Thursday, July 03, 2008

In Analysis

As part of a group project, I've recently been analyzing my favorite Mozart Piano Sonata (the F Major, K533/494). Going off on my own, beyond the confines of the project, I've been trying to get at the piece from as many analytic angles as possible (all the usual suspects -- scale-step, functional, tuning lattice, motivic, Schenkerian, rhythmic, topical -- plus an idea borrowed from Virgil Thomson and John Cage about pitch gamuts).

Without going into any specific results -- which would be premature anyways -- I've been struck by the contrast between those analytic methods which are more objectively descriptive and those -- Schenkerian techniques especially -- in which each analytic decision is negotiated in a process uncannily like that of setting a human subject down on a couch and asking about dreams or the subjects relationship to his or her mother. While one is fascinated by such an image -- after all, Schenker's work and psychoanalysis were both products of fin de siècle Vienna, if coming from very different neighborhoods of that complex cultural/intellectual town -- the high degree of subjectivity is troubling. And this subjectivity, reinforced by an insistence that each decision represents a form of belief, is not limited to Schenker-style analysis (One of my college teachers was a student of Boulanger, and his approach, directly following that of Boulanger, was to insist on the same sort of commitment, which the student had to demonstrate through rigorous musicianship exercises, often turning music class into something more like an old fashioned catechism lesson (no lisping nuns, but complete with back-of-the-knuckle slaps with a ruler whenever something was done wrong)).

One of the things that music handles well but music analysis deals with poorly is the exhibition of ambiguity. Real music can say two things or be two places at once, and sometimes more than two, while the preference in analysis is inevitably to pin things down. And most forms of music analysis are based on some aesthetic and stylistic preferences that are generally left unstated, particularly those concerning the "unity" of a movement or whole work of music. The idea, for example, that a piece of music starts and returns to the same place, or is an expansion or elaboration of a single idea or structure, is an aesthetic preference, not a law of nature, and music can very well start here and end up in some very different place, an unexpected there, or fail to relate entirely to a single generative idea and still be successful, interesting, attractive, or whatever...

However, if that if the student of analysis is aware and wary of any aesthetic assumptions underlying an analytic technique, these techniques can become valuable, in listening, performing, or in composing. Harmonic functions and Schenkerian prolongations are extraordinarly rich in descriptive and compositional power, but there is no object to these forms of analysis precisely similar to the object of psychoanalysis. A musical work may well be problematic, if not a puzzle, but it is not an ailing organism and will not be made well by analysis. The final Schenkergram, with a work reduced to a tonal skeleton common to all works also satisfying the same aesthetic critieria, is not interesting in and of itself, but the process of arriving at that skeleton is both very revealing and suggestive of alternate possibilities for interpretation or for new composition.

The known analytic practices are, as far as we can tell, only provisional, especially as long as our knowledge of the neuroscience of music is so limited. These analytic procedures can be put in reverse, as it were, and used to synthesize new musics; but the evidence from real composition is that many roads lead to Rome: although one algorithm or another may exhibit virtues of logic, elegance, or efficiency, there is no compelling evidence that real human composers operate on the basis of logic, elegance, or efficiency, so there is no slam dunk argument for any existing technique but strong hints that musical diversity is served by a diversity of approaches to musical synthesis. And while there are strong suspicions that our perception of music uses analytic techniques bearing some real relationships to known methods of music analysis, this is still such a young area of research that one is wise to be prepared for more surprises.

We're not out of analysis yet and that, my old (but not John McCain old) friends, is far from a bad state of affairs.

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