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Music Does Not Flow

Comparing history to a stream, no doubt an urgent idea when new, seems nowadays less vigorous, especially regarding the arts. So also does belief in their continuing progress, as if any series of related events involved necessarily a destination.

Myself, I prefer to think of the arts as a museum or as a wine cellar. These comparisons would leave room for paying honor to great soils, great years, great workmen, also for preserving ancient methods. Museums and libraries are mainly devoted anyway to conserving works and ways that it is no longer practical to imitate.

Gertrude Stein used to say that nothing changes from generation to generation except what people are looking at. Actually, what people have thought they were looking at, arranged in chronological order, makes up whatever consistent fairy tale that history can be imagined to illustrate. And though repeating patterns do seem to recur in any such narrative, organic development is notoriously difficult to identify. In the arts, certainly, the creating, elaborating, and transmitting of techniques are basic procedures, but among these there are few long-term growths. They are more like inventions—say the fish net, the wheelbarrow, or pie crust—which once they have come miraculously into being stay on. And as for the game of “influences,” which reviewers, and sometimes even historians, like to play, it is in my view about as profitable a study as who caught cold from whom when they were all sitting in the same draft.

Nevertheless, since what people are looking at changes constantly, everything can seem to be changing. Also, the things that don’t change, like wheelbarrows and fish nets and pie crust, are always there. Playing games and eating and childbirth and death, for example, change almost not at all; they merely get arranged into stories about people doing them, into literature. And in this literature people move around and talk; sometimes they even sing. This makes for plays and films and operas. And in all these kinds of entertainment the element that affects people most intensely, that makes chills to run up and down the spine, the digestive apparatus to work faster, and the breath to hold or catch, is music. This element has no precise meaning and no dictionary. But it does provoke intensities; and it provokes these so rapidly and so powerfully that all the other elements—the verbal ones and the visual ones for sure—more often than not call on music’s transports for reinforcing their own cooler communications. Music’s lack of specific meaning, moreover, allows it to be attached to other continuities without contradicting them. The way that singing can give acoustical reinforcement to speech—can shape it, help it to run along and to carry—this is music’s gift to liturgical observances, to prayers, hymns, and magical incantations, as well as to mating ceremonials like social dancing.

The composition of music not intended for provoking movement or for singing, and involving no spectacle other than that of men at work, is a quite recent invention, dating as a public show from, at the earliest, about 1600. But its elaboration during the last four centuries has made of music in Europe and in the West generally an art independent of liturgical circumstances, of dancing, of poetry, even of the singing voice.

Now how can an activity without meaning hold the attention of people who are not doing anything but just sitting there? Well, it would seem that over recent centuries there has developed for instrumental music, if not a vocabulary of meanings, a way of suggesting things that is capable, shall we say, of halfway evoking them and thus of attaching its own intensities to quite a variety of thoughts.

These evocations are of three kinds. There is that of the human voice singing metrical verse or intoning unmetered prose. Everything verbal, from lullabies to oratory to rigmaroles, is receptive to this kind of treatment. Instrumental music of this kind is in Europe called strophic.

A second kind, though perhaps it should have come first—it is so ancient and so easy to do—is known as choric; and it can remind us, through a one-two, one-two beat, of marching, or through more fanciful countings-out, of dancing, either ritual and religious, or social.

There can also be attractions for the mind through the following of some tonal texture, as in Sebastian Bach’s fugal patterns. I do not know a Greek-origin word for this kind of music; but when it is enlivened by unexpected waits and irregular stresses, this exploiting of the surprise factor, as both Bach and Beethoven practiced it so masterfully or as we encounter it nowadays in a jam session, could be called, I suppose, spastic.

In any case, it is one of the things that instrumental music does, music that is made only for being listened to. And the assemblage of all these kinds of musical gesture—the poetico-oratorical, the movement-provoking, the intellectually complex and surprising—into a composition involving many kinds of variety is the very special achievement of our Viennese masters—Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, and Schubert. And what do all their grand sonatas and symphonies communicate? Anxiety-and-relief patterns, I should say, experiences cerebral from their ability to hold attention, but surely emotive and visceral in their immediate effect.

The continuity devices that purely instrumental music has employed toward these ends are the only discoveries I know of in music’s history that even remotely resemble new species. And they were certainly not arrived at by organic evolution. Even today they are so far from having a clear morphology that there is no textbook anywhere for teaching them, no Formenlehre, old or new.

Now let us look a little into the permanent materials of music, which are tones, intervals, and their ordering in time. By time I mean measured time. The recitation of prose and poetry also exists in time, but that time is not a chain of fixed durations. Movies also are a time art; and their small bits joined together into a continuity, though this final cutting can be measured, every second of it, these bits really make up only a psychological pattern not meant to be perceived independently.

Music’s time patterns, on the other hand, are there to be noticed. Their rhythmic and metrical structure controls the tonal one so powerfully that it actually gives to music most of whatever clear meaning it may seem to have. Rhythm is therefore both a stable and a stabilizing element and can be viewed as a constant, something of which neither the nature nor the function changes, though its designs may be infinitely various. And these designs, for all their constantly recurring elaborations in different times and places, are limited by the inability of the human mind to perceive as a unit any count larger than two, three, or just possibly a fast five. Rhythm, therefore, is hopelessly tied up to footwork and to language, to meaning, to expression. It can copy, but it cannot grow or evolve. Speeds and loudnesses, moreover, being subject to choice by performers, are no firm part of any pattern.

The so-called “harmonic series”—all the intervals that can be generated from one fundamental bass tone—are another constant in musical organization. (See illustration on this page.) The pitch of the fundamental on which a composition is based can vary from piece to piece, or even from one performance to another. But the relation of that fundamental to its overtones remains the same whatever its exact pitch may be. These intervals are fixed by nature, and our awareness of them is very ancient.

Actually the Greeks knew much of what we know regarding the first dozen or more of these, the Hindus and the ancient Chinese possibly more than the Greeks. Their number, though theoretically infinite, is for practical performance limited to about half a hundred, or fewer. Mixing them gives great variety to sound color. Transposing them into a single octave for use as modes or scales is a convenience. Falsifying them to facilitate pattern-making has long been common practice, the European “tempered scale” of twelve equidistant semitones being already more than two centuries old. A somewhat less acceptable tuning practice is to mix the overtones of slightly different fundamentals. This produces an acoustical interference known as vibrato. Mixing those from distant fundamentals is likely to cause more complex interferences and to erase clear pitch. We call these mixtures noise.

Sound patterns made from scale tones, commonly called “music,” have long been thought to be good for the spirits and to give pleasure. Noise has no such reputation; indeed it is known to produce exasperation and bad temper. And though it is easy to compose noises into a pattern, it has been a fancy of only recent times to call such arrangements music. Modern art-workers, I must say, do like joining contradictions into a single concept. Nevertheless, the contradictory terms embodied in the idea of noise-music are not by any means terms of equal semantic weight. In fact the sounds of noise, being governed by no single harmonic series, are only weakly interrelated and thus cannot lend themselves nearly so well to acoustical structuring as the sounds of music do. Entertaining they can be, as we know from our percussion orchestras. And at places in Africa, notably Nigeria and the Cameroon, persons at some distance are said to communicate words without the help of any pronouncing voice. All this is both lively and useful. It makes a valued addition, in fact, to our repertory of ear experiences, and is capable, by isolating the rhythmic element, of encouraging rhythm’s growth in complexity. There is nothing wrong with it so long as it is not offered as a substitute for music’s ancient and visceral tone ecstasies.

Moreover, the harmonic series and its intervals are not only a delight, they are another of music’s constant elements. They exist in nature, and though refinements in their perception may (just may) show a history of progress, the way these are perceived is built into the human body. I am not a specialist in this matter, but I can tell you a few things I have read. One is about an experiment carried out some years ago in Switzerland that tends to demonstrate that musical intervals are received by the brain not as a mixture of tones but as a resultant of their overlay.

The experiment goes as follows. You channel into one ear a pure pitch electronically produced and low enough in volume so that there will be no convection by the skull. Into the other ear you feed a similar sound pitched higher by the interval of a fifth. According to the account published in Gravesaner Blätter, July 1955, the brain does not hear these two pitches as an interval but only as a noise. On the other hand, if you feed both tones into one ear, either ear, the brain will instantly recognize the fifth.1

  1. 1

    An attempt to reproduce this experiment made several years ago in Princeton, New Jersey, gave indecisive results. The operating engineers from RCA found it successful, but the musicians present all maintained that they could identify as separate tones the pitches independently produced.

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