Musical Chaos

Musical representation is a woolly topic. We all know that music can move us, both emotionally and physically; it can also stimulate our intellects. But how are specific images encoded, sans words, in the language of sound? How can music imitate physical movement, abstract concepts, places?

On the level of bodily experience, certain sounds translate into certain images on account of the metaphoric systems we unconsciously use to make sense of them. For instance, when soundwaves gets narrower, we perceive that the pitch is going “up”; when the waves get wider, we hear them as going “down.” These designations, of course, are culturally and historically based (and may have a lot to do with notation) – not everyone maps sounds onto vertical space (up/down). For example, the Suyá of Brazil conceptualize pitches in terms of the metaphors of “young” (high) and “old” (low); others around the world think of pitch as “light” and “heavy,” etc. In the West, the metaphor of up/down is so reified in our musical thinking that it can be put to service in the construction of musical representations.* Moving “up” in range, then, can be equated to a host of experiences and concepts, such as spiritual transcendence.

Similarly, “madrigalisms” work on the level of bodily experience by imitating emotional and physical sensations. For instance, the word “trembling” might be set to a trill, which sonically conjures the act of physically trembling; weeping (“piangendo,” a common madrigal trope) would find its analog in vocal gestures that mimic the sighing, deflated spasms of crying. Sound-body mapping is central to the musical embodiment of these physical states.

But when you get beyond bodily experience, musical representation becomes a bit trickier. If music is “organized sound,” then how does one go about representing chaos, the very opposite of order and organization? A host of composers have tackled this question over the years and, unsurprisingly, the translations vary widely according to aesthetic sensibility and time. Haydn’s Creation features a particularly well-known instantiation of musical chaos: it begins with a forceful unison, then gradually the threads wind their way through different key areas, often chromatically, in search of a home key and the stability of tonal procedures. As Tovey observed, “tonality is Haydn’s musical Cosmos” (II, 634). Indeed, this opening passage still packs a wildly expressive punch. The defiance of tonal expectations and subversion of the “natural” magnetism of leading tones provides Haydn with a potent musical strategy for representing chaos.

As a counterpoint to Haydn’s point, I’ll close with a very different musical portrayal of elementary formlessness. Wayne Shorter’s “Chaos,” from his underrated 1965 album The All Seeing Eye, uses jagged, dissonant phrases and – fittingly enough – free improvisation to reference inchoate cosmological states. Shorter’s chaos does not implicate tonality per se, but rather goes against the regular, periodic harmonic structures of traditional jazz. Both Haydn and Shorter, then, sought a portrait of disorder in the subversion of the musical systems that served as the syntactical baseline for their respective styles.

* A couple of good books on this: Lakoff/Johnson – Metaphors We Live By and Philosophy in the Flesh; Mark Johnson – Body in the Mind; Lawrence Zbikowski – Conceptualizing Music; Thomas Clifton – Music as Heard; Peter Kivy – Introduction to a Philosophy of Music


Meaning in Music, Revisited (and with mention of cheese)

Way back in September, before we started vol. 1, chapter 1 (it seems so long ago now!), I pondered whether musical meaning could ever go beyond social correlation. The question came up as a result of Prof. Taruskin’s stated intention in his introduction to address the full spectrum of musical meanings as he progressed through his historical narrative. Since the discussion of that post has recently started up again, I thought I would return to this issue, since it came up again in last week’s reading.

J.S. Bach’s Toccata in F (BWV 540) for organ is a gem of an example to demonstrate the way tonally conceived music manipulates desires in the listener. Bach creates and prolongs that desire by writing a pedal point that is an astounding 54 measures long. He then provides a medial resolution by returning to the tonic, before launching right back into creating, prolonging, and frustrating the listener’s desires, whipping them into such a frenzy that the final resolution to the tonic is tantamount to salvation.

And this reaction to the music is not completely subjective, says Taruskin. It takes our encoded understanding of tonally organized music (something assumed to be shared by a quorum of listeners) and creates a sequence of events to play off of those shared understandings, much like a dramatist creates a narrative arc moving from conflict to resolution.

Bach’s Toccata is one of the earliest pieces to so dramatize the working out of its form-building tonal functions, adding an element of emotional tension that is inextricably enmeshed in its formal structure. The listener’s active engagement in the formal process is likewise dramatized. The listener’s subjective reaction to the ongoing tonal drama is programmed into the composition. Subjectivity, one may say, has been given an objective correlate. It even makes a certain kind of figurative sense to ascribe the desire for resolution to the notes themselves, objectifying and (as it were) acting out the listener’s involvement. (II, 213)

In a way, then, the music is indeed acting on the listener, through a set of socially encoded signs.

We miss something, however, by discussing only the tonal organization of a piece (and watching it on youtube). What we miss is the physical experience of hearing the music live, in a church, with massive ranks of organ pipes. There is a big difference between listening to this piece through headphones, where the distance between the speaker and your eardrums is minimal, and hearing it in a church. In the acoustic environment of a church, sound waves pound against the entire body, creating physical reactions that can sometimes be unsettling, as anyone who has felt his chest rattle against an organ’s rumbling low note can attest. In this way, the music can be not only metaphorically, but literally moving.

How could a physical/sound-wave analysis of this toccata enlighten us to the effectiveness of the piece? At what points do the sound waves support our tonal readings of the piece? Where do they crosscut our expectations?

These kinds of contextual/experiential insights seem critical to me when discussing a piece like Bach’s Toccata in F, especially since a live experience of the music was the only possible way to hear it in Bach’s time. Leaving it out is like tasting a fine cheese while plugging your nose—you can comment on shape and color and texture, but will have a severely dulled experience of taste. And isn’t the taste of the cheese the most important part?