In attempts to get my thinking and writing gears going concerning music theory, I thought I might post some of my *rough* ideas here. This is a reflection on some readings by Benjamin Boretz I wrote last week. Love to hear any reactions you all may have.
The Valley Between Explanation and Comprehension: What is a Musical Experience
Former New York Mayor Ed Koch once said, “I can explain it to you, but I can’t comprehend it for you.” With his recent passing, this quote has been recalled numerous times through different news outlets. Strangely, this idea has a very strong connection for me with today’s musings on musical experience and ultimately how music theorists write on this subject.
In any field of study, language is the primary medium through which ideas are transferred. Benjamin Boretz lays a perimeter around thought and communication mediums, stating, “Our capacity to think is delimited firmly by our capacity to invent modes of thought,” and if these modes are limited to a set of agreed upon standard methods of discourse, “then the context within which we are able to think […] has shrunk alarmingly…” (Boretz 1979, 175). However, Boretz does not wish to limited by this arbitrary demarcation. He is afraid that we might be deceived by the idea that, “What we communicate is what is communicable, leaving the rest for the higher sensitivities of pure intuition.” (Boretz 1979, 174) Boretz’s mention of “intuition” resonates with Koch’s idea of comprehension, yet Boretz’s entire project attempts to push beyond what is assumed as “communicable.” One such attempt suggests the need to invent new words to get to ideas that lie beyond the limits of existing language, just as a mathematician might invent new symbols to explain a new concept (Boretz 1979, 175).
There is a direct link between the possibilities of communication and the meaning of a musical thing. If our capacity to think is limited by the modes and extent of language, a musical thing can only be what we can define it to be. I believe music is more than the extent to which we can define or describe it in the English language. For as well all know, meaning is always lost or mutated somewhat through the process of translation, here from music to language. If we “comprehend” what we are experiencing, we must find effective ways to “explain” it. Boretz points to this motivation as “social considerations, as providing an accessible, shared medium of professional intercommunication, a medium whose very neutrality of form and expression conduces to the sense of maximally intersubjective cognitivity of content.” (Boretz 1979, 171)
The issue with a shared medium is that it is inevitably comprehended differently depending on the individual process of what Boretz calls the “Semantic Fusion.” (Boretz 1992, 274) This joining of fixed syntactical musical objects and the individual sonic stimuli results in what the music “is” for the listener. This semantic fusion is not so easily dismantled, and Boretz draws a parallel between the act of sex being broken down into its physiological mechanical operations as well as being separated from its “passion.” Ultimately, this cannot describe sex as a “fully organically involved expressive experience.” (Boretz 1992, 273)
I believe what Boretz is driving at is the attributive nature of ontologically describing music. The difficult task is developing a model to formalize the attributive ontological process. Boretz notes that a step growth model nor an action-reflection feedback loop model are effective in organizing the attributive process. This is process is not a linear-logical chain, but “as a sequence of autonomous states of being.” (Boretz 1992, 275) If one were attempting to describe one of these states, the last line of “Thesis” in Boretz’s Music, as a Language may prove to be a simplistic yet practical model. When asking what does a thing mean, Boretz proposes:
“to be: of; to be: about; to be: now; to be: is: to mean”
Collecting these autonomous states of being may be the key to closing the gap between a syntactical explanation and a shared comprehension of a musical experience.
Boretz, Benjamin. 1979. “Language, as a Music.” Perspectives of New Music 17 (2) (April 1): 131– 195.
———. 1992. “Experiences with No Names.” Perspectives of New Music 30 (1) (January 1): 272–283.
———. 2003. “Of This and That.” In Being About Music. Vol. 1, Textworks. Redhook, NY: Open Space.