Category Archives: reflection

Recontextualizing Meaning

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Ray Bradbury’s 1953 dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451 tells of a near-future society where books are banned and “firemen” search out and burn literary contraband. Books are deemed a social menace, spreading ideas, broadening worldviews, feeding imaginations, and triggering emotions. For decades, this perennial classroom classic has been understood as a moral tome against censorship. However, in 2007, the book’s then eighty-seven-year-old author claimed he meant it as a warning about the dangers of technology. He pointed out that denizens of the bleak futurescape surround themselves with giant televisions, and prefer mindless screen time to interpersonal interaction. According to Bradbury, the novel was written at the dawn of the age of television, and predicted a downward spiral into technology dependence.

Presumably, Bradbury found a new message in his old book, or elevated a secondary theme into a central one. In the fifty-plus years that passed, McCarthyism had given way to the Patriot Act, smart phones, the twenty-four-hour news cycle, and other modern horrors. Just as his fans had always done, Bradbury probably read current events into the plot line. Sam Weller, Bradbury’s close friend and biographer, wrote as much in an article titled “Ray Bradbury’s 180 on Fahrenheit 451”: “I was well acquainted with his proclivity to contradict himself and his penchant for subtle revisionist history. More than one of Bradbury’s stories morphed over the years, taking on new life, becoming mythical versions of his own reality…. Bradbury’s letters at the time he wrote Fahrenheit 451, even an article he wrote for The Nation on May 2, 1953, clearly show that censorship was at the forefront of his mind when he wrote his classic novel.”

Fundamentally, interpretation involves recontextualizing meaning. Each exposure is, in a sense, a new event, suffused with accumulated experiences, thoughts, and feelings. As the Bradbury case illustrates, this can be as true for the creator as it is for the audience.

An example from the world of songwriting underscores the point. Bruce Springsteen released “Born to Run” in 1975 on a hit record of the same name. In a lengthy introduction during a London concert in 1988, he explained how the song’s meaning had changed for him:

“When I first wrote it, I figured I was writing about this guy and this girl that wanted to get in the car, drive, keep on driving and never come back….But as I got older, I realized I’d put all these people in all these cars and I was gonna have to figure someplace for them to go. I was gonna be able to figure someplace where I belonged, so as I sang this song through the years, I realized that guy and that girl were out there looking for some connection, trying to find some sense of community, some sense of meaning beyond their own individual freedom and someplace maybe that they could call home. And I realized that home wasn’t out there over the next hill or around the corner but that it was buried deep down inside of me, and that if I had the guts I might be able to get a little piece of it.”

Countless other examples could sit alongside these snapshots. In each instance, interpretations are not mutually exclusive: the expansion of themes does not negate prior meanings or variant meanings between people. A work of art that outlives its genesis invariably does so by acquiring new resonances with new places and times. Longevity depends on the adaptability of meaning from person to person, community to community, setting to setting, and now-self to later-self.

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

Surviving Context

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Some people are sticklers for context. They are hypersensitive about how words are handled and hyper-protective of original sources. For any statement, speech, painting, essay, song, novel or other cultural artifact to have legitimate meaning, it must be appreciated in, and only in, its native confines. Removing an idea from a specific discussion or an object from its historical period damages the intent and invalidates later applications. In the extreme of this view, ancient scriptures have no lasting relevance, reports on an event cannot describe anything else, and artistic creations from different periods or locations cannot be properly reproduced. Timeless wisdom becomes time-bound information. Ageless beauty becomes situational aesthetics.

It is fair to say that the extreme position is rarely (if ever) taken. Even sticklers treasure an occasional proverb or a piece of Classical music, though both were contrived for foreign audiences long ago deceased. Where the issue becomes problematic is when a comment is given wider relevance than the author intended. This is especially frowned upon in the guarded field of musical analysis, where fidelity to context is almost a maxim. True, ink spilled in the examination of one composer or piece of music is necessarily distorted when applied to a different work, let alone something more general; and egregious distortions can and do occur. But to insist that every musical insight be understood only in its document of origin restricts its potential readership and potential to enlighten.

If staunch contextualism were to prevail, then popular books like A Dictionary of Musical Quotations (Croften and Fraser) and Music: A Book of Quotations (Galewitz)—as well as specialized books like my own Quotations on Jewish Sacred Music—would lose much or all of their value. However, most of us recognize that words written on a particular situation or creation frequently retain and accrue beneficial meanings when expanded to larger contexts.

An example is composer-musicologist Hubert Parry’s warning, “Look out for this man’s music; he has something to say and knows how to say it.” Parry wrote this after attending the premiere of Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations (1899), but it could be describing any sincere and competent musician. Similarly, Beethoven unknowingly wrote on behalf of many composers when he included this statement in a letter to Louis Schlösser (1823): “You will ask where my ideas come from. I cannot say for certain. They come uncalled, sometimes independently, sometimes in association with other things.”

The governing ideal of a remark may reside within specific borders, but unconditional truths can still be happened upon. Indeed, various and sundry quotations find their way into anthologies precisely because their usefulness survives their context.

Part of this durability owes to the fact that observations made about any one thing take place within a grander sweep of experiences. No phenomenon exists in isolation and no reflection on a phenomenon is without underpinnings in a larger reality. In this sense, the constricted setting of a given quote already exists in a wider context, and the sagacity it possesses can speak to a wider context still. For instance, words about a Romantic composition may capture the essence of Romantic music, or elucidate music composition in general.

Of course, we should always be sensitive to the original target and meaning of a statement, and be habitual citers of sources. It is also obvious that not everything brilliant is applicable outside of the page it is printed on. But when it is, we should be free to adopt it as wisdom to think by.

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

Reflecting on Experience

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Experience alone does not teach. Our lives are comprised of a constant succession of experiences, some dull, some profound and most somewhere in between. If ridden through without reflection, these occurrences might leave a subconscious imprint, but they do not necessarily make us wiser or more informed. In the 1970s, educational theorists David Kolb and Ron Fry proposed a model outlining the stages by which experience becomes learning. Referred to as Kolb’s cycle of experiential learning (or the Kolb cycle), it is a repeatable spiral consisting of four elements: concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization and active experimentation. The experience itself—whether it is a day at the office or a stroll through the park—is only the beginning. Personal growth occurs through examination, abstraction and future application.

For most people some of the time (and some people most of the time), this is a natural process. There is a sense in which we are all born philosophers, or homo philosophicus. On occasion, we find ourselves asking deep questions, contemplating our purpose and pondering the things we have observed. Aristotle addressed this inclination in the opening line of Metaphysics: “All men by nature desire to know.” Yet knowing from experience is not as simple as experiencing an experience. It requires a few additional steps, not to mention a motivating sense of curiosity.

Of course, some things in life are riper for exploration than others. For instance, we might readily progress through the Kolb cycle when the concrete experience is mowing a lawn, but are less inclined to do so when the activity is listening to music. This is partly because of the relative abstractness of the musical experience. Being moved by a piece or selecting a track for a playlist are processes more impulsive than cognitive, and thus hard to penetrate with intellectual methods. It is also the case that musical affinities are a matter of taste: a sensitive part of the human makeup, and one particularly resistant to critique.

When it comes to music, most of us adhere to the unreflective phrase, “I know what I like and I like what I know.” This principle of subjective preference helps to protect our musical opinions. We need not justify (or even understand) our like or dislike for a particular selection. We simply know our position. This has its advantages, as musical penchants do not usually hold up well under analysis. Critical evaluation and experimentation have little regard for those individualistic factors that shape our musical beliefs: exposure, upbringing, peer influence, cultural biases, inherited assumptions, generational trends, etc. None of this leads to an objective conclusion. The further and more honestly we pursue the steps of observation, conceptualization and experimentation, the shakier our convictions become.

In the end, there may be no scientific or otherwise satisfactory rationale for musical taste. However, the philosopher in us should not view this as an impediment, but as an invitation. The questions that arise from musical self-inventory are themselves invaluable teachers. Bertrand Russell made this point in The Problems of Philosophy. His eloquent words are applicable to all areas of thought—whether musical or existential: “Philosophy is to be studied not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions, since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves; because these questions enlarge our intellectual imagination and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation . . .”

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