Thursday, November 20, 2014

Desperately Seeking Relevance: Music Theory Today (6.2)

Rubbish Theory
and Music Theory Today

2. Maverick Integration
[Previous Post: 1. Tripping over Rubbish]

There are many ways to jump into this. The most direct way is to replace music-theory-today's presumed equal sign with a question mark and start from scratch.

Diagram 1

Preliminarily, analysis is how theory probes the real world. As much as theory needs analysis if it wishes to stay grounded, analysis needs theory or it is nonsense. Without theory, analysis is at best a collection of disconnected hunches. The moment a connection appears, we know that theory is lurking in the background.

Theory with no view to application is similarly sense-less. (Nevertheless, theory can develop in the abstract, and this is often desirable and even necessary when navigating possibility's garden of forking paths. But for now, put this garden out of your mind. For the present, while it lasts, there is only certainty's garden path.)

Theory applied yields a necessary ground for analysis; each analysis provides theory with a confirmation. Each confirmation strengthens our confidence in theory as it edges toward "truth," i.e., appears incontestable. (Diagram 2.)

Diagram 2

If we leave it here, we're stuck in a loop: apply–confirm–repeat. We have yet to ask: Just what is it that analysis analyzes? The theory–analysis transaction (Diagram 2) assumes a supply of motivating objects or artifacts we call musical works. Think of this supply as a library of objects available for analysis to draw from to perform its theory-mandated analytical operations. (Diagram 3.) This draw can be made in one of two ways, either randomly or selectively.

Diagram 3

If the draw is selective, it can bias in favor of the theory, i.e., analysis is free to select just those works (or portions of works) that confirm the theory (cf. "procrustean intonations"). This is always tempting, but it's cheating. We assume no user of the model would want analysis to cheat.

But a work randomly drawn (analysis is blindfolded for the draw) might not confirm the theory. In that case analysis looks for ways to "save the theory" by suggesting adjustments to theory in order to accommodate the new information supplied by the maverick work. The theory is not replaced – it is effectively the same theory[*] corrected, improved, expanded, with essential core invariants remaining untouched. Now on future draws the model can handle similar works previously considered as mavericks.
[*] In the present context, two theories are the "same" in the sense that they are both versions of one abstract theory defined by a core set of invariant features (propositions, rules, objects, patterns, etc.) "Core feature" is left undefined at this point. Some may think of it as common sense, others a consensus of experts, others a structural sine qua non, still others audience expectation, cultural norm, etc. The important thing is that, were theory's core to be breached, either it would morph into something unrecognizable or unpalatable, or it would collapse entirely taking its model down with it (see previous comments on Euclidean"axioms").

This is evolutionary adaptation. Theory has built-in room to grow. A constant supply of works chosen randomly fuels (challenges) the analytical pump which in turn confirms or improves or corrects the theory which then allows analysis to encompass a wider, more varied selection of works. While the model in Diagram 2 represents a homeostatic system, the model in Diagram 3, simply by including the adjustment function, represents a homeorhetic[1] system.

Note posted at the library's circulation desk: The works library is a public lending library. After a work is removed and analyzed it must be returned to the library. No exceptions.

Continuing to work backward, the next question emerges: Where do all those works come from? This consideration might appear to be redundant for the model. We sense that adding unnecessary weight is asking for trouble, and, as we shall see, adding a third role does add a big dose of complexity and discomfort. It would be easier  to stop here. Using a wave-of-the-hand strategy, we could call the question an irrelevant nuisance. But relevance is the game we've decided to play. We cannot not look. So....

If we add a composition (synthesis, assembly) arrow to those arrows labelled application, confirmation and adjustment, we still have to decide on composition's source and that source's relationship to the model. Composition commonly implies a composer[2], but the model encourages us to continue to focus on function and process over flesh and blood actors such as theorist and analyst. This suggests that the work source in the model ought to focus on the more technical craft of composition rather than how the craft is employed or who employs it or what the employer's motives might be. Drawing on a venerable tradition, let's call the source of any work techne.[3] (Diagram 4.)

Diagram 4

Tracing back from theory-analysis through the work and then to techne suggests the next obvious question: What is the source of techne?

Within the confines of the model, techne has only one real option for a source: theory. This is represented by the arrows and overlapping green box in Diagram 5.

Diagram 5

Theory might be "informed" by techne directly, short-circuiting the work→analysis→theory chain by going right to the work's source for confirmation and adjustment. This would suggest that techne in turn might apply theory as its source of acceptable patterns and objects – an authority/guide to be followed in order to compose a work that stays within the status quo and maintains the consistency of the model. 

So techne might draw from theory in ways roughly parallel to the two possible ways analysis draws from the works library, but with reverse effects. On the one hand, techne might slavishly accept everything in theory's list of objects and patterns – somewhat akin to analyzing anything a random draw proffers. Or techne might pick just those items in theory's list that are "relevant" to its work-in-progress and ignore or reconfigure the rest in ways that still leave theory's core untouched – acceptable variation somewhat akin to a biased analytical draw. 

This possibility, despite a circumscribed freedom of choice given to both analysis and techne within their domains, envisions theory as a Janus-faced overlord within the model, one face governing analysis, the other governing techne. In principle, any time analysis comes across a maverick work, it would no longer be a mystery where the maverick came from – only a puzzle whose solution lies within the model. Either techne misunderstood or unintentionally misused theory (a mistake), or theory in its navel-gazing abstract mode ("speculative theory") spontaneously expanded within its self-imposed bounds of internal consistency and directly encouraged techne to choose freely from the new menu of possibilities provided by this expansion.

Strangely though, closing the circuit – staying within the confines of the model – implies that theory and techne aren't really compelled to talk to one another directly at all (which can be helpful when they're separated by three centuries). Certainly techne can "read" theory directly, but a lecture from theory – especially one that does no more than rehearse techne's own past – is hardly conducive to discovering new procedural approaches. (For some reason, techne is averse to running in ruts.) For its part, theory can always get at techne the long way around via analysis of techne's works. (For some reason, theory finds analysis' company more amenable.) Similarly, given that techne stays within the model, there is no need for a direct path between techne and analysis. That particular transaction – if it is ever necessary at all – is adequately mediated by theory.

In another world we might expect to find a triangular model with three co-dependent and interacting roles. In music theory today the model more closely resembles the interaction between two pairs of roles that share one of those roles. Let's now separate those pairs to see if this is really the case.

With time (four or five centuries ought to be more than enough), theory reasonably comes to assume that it can always count on a relatively well-behaved techne to express itself within theory's rules or helpfully expand those rules via the enrichments of "clarifying violations"[4] which will sooner or later be caught by analysis as they appear in maverick works whence, it is assumed, these violations can be folded back into the model. Theory, again quite reasonably, comes to assume that its model is the only model: there are no other models that techne can escape to – indeed, why should techne even want to escape a benevolent dictator? And even if techne is unhappy with its prospects within a fully mature model, there are no other options. Resistance is futile.

Theory now feels safe in ignoring techne altogether because it can get all its developmental needs from the work via analysis, with no particular need to know anything more than it already does concerning the work's source. At this stage, the works library has become huge, and it continues to grow in quantity if not in quality. Analysis detects no more mavericks. The overstuffed library now appears to consist almost entirely of centuries of artifacts that conform to a maximally expanded theory that can take no more adjustments if it is to maintain an intact core (i.e., if it is to be itself). Obviation of the need for analysis' adjustment function means the model has effectively collapsed back into its archetype (Diagram 3 above minus the adjustment function).[5] Apply–confirm–repeat. There are plenty of artifacts to go around to support a homeostatic model without techne having to produce any more of them. This has made life easier for analysis whose only task now is to confirm the theory. In the now vanishing possibility that analysis comes across a stray nonconforming work, analysis will simply reject it as a monster.[6]

Diagram 6

Diagram 6 shows the situation. Rather than overlapping pairs we see one pair and a detached singleton. Techne – know-how – is now unemployed – or, to be accurate, can find no meaningful employment beyond music's version of a fast-food chain, which is to say that techne can continue to produce as many model-conforming works as it likes. New-to-my-generation is fine and may get a pat on the head from theory, but new-to-the-world is no longer in the cards for the model or, evidently, for the library it has created. A submissive techne can only look back nostalgically at the days when it was able to produce those reinvigorating mavericks – when it was relevant to the model.

Knowledge (knowing-that) is now encapsulated in the perfectly self-contained, teachable red box. Pedagogically at least, theory and analysis can go on forever, perennially renewed as succeeding generations are presented with the same library of new-to-them works to learn from. New-to-my-generation requires no more than a good curator to pull off the illusion of newness. And if perchance theory, in its navel-gazing mode,  comes up with a new "approach" to some of the artifacts in the library, verification of that approach means no more than instructing analysis to do a "search of the literature."

The model is perfected.
The world is one.

Ite, missa est?

[1] Homeorhesis: "The condition of a flow process which remains canalized within limits in a growing system. ... [A homeorhetic] system turns homeostatic (i.e., acquires dynamic stability) when it reaches its full development, in accordance with its archetype[!]" More at the on-line Encyclopedia of Systems and Cybernetics.
[2] Since music is a performing art, a work may also be construed as a performance-of-a-work, and so a performer may be construed as a composer. This identification, which is my own position, still raises practical issues that remain open for discussion and development. Whichever position one takes on this would not significantly change the model; but such a discussion here would obscure the issue at hand by taking us off into a maze of sidebars.
[3] Other candidates in naming this role are the more highfalutin poiesis and synthesis. My preference for techné comes from a desire to maintain the earthbound "workshop" essence of the model which is intended to emphasize the toolbox nature of theory and the tool-use nature of techne. Both art and kitsch emerge from tool-users whose activities are circumscribed by the tools available within the model. Also, identifying the work's source within the model as techne has the added advantage of interpreting the model as yet another variation on the old philosophy–etymology game played between genesis (doing, making, craft, techné) and knowledge (theory-analysis, epistémé). Knowing-how vs. Knowing-that.
[4] The phrase is Charles Wuorinen's ("Toward Good Vibrations" originally pub. in Prose, reprinted in Elliott Schwartz' Electronic Music; a listener's guide, p. 257). While Wuorinen was making a point about the contribution of interpretation in the composer→score→performer context ("clarifying violations of the text"), I find it also neatly summarizes techne's contribution to enriching the closed normative model presented here.
[5] "Growth of a system is normally homeorhetic, because it is the only way to maintain its identity[!] The system turns homeostatic (i.e., acquires dynamic stability) when it reaches its full development, in accordance with its archetype." (Encyclopedia of Systems and Cybernetics)
[6] "Monster" is Thompson's word for such a reject. It is particularly appropriate in our present discussion given it's etymology. In the 14th century "monster" was associated with any creature afflicted with a birth [read "compositional"] defect. As the discussion proceeds it is important to keep in mind that such a work rejected by analysis as irredeemably nonconforming was nevertheless conceived in the womb of techne. The monster's story will be told in the next post.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Desperately Seeking Relevance: Music Theory Today [6.1]

Rubbish Theory
and Music Theory Today

What is it to supply a theory? It is to offer an intelligible, systematic, conceptual pattern for the observed data. The value of this pattern lies in its capacity to unite phenomena which, without the theory, are either surprising, anomalous, or wholly unnoticed. [my italics]
Norwood Russell Hanson, Patterns of Discovery 

1. Tripping over Rubbish

I was on my way out of a used book store when I spotted a spine title that made me stop. I pulled the book off the shelf and began to thumb through Rubbish Theory: The Creation and Destruction of Value [1] by Michael Thompson. I had never heard of the book or the author before. It had a lengthy section on catastrophe theory and a foreword by E.C. Zeeman. The used book price of $9.50 seemed a bit steep, but how could I resist having the title Rubbish Theory on my book shelf?

The little gray book I purchased was the 1979 first edition – actually, it remains the only edition as far as I know. Thirty years later, I still have the book. Unknown to me at the time I purchased it, the book had created somewhat of a stir among anthropologists and economists when it came out. The reviews were mixed. It clearly rattled some cages. In some cages it went unnoticed.[2] Google Scholar currently lists over 650 citations for the book. It's now a collector's item with prices varying between $250 and $500. But even if I wanted to sell it, which I don't, I could never get near those prices. The reason? The used book I bought in nearly pristine condition (a discard from the "Army Library"(?) that appeared to have never been checked out) now has my pencil and ink scribbles on half the pages. Another book ruined by my overwrought conversations and arguments with the author.

Despite all those cites, I'm not certain of the status of either the book or its author within the social sciences at this point (I've only taken the time to check out a relatively small sample of the citing articles). Still, it has become clear to me that Thompson's work was among the first in cultural anthropology to recognize rubbish as an indispensable object category in the study of "the creation and destruction of value." Curiously, as I write this, neither Rubbish Theory nor Michael Thompson have an entry in Wikipedia, the final word on stuff to be taken seriously. The book's lack of an entry in Wikipedia (making it invisible to the bulk of on-line humanity) coupled with its increasing market value and citation history (suggesting it has a persisting value to collectors and scholars) is an ironic demonstration of Thompson's central thesis.

In this final relevance-thread entry (due to length I've broken it into two three parts) I'm not going to attempt to "apply" Thompson's rubbish theory directly to music theory today. Rather (in part 2) I am going to steal some of Thompson's ideas and adapt them into a meta-theoretic model to help focus on some significant blind spots in music theory and the wider field of musicology. My intention is to lay the foundation for an actual discussion/debate, or at the very least, to demonstrate the need for a serious reexamination of the discipline. In today's climate, I doubt any of that will happen, and my essay will be no more than a passing curiosity at best.
.    .    .    .    .

Here is what rubbish theory is all about.

On page 9 Thompson gives an introductory summary:
[The two overt categories,] the durable and the transient, do not exhaust the universe of objects. There are some objects (those of zero and unchanging value) which do not fall into either of these two categories and these constitute a third covert category: rubbish.
      My hypothesis is that this covert rubbish category is not subject to the control mechanism (which is concerned primarily with the overt part of this system, the valuable and socially significant objects) and so is able to provide a path for the seemingly impossible transfer of an object from transience to durability. What I believe happens is that a transient object gradually declining in value and in expected life-span may slide across into rubbish. In an ideal world, free of nature's negative attitude, an object would reach zero value and zero expected life-span at the same instant, and then, like Mark Twain's 'one hoss shay', disappear into dust. But, in reality, it usually does not do this; it just continues to exist in a timeless and valueless limbo where at some later date (if it has not by that time turned, or even made, into dust) it has the chance of being discovered.
He then gives a diagram that represents a first approximation of his theory:

Thompson contends that these arrows represent the only allowable transfers between the three categories –– no left-pointing arrows are valid, and no transfers between transient and durable can occur directly. At creation, objects start out in the transient category where, at varying rates of decay, they begin to lose value until they fall into the rubbish category. Here they not only have no value, they are so worthless as to be invisible.  Any rubbish object will remain at zero value (invisible) theoretically forever unless it is "discovered" (made visible) in which case it pops into the durable, value-increasing category where it remains (theoretically forever).

In a 2003 article, John Frow gives a helpful summary from a different vantage point:
Rubbish is a zero-degree of value; and as such it's either the invisible limit point of social value, or it's something we actively conspire not to see. It is thus in an asymmetrical relation to the two major categories of value, which Thompson calls the transient (this is the normal state of things: a state of decreasing value) and the durable (an exceptional state in which objects have permanent and increasing value). Consumer goods are the paradigm case of the former, works of art, perhaps, of the latter.
... [T]he corollary to this view of function as a matter of use rather than an entelechy of intrinsic properties of the object is that objects are likely, in a complex world, to have a number of actual or potential overlapping uses. No single game exhausts their function; no single description exhausts the uses to which their properties might appropriately or inappropriately lend themselves. Indeed, objects don't simply occupy a realm of objecthood over against the human: they translate human interests, carry and transform desires and strategies.[3] [my underlines]

Before noting all the problems that immediately come to mind, and trashing the theory before it's fully unwrapped, the reader should note that the summary just given is a "naive" first-approximation which works quite well in ideal applications, especially for physical objects traded on the market. It's beyond these applications (where the theory at first might seem to fail) that it provides an expanding analytical framework for less tractable examples.  Thompson takes most of the rest of the book exploring many theory-related complications, explanations, caveats, and implications.

When I first began to read this book 30 years ago, I started out being mildly amused and slightly bored. I have no abiding interest in snot (yes, you read that correctly) or Stevengraphs. But about 50 pages in, when he started talking about the Knockers-Through vs. the Ron-and-Cliffs, I started to perk up. (Readers wishing to decode the last two sentences will just have to read the book –– sorry.)

At Chapter 4, "From Things to Ideas," he had me. Metaphors became apparent, and I began to test rubbish theory for its applicability for music. By "applicability" I mean, first, does it conflict with any well-established historical models? It seems to pass this first test. As an obvious example, using what is known about the reception history of J.S. Bach's music from the 18th century to the present, Thompson's model doesn't yield any new facts; but it does provide a complementary interpretive framework to hang those facts from, taking Bach's music from creation as it descended quickly through the transient category down into rubbish where it remained (to general audiences) at the "invisible limit point of social value" for a century –– and then popped into the durable category where its value began to climb to its present value. But does rubbish theory add anything new to acceptable approaches in musicology? Here, it seems to me, comes the big crunch. It's time to leave musicology's –– and music theory's –– comfort zone.

There are two sides to the "canon" problem. First is the obvious: how does an object get into a "canon"? This is effectively identical to the question and example just discussed of how an object escapes the rubbish heap to become durable. But there is a dark side to selection: to select something we must not select other things. Selection is necessarily biased. Whether it is unintentional or an "active conspiracy not to see" (Frow), the only way to create and maintain a "canon" is by keeping out the majority of candidates according to some written or unwritten rule or constraint. This brings me to this statement at the opening of Thompson's Chapter 7, "Monster Conservation":
[T]he charm of rubbish theory is that it seems always to lead straight into illogicality, anomaly, and paradox. Regrettably, there are many who find these qualities not so much charming as monstrous, and there are some who would go so far as to maintain that the proper aim and object of serious thought should be the systematic exclusion of such monsters. Monster exclusion is, at its worst, intolerant, puritanical, and repressive. At its best, it reveals a dubious prettifying intent that leads to the pretence that things are tidier than they really are.
     Monster exclusion is a distinct, and often dominant, intellectual style. (p. 131)
. . . .
[M]onster exclusion can all too easily become monster extermination. Monster extermination can result in the permanent removal of the exceptions to a social theory and, in consequence, monster exterminators are particularly prevalent in the social sciences. The result is that social processes that rely on contradictions for their very existence are almost invariably described by theoretical models of impeccable internal consistency. (p. 133)
We'll meet "monster extermination" up close and personal in Part 2 Part 3 which will be posted soon.

I don't particularly look forward to walking the high theory wire from one praxis to another without the aid of a net.  Fortunately, I have such a net handy.  I'll end this part with an observation that indicates rubbish theory is grounded in an intellectual tradition more broadly based than its limiting sphere of application in the social sciences –– a tradition that echoes throughout the entire "cultural sensorium." This net is a general strain of criticism found in the philosophy of culture. It's nicely summarized by the late David L. Hall (my underlining):
It is essential that one not succumb to the fallacy of completeness in either of its guises––namely, either in the sense that one claims completeness with respect to evidences employed, or in the sense that one requires completeness in the use of evidence. Some degree of specialization is essential. The question is this, however: Has the specialized employment of evidences determined the omission of important areas of experience which may in fact be seasonally relevant in our period of cultural activity? To respond affirmatively to this question involves one in the criticism of the manner in which the inertial character of the past has overdetermined the nature of the cultural present.[4a]
.  .  .  .
Strictly systematic theory is more often than not an ideological epiphenomenon functioning apologetically with respect to current modes of practice. Thus theory is practical by definition if one means no more by theoretical endeavor than that systematic, principled form of thinking shaped by the desire for application.[4b]
.  .  .  .
[T]he attempt to avoid contradiction leads inevitably to the exclusion of experiences or claims about experience which are consistent with alternative explanations of the way of things that, by virtue of their internal consistency and applicability to the world of experience, have an equal claim to be counted as theory.[4c]
.    .    .    .    .

[1] Rubbish Theory : The Creation and Destruction of Value (Oxford UP, 1979) can still be found in many libraries. Those wishing to read a condensed version of Thompson's thesis as an introduction can read a pre-publication article he wrote in 1979 that was recently put on the web.
[2] Michael J. Kowalski, "The Curatorial Muse" (In Contemporary Aesthetics, vol. 8, 2010) FN 34:
The ramifications of the complex embedding of the system of aesthetic validation within a broader context of social validation are explored in Michael Thomson's brilliant and unjustly overlooked study, Rubbish Theory: The Creation and Destruction of Value (Oxford University Press, 1979). The fact that Peter Bürger's ponderously agued theories of avant garde literature, which appeared in English five years after the publication of Thompson's essay, should have become a canonic text for art critics, while the deft and humorous argument of Rubbish Theory was largely ignored, says a great deal about North American writers' knee jerk obeisance to Continental theory. I do not exempt myself from the charge.
[3] John Frow. "Invidious Distinction: Waste, Difference, and Classy Stuff."   (In Culture and Waste: The Creation and Destruction of Value. 2003. Ed. Gay Hawkins and Stephen Muecke).
[4] David L. Hall. Eros and Irony: A Prelude to Philosophical Anarchism.  (Albany : SUNY, c1982) [a] p. 41, [b] p. 45, [c] p. 46.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Desperately Seeking Relevance: Music Theory Today [5]

Thus while it is commendable for composers to be concerned with the limitations of the senses, it is well to remember that music is directed, not to the senses, but through the senses and to the mind. And it might be well if more serious attention were paid to the capacity, behavior, and abilities of the human mind.
–Leonard B. Meyer,
Music, the Arts, and Ideas


At conception, roughly 500 years ago, the tonal triad – barely defined, almost invisible – was all potential, a gift waiting to be unwrapped.

Then came history. A lot of history. Today we've arrived at the end of that history.

Now, the triad-as-we-know-it-today is ubiquitous, fetishized, decoupled, anthropomorphized, overused, tired.

But most of all ubiquitous. This is the perfect word for it. It's not only that it is present everywhere, having invaded and pervaded the musics of virtually every culture on the planet. It's not only that its sound has captured the ears of most children even before they begin to talk. The concept of "ubiquity" originated as the Lutheran doctrine of the omnipresence of the body of Christ. The triad came to be heard as the omnipresent body of Music in the same mysterious sense. But ultimately came the whispering voice of the eternal devil lurking just outside the door of the Workshop, and of course the less subtle shout from the devil we invented:
An idea in music consists principally in the relation of tones to one another. But every relationship that has been used too often, no matter how extensively modified, must finally be regarded as exhausted; it ceases to have power to convey a thought worthy of expression.[1]

What chord is the robot playing, and why?
(Image from  CS4FN, Queen Mary, University of London)

As a fundamental compositional object, our triad has had a good run. But today its theory, now capable of speaking only through the many voices of analysis[2], has ossified into dogma. It's time to let it rest. Our composers–––not the gondoliers, but the explorers–––left it behind a century ago to map new coastlines and interiors. Now we all have to let go. But how?

.    .    .    .    .    .    .

Specific justifications for asserting the preeminence of the tonal triad, correctly but misleadingly referred to as the triad's multiple "natures," continue to multiply in the academic community. All of these natures/justifications taken together are considered by many analysts to be the basis for a demonstration of the inevitability of the tonal triad as the foundation for "our" music, coincidentally the music most amenable to extended analyses. It's as if there is a belief floating around out there that the more natures that theorists can identify or manufacture, the more solid a case can be made that the triad is a natural object whose status can't be challenged without bringing down the entire world of music. But there does come a day ––– "The lady doth protest too much, methinks." ––– when hollow echoes from that groaning tower of justifications makes us suspect that there's nothing left to justify (if there ever was a need). Except, perhaps, the justifications.

As we shall see, other sonorities (I will work out just one in the next post to serve as an example) may also have interesting and compositionally suggestive multiple natures –– some natures will be shared with the old workhorse, others will be different. First, to know what we will be looking for and to be able to contrast and compare any new music theory with the established, we need to briefly discuss what I consider to be the closest thing music theory today has to a set of axioms. Of course, that is not precisely what they are (even less are they Euclidean requests!) but they do share the axiomatic sense of being proposition sets–––rules, if you will–––some version of which, however warped, is required for any pitch-based music game. A complete list of quasi-axioms for the tonal triad would be unwieldy, but I believe all of them fall into four basic categories that (unintentionally?) mix facts and claims. Remember, these refer to the triad, not its most compatible matrix, the diatonic system.
  1. Form inducing: The triad's structure invites characteristic compositional procedures and techniques such as "parsimonious" voice leading, modulation, chromaticization through decoupling from the diatonic, and so on.  It's in this category that some of tonal music theory's biggest claims and most bewildering terminological tangles are found. The triad's form inducing properties are arguably a sine qua non for tonal theories from Fux and Rameau through Schenker and Riemann as well as contemporary instructional manuals from Piston and the latest undergraduate harmony text to popular treatments such as those found in any guitar method book and Music Theory for Dummies.
  2. Extensible: The tonal triad is capable of combinatorially generating other harmonic objects such as seventh chords, whether by adding sevenths or sixths, by triad superposition, or by third stacking. There are different opinions as to the correct analysis of the way this generation works, but the end result –– new objects that are harmonically similar to their progenitor –– significantly expands available harmonic material.
  3. Matrix-defining: The triad's "shape" as a second-order maximally even structure connects it logically to the maximally even diatonic (I assume this recommends it based on our human aesthetic preference for symmetry, though I've never heard this argument specifically – only an amazement (which I share) at the triad's "fit" within a nested symmetry.) More importantly, beyond its symmetry and fit within the diatonic and other scales, the repetition of the triad shape at every level creates a defining coherence for the diatonic matrix. 
  4. Aurally preferable (apart from any system or matrix): The major triad appears in nature in the lower partials of the harmonic series. This fact is often cited in conjunction with the questionable notion that, presented with the choice, humans have a physical or psychological preference for "natural" over "synthetic." (Unfortunately, to get at the essential minor triad in the harmonic series requires some intellectual juggling.) Another nature-preference argument comes from noting the relatively smaller (ergo simpler) frequency ratios of the tonal triad's constituent intervals, and relating this to humans' alleged preference (again, presented with the choice) for simple over more complex structures. Finally, there is a claim that a natural preference for the triad's sound per se is internal –– somehow wired into the human brain/psyche. Cognitive science has been enlisted to demonstrate this claim which, if it could be done, would lend credence to the "We all like it" argument, a statistical syllogism that derives first-person plural status from a sufficiently large sample of first-person singular preferences. The unacknowledged underbelly of this attempt to ally with science in order to get to we, is that it can be easily confused with the discredited, but often employed, rhetorical argumentum ad populum with a little ad baculum thrown in for spice. At any rate, any applicable valid science here continues to be surrounded by a lot of big ifs. As far as I know, cognitive science is continuing to tell us that the innate preference feature will be thoroughly understood by next Sunday. So stay tuned if you believe the outcome might justify your personal listening preferences or provide rocks to throw at composers who refuse to comply with nature.
This list resembles Euclid's axioms at least in the sense that each of the four basic categories (as proposition sets) is independent of the others. In particular (looking ahead), categories 1, 2 and 3 all offer pragmatic techne suggestions and useful game rules for composers of tonal works past and present and are easily seen to have nothing to do with the preference propositions alleged in category 4. The first three can stand untouched whether or not the triad object sounds good to you or me or anybody.

If this decoupling of sound from procedure is difficult to swallow, try this old philosophers' trick (usually done as an imaginary(?) conversation with the devil).
Imagine an extraterrestrial visiting Earth who, when encountering chords as simultaneities,  experiences pleasure from those intervals found consecutively in the higher overtones (the higher the overtones, the more pleasant the sensation) and excruciating pain from intervals appearing in the lower partials. Our ET's hearing is so sensitive that she can clearly distinguish overtones well over the Pythagorean comma, creating a harmonic preference that is very odd to us: the higher the partials, the closer consecutive intervals get to unison; so she loves the near-unison, but the perfect octave down at the bottom is almost unbearable to her. On her home planet they also have consonant triads as verticals, but each triad's constituent intervals are so close together we Earthlings can only hear them as a single fuzzy tone. Well, this is unusual, but at least we can relate in that some of our own musicians and theorists have been investigating microtones for a long time, albeit not this radical an upside-down harmony preference. But then it gets really weird. She tells us that their melodies are generally stepwise with occasional leaps for effect and to avoid boredom; except that by "step" she means intervals from the lowest partials and by "leap" she means intervals toward the higher end. To illustrate she takes out something she calls a jPod and plays a recording of an old accompanied folk melody from her planet. To our ears it is a random jumble of sounds jumping all over the acoustic spectrum, but she smiles as it plays. We ask her to please turn it off. Her planet's way of forming "simple," enjoyable harmonic and melodic material is precisely the opposite of ours. We make one more try to understand and ask her to explain how her concepts of melody relate to harmony. She produces what she calls a jPad and we scroll through a document she tells us was written by an ancient philosopher-composer from her world named I. I. Fux simply titled Counterline. At first it makes no sense. Then gradually we realize that if we carefully switch certain words around, step <––> leap, consonant <––> dissonant, and a few more ––– and then if we re-read the teacher-student conversation, leaving the "rules" exactly as they are, just switching a few basic definitions ....... hmmm.... Our mind wanders out of music and into math for some reason ––– we vaguely remember something about duals, dual spaces, dual theorems, switching out points for lines .... hmmmm.  Our reverie is disturbed by an obnoxious sound like the rapid repetiton of the highest and lowest notes on a piano. It's our visitor's jPhone. She says she must return immediately. Her planet's North Polar Cap has declared war on the South Polar Cap again. Some things, beside the laws of physics, are the same across the universe. We ask her to accept a musical gift to remember us by –– an accordion. She politely refuses. We understand, of course, and wish her well. She steps into the old abandoned phone booth and disappears. Down on the ground we see the jPod she must have accidentally dropped. Hmmmmmmm.......

[1] Arnold Schoenberg (in Schoenberg, ed. Merle Armitage. 1937. p. 267)
[2] It is my understanding that "music analysis" conceived as an independent discipline (and today considered as all but synonymous with "music theory") began in earnest only a couple centuries ago. This makes sense since music analysis is dependent on a sufficiently large body of artifacts that somehow managed magically to appear (as well as to be shared and enjoyed) without any independently coherent analytical theory to speak of. It took some time for these artifacts to accumulate before the professional analyst could make an appearance. This answers how (academy oriented) analysis became possible, but fails to address the question of why it was, and still is, considered indispensable. Or often why it's helpful at all. (And a host of other questions.) C.H. Langford, writing about G.E. Moore's "analytical paradox," sums up my own conundrum regarding analysis:
Let us call what is to be analysed the analysandum, and let us call that which does the analysing the analysands. The analysis then states an appropriate relation  of equivalence between the analysandum and the analysands. And the paradox of analysis is to the effect that, if the verbal [music] expression representing the analysandum has the same meaning as the verbal [graphic, verbal] expression representing the analysands, the analysis states a bare identity and is trivial; but if the two ... expressions do not have the same meaning, the analysis is incorrect. (Langford, "The Notion of Analysis in Moore's Philosophy" in The Philosophy of G.E. Moore, ed. P.A. Schlipp, p.323)
But the paradox didn't stop Moore from philosophizing. None of this is meant to say that I don't see a place for analytical work to inform theory and composition –– that would be absurd, even to me. If I were asked how I can then even make a distinction, I would be forced to admit that I see theory as the attempt to show how things might be (while knowing that all possible paths will not all be chosen) and analysis as the attempt to show how things are (with no attempt to provide a normative framework for either composer or listener).  Still it's in my nature to rebel against the latter, even (or especially) when I find myself faking that pose in a group portrait.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Desperately Seeking Relevance: Music Theory Today [4]

"Modes of Imagining"
A few thoughts on rules, definitions, common notions,
requests, postulates, axioms, hypotheses,
and other stuff.

I will not run through all the modern axioms laid down by Russian boys on the subject, which are all absolutely derived from European hypotheses; because what is a hypothesis there immediately becomes an axiom for a Russian boy, and that is true not only of boys but perhaps of their professors as well, since Russian professors today are quite often the same Russian boys. And therefore I will avoid all hypotheses. – Ivan Karamazov[1]

I often think of music as a game. There may be a large, even infinite, number of ways to play, but a limited, relatively small set of rules defines any game. Over a long period of time, since originality is often an important goal, some of the rules might be altered so that boredom doesn't set in (possibilities tend to get used up as the history of play is extended). But the question then arises, which rules are you allowed to change and how much can you alter them before you find you are playing a different game altogether?

It doesn't take long before tic-tac-toe becomes boring. So you change the rule that says it has to be played on a two-dimensional surface. Is tic-tac-toe in three dimensions still tic-tac-toe? I think most people would say yes. But let's say you stick to two dimensions, expand the grid, change a few other rules, expand the grid some more and so on. Over the years, possibly centuries if you live so long, you come to realize you're playing a game that looks an awful lot like a game in another culture called Go. But are you still playing tic-tac-toe? Does it matter?

If we ask if Wagner was playing the same game as Josquin, it seems the answer would be both no and yes, depending on which rules you look at. Some of the rules in Wagner's music game would be unrecognizable to Josquin, and some of Josquin's would be anathema to Wagner. Others (very deep ones, I think) would be unchanged between the two – if not, we couldn't say that both composers were composing music that sounds enough alike such that no one is surprised when we call them both music.

The game metaphor suggests a few related knotty issues as well. When is a rule change called for? Is it simply a matter of avoiding boredom as I suggested at first, or are there other compelling reasons for rule changes? This raises issues of authority. Who decides a rule change is called for and what rule or rules to change? The composer? The performer? Who gets to decide whether or not to accept a rule change? The audience? The critic? History?

Now I suppose I could continue in this vein to segue into a critique of musical developments and experiments in the early-to-mid 20th century. It now seems to many, not without reason, that rule-changing itself became the game in those years. I can't deny this happened, but neither can I say that many of these rule changes were not desirable or necessary. The old game was getting awfully stale and a little too easy. But that's not the turn I want this metaphor to take. At least not yet. Instead, I'd like to move away from music a bit to see how players in another game have dealt with radical rule changes.

"In the nineteenth century, geometry, like most academic disciplines, went through a period of growth verging on cataclysm."[2]  (One might say that in the twentieth century, music, like most other arts, went through a period of cataclysm verging on growth.)

While there was an explosion of activity in many branches of mathematics, I think most would agree that a main cause for all the foment was a problem that kept bubbling up from just below the surface for centuries: the Fifth Postulate in Euclid's Elements. But the "parallel postulate" is not the issue here. The issue I'd like to dwell on is the word postulate per se, and how mathematics as a discipline learned to handle the problem of its "primitive concepts."

I just recently discovered that the Greek word Euclid used, which is generally translated as "postulates," was αιτεματα [aitemata], more accurately rendered as "requests." This is significantly different from the old, and still common, sense of postulates and axioms as self-evident propositions. It would seem that Euclid's Elements does not really begin with five postulates, nor with five axioms. Euclidean geometry begins with five requests. So then is the reader free to accept or reject any of these requests? Yes. But the consequence of rejecting any one of them is that Euclidean geometry doesn't work. – Well, that's not entirely true. As it turns out, the Fifth Request, concerning "parallel lines," can be left out, leaving much of the Euclidean edifice still standing, but the space it is left standing in need not be "flat" as common sense would dictate. And if the Euclidean Fifth Request is denied such that space is no longer "flat," some very strange objects and relations begin to appear – logically valid but playing havoc with our human sense of the way things are and the way they ought to be.
[N]o mathematician would invent something new in mathematics just to flatter the masses.... He who really uses his brain for thinking can only be possessed of one desire: to resolve his task. He cannot let external conditions exert influence upon the results of his thinking.... An idea is born; it must be moulded, formulated, developed, elaborated, carried through and pursued to its very end.[4]
[V]ery little of mathematics is useful practically, and ... that little is comparatively dull. The 'seriousness' of a mathematical theorem lies, not in its practical consequences, which are usually negligible, but in the significance of the mathematical ideas which it connects. We may say, roughly, that a mathematical idea is 'significant' if it can be connected, in a natural and illuminating way, with a large complex of other mathematical ideas. Thus a serious mathematical theorem which connects significant ideas, is likely to lead to important advances in mathematics itself and even in other sciences.[5] 

Still, it was not always so. Mathematicians are human, and tend to cling to their inherited realities like anyone else. It took centuries (and the development of a more safely liberal culture) for them to face up to the problem fully. In 1733, Giovanni Saccheri, having proven many theorems in hyperbolic geometry, dismissed his own work simply because it contradicted Euclid. To this day, outside the world of mathematics and science generally, the common sense (consensus: literally "feeling together") tells us that everything in Euclidean geometry is obviously true. Imagining the world otherwise, even "in theory," is nearly impossible. Outside of science fiction (NB!), suggesting a world where parallel lines meet is an abomination. To explain what our collective sense tells us, therefore, we accept Euclid's request because we need it to prove (justify) what we already know is true. We knowingly commit to this invalid argument because we need to get along in a world we can understand. "We do, doodley do, ... what we must, muddily must...." That's all. Is this beginning to sound familiar??

Despite being locked in by collective wisdom, in the nineteenth century mathematics found a way to stop begging this ancient question. Nikolai Lobachevsky devised an alternative system of geometry based on the negation of the Fifth Postulate (we may as well return to this commonly accepted translation now, my point having been made (I think)). Lobachevsky called the geometry he built an "imaginary" geometry.[6]  Around the same time, Janos Bolyai simply deleted the Fifth Postulate and termed what could then be deduced from the definitions and the first four postulates alone the "absolute geometry."[7] In 1854, Bernhard Riemann (who Milton Babbitt liked to call "the good Riemann") built a spherical geometry where there are no parallel lines (paving the way to the general theory of relativity). There were now two non-Euclidean geometries. Mathematicians had finally freed themselves from trying to make the worlds of reality and imagination conform to the Euclidian sacred text, and they did this essentially by populating the world with other geometries – not to improve upon, and certainly not to take the place of Euclid, but to join him. Euclidean geometry became one among many valid geometries, and this caused a different problem. With more geometries appearing on the scene, what, if anything, was the connection between them?

Enter Felix Klein and his Erlangen Program of 1872 which was a synthesis of many of the then-existing geometries (including Cartesian, projective, and others – the exception was spherical) as models of the same "abstract geometry."[8] Remember that term.

Neither reverence for the past nor the common sense of reality prevailed. Euclid remained, but the Euclidean lock was broken.

I'm going to break off this ultima Thule of a digression here because a musical Erlangen Program is precisely the place where I would like to resume my commentary on music theory today (MTT) with a challenge that will take two more posts. In my next post I'll review a list of what I understand to be MTT's basic, mostly unexamined assumptions. These assumptions I see as tracking the early history of geometry described above. Full of potential, MTT has stopped short of Lobachevsky & company and settled into the safe holding mode of a brilliant but frightened Saccheri. Just what the Erlangen Program is in math and what it might suggest to music theory should then become clear with what I intend to be my final post in this thread. But I'm more than willing to extend it if the challenge is taken up in a meaningful way.

The recognition of frontiers implies the possibility of crossing them. It is just as urgent for musical theory to reflect on its own procedures as it is for music itself. It is the bitter fate of any theory worthy of the name that it is able to think beyond its own limitations, to reach further than the end of its nose. To do this is almost the distinguishing mark of authentic thinking.
––Theodor Adorno (Quasi una Fantasia)

[1] Fyodor Dostoevskii. The Brothers Karamazov, Part 2, Book 5, Chapter 3. Tr. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1990. p. 235.
[4] Arnold Schoenberg. "New Music, Outmoded Music, Style and Idea" (1946) (In Style and Idea)
[5] G.H. Hardy. A Mathematician's Apology (p.89)
[8] Felix Klein. "A Comparative Review of Recent Researches in Geometry."

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Desperately Seeking Relevance: Music Theory Today [3]

The following entry was posted in Essays & Endnotes in September 2013. I am copying it here in its entirety because it really belongs in this thread.

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.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Desperately Seeking Relevance: Music Theory Today [2]

The Possession of Doctor J
and How Ernst Krenek Saved Me from Drowning in the Devil's Triangle
(Another True Story)

I am sitting in a room.

Waiting for Dr. J.

It's Monday, September 24, 1962, a warm autumn morning on the campus of Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois.

The class is Harmony I, and six or seven other students are waiting with me. We've only met a few times so far – maybe half a dozen, and Dr. J has always been punctual. He seems a happy fellow, full of enthusiasm for his work and himself, but he also seems deaf to the possibility that his enthusiasm is not all that contagious and just might be grating on others – the sort of person who forces agreement by using the first-person plural way too much. How are we today? What do we call this chord? On the first day of class he introduced himself by reciting his CV. The two points he stressed were, first, that he was a doctor, and second, more importantly, that he had "studied with Nadia Boulanger." I don't believe anyone in class, including me, had ever heard of Nadia Boulanger before. But we figured she must be important because Dr. J managed to pronounce her name with due reverence – my teacher, Madame Boulanger – at least once every session. I had no problem with the material, but early on Dr. J started to really get on my nerves, as he would later get on my case.

Suddenly Dr. J bursts into the room. He has lost any semblance of composure. His face is red – eyes wide – jaw locked. There is no happy nod to his students. Instead of going straight to the piano and playing his clever signature unresolved dominant 7th chord greeting, he paces. He slaps his notes down on top of the piano. Starts to sit down. Paces some more. It is frightening to watch, and no one knows quite what to make of it. Finally, he sits down. He apologizes for being late. Then the story comes out.

He had watched the Sunday, September 23, 1962 broadcast of the dedication of Lincoln Center's Philharmonic Hall featuring Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. The centerpiece was the premiere of a new work by the great American composer Aaron Copland. It was horrible! Horrible! Horrible!! The great Aaron Copland, first among all the American pupils of my teacher, Madame Boulanger, had written a ... twelve-tone piece.


. . . . .

Dr. J somehow managed to regain his composure and get on with his daily triads. He never mentioned it again. But things were never the same for me. If the words "twelve tone piece" elicited such a violent reaction in such a little man, I had to know what the fuss was all about. A couple weeks after Dr. J's tantrum, I went to the library. I don't remember if I found it in the card catalog or just by browsing the shelves – but the library had one short [37 p.] book on the subject: Studies in counterpoint: based on the twelve-tone technique [1940] by Ernst Krenek.

Thus began my own 50 year journey through the very strange and exciting worlds of music theories.

Now put on your seven league boots.


After I devoured that little book I eventually got on to Schoenberg and the more usual suspects. This was a lonely project, but libraries continued to supply my teachers for this forbidden fruit during my undergraduate years, creating a schizophrenia I've never really found a cure for.

I mostly forgot about Ernst Krenek for many years. Then one day I discovered a box sitting on a shelf in the music division at the Library of Congress. It was barely taped shut, and on the top was written, "Noli me tangere!" [The only one in the music division I can think of who would have been capable of thinking up that little joke was Wayne Shirley – TOTH, Wayne, wherever you are!] The box contained the memoirs of Ernst Krenek and another label indicated the box was to remain sealed until 15 years after Krenek's death. Of course, the box had been opened before, so I admit I looked inside as well – but never spoke of the actual content with anyone until after December 22, 2006. The story of the writing and "publication" of the memoirs remains steeped in mystery to me. Here are a few facts.

The deposit is a typescript consisting of 1106 pages (single spaced as I recall). Beginning in 1950, it was sent to LC in six installments corresponding to six chapters. The period covered is 1900–1939, Krenek's birth until his arrival in the U.S. Beside being Krenek's account of his music and life during those years, they are an extremely valuable and detailed record of musical and political life in Europe & particularly in Austria leading up to the Anschluss. He began writing it September 6, 1942 in St. Paul & finished January 6, 1952 in Rio de Janeiro. The entire original manuscript was written in English. That's where the mystery lingers. Krenek died in 1991 in Palm Springs. In 1998 his widow, Gladys Krenek moved to Vienna and the Krenek Institute was founded there. I was told that Gladys Krenek has a (carbon?) copy of the English manuscript. In 1998, the English manuscript copy(?) was translated into German and published in Hamburg under the title Im Atem der Zeit. After going out of print, a second edition was published in 2012, again in German. To my knowledge, there is no published version of the Krenek memoirs available in English, the language in which he originally intentionally wrote them. I make no guesses, and certainly no judgements, regarding these facts other than: This is a bizarre situation in so many ways. And I can only hope that the original typescript at LC has been sent for preservation, as well as, ideally, digitization. The last I saw it in 2011 the type on the onion skin paper was beginning to fade in places.


I realize that bringing up the Krenek memoirs mystery here risks drawing attention away from everything else I'm trying to say as many rush to get their personal opinions into a list serv or email or FB page or tweet. But as much as I'm concerned about the memoirs (and many other important things ignored and gathering dust and worse at LC), my purpose in lingering on Ernst Krenek, a remarkable and important composer and teacher, is two-fold.

First, to make a statement to the Dr. J teachers out there. I have no desire to talk with you, let alone debate you, and I realize it's futile at any rate. So cherry pick history. Go ahead and ignore the repertoire and theory you consider irrelevant or dangerous. I doubt Krenek, at this point, will make it into your worthiness lists beyond a brief mention of Jonny spielt auf.  Just know that, through the miracle of the Internet, I'm now talking to your students directly, without your presence to ameliorate my evil influence.

Go for it, kids: Don't just question authority, chew it up and spit it out.

Finally, my reference to the Krenek English manuscript was background to quote the following (in transcription), without being able to supply a cite that's easily available to check. Some poetry from the first two pages that says precisely how I feel right now:
These pages are dictated by the fear that, if I would not write down certain things, the memory of them would be lost forever. It seems wise to do so now since I might be nearer to death than ever before. When I say that the memory of things may be extinguished, it means that the things themselves are in danger of being lost, because things of the past  do not exist except in our memory. Only the works of men last for some time, particularly those of the mind, which are sufficiently cleansed of perishable matter and have a peculiarly solid construction of their own. These we call works of art. The perishable matter of which the works of art must be free is precisely those things which exist solely in our memory: the bewildering maze of events which seemingly make up the reality of our lives. These events, innumerable as they happen every second to each one of the fifteen hundred million individuals living on earth, are nothing if we do not remember them. The work of art, in order to be experienced by those to which it is addressed, has to enter this process; somebody has to look at it, or to listen to it, in a certain given moment, and this will be one of the events which we must remember so that it would not be lost. However, the work of art will still be there, regardless of whether or not he remembers his experience. Remembering an event is a silent, inwardly act which in itself is an event doomed with oblivion if it is not remembered. Thus, if we want to salvage an event, or the memory of an event, from speedy annihilation, we must impart to it the durable quality of the work of art. The inherent difficulty of memoires, or of history for that matter, is that they are necessarily made up from that very perishable matter of which the work of art should keep free. The problem is not one of different degrees of significance. The outcome of a so-called decisive battle is in itself no more significant than the result of a private conversation between any two individuals, and the reader characteristically enough makes no distinction of that kind. At any time he is ready to prefer the imaginary quarrels of fictitious characters in a well-written novel to an allegedly faithful, but uninspired account of Napoleon’s campaigns. Thus the value of memoires does not rest upon their veracity (which can hardly be tested anyhow), but upon the amount of interest which their author can arouse by his peculiar way of remembering the facts which he relates. It is probable that this interest is proportional to the urge that he feels for preventing his memories from being obliterated by his silence. I feel that with me this urge has recently become so strong that I may dare to begin writing down my memories this Sunday, September the sixth, 1942, in St. Paul, Minnesota, where I arrived two days ago in order to take over my new job as director of the department of music at Hamline University, in this city.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Desperately Seeking Relevance: Music Theory Today [1]

A true story.

Years ago, but not that many, I was having a conversation with N – a good friend, a fine pianist and outstanding chamber musician. He also, like many musicians, taught theory to undergraduates. He's retired now, but at the time we had this conversation he was a full professor at a well-respected school.

It was after dinner and we were enjoying what was left of the wine. I had recently been to a music theory conference where one scholar reading a paper used a term that I hadn't heard before – theory-based performance. I was telling N that the idea was further discussed afterward on the smt list with a few participants enthusing over the idea of a theorist getting together with, say, the Juilliard Quartet in rehearsal and collaboratively preparing a "theory-based performance" of, say, a Mozart quartet. Sort of the ultimate test of a theory, although it was never clear what it would be tested against since it would still, like everything else in "applied theory," eventually run up against the wall of first person avowals. (Still, I was intrigued  entertained by the image of Doctor Ruth invited into the Juilliard's bedroom to coach them on how to improve their performance. But back to my conversation with N.)

Unspoken, but pretty obvious from the exchanges on the list, was the exciting notion that a theorist might be brought into the composer-performer-audience loop to provide "expert advice" prior to a specific performance that would bring that performance up a notch or two, clarify larger formal aspects or details that a performer working alone may miss, etc. [I don't recall the precise content of the smt list discussion, but enthusiasm for the idea was palpable.] I told N that this appeared to me to be an extension of the older notion of "theory-based listening" (not to be confused with "ear training," which has its own set of problems). At any rate, the conversation finally got more specific and came around to the relevance of Schenker to performance as well as (new) composition and whether Schenker training might improve a listener's experience and how could you tell if it had. Finally I asked N if Schenker played any role in his own work. (I was thinking of his work as a performer, but I wasn't clear about that.) His answer:

"My God! If it wasn't for Schenker I wouldn't have anything to teach!!"

We both laughed at his unguarded admission. And the wine was gone, so it was time to go home.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Desperately Seeking Relevance: Music Theory Today [0]

The intent of the entries in this thread is to explore. This means, to me, that there will be challenges, but probably no winners. Questions, but I hope no answers. Just what I'm intending to explore here will have to wait to be defined over time by an accumulation of contexts. These will be my personal contexts (this is, after all, a blog), but anyone should feel free to improve on these by adding their own. But I cannot promise that I will post and reply to all comments.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Partition Puzzle 5: Feldman Analysis of Z-rels mod 31

Yesterday David Feldman left a comment on a previous E&EN blog entry. I felt it ought to be brought forward as a post of its own so it doesn't get overlooked. He has agreed to let me post it here as a Preliminary Report.

[Jon Wild wrote:]

"There is a quintuplet of Z-related hexachords in 31-tone equal
temperament whose interval vectors consist solely of 1s--they are all interval hexachords, expressing 15 interval classes in just six pitches. This set of 5 hexachords can be packed into the 31-tone aggregate leaving only one pitch uncovered. The odds that this is by chance are astronomical-there is some other principle at work, related to the observations Stephen has started to make, but I don't know what that principle is."

Here is a description of [this] example which may remove some of the mystery.

Modulo 31, the five sets can be written as[1]         

{3^0 , 3^10, 3^20, 3^3,  3^13, 3^23}         
{3^2 , 3^12, 3^22, 3^5,  3^15, 3^25}         
{3^4 , 3^14, 3^24, 3^7,  3^17, 3^27}         
{3^6 , 3^16, 3^26, 3^9,  3^19, 3^29}      
{3^8 , 3^18, 3^28, 3^11, 3^21, 3^31}

In the language of abstract algebra,
              {3^0 , 3^10, 3^20}
constitutes a subgroup of the multiplicative group of the field with 31elements and
              {3^3,  3^13, 3^23}

one of it's cosets.
              {3^0 , 3^6, 3^12, 3^18, 3^24}
constitutes a disjoint subgroup with 5 elements.

The five sets come from the first by multiplication, as one see quickly if one keeps in mind the congruence of 3^30 with 1 modulo 31.  Multiplication permutes intervals,but preserves all interval hexachords.

One could still argue that {3^0 , 3^10, 3^20, 3^3,  3^13, 3^23} giving an all-interval hexachord seems miraculous, but one surely gets all the intervals if no interval occurs twice. So write
            A = {3^0 , 3^10, 3^20}  B = {3^3 ,  3^13 , 3^23}
Obviously distinct pairs in A give distinct intervals (or the interval would have to be preserved by multiplication by 3^10); similarly distinct pairs in B; similarly a pair in A compared with a pair in B similarly two pairs each crossing A to B. 
Thus the only not obvious case would be a pair in A, say, and a pair crossing from A to B.  One can also rule out some of these cases a priori, and reduce the total number by symmetry, but in any case one doesn't have so many cases that the non-occurrence of an equality seems miraculous anymore.
– David Victor Feldman
9 April 2014 


[1] For a direct relationship to these sets in more recognizable integer notation, it may be helpful to use the following distribution of 3^n as an overlay:
1 25 5 27 24 11
9 8 14 26 30 6
19 10 2 17 22 23
16 28 18 29 12 21
20 4 7 13 15 3
If X is any one of these five sets,
V(X) = [6111111111111111]
V(X, complX) = [0 a a a a a a a a a a a a a a a]  (a=10)
remembering that complX always includes 0, the odd man out.