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Musical Languages.

By Joseph P. Swain. pp. x + 230. (Norton, New York & London, 1997, [pounds]25. ISBN 0-393-04079-8.)

Anyone who has taught aesthetics and theory to university students knows that these are danger areas for the independent of mind, happy hunting-grounds for the do-it-yourself ignoramus. One often reads essays that take up age-old and extremely well-worked issues, expatiate ignorantly, and fall into all the pitfalls that the authorities have tried to avoid.

Again and again, in reading this new book, one cries out: why has he not read the obvious philosophical sources? This writer introduces familiar topics and proceeds to ruminate about them apparently out of his head, sometimes citing rather marginal or old-fashioned authors, and ignoring the central figures in each field in turn, except for a very laudable admiration for Charles Rosen and Leonard Meyer.

For example, he elaborates the idea of 'semantic range', a version of contextual semantics, mentioning Mary Haas's article 'Semantic Value' of 1964, but ignoring the greatest authority on this topic, A. J. Greimas, whose defining work, the Semantique structurale, came out two years later. He presents a notion of musical metaphor (according to him, this is expressed in syntactic incongruity, as when Beethoven introduces a foreign key into a simple lyrical passage) without ever consulting the stylistic theorists or philosophers of metaphor; Ricoeur and Max Black, for example, are not mentioned. He discusses the relation of musical change to historical and social developments, with a glance, admittedly, at Leonard Meyer, but without drawing on the more penetrating ideas of Boris Asaf'yev (which are hard to access in English, it is true). 'Absolute' music is apparently just music without words or titles; the implications of this concept, which were revealed by Dahlhaus, are not studied. Swain writes a chapter on musical style without reference to the classic philosophical work on style, Granger's Essai d'une philosophie du style, or even to the much cruder Guidelines for Style Analysis of Jan LaRue.

Ignorance and superficiality are not the same thing, however. Even ignorance may not prevent brilliant insights, if the basic tone is perceptive. It is particularly worrying, therefore, that the basic tone of this book seems shallow. Apparently, it is aimed at non-musicians, 'enthusiasts', first-year students (there is an appendix explaining the roman-numeral classification of harmonies). The style is jovial and chatty, and standard citations are introduced as though the reader has never heard of them ('the great philosopher of language Ludwig Wittgenstein'). The intended readers of this book could not be expected to understand a difficult writer like Adorno, and are thus suckers for claims that serial music is an 'artificial language' like Esperanto or computer BASIC, since all three were invented by theorists rather than developed by natural processes. A careful reading of the Schoenberg chapter in the Philosophy of Modern Music would put paid to this kind of claptrap.

Unfortunately, this man-in-the-street simplicity leads to inaccuracies and errors. Pitch-class is defined as 'a conception of tone rather than a purely acoustic event' (it is a system of equivalences). The chromatic inflexions incurred in transposed modes are called '"black key" chromatic notes', a particularly clumsy misconception. The Schenkerian Ursatz is called 'the ultimate compositional ideal to which all aspire' (it is the necessary structural basis of all tonal music; aspiration does not enter into it). This author finds it 'impossible' to imagine referential topics in a Bach fugue; one wonders what he would make of the French overture in the D major fugue of Book 1 of the '48' or the passus duriusculus in several of the fugues. However, I enjoyed his reference to Strauss's 'Tod und Erklarung' - death and explanation.

There is a long tradition of writing about music as language, embracing obvious figures like Christopher North, Heine and Schumann. Some of the best modern things in this line have been written by Claude Levi-Strauss (music is 'at once intelligible and untranslatable'). Indeed, Swain admits his relatedness to Deryck Cooke's Language of Music. Yet Cooke, for all his intellectual confusions, did have one outstanding insight, one truly novel perception (the consistent relation of certain melodic formulas to particular affects). Swain, on the other hand, trots out the predictable whiskery cliches. Musical syntax is a matter of 'tension' and 'resolution' - in other words, closure and non-closure, surely the rhythm of any signifying string, including verbal language. Musical meaning is 'vague', 'fog drifting about an obscure view', which is how it seems if you try to express it in language, of course.

Worst of all, there is a poor grasp of basic linguistic philosophy. The meaning of a linguistic syntagma, and presumably also a musical one, is a semantic item, not an aspect of the 'real world'. Even Saussure, according to Benveniste, failed to fully grasp this vital point. It is wrong to say that 'language syntax . . . conveys information about relationships in the world outside the speaker', or to demand that 'musical syntax' should 'express relationships in the world'. The relation between linguistic semantics and the 'world outside the speaker' is at best problematic. It is studied, not by the science of semantics, but by pragmatics and discourse theory. Of the second of these Swain shows no knowledge whatever; he says that 'the rules of conversation and discourse are extremely fluid if they exist at all'.

The other field, that of pragmatics, is taken on board in a perverse way. Now, Swain is not alone in making a fundamental mistake about the relation of music and language, so at this stage an important point must be made. Music cannot be a language in the sense of a speech-phonology (it cannot be a medium of conversation at cocktail parties); it is clearly a repertory, a literature, its message falling into Jakobson's category of poetic. It is more like a fictional narrative or a lyric poem. These utterances are only very obliquely related to the 'real world', and their meanings are extremely 'foggy', if translation is the touchstone of meaning. They are accessible to interpretation and hermeneutics, not to lexical, grammatical and semantic analysis. Conversational syntagmas, on the other hand, have to be interpreted, not in a textual context, but in a social and human context. If the editors of Music & Letters telephone me and say, 'Where is your review?' and I reply, 'I'm sorry, I have been busy', the unstated lateness of the review, necessary to an understanding of the exchange, is not part of a linguistic text; it is a part of the 'real world'. Fictional utterances do not have 'real' contexts of this kind, though they may create imaginary worlds with their own pragmatics.

Consequently, the idea of a pragmatics of fiction, or of music, is highly problematic. Swain, ever the bright-ideas man, goes for musical genre as a focus of pragmatics (genre in the specific sense of symphony, sonata and so on, not in the more general sense used by literary critics). Genre supplies 'a set of cognitive premises that can be used to interpret the sounds to come'; it supplies 'a defining context'. Since genre is understood and accepted by a community of people, it is like the 'real' features which make elliptical utterances intelligible in ordinary speech. 'Genre links [Beethoven's] Violin Concerto with the real world.'

Yet genre is obviously a textual, not a 'real' matter. The understanding of an utterance as conforming to a genre is a kind of intertextuality. This is, indeed, an interesting aspect of musical hermeneutics, but it has nothing to do with pragmatics. All the works that make up a genre are texts, of course; the real world is no more present than it is in phonemics, semantics or stylistics.

'Ordinary readers' who approach this book will find it a soothing experience to read. All the questions they have already thought of, and all the answers they could have found for themselves, are faithfully echoed. Nothing disturbs the lazy mythologies of music history and theory; opera seria gives way to 'Gluck's reform opera', fifteenth-century music is written in 'eight to twelve kinds of scales (modes)', and Pythagorean number-relations are 'natural points of articulation' in all music. Most of us have put away childish things like these.

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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Monelle, Raymond
Publication:Music & Letters
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 1998
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