Meaning, III

In the realm of musical aesthetics, there is no topic more intriguing than meaning. The idea that an abstract piece of music "means something" is one of the most explosive & controversial points in any such discussion. Yet, within certain limited contexts, the idea is quite evidently accurate. There can be an association with words, for one thing, and there is also a direct association with emotional response in e.g. film music. The clichés of various genres indicate that particular conventions have been assigned meanings. More broadly, of course, meaning at this level can be difficult to assign or discuss. For one, we are forced to wonder whether there is meaning at all, whether we can uncover what someone else might have meant. Perhaps more damagingly, we can also let meaning become entangled with the past, and essentially strangled when cut off from the present.

When we speak of "meaning in music," we usually do not refer to a transcendental (or other philosophical) concept of epistemology, or even to broad ideas on historical context and evaluation, but rather to something akin to the "film music" example. Indeed, many hermeneutic stances have been developed over the years, with regard to the signification of particular musical phrases or motifs. It is common to hear from the naïve classical music listener, for instance, that minor keys mean sadness. This sort of hermeneutic analysis — and construction — was at its most intricate with the affetti of the early Baroque period, during which there was a virtual cookbook of musical phrases used to trigger emotions. Farther afield, the Indian raga continues to offer particular emotional connections to particular melodic patterns, and the ancient Chinese qin repertory has pieces evoking subtly complex — yet specific — emotional experiences. Of course, we would not be having this discussion if such systems of correspondence were readily extensible or amenable to changed contexts. Such as they are, they already conflict and/or provide no clear answers for harmonic patterns or ragas which are easily generalized from their own foundations.

While specific hermeneutic stances can make sense within the particular arenas to which they apply, applying them more broadly leads to problems. The "meaning" in music such as Beethoven's is already hotly contested, and such connections become even more tenuous when considering the larger landscape of contemporary style. The whole idea of absolute music is virtually an eschewal of concrete reference. We might not want concrete reference there, making any hermeneutic attempts particularly strained. Moreover, attaching meaning to phrases relies on analysis per se, on picking apart music into its constituent parts and assigning them in sequence. This is exactly the way the Baroque affetti worked, and it is a notion which consequently admits of only limited complexity. Meaning on this level becomes strained primarily when the "music as language" analogy breaks down, which is virtually the definition of absolute music. We can go on to grasp at meaning in larger chunks, to take music as rite. However, rite breaks down under scrutiny; it requires a certain credulity. In short, the analysis of phrase sequences does not necessarily add to a whole, nor does it necessarily support a holistic conception.

This theme of caution, as it were, revolves around analysis per se. If analysis cuts things into bits, what makes us believe that they can subsequently be reconstituted? More generally, to reiterate an earlier open question: Does looking for meaning destroy meaning? As soon as this question is framed in those terms, the answer must be affirmative. As soon as one oversteps oneself, looking elsewhere for something as if it were here, whatever one finds is already changed. Or as the Tao asserts, the wise man lets go of that and chooses this. Such a sentiment brings us back to the idea of choice, and I have previously rationalized theories of meaning as essential to forming choices. Regarding entertainment and its relation to art, I have also raised complementary issues of control, and the sentiment that we want to control our own thoughts. In the sense in which aesthetics is about control, it is only too easy to overreach for assessment. Returning to the topic of choice, debates on free will aside, we have choices to make, but the extent to which choice is sought is another choice. If choice is sought via analysis, that can be a rather large step.

I have also expressed the sentiment that art does battle with falseness & misdirection, but there is a clear danger inherent to any such battle: One can easily be induced to stoop to the level of one's opponent. This is true of virtually any engagement with the world. Ritual is about that engagement, about connectedness and the establishment of meaning. Meaning, moreover, is a ritual; it is a shared connection. As intimated, we could easily discard the entire concept, not to declare everything meaningless, but to remove the misdirection which "meaning" may inject into choice. The idea of meaning itself may not be real; at the very least, it is not an elementary part of consciousness. While the relation of music-making to human nature might be open to some debate, for more elementary arbiters of choice, we can turn to eating or to nature itself. Without making any sort of choice, without taking any sort of action, we will certainly die — death defined as a quasi-universal human negative. If art is about doing battle, it is not with the first portion of that sentiment, but rather with the last. It is about the meaning of such an elementary act.

So, following the implications, we ask: Does "doing art" destroy art? There is the real question of our time. Does self-conscious, historically-framed creation actually lower quality? How does one avoid the predesignation of meaning without glorifying ignorance? Somehow, an act of pure expression must find its own meaning, or rather have meaning accreted to it. This is essentially a vision of art as an empty vessel, located carefully within its own context in order to be empty. Is this how great art has functioned, however? No! The age of polyphony saw the great composers writing to express particular things, mainly the glory of God and their patrons, that glory expressed both in words and in contrapuntal skill. Were they "doing art?" With their complex allusions to other works & hidden messages, we must say that they were. They may have invented the idea. The difference, if there was a difference, is that they had an audience which actively sought their music. Meaning arose organically from that interaction.

There we have today's chicken & egg problem: Meaningless music with no audience. Much as theories of evolution suggest, we can posit that such a situation can be undone only by chance. If art is about meaning, and we do not need art, then we must conclude that we do not need meaning. Evidently, we have enough meaning already. Perhaps in the future, we — the public — will want more.

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Todd M. McComb