Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Procrustean Intonations

While packing up my library yesterday, I remembered a connection that came to me a couple of years ago.

There is an undercurrent I have observed within the music theory community (ever since I realized there was such an unlikely community) that I have come to call, in my inimitably bland way, "feature cognition." I mean by this the tendency in many an eager scholar to hear (or, more likely, view) a feature or set of related features in a musical work such that, once one is made aware of the feature, it threatens to obscure the work-as-a-whole (the "Music") – a musical version of missing the forrest for the trees. I hide behind this term because, while it is not altogether accurate for what I wish to express, still it points in the right direction and feels reasonably inoffensive.

But then one day, while reading through the David Lewin correspondence, I was a bit surprised to read my thoughts on this put in a much less polite way by David:
Too many analyses I have read (or performances I have heard!) proceed on the pattern: listen to the opening of the piece until you get an idea that interests you; then ignore everything else and plow through the rest of the way, trying to make the rest of the piece fit your idea. (This I call to myself "Procrustean intonation.")[1]
The first time I read those words, while I admired the way they cut right to the quick much better than my too-polite descriptive term, I thought "procrustean" a bit over the top coming from the gentleman I thought I knew – and David was no longer around to ask about whether he would still use the word or whether his judgement about the state of professional analysis had softened significantly over the intervening 30 years. His observation came, after all, in private correspondence. But still, "procrustean" is a violent word. Or do I read more into this than David intended?
Procrustean: in the figurative sense, "violently making conformable to standard," from Procrustes, mythical robber of Attica who seized travelers, tied them to his bed, and either stretched their limbs or lopped off their legs to make them fit it. The name is Prokroustes "one who stretches," from prokrouein "to beat out, stretch out," from pro- "before" and krouein "to strike."[2]
Arguably, David Lewin was contemporary music theory's Theseus, founder of our little Athens. So feature-cognition analysts, take care! Remember how Procrustes met his end.

[1] Letter to Oliver Neighbour, May 8, 1973. Correspondence, David Lewin Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.
[2] Douglas Harper's Online Etymology Dictionary.