions” span a hierarchical continuum extending from wishes to imperatives, and based on what we know of particular composers and their intentions given their available options, we may intelligibly posit interpretations of their intentions had they today’s available options. Therefore,
realizing a deceased composer’s performing intentions or wishes in a present-dayperformance is [not] a matter of following–to the letter–instructions, whether explicit or implicit, that were given for a performance at a time long past under conditions vastly different in relevant respects from those that exist today. …in order to follow literally someone’s wishes and intentions … one must interpret them, and to interpret them one must reunderstand them relative to the conditions under which they are now to be realized (Authenticities, 45).
Thus, Kivy’s version of intentional authenticity requires the authenticist to acknowledge that he or she is actually offering an interpretation – and perhaps an unnecessarily rigid one – of the highly valued intentions of the composer and that there may be other ways of interpreting these intentions, especially in conjunction with performers’ tastes and judgments. Perhaps the two perspectives may provide checks and balances for each other? In any case, Kivy’s position requires that we question the distinction between historically authentic and inauthentic performances; some mainstream performances may actually be authentic. It is from this perspective that Kivy approaches the other types of authenticity, always advocating for a more flexible, somewhat pluralistic approach. When he reaches the fourth type of authenticity – that of personal authenticity, or being true to one’s own style of performing – he is able to claim that it is just as viable as the other types of authenticity because “part of the network of wishes and intentions that has motivated the composition and performance of Western music … are wishes and intentions that performers achieve … personal authenticity: individual style and originality” (Authenticities, 141). Thus, his argument leads to the conclusion that “authenticity” may be achieved in many ways, so that there are multiple “correct” ways of performing a work.
His approach to authenticity in performance reveals that Kivy’s theoretical model is more flexible than other models. For example, the literary model lends itself to an understanding of the work as object, and in fact, Goodmanism reaches its conclusions in part because it compares musical performances to copies of a literary object (Goodman, Languages of Art). Given that people value music and that the wallpaper model does not destroy this value, it is worth discussing criteria of such importance as authenticity in performance. One feature of the wallpaper model that especially suits Kivy’s approach to authenticities is the fact that if music is ‘merely’ decoration, there is not necessarily a precise content to damage; it is therefore possible to allow for personal taste and musical judgment on the performer’s part. What is ultimately at stake here is musical identity. Underlying all of the approaches here discussed lies the necessarily imaginative work involved in all perception of music.3 As much as the modernist may try to strip away the debris surrounding the musical object, the very assumption of a musical work as an object is an imaginative perspective that may reveal great depths of knowledge but is – as an imaginary approach – subject to question and reformulation. Every attempt to explain music, to listen to it, or to perform it requires more than a simple reception or production of sound (Cook, Music, Imagination, and Culture, 22-26). In opposition to the “modernist objectivity” that frustrated Taruskin, Kivy’s approach sees music as an interactive process that is very dependent upon its interactive-ness. That is, in the wallpaper model and in the idea of authenticities, Kivy encourages the performer, listener, and analyst to engage with the patterns of a work and make rational decisions about interpretation based on both musical judgment and historical information.
The great advantage of the wallpaper model for music theorists is its logical consistency. Such a position might possibly lend more credence to music theory in the wider field of musical aesthetics. Furthermore, if taken seriously, this model could increase the potential value of decorative arts rather than demean the value of music because it may elevate our understanding of pattern as a complex and worthwhile study. But without further elaboration, the model still lacks a compelling explanation for the value of music (a problem that remains true for the other models as well). It neglects to explain why we should value pattern as a complex and worthwhile study. In addition, the illusions of content in and communication through music remain mostly unaccounted for, except indirectly by means of the four aesthetically valuable aspects of music listed by Kivy. Is there a way in which the wallpaper model and these four other aspects may be more integrally tied together to give us a more holistic picture of what music is?
I propose that we begin with the wallpaper model and perhaps rename it the “pattern” model. This generalizes the concept of decorative, non-propositional material while removing the visual (static, non-temporal) and mundane connotations of “wallpaper.” Then, if music is essentially a complex pattern, this explanation remains insufficient to account for our experience of musical reality. We do not listen to music with one mechanism at a time, nor does everyone experience music through the same mechanisms. Trained musicians experience music through the lens of a body of knowledge that is neither evident to nor necessary for the average listener, who still meaningfully experiences and enjoys music (Music, Imagination, and Culture, 2; also Chapter 1). If music can easily incorporate extra-musical meaning – as it does in music of the type under discussion when it is suddenly combined with lyrics or a program – what is it about the music that “means” in this way? Surely the addition of words does not entirely change the substance of the art. A possible key to this may be Kivy’s own admission that music “possesses” emotions as musical properties (Fine Art, 357-358). In fact, if music possesses emotions as musical properties, it then possesses a kind of potentially meaningful content that may be – but does not necessarily need to be – linked to representational/propositional meaning. What if the wallpaper model has meaningful content after all?
The idea of affective meaning in music is closely linked to the emotions we experience as listeners, yet Kivy suggests that there is not an obvious one-to-one correspondence between these two aspects (“Auditor’s Emotions: Contention, Concession, and Compromise”). The emotions we perceive as possessed by a musical work are not necessarily the same emotions that we experience during that perception. Therefore, there are two different levels at which we can engage with the communication of affective meaning. Since emotion as a musical property, as a part of the structure of a work, allows us to make extra-musical connections with representational ideas, we can conceive of this level as having the potential of varying degrees of concreteness. At the least concrete degree, we can simply identify the music as conveying “sad” or “angry.”4 At the most concrete (which may require actual lyrics and a program), we may be able to identify a character’s emotions or even actions in response to a specific circumstance.
The deeper, more abstract level of affective meaning – that which Kivy describes as “deeply moving” – is harder to discuss, but is possibly one of the most significant reasons behind our tendency to value music so highly. Trained musicians and non-musicians alike often experience deep emotions while listening to or performing music, emotions that are not evoked by other types of art, representational or non-representational, or many other aspects of human experience except perhaps the spiritual. This ability for music to move us is difficult to describe, and is probably the basis for the romantic idea of poetic, inexpressible meaning that Kivy associates with the literary model. Certainly, different people experience different emotions in response to different musical stimuli under different conditions, so at this level, there seems to be no way to assign specific meanings to musical moments; we simply know that they somehow do “mean” in a non-rational way that still satisfies something in the category of experiential human knowledge. While the specifics at this level remain vague, surely our recognition of emotion in music and our emotional experience of music allow us to perceive music as ‘communication’ on multiple levels.
Beyond our perception of communicated meaning in these ways, perhaps we might also describe the grammatical structure of music as capable of generating a kind of self-referential meaning. Within western tonal art music, a fluid and changing “language” of harmony, counterpoint, and form has developed. Generally speaking, it is a predictable grammar that is made poetically meaningful through both the fulfillment and the thwarting of projected expectations. Much of the nuts and bolts of music theory has to do with systematizing this grammar, and in fact, while the theoretical explanations of this grammar have changed over the course of Western history – from modes through counterpoint and figured bass to Roman numerals and nineteenth-century formal labels – the substance of the grammar is traceable as a single, continuous, gradually transforming entity. Therefore, a listener’s response to the manipulation of the various types of musico-grammatical expectations depends on his or her exposure to and/or training in this grammar in its manifestations in particular eras, an assumption which underlies the general concept of narrative theory as I understand it.5 In addition to the self-referential nature of such meaning, the creation of emotion as a musical property also seems to be dependent on gestures within musical grammar and syntax as well.
As a result of these considerations, perhaps a version of narrative theory can exist within the pattern paradigm if musical content is construed as these affective and grammatical properties. The idea that both of these types of properties convey a sort of meaning accounts for the communicative aspect of music common to our experience of this art. Such an understanding of music also explains our perception of directionality in music because it accounts for the fact that particular grammatical expectations depend on the order of certain musical events in time. For example, in a typical sonata-allegro form, the expectation of the return of the second theme in tonic in the recapitulation depends on the ordered events of the exposition, the continuation of the form in the development, which signifies the expectation that the opening material is yet to come, and by the initial statement of the primary theme in the tonic. Yet this directionality is devoid of “plot,” instead depending on the idea of pattern, and therefore, the patterned, repetitious nature of music is a generator of meaning.
Kivy offers us a significant alternative model to those that prevail in traditional music theory. His claims concerning the problems with the literary and organic models, especially those concerning repetition, should intrigue us and prompt us to seek more logical ways of explaining Western tonal art music. Yet his model does not effectively account for our experience of a kind of content in music and, in spite of his argument for music’s aesthetic value, fails to directly explain why we should value music so much. While it is important for us to avoid conflating the idea of semantic meaning and the meaning we perceive in music, we may be able to effectively discuss the content of music as affectively and grammatically meaningful within the larger context of the pattern model. In other words, music as pattern is worth studying not only because it is complex and moving, but because the pattern itself generates recognizable emotional meaning at multiple levels and grammatical meaning via specifically musical elements. If we understand music this way, we no longer have to conceive of non-programmatic and non-vocal tonal music as Kivy does, as a completely different type of art from the same kind of music given a programmatic and vocal context. Instead, the level of specificity in meaning may rest on a continuum, increasing in clarity of representational and semantic meaning as the literary correlations increase, but never abandoning the non-semantic but nevertheless intriguing meaning found in the music itself.
1 “It seems then that in our most basic apprehension of music there lies a complex system of metaphor, which is the true description of no material fact. And the metaphor cannot be eliminated from the description of music, because it is integral to the intentional object of musical experience. Take this metaphor away and you take away the experience of music.” Roger Scruton, quoted in Cook, Music, Imagination, and Culture, p. 24.
2 “Historical reconstructionist performances are in no sense re-creations of the past. They are quintessentially of an esthetic wholly of our own era, no less time-bound than the performance styles they would supplant. Like all other modernist philosophies, historical reconstructionism views the work of art, including performing art, as an autonomous object, not as a process or an activity. It views the internal relationships of the art work as synonymous with its content … The aim of historical reconstruction is, as Ortega put it, ‘a scrupulous realization,’ and as Eliot put it, ‘not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion;’…” in Taruskin, “On Letting the Music Speak for Itself,” Text and Act, p. 60.
3 The idea of imagination as integral to our experience of music is discussed more thoroughly in Nicholas Cook’s book: Music, Imagination, and Culture.
4 I am not arguing here for the idea of a universal connection between specific emotions and specific musical gestures. These emotions-as-properties are not necessarily intrinsic to the music, but at the very least, we as a culture share a relatively uniform catalogue of emotional connotations for specific musical properties.
5 The expectation-fulfillment dichotomy is clearly the case in Hepokoski and Darcy’s Sonata Theory. It is outside of the scope of this paper to explore the specific ways in which the musical grammar creates and manipulates expectations to form narrative ideas, but an excellent article that begins to explore this topic is Byron Almén’s “Narrative Archetypes: A Critique, Theory, and Method of Narrative Analysis.” The thesis of this article presupposes the idea that the comparison between literature and music should not be taken too literally: “Music has its own syntactic potentiali- ties, its own ways of manifesting conflict and interaction. A theory of musical narrative that recognizes the different languages and organizing principles of literature and music would not be focused on the question “How is music really like literature in disguise?” Instead, it would high- light issues which are far less intractable: the identification of the essen- tial elements of narrative. common to temporal media, the ways in which music uniquely employs these elements, an understanding of the differ- ences between music that makes use of narrative principles and those that do not, and useful strategies for integrating narrative theory with analy- sis and historical studies.”