Object and Motion

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The physical universe can be thought of either in terms of objects (substance) or motion (process). When substance is the focus, the universe appears as bundles of photons. When process is emphasized, the universe appears as waves. From the point of view of physics, both perspectives are true. Objects and motion are both made of light: photons are packets of light; waves are undulations of light. It is beyond my purpose (and my ability) to elucidate the finer points of this scientific principle. I wish instead to draw a rough analogy between substance and process as understood in physics, and the general way in which they are used in musical criticism.

Object in music is the final product: the sound recording, the lyric sheet, the notated score (composition or transcription). Process is the performance: the music making, the listening, the audible manifestation. The former is a starting place for (or record of) the latter; the latter is the content of the former. Unlike physicists, music critics tend to perceive object and process as utterly distinct, ignoring the “light” uniting the two. More often than not, one mode of understanding takes over, or is unduly elevated above the other.

For example, John Brownell notes a trend in jazz studies of applying analytical models to improvisation. He takes specific aim at Thomas Owens, who dissected a large number of Charlie Parker’s improvisations, cataloging sixty-four melodic devices ranked according to frequency of occurrence. For Brownell, this systematic method is antithetical to the spontaneous purpose and process of improvisation. Brownell is similarly critical of Gunter Schuller’s study of Sonny Rollins, which elucidates the saxophonist’s “thematic” improvisational approach. Schuller identified hallmarks of a well-crafted composition in Rollins’s solos—themes, coherence, deliberation, form—and on that basis claimed that his playing was aesthetically superior. From Brownell’s viewpoint, such analytic models have no place in jazz, which is, in essence, a performance practice outside the range of mechanistic tools. He dismisses these attempts as  “notism,” or the “fixation on the object of analysis rather than on the process from which it springs.”

While it is true that aesthetic expectations from one artistic form do not translate appropriately to other forms, the notion that experience and analysis are mutually exclusive is not entirely so. Notation, whether of a written piece or an improvisation notated later, is always and necessarily a shorthand for the real (audible) thing. It is a useful language for understanding music, but it is no substitute for the thing itself. At the same time, a purely experiential appreciation of music, without facility in the written language, is to a certain extent incomplete. It is through listening and analytics that music is grasped in its full dimensions.

It is unfortunate that music is often apprehended from an either/or vantage point. Either it is received in the moment of perception, or it is shoved under the microscope. Exclusivity arises in the extremes of experientialism and notism. What is needed is a balanced view, which values both the product and the performance. They are, after all, aspects of the same thing. Returning to the physics analogy, performance (process) is a manipulation of sound, while score (object) is a map of sound.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions. 


2 thoughts on “Object and Motion

  1. John Morton

    Your prodigious output is impressive, Jonathan, especially when your depth of thought and expressive style is taken into account. I won’t go into the specific points you raise because, in a sense, we’ve been here before, apart from making the following comment: our ideas are tied to language, which we shape to express ideas as accurately as we can. The problem is that the process has evolved to work backwards and we only conceive, or admit to, those ideas we can express in well-constructed sentences. This denies us access to many important subtleties.

    I have a particular interest in the examples you use from the world of physics, where some very strange things will happen in the not too distant future. Consciousness itself may belong in the no-mans-land that exists between the sub-microscopic, quantum world and the macroscopic world of classical physics (which now includes Relativity). As you will know, quantum theory which, despite the evangelical enthusiasm of its proponents, is only a provisional theory, has yet to explain exactly where and why we move from one world to the other.

    I do, however, like the idea of packets, or parcels. This helps me a lot and I’m currently hoping we can all get rid of infinities, too. Then I’ll be really happy.

    1. jlfriedmann Post author

      Thank you for your kind words and insights. One of the things I struggle with personally is that my job is to write and talk about music, but I find words to be limiting and, at times, obstructionary. Of course, we cannot think (or write) about music without words, but the words themselves can create a barrier between music and ourselves. Subtleties are lost in the insufficiency of language.

      I wrote about this recently. But, again, I struggle with the very premise, since it hits so close to home: https://thinkingonmusic.wordpress.com/2013/12/19/real-music/


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