[Smt-talk] emotions, adjectives, and music

Dunsby, Jonathan jdunsby at esm.rochester.edu
Sat Feb 25 15:46:38 PST 2012

Re this and other interesting posts, we do need to apply as much thought and learning as possible to the evidence. I heard Messiaen say, at a Vingt Regards master class in London, but in French, "you know, I have to say I've always written too many words on my scores." (Messiaenistas may be able to provide us with chapter and verse from his voluminous writings if he ever elaborated on that point in print.)  

Jonathan Dunsby
Chair, Music Theory Department
Professor of Music Theory
Eastman School of Music


From: Michael Morse
Sent: Sat 2/25/2012 11:23
To: weverett at umich.edu; smt-talk at societymusictheory.org
Subject: [Smt-talk] emotions, adjectives, and music

  Walt Everett raises the most cogent challenge to Jonathan Dunsby's and Charles Smith's thoughtful comments. "Pinning a word to a.. musical object" is indeed weird--but people do it all the time, including such august non-slouches as monsieur Croche.

  The universality of a custom does not of itself speak to its wisdom or rigour. I think part of the point of Jonathan's and Charles' comments is that it is often the suggestive and allusive dimensions of our discourse that are exposed by scholarly analysis rather than their semantic or logical substance. What that means in practice is that scholars need to detach themselves from common sense categories, not attempt to quantify or reinscribe them. With a bit of practice and a lot of largely subliminal cultural exposure, a musical pianist can decipher (and "realize") maitre Debussy's instruction pretty shrewdly and efficaciously; paradoxically, that doesn't mean that the instruction is more than very loosely meaningful, for precisely the reasons that Charles and Jonathan (and Greg Karl) have explained.

  There is a simple thought experiment, so cogent that it hardly needs to be carried out empirically. Find 10 capable pianists who have, by happenstance, never played or seen the Debussy prelude. Give 5 of them a score with the emotive performance instruction, five without. Record them all, and try to decipher which has seen the words, and which not. I think 2 correct guesses out of 10 would be an estimate on the high side, and that would almost certainly be the two least effective and intelligent performances--because the performers would hyperbolize the instruction, riding roughshod over the music. The performers who understand the music would scarcely need the words, helpful as a loose orientation though they may be. (Would any intelligent musician perform Beethoven's Fifth "senza brio," even without the "con" marking!?) Debussy is a particularly good instance of the genuine menace of adjectives; consider the scads of wretched and unmusical recordings wrought by drowning Debussy's marvelous rhythmic sense with a wash of vagueness, because Debussy is an "Impressionist." Schlock performances of Schubert and Schumann based on their "Romanticism" besludge themselves into the same unhappy state.

  All that said, there is at least a case to be made for adjectives and the adjectival as performance instructions rather than critical or, heave forfend, analytic concepts. The conceptual imprecision and even arbitrariness rightly critiqued by messrs. Smith & Dunsby can be ameliorated at least somewhat if it is not the discursive terminus ad quem. In other words, the performer's understanding of and reactions to adjectival instructions such as "dreamlike," "con brio," or "with the inner grace of your first husband," are subsumed in the performance, for better or worse. As the experiment above implies, they are not, and cannot be, its substance--"impressionistic" thought to the contrary.

Michael Morse
Trent University
Peterborough, Oshawa

Dear list, 

I find Jonathan Dunsby's statement, here, fascinating: 

Pinning a word to an abstracted musical object seems, well, doubly, utterly weird, although music-cognition people do it all the time. I personally think they are fantasizing, but there we are.

Weird, perhaps.  Yet such pinning and fantasizing are exercises into which we're drawn if we don't ignore Debussy's instruction to perform ". . . Des pas sur la neige" in a sad manner, given the tempo indication ("Triste et lent") and the special note at the outset, "Ce rythme doit avoir la valeur sonore d'un fond de paysage triste et glacé," to point to just one example connected to the concept of sadness, with which this thread began.  The exercise suggests many challenges, and none of us deplores a rich fantasy life, I hope.

best, walt everett
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