Friday, February 6, 2009

What Is Music

"Music," for the ethnomusicologist, is humanly organized sound--which is to say that music is sound that people, any people, all people, organize, whether classical music composers or children singing while playing games on the street, whether an orchestra playing a Beethoven symphony or a group of BaAka women in Africa hocketing their voices.

"Music," for the philosopher, is taken to be classical music, the music of the European-American high art tradition. Other musics are not under consideration. In its finest expression classical music is taken to be music for its own sake, without external purpose. It pleases the senses and the intellect but it has no meaning apart from the way its structure unfolds, no usefulness except as an object of delight. Here I want to critique that argument further than I did in my last blog post.

In the past few decades a number of university professors with an interest in music and philosophy have taken up questions involving music and asethetics, publishing essays and books on the subject of what music "is" and how music "works." The first difficulty with their argument is that their musical examples are taken from a small and atypical kind of humanly organized sound, i.e., classical music only.

Peter Kivy will serve as a representative of these philosopher-aestheticians who write about music. In his book Music, Language, and Cognition (Oxford, 2007), Kivy, a professor of philosophy at Rutgers University, takes pains to show that music is not a language. He writes: "Music is, indeed, language-like in certain respects. Nevertheless, it is not language; it is not a language or part of a language. And thinking it is any one of these things has caused a good deal of confusion" (p. 214).

To try to make his point, Kivy determines that he will "be solely concerned with absolute music--that is to say, pure instrumental music, without text, title, or program" (214). In narrowing his concerns to absolute music, Kivy ignores most popular music, most folk music, most music outside of Euro-American classical music, and even much music within the Euro-American canon, which is to say music with words, title, or program. Indeed, prior to the Baroque, most European classical music did carry words. This is like saying we are going to talk about human life on this planet, but we're only going to consider life in Chicago from 1800 to 1950; or that we're going to talk about vegetables, but we're only going to consider cucumbers. Such a narrowing disqualifies one from generalizing about vegetables, life on this planet, or music.

Further, we might ask what Kivy's word "pure" is contributing to his conception. For "pure" means uncontaminated, and the suggestion in Kivy's remark is that text, title, or program makes instrumental music impure or contaminated, a lesser object or experience than absolute music. "Pure" lets us know something about Kivy's prejudices underlying his program. We can find out more about his prejudices by attending to his phrase "exotic jangle" in the following sentence: "But if I am completely unacquainted with the music of southern India, and I am enjoying the exotic jangle of the instruments while eating a curry in an Indian restaurant, I am neither enjoying nor appreciating the music" (p. 217). True enough, but the "exotic jangle" gives Kivy's orientalism free play here. Kivy's ignorance is also on display: "Someone brought up in China understands Chinese music but not the music of Haydn or Mozart" (p. 215). Evidently he is unaware that in China, as in Japan, Western music (classical as well as popular) is pervasive, and he is uninformed about the great classical music conservatories in Beijing and elsewhere. An educated "someone brought up in China" would understand, as well as an educated Westerner, structure in the music of Haydn or Mozart. Kivy's musical blindness here follows from cultural blindness and ultimately from the decision to focus exclusively on "absolute music" in the Euro-American classical music tradition. "Absolute" is rightly trumped by "relative" in this case.

Kivy is particularly interested in what it means to understand music, and he equates understanding with appreciation and enjoyment as the composer intended (p. 217). This conclusion is debatable on a number of grounds. Equating the meaning of an art object or experience with what the artist intended places too rigid limits on meaning because artists aren't consciously aware of their full intentions. It also gives them, and not performers or listeners, sole authority over meaning. We don't accept that kind of authority from government spokespersons or advertisers; why should we cede it to composers? Of course, it's helpful to know what the composer intended. But that is all it is: what the composer intended. And just as what the advertiser intends isn't the meaning of the ad, so what the composer intends isn't the meaning of a musical performance. Besides, an interpretative community will interpret art according to its current interests, biases, and understandings, regardless of the artist's original intent. And what happens when it is the case that the music is not intended as an art object to be enjoyed and appreciated, but as something else--let us say, as an experience of the divine?

I'm perplexed that Kivy, and a number of other philosophers interested in music and aesthetics, pursue the question "What is music" without attending to music as it is made and understood throughout the world. I am perplexed that such a narrow and narrow-minded view is endorsed by publication in prestigious academic journals and presses such as Oxford University Press, which only two years ago published Kivy's book.

Decades ago when asking the question What is music, I turned to aesthetic philosophical discourse thinking it would be helpful, but I was disappointed. I am disappointed still. The question remains. And the ethnomusicologist's answer, that music is "humanly organized sound" tells us something about music, but not all we want to know. It is a good beginning but there is more to it than this.