Friday, July 11, 2014

(Not Just) Fun and Games

Stephen Soderberg has a typically thoughtful post, from his on-going series on "Music Theory Today", which uses the notion of music as a game.  The usual framework for thinking of music as a game is that it works with a finite set of rules yet their application can lead to a (potentially) infinite set of of outcomes (whether pieces, performances, or auditions.)  Innovation — unexpected new varieties of music — are understood as coming from unexpected, yet still strict, applications and combinations of these rules.  But that's not the only way to think about these innovations.  One way is to think in terms of rule-breaking.  (I can't help, in this case, but think about the (probably apocryphal) legend of the invention of Rugby Football, when a footballer suddenly picked up the ball with his hands and ran for it and, I supposed, all his teammates and competitors spontaneously agreed that this was okay.)  And a regime of rule-breaking would presumably run in fits and starts of testing the extents and limits of the known rules, sometimes by cunning, often by accident, and then periodically revising the rule book to better reflect the current state of play.  But this view is still based in the notion that there are, in fact, rules, and that their understanding and application is shared.  But what if we're really playing a kind of game like a Wittgensteinian language game, and we bop along on that notion of a shared rule book and shared interpretation of those rules, but every so often we get a kick from the reality of obvious dissonances between how different people are performing, in the form of ways of making music that simply don't follow the set of rules we've been operating under?   It's not just a more imaginative application of the rules we've agreed upon and neither is it a breaking of one or more rules, it's a message that the whole scheme of rules we think have defined music-making, have been fundamentally off.  Sometimes, this suggests a social gap of some sort is at play: I once heard a conversation between two famous experimental music composers that went on for twenty minutes or so before each of them realized that they were talking about different things (as it happens, one was talking about "Polish mead", the other about "Polish meats"; how they ever got to that pair of topics, I'll never know, and each of them was solidly puzzled about why they should be conversing about such things (to be fair, each was exhausted after some long days of travel, rehearsals and concerts), but they chatted happily enough along, simply enjoying each others' company until a third party intervened and asked what they were talking about, thus popping that little balloon of misunderstanding.)  But other times, I think this is due to the fact that our joint or individual operating "Theory of Music" really is only ever a provisional one and that there is a great deal of indeterminacy about the causal relations between theories of music and actual music making, that there are an indefinite number of ways of arriving at the same musical outcome (not to mention all the uncertainty around our weak definition of "same" wrt music) and that it is far from clear whether any one particular way is or even can be more correct than another, or even if it is actually possible for us to determine this. What all this means is that we have a lot of room to maneuver before, during, and after music making.  And if that doesn't give you some optimism about the future of music as an art with as-yet-unknown variety, I don't know what else does!

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