Benson on the Openness of Composing

In chapter two of his book, The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue, Bruce Ellis Benson observes that we tend to think that a musical composition is finished when the piece (in its “final” version) is written down. However, there are a number of assumptions that we should question in connection with such a conclusion. For example, why assume that a process of revisions always leads to a better version, much less to the “perfect” version? Beethoven was known for ceaselessly revising and offering a number of variants for musical passages and entire sections. Even if we grant that his revisions generally improved his work, we should not necessarily conclude that they always did so. Beethoven himself often commented that his works contained a number of imperfections that he simply had to let stand given his duties and other commitments. Thus, as Benson points out, there are number of “nonartistic” reasons for compositions reaching a “completion” stage. “[T]he vicissitudes of life have a way of deciding something is finished—whether or not the artist is of the same opinion” (p. 68).

Is there a sense in which a composition becomes “fixed” and definite, or is it the case that even for the composer there is a certain “indefiniteness” and indeterminacy involved in his or her work even when the composition is “finished”? Arguing for the latter, Benson notes that though it is the case that composers have “reasonably” definite intentions, “it would be impossible for their intentions to encompass all of the details of any given piece”(p. 67). In other words, often or perhaps most of the time, the composer himself is unsure exactly how he wants the every aspect and detail of the work to sound until the piece is actually played with a specific group and very particular instrumentation. Mozart, for example, would at times perform different versions of the same work to a group of friends in order to seek their input as to which is preferred. Benson proffers a number of other examples, which I will forego for brevity’s sake.

There is also the additional complication of the performer “rightly” interpreting the composer’s intentions. To illustrate, Benson quotes Edward Cone who comments on the difficulties performers face in playing Chopin’s music, “The performer’s first obligation, then, is to the score—but to what score? The autograph or the first printed edition? The composer’s hasty manuscript or the presumably more careful copy by a trusted amanuensis? The composer’s initial version or his later emendation? [and so on]”[1] (p. 70) To be sure one might give good reasons for choosing and preferring one version over another. But still we must recognize that performers, conductors and arrangers play a role in the process of composing, i.e., composing a work that is already “finished.” Yet, as we stated earlier, composers certainly have some definite intentions, but how extensive those intentions are is another question (as Benson asks, using Husserlian language—are they “vague” or “distinct” intentions?). Composers can and do, for instance, change their minds about certain works over a long period of time. Likewise, composers may not even be aware of a lack of determinacy until the work is performed. Though dealing with verbal content, Benson cites a passage by Hirsch that is applicable to musical content, “Determinacy does not mean definiteness or precision. Undoubtedly, most verbal meanings are imprecise and ambiguous, and to call them such is to acknowledge their determinacy: they are not univocal and precise. This is another way of saying that an ambiguous meaning has a boundary like any other verbal meaning, and that one of the frontiers on this boundary is that between ambiguity and univocality”[2] (p. 74). We tend to associate boundary with precision, so “what does it mean for an ambiguous meaning to have a ‘boundary’”? (p. 74). As Benson points out, boundaries can of course be conceived differently. For example, they can be thought as rigid and inflexible or in a more flexible and bending way. This more flexible conception is the model for which Benson argues in terms of the “boundaries” of a musical work.

[1] Edward T. Cone, “The Pianist as Critic,” in The Practice of Performance Studies in Musical Interpretation, p. 244.
[2] E.D. Hirsch, Validity in Interpretation, pp. 44-45.

Performers and Composers as Co-creators

Bruce Ellis Benson in his book, The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue, argues that instead of choosing between Werktreu[1] or a kind of musical anarchy, we should look to the past where we find a way of conceiving music composition as an event in which the composer and performer become “co-creators.” Using Gadamar as a way to help us to begin thinking about models of music composition, Ellis writes, “Gadamer claims that an ideal dialogue has what he calls the ‘logical structure of openness.’ I think there are at least two aspects to this ‘openness.’ First, the conversation often brings something into the open: it sheds new light on what is being discussed and allows us to think about it (or, in this case, hear it) in a new way. Second, the dialogue is itself open, since it (to quote Gadamer) is in a ‘state of indeterminacy.’ In order for a genuine dialogue to take place, the outcome cannot be settled in advance. Without at least some ‘loose-play’ or uncertainty, true conversation is impossible” (p. 15). As Benson notes, Gadamar of course realizes that this is the “ideal” for conversations and that they do not always flesh out in this manner. Likewise, in stressing “openness,” Gadamer is not suggesting that dialogues are without rules. Rather, “the rules are what allow the conversation to take place at all. In effect, they open up a kind of space in which dialogue can be conducted” (p. 15). Though rules are essential for a dialogue to occur, they can be overly restrictive or more on the “open” and “flexible” side and “are themselves open to continuing modification” (p. 15). Though today we tend to think of classical music as not particularly open, Benson shows that historically this view is relatively new and in fact is only one way, not the way to view composition. For example, in the 1800s there were two characteristic ways of conceiving composition and these were exemplified by Beethoven and Rossini. Though no doubt these composers represent two different styles of music, the deeper significance lies in the differing ways that they understand the nature of musical compositions, the role of the performance in expressing them, and the relation between the artist and the community (p. 16). As Benson explains, “Beethoven saw his symphonies as ‘inviolable musical “texts” whose meaning is to be deciphered with ‘exegetical’ interpretations; a Rossini score, on the other hand, is a mere recipe for a performance’ (Carl Dahlhaus, Nineteenth-Century Music, p. 9 [Benson, p. 16]. In other words, Beethoven’s view is the more recent, innovative view that has come to characterize how we think of classical music as Werktreu, whereas Rossini’s conception was significantly more flexible, allowing the performer to participate in the creative process. Moreover, for Rossini, “it was not the work that was given precedence; rather, the work (and thus the composer) was in effect a partner in dialogue with performers and listeners” (Ibid., pp. 16-17).

A number of interesting parallels might be drawn in relation to Biblical hermeneutics.

[1] A rather strict faithfulness first to the work and second to the composer.

Understanding Scholastic Thought With Foucault

I recently finished a book by Philipp W. Rosemann, entitled, Understanding Scholastic Thought with Foucault, and would highly recommend it to anyone with both medieval and postmodern sensibilities. Among the many topics and theses that Rosemann engages, the following were particularly interesting: (1) the presentation of a paradigm in which we understand the Western philosophical tradition in terms of the broad structure of a mythos/logos dialectic and scholastic thought with its sophia/moria dialectic reflects a moment within that larger context, (2) a discussion of the text-centeredness of the Scholastic culture and the conviction that though both the text of the world and the text of Scripture are to be read in light of their God given intelligibility, they are not exhaustible; hence, the “openness” of Scholastic thought which leads to more and more commentaries which together help us to gain more insight on the whole, yet never with the view to comprehension (3) an explanation of how St. Thomas convincingly brings together Greek circularity and Christian linearity, (4) a Foucaultian take on the need to understand an episteme’s “outside” in order to understand the episteme, (5) the “witch-hunt” as an example of the way in which the Scholastic episteme “closed the circle” and became irrationality, (6) a discussion of the “openness” of the quaestio vs. the new literary forms of e.g., Suarez, (7) an alternative take on Descartes [following Marion] and Luther both in respect to negative theology and the desire to safeguard God’s transcendence.

The book is exceedingly well-written, the ideas are presented with clarity and appeal, and Rosemann provides a helpful appendix entitled, “The Library of the Medievalist Philosopher.”

More From Begbie on Boulez and Cage: Opposites Converging in Modernist Assumptions

Having discussed Boulez’s tendencies to control to the point of creating a perceptual sense of disorder (recall that Boulez is a promoter of “total serialism,” a compositional method that organizes music according to mathematical patterns), Begbie then turns to Cage, who at first seems to offer a more promising way. Cage, of course, with his chance music thinks that we should abandon the desire to control and let the sounds be themselves. Yet, as Begbie observes, this way ends up leading down a path similar to Boulez’s. “To be sure, here music is ‘freed,’ in a sense but the cost is an evacuation (or near evacuation) of the notion of music as constructive, of the idea that human shaping could be fruitful and enriching. The dialectic between human will and nature’s constraint is thus effectively dissolved” ( Theology, Music, and Time, p. 194). Whereas Boulez’s over-control results in a destruction of intelligibility on the perceptual level—and correlates well with the modernist view of humanity’s relation to the world, viz., one of control and mastery), Cage’s absolute freedom alternative practically does away with human creating (or better, re-creating). “It is one thing to spurn the worst of humanity’s aggressive imposition on the natural order, it is quite another to suppress any conception of human forming altogether. Further, we might add, Cage’s stress is very much on the ‘randomness’ of the extra-human world, not on its inherent order” (Ibid., pp. 194-95).

Then Begbie goes on to discuss an additional similarity between these two seemingly opposite takes on composition, viz., both share a discomfort with temporal constraint or better with certain kinds of temporal constraint. Noting that this unease is perhaps related to the composers’ failure to “present a convincing dialectic between human embeddedness and otherness in relation to the non-human world, with associated doubts about nature possessing its own distinctive integrity,” Begbie then spells out exactly which kind of temporality they wish to throw out, viz., “directional temporal continuity. As with many of their contemporaries, any goal-oriented, teleological dynamic (so characteristic of tonal music) is not only avoided but subverted—tensions and resolutions, clearly marked out sections, development, opening and ending frames, and so forth. More than this, Boulez sought to abolish any sense of metre or rhythmic regularity either in the large scale or in the smallest details” (p.195). Cage as well “rebelled” against temporality by empoloying what has come to be known as “vertical time music.” “Common to vertical time music is the restraint (or evasion) of temporal differentiation within the entirety of a piece of music. Cage is not prepared to see sounds as participants in some kind of progression from beginning to closure, because for him each instant is equally related to each other instant. No event can be more significant or valuable than any other” (p. 195).

Though Boulez would not want to associate his music with Cage’s chance music, both end doing away with goal-oriented time, organic thematic developments and harmonic and rhythmic relationships. Citing a passage from Edward Cone, Begbie highlights the irony of the Boulez-Cage paradox, “When chance music plays the major role in the writing of a work [e.g., as in Cage] […] logic […] can take only an accidental role. The same is true of music written according to a strictly predetermined constructivistic scheme [e.g. as in Boulez] […]. In neither case can any musical event be linked organically with those that precede and those that follow; it can be explained only by referring to an external structure—in the one case the laws of chance and in the other the predetermined plan. The connections are mechanistic rather than teleological; no event has any purpose—each is there only because it has to be there ( “Analysis Today,” in Paul Henry Lang (ed.), Problems of Modern Music, p. 38, italics added) [Begbie, p. 196]. The irony here is that in spite of Cage’s strong emphasis on absolute freedom, necessity is actually lurking in the nearby bushes. As Begbie explains, “the struggle to be free of a supposedly oppressive teleological system (such as tonality) would seem to come close to resulting in two kinds of (oppressive?) necessity, the one the necessity of a particular mathematical system, the other the somewhat bland necessity of ‘the way things happen’” (p. 196).

Whose Notes from the Underground?

This post was inspired by a comment and question that Byron at “Nothing New Under the Sun,” made to one of my recent Dostoyevsky posts. Byron asks, “Does Dostoyevsky agree with his narrator?” The question has been gnawing at me ever since, so I decided to read up on some the relevant critical views on the subject. Though I am no Dostoyevsky expert, the following position presented by Joseph Frank in essay simply entitled, “Notes from the Underground,” is rather persuasive (which means I should nuance my previous posts). So thanks, Byron, for asking this question, as through it my understanding of Dostoyevsky has benefited.

After discussing a number of views of various literary critics, and pointing out Dostoyesky’s own hints at what he is doing in his footnote 1[1] of the text itself, Frank sums up his take in the following paragraph:

“Notes from the Underground has been read as the psychological self-revelation of a pathological personality, or as a theological cry of despair over the evils of ‘human nature,’ or as a declaration of Dostoyesky’s supposed adherence to Nietzsche’s philosophy of ‘amoralism’ and the will to power, or as a defiant assertion of the revolt of the human personality against all attempts to limit its inexhaustible potentialties—and the list can easily be continued. All these readings, and many more, can plausibly be supported if certain features of the text are singled out and placed in the foreground while others are simply overlooked or forgotten. But if we are interested in understanding Dostoyevsky’s own point of view, so far as this can be reconstructed, then we must take it for what it was initially meant to be—a brilliantly Swiftian satire, remarkable for the finesse of its conception and the brio of its execution, which dramatizes the dilemmas of a representative Russian personality attempting to live by the two European codes whose unhappy effects Dostoyevsky explores. And though the sections have a loose narrative link, the novella is above all a diptych depicting two episodes of a symbolic history of the Russian intelligentsia” (pp. 219-220).

This is not, however, to say that aspects of Dostoyesky’s own life and experience are not present in his fictional character. “As the underground man belabors his own self-disgust and guilt, was not Dostoyevsky also suppressing his self-condemnation as a conscience-stricken spectator of his wife’s death-agonies, and repenting of the egoism to which he confessed in his notebook?” (p. 219).

[1] As Frank points out, in footnote 1 of Notes from the Underground, Dostoyevski provides a clue to his audience as to the “satirical and parodistic nature of his conception.” However, the strength and passion Dostoyevsky’s character overpowers or clouds the nature of the work as a satirical parody, which often results in a straightforward reading.

Allowing the Diversity of Texts to Speak

In his fascinating book, Understanding Scholastic Thought With Foucault, Philipp W. Rosemann illustrates how even the “letter,” i.e. the textual base in medieval studies, is affected by paradigm changes. As Rosemann explains, the German philologist, Karl Lachmann, pioneered an editorial method that has by and large determined the form of ancient and medieval texts as found in contemporary editions. The goal of the Lachmannian method is to “eliminate all the mistakes that are inevitable in the transmission of handwritten texts as copies, and so on. What the Lachmannians are trying to do is establish families of shared mistakes in the manuscript tradition and thus, by identifying the genealogical order in this tradition of copies, return to the source” (p. 11). As Rosemann observes, the presuppositions behind this approach is that “what counts in the history of a text is just the original in its pure identity; the differentiation this textual identity necessarily undergoes is an history of errors that should be overcome” (p. 11). Interestingly, due to both practical and theoretical reasons, contemporary editors have altered the Lachmannian method. On the practical side, the difficulties in trying to establish precise family groups of textual errors is virtually impossible, as the family types tend to negatively influence and corrupt one another. Theoretically speaking, “the Lachmannian method is founded upon a quest for lost origins, a quest that contemporary philosophy would denounce as being vain and imaginary. Why attempt to surmount the historical multiplicity of different readings of an original text, different readings that, after all, testify to the historical life of the original? What are the advantages of re-establishing the flawless identity of a text that, in its authentic form, may have remained totally insignificant?” (pp. 11-12). In contrast, contemporary editorial practices allow the diversity of texts to speak by producing editions that present us (in so far as it is possible) with the original text and the text’s historical development. That is, “they attempt at once to reconstruct the original identity of the text, and to preserve the difference of its historical expressions” (p. 12). Thus, in contrast with the goal of the Lachmannian approach, which tries to get back to the “pure: and “untainted” original, contemporary editorial practices view the diversity of the texts in a positive light, which supports Rosemann’s thesis that paradigm shifts affect even the “letter.”