Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Altogether, Now

John Cage disliked the word "texture" when applied to music; he thought that use of the term was an appropriation from a physically tactile domain that made no sense in the description of music. And while one could argue with Cage on the somewhat peripheral case that some sounds exert a presence which actually is tactile, sounds that one can feel through the skin as well as hear with ears, Cage's critique stands, usefully, pointing to a convention which is, indeed, vague. "Texture" is, in talk about music, used for a number of things, including — rather vaguely — the density or level of activity, and — more precisely — the quantitative and qualitative state of ensembles. In fact, our vocabulary for describing ensembles is quite good; it is both clear and vivid. Unfortunately, we've acquired some habits with this vocabulary which are not so good.

I recently volunteered to help a Gymnasium student prepare for a music exam. I managed to get him into real trouble, and it was trouble with a capital "T" and that stands for Texture. You see, on the exam he was being asked to reproduce a certain narrative in which "music history" (unqualified by many particulars of where or when) began with monophony, in the form of chant and monodic song, got mucked about by some non-westerners into heterophony, which was busy but not so sophisticated as that which followed in the West, albeit in a now-quaint and antiquarian way, as polyphony, and the story of textures ends with all of us singing Lutheran chorales, which are identified as homophony.

All the sins of this narrative — and it happens to be a standard entry-level academic narrative on both sides of the pond — aside, the sin that immediately alarmed me and led me to getting the kid in trouble was the fact that he was being forced to abuse some perfectly good terminology. These terms are useful for describing ensembles, but they are not really a set of four distinct terms but two very different pairs of terms. The first pair, monophonic/polyphonic is quantitative, a simple binary opposition between a single voice or line and and an ensemble of more than one voice. One may well go on to further distinguish polyphonic ensembles in terms of the numbers of lines, but the basic opposition remains that between one and more than one. The second pair of terms, homophonic/heterophonic is qualitative and applies only to ensembles, that is, to polyphony. These terms are not in a simple binary opposition but rather describe relative positions on a continuum between similar and differentiated voices or lines.

When the face value of this ensemble of terms is recovered as I describe here, their application to real, existing music becomes much more subtle, and, I believe, interesting. With, for example, musical ensembles that practice the simultaneous variation of a single melodic idea, a practice common throughout much of the world, an analyst is required to apply the pairs of terms in different ways within almost every musical parameter. The use of a single, core melody is, indeed, a symptom of homophony, but local details — in the form of simultaneous variations and ornaments — exhibit a tendency to differentiation, i.e. heterophony. The question of the number of lines active in the ensemble becomes one of perspective: how closely does one examine the music? From a certain distance, that of the Schenkerian Urlinie or the Javanese Lagu, it may well sound like one line, but from other distances, an adequate quantification demands a number greater than one.

If it sounds like I'm praising these terms for their precision only then, in their application to real, existing music, to let that precision slip away, like sand between fingers, it's because that's precisely what I want to be doing. Terms like these are useful not only because they make some features of music more clear, but also because they restore some of the mystery of music, by underlining aspects of the musical experience which are anything but clear.

If you have any doubt how central the act of making the familiar strange again is to the aesthetic experience then just try, for a moment, to remember the face of the loved one you know best. I guarantee that the more you try to reproduce that face in your memory, the less satisfied you will be with the quality of your memory. You can know and treasure all the broad features as well as a wealth of details from that familiar face, but you can never recover all of the texture of that face, in its unique ensemble complexity. And the proof of this is that each time you see that face again, you experience simultaneously the delight of recognition and the surprise of the unfamiliar, a most musical condition.

No comments: