Paper blathering

Need to beg indulgences, but I’ve got a paper I need to write that isn’t cooperating. Sometimes if I discuss it “out loud” it’ll help get things flowing. Right now, I’m not entirely sure what my point is.

The paper began as a discussion of mathematical beauty, how that maps into musical beauty, what the role of music theory is in all of this, and how mathematicians and music theorists really don’t mean “beauty,” but something more like “enlightenment.” This didn’t pan out because mathematicians don’t do the kind of metatheorizing that music theorists do. Or if they do have metadiscussions, it’s not in terminology I can understand.

So I gravitated towards discussing music as experience and either recapturing (music theory) or encapsulating (composition) that. Now people whose writings I like tend to not draw a fine distinction between composition and music theory. I think both have similar goals, but I’m not hugely convinced that the experience of doing one or the other is similar.

Then I happened upon this quote from Benjamin Boretz:

Transcendence, then is not at all restricted to ecstasy, devouring passion, undifferentiated oneness with the universe, all-suffusing peacefulness, blinding sensation–Precise, vivid, specific, as experiential quality, the total replacement of the state of normal consciousness with a distinct state. Terrified of so much significance–that is, so much distinctness of identity in one’s own experience as to be utterly isolated from the external world as a consequence of the most vivid act of experiencing it–people seek objectivity in and about their music. They invent an abstract ontology of qualities which are intersubjective–perceivable and denotable–on the order of green–pitch, say–and then talk about music as the composition of these qualities; sometimes they try to teach themselves, or are even taught by others, to actually hear music in this countersubjective flat empirical way, as if it were like discourse in its neutral rhetorical transparency. ((“starting now from here,…”) three consecutive occasions of sociomusical reflection)

In my mind, the act of “doing” music, whether theorizing or composing, is something similar to contemplation. Elsewhere, I’ve discussed how composition is more like “infused contemplation,” and I’m wondering if music theorizing is more like dark contemplation. What do you have, when the experience is taken away? There’s a faint trace of it in re-representation or performance of music, but it’s never the same as the experience which produced it. Or the experience of producing it.

I’m the last person on the planet to discount the role of experience and transcendence in art. However, I think there’s a very real trap to fall into in the experiential model of music theory. If music is to produce some sort of experience or transcendence, then what’s to keep it from becoming some sort of drug? If music becomes a way to program experience, what’s to keep it from losing significance and power? It’s precisely because of the “so much distinctness of identity in one’s own experience” that there needs to be some other thing to balance it.

If infused contemplation is the original event which fuels the contemplative life, dark contemplation is what keeps contemplatives honest. The kind of transcendence Boretz is speaking of certainly isn’t infused contemplation. It’s a different kind of transcendence that I think is more like dark contemplation. And that’s where I am, at the moment.


~ by Jen on April 26, 2006.

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