The Symphonic Juncture

A [Symphonist]: "The one who is not afraid to raise the primal force."

- Boris Asafiev (1917)

Music is not a 'Universal language', but here's why.

Music can be therapeutic for some, healing and restorative for others, an opportunity for non-verbal exorcising of interior psychological turmoil, or possibly even an escape into the depths of one’s imaginative capabilities. The countless amounts of subjectively interpretational and functionally pragmatic possibilities of constructed, sonic edifices [music] cannot be quantitatively recorded, nor can be adequately predicted with unsullied accuracy. History have shown that humanity [человечество] has fairly consistently attributed some type of systematic meaning to pre-conditioned acoustic phenomenon, through ‘externalization of affect or emotion via vocalization’, which Scherer (1991) asserted was the foundational bedrock of music and speech itself, the usage of melodicism for sexual promulgation and what Charles Darwin (1874) had inferred to be ‘courtship songs’, and, most surprisingly for myself, was the elucidative finding that music [could be and was] used to ‘defend territory’ according to Hagen and Bryant (2003). Imperative to mention as well is Cross (2001) and his findings that, “music can be both a consequence-free means of exploring social interaction and a "play-space" for rehearsing processes necessary to achieve cognitive flexibility [...]” thus insinuating that through acoustic interactions, humans could learn how to civilly cohabitate with others, and likewise the ‘play-space’ could allow a plethora of systems within the fledgling brain to develop all at once, i.e., ‘biological, psychological, social and physical systems’. Iain Morley’s 2003 Dissertation does a thorough job divulging the complexities of music’s multifaceted, evolutionary path [He uses the description ‘Human Musical Capacities and Behaviors’’], first describing four ethnographic localities and their respective musical traditions, then pivoting into ‘Paleolithic’ [‘Old’ ‘Stone’ Age] Archeological illustrations and detailed narratives about various found Instruments, their uses, and how they shaped musical behaviors of that humanistic epoch.


He follows this lengthy, dense organological commentary with a two-part account of the ‘Physiological and Neurological capacities for music’, the former orienting around the internal mechanism of the vocal tract, while the latter relates to the pathological comprehension of music and its associated language, i.e., rhythm and melody, among other structural components. He concluded with a confirmatory, tripartite schema, first providing five main ‘rationalizations’ regarding the human relationship with music, specifically the functions which produce it and their evolutionary processes, which is followed by fixed and discriminatory ‘rationalizations’ correlating to behaviors surrounding musical activities. His last formal chapter reiterates, in succinct measure, the symbiological and culturological [Term coined by Viljanen (2016) ] progressions of music when absorbed by the evolutionary intellect. After having hastily summarized Morley’s Dissertation, I beg the seemingly asinine question then of ‘How is this relevant to todays contemporary understanding of ‘musical interpretation’?’ and the follow-up, I believe more important, inquiry, ‘How can our modern understanding of musical interpretation being enriched by appreciating the complex evolution of the organization of sonic events and its status as a suprarational, religio-spiritual conduit into the world of man?’ [Exemplified by Morley’s descriptive passages into the musical practices of the Plains Indians stating, “[Plains Indians] traditionally believed that music came to people through supernatural input in dreams, so little credit for agency in composition...was given to individuals either (Nettl, 1956)...” ]

[PC: Igor Glebov via VKontakte]

What I am insinuating here is that the standardized, dare I say Westernized, listening practices and Academicized, interpretational methodologies have, in the general present, neglected the fundamental necessity for a deeper ‘auditory’ attentional process, which traverses far beyond the superficiality of codified musical hearing. I argue that the Asafievian contradiction of the endlessly repeated assertion that ‘music is an Universal language’ can, if accepted and etched in the static, theoretical process, bring humanity, especially Musicologists and likewise Music Theorists, closer to a ‘correct’ understanding of music’s relativistic nature, that in fact every ‘closed complex of sounding’, despite being called an ‘opera’, ‘symphony’, ‘sonata’, or what have you, does not guarantee that the true essence of what causes an X to sound like X will be present, nor even remotely hinted at by a composer. Nor does stringent theoretical deciphering actually produce comprehension of the work's indescribable, but duly felt, élan vital [vital force] which causes the continual dissolution from equilibrium, when present, to flow the lines ever forward and into the greater whole. Simply writing an opera does not mean that the work will automatically have operatic qualities, this sentiment being bolstered by what is considered Asafiev’s most famous quote, “It is worth noting that not all symphonies are symphonic, and not all the symphonic forms include symphonism,” an exteriorly simple quote, yet heavily applicable even now in the throes of rampant Deconstructivism, where not even the formal conception of an opera is safe [I am referencing the 2-3 minute ‘post-opera’ premiered in 2015 entitled, ‘Dress Code: Opera,’ which follows in the footsteps of other short-form operas like ‘Sands of Time’, composed by Peter Reynolds in 1993, and Darius Milhaud’s 1928 operatic trilogy, whose total run-time only culminates into 27 minutes].


Returning to my first point, empirical analysis blanched of true observational noticing's [A balance of the ‘intellect’ and ‘intuition’, or in another way via Losski, the conscious deliberation on the physical existence, versus the internal perceptivity of the supraphysical origins of said object, in this case music] does little to no good for any part involved, and instead continually establishes the notion that music is to only be analyzed from a pre-ordained corpus of ossified theoretical principles. Instead of choosing what Soviet’s called ‘Formalism’ [a nebulous term used to describe Anti-Soviet study of form and not its content (Asafiev deemed this impossible), although it expanded to include non-societally directed compositions], I suggest we align ourselves more with the study of melos, duree, and other forms of linear development which can illuminate the Theoretician into the functional dependency of the components that make up the whole as parts of the already established totality. Asafiev states, while describing temporal-spatial relativity via music, “it is not necessary to proceed from the condition of systems in relation to their external given, but from conditions of movements that are characteristic to that particular sounding system [...]”, concluding by articulating the need to study these systems, which will inevitably illuminate form. This, I believe, is the the angle Music Theory must take if it wants to remove itself from the shackles of Schenkerian Analysis, Western Rationalism [stated by Max Weber (1911) ], and ontological impairment by way of musical ‘deafness’, all which collectively cloak the noble pursuit of Music Theory in lead veils, which cannot be lifted nor nudged away without a formulation of how to actually ‘fix’ the problem, not just rigorously identify it [cough cough cough].

Sources [other than hyperlinks]


1. Viljanen, E., 2016. The Problem Of The Modern And Tradition. Hermos Oy, Finland: Acta Semiotica Fennica.

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