Tag Archives: imagination

Literature as Music

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Aspects of music can be spatially represented through notation and recording, which freeze moments in time. But, as an experiential medium, which relies on performance and audition, music reveals itself in the present tense. This temporal quality is not only thought to distinguish music from spatial arts, such as illustration, sculpture, jewelry, and ceramics, but also from written language, which cements ideas and oral expression into fixed letters. However, this characterization has its limits.

Author Anthony Burgess restricts the framing of words as concrete objects to informational writing. Scientific texts, legal documents, historical records, and other types of non-fiction primarily appeal to reason rather than imagination. They are written for study, reference, and comparison to other writings in the field. Their words are artifacts to be mulled over, digested, quoted, and critiqued. Contrastingly, Burgess sees literature as a “twin of music,” which, like music, occurs in real-time, transcends physical space, and manifests in the imagination.

Burgess’s interest in the link between music and literature stems from his biography. Best known for his 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange, featuring a deranged gang leader obsessed with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Burgess was also a composer of some 150 works, most of which have been lost. He wished the public would view him as a musician who writes novels, rather than a novelist who composes music on the side. Yet, in his memoir, This Man & Music, Burgess concedes: “I have practiced all my life the arts of literary and musical composition—the latter chiefly as an amateur, since economic need forced me to spend most of my time producing fiction and literary journalism.”

Burgess’s fiction brims with musical content, from characters who are musicians or music lovers, to writing styles that consciously borrow from sonata form, symphonic form, and the like. Stressing literature’s performative essence, Burgess complains: “We have come to regard the text as the great visual reality because we confuse letters as art with letters as information.” While non-fiction works might be understood as monuments of human thought, literature is a lived experience akin to traveling through a piece of music.

This discussion has more to say about literature than it does about music. Like the poet E. T. A. Hoffman, another composer who made his living in words, Burgess idealized creative writing as an art approaching music. Central to his argument is the conception of time as the canvas upon which both art forms take shape, and imagination as the invisible realm where their meaning is made.

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

 

Improvisation and Origination

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

All music begins as improvisation. Guided by an internalized assortment of musical conventions, proclivities, and preferences, and propelled by a need for self-expression, the musician offers up an unfolding sequence of tones. Sonic strokes are applied to a canvas of silence and time, coalescing into a piece of music. What happens after the initial act will determine what type of improvisation it is: creation for the moment, or creation for repetition.

In musical styles that value extemporization, such as jazz and ragas, certain sounds are not meant to extend past the performance. They are embraced as spontaneous creations in and for that moment. Beauty arises, mistakes are made, ideas are asserted, and ingenuity is flashed—all without concern for documentation. The experience begins and ends in real time. In contrast, music created for repetition is expected to persist beyond the improvisatory genesis. Tones emerge from the imagination, but are thereafter revised, re-shaped, and retained for future performances. This process occurs in both oral and scribal cultures, where music is reiterated through person-to-person transmission, notation, audio recording, and often a combination of these. The impulsive journey of formation becomes a roadmap for reproduction.

There are cases where creation for the moment and creation for repetition intrude upon one another. These “violations” take the form of transcriptions of improvisatory solos, recordings of jam sessions, embellishments in classical compositions, and the like. Purists shun such rule breaking: improvisers guard the ephemeral nature of their craft; classical musicians shield the notes on the page.

Frank Zappa was a vocal critic from the improvisatory camp. In a 1984 MTV interview, he blasted fellow guitarists for playing carbon copies of their recorded solos on stage. Zappa was asked, “Do you consider yourself a great guitarist?” Rather than self-labeling one way or the other, he gave an assessment of the state of guitar playing, lamenting the scarcity of intuition and risk taking. His response deserves quoting in full:

“Well, I’m specialized. What I do on the guitar has very little to do with what other people do on the guitar. Most of the other guitar solos that you hear performed on stage have been practiced over and over and over again. They go out there and they play the same one every night, and it’s really just spotless. My theory is this: I have a basic mechanical knowledge of the operation of the instrument and I’ve got an imagination, and when the time comes up in the song to play a solo, it’s me against the laws of nature. I don’t know what I’m going to play; I don’t know what I’m going to do. I know roughly how long I have to do it, and it’s a game where you have a piece of time and you get to decorate it. And depending on how intuitive the rhythm section is that’s backing you up, you can do things that are literally impossible to imagine sitting here. But you can see them performed before your very eyes in a live performance situation. I don’t like any of the guitar solos that have ever been released on a record, and I think that the real fun of playing the guitar is doing it live, not freezing it and saving it on a piece of plastic someplace or putting it on a video.”

It should be mentioned that Zappa was no enemy of notation. He meticulously scored his songs for all instruments, including percussion, and was notoriously perfectionistic regarding the conversion of his writing into sound. But he also knew when to depart from predetermined ideas and respond to the moment. What he despised was the breakdown of distinctions between the fixed and the improvised. Implied in his comments is recognition that music can only be improvised once. After that, it takes one of two paths: evaporation or concretization. For Zappa, fleeting sounds should be kept fleeting, while stipulated sounds should remain stipulated. Even so, Zappa himself sometimes wandered into the awkward space where impromptu playing becomes frozen for consumption. A series of guitar-solo albums and a book of solos-in-transcription are testaments to that uncomfortable truth.

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

Walk Like a Composer

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Beethoven’s daily routine included vigorous walks with a pencil and sheets of music paper. Robert Schumann’s regular walks were punctuated with poetry writing and drawing sketches. Tchaikovsky took two walks per day: a brisk stroll in the morning and a two-hour hike after lunch. Benjamin Britten had company on his walks, during which he talked about music and after which he wrote it down. The list of strolling composers could go on and on. More than just mundane details of famous biographies, these examples give credence to Nietzsche’s overstated but still compelling aphorism: “All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking.”

The link between walking and creativity is apparent across disciplines. Celebrated cases include John Milton, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Immanuel Kant, Sigmund Freud, and Eric Hoffer. Again, the list could stretch on without end. A skeptic might note that walking is a natural human activity: it is something that creative and not-so-creative people share in common. But this is walking of an intentional and recreational kind, not the humdrum mode of moving the body from place to place.

Until now, connections between walking and novel idea generation have come from historical and personal anecdotes. Britten working out a musical passage on a leisurely jaunt has parallel in the average person working out an average problem on a stroll around the neighborhood. Perhaps the benefits are so apparent that scientific confirmation is not needed. Be that as it may, the emerging science provides intriguing confirmation.

A recent paper in the Journal of Experimental Psychology outlines preliminary findings of four walking experiments. “Give Your Ideas Some Legs: The Positive Effect of Walking on Creative Thinking” (a highly technical study with a deceptively inviting title) shows that walking not only increases formation of creative ideas in real-time, but also for a period afterward. Without going into depth here, the experiments, conducted by Marily Oppezzo and Daniel L. Schwartz of Stanford University, record thought processes of people in various combinations of seating and walking. Not surprisingly, walking resulted in substantial creative boosts, with outdoor walking producing thought patterns of the highest quality and novelty.

Without jumping to premature conclusions, the authors predict that the walk-thought mechanism “will eventually [be shown to] comprise a complex causal pathway that extends from the physical act of walking to physiological changes to the proximal processes.” This is something we could have learned from Brahms, who was often seen walking around Vienna with hands folded behind his back. He gave this advice to Gustav Jenner, his only formal composition student: “When ideas come to you, go for a walk; then you will discover that the thing you thought was a complete thought was actually only the beginning of one.”

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

Art Is Not Artist

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Biographies and backstories can taint our perception of artistic creations. The more that is known of the life and views of the artist, the more potentially challenging it is to embrace the art. Classic examples include the bigoted composer, the abusive author, the misogynistic painter, the egotistical architect, the politically opinionated actor. Without providing names, these epithets likely bring specific individuals to mind—a fact that itself shows the difficulty of separating the art from the artist. Because human minds and human hands are the imaginative and actualizing forces behind the art, the artist’s personality is, it would seem, inextricably woven into the work.

It hardly needs mention that the foregoing dilemma is specific to controversial creators. The upright artist is outside of this discussion, as is the one we know little about. It is also true that the nature and severity of a negative trait will determine our ability or inability to excuse a less-than-noble artist. Still, the reality remains: as soon as we learn of something incriminating or offensive (universally or personally) about an artist, the experience of his or her art is irreparably influenced.

Although this judgment is natural and perhaps unavoidable, there are three ways in which it is unfair to both artist and audience. First, like any human being, the artist is composed of an assortment of qualities, some good, some bad, some neutral. Artists may differ from “ordinary” people in areas such as talent, training, creativity and vision, but they have flaws and virtues like everyone else. Indeed, the inner complexity of the artist is popularly thought to exceed that of others—a stereotype that should, at the very least, caution us from reducing the artist to his or her blemishes.

Second, artistic expression is an indicator of higher attributes. That things of beauty can emerge from someone possessing a despicable quirk is proof of an internal coexistence of dark and light. It should not be forgotten that Beethoven, whose compositions are among the outstanding achievements of Western culture, practiced his craft in a pigsty apartment, replete with piles of garbage, un-emptied chamber pots, and a stew of foul odors. These physical conditions were an extension of Beethoven’s psychological condition; but just as his music transcended the filth in which it was written, so did it rise above the smudge in his mind.

Third, a work of art is but a stage in a larger process. The creative offering—whether a piece of music or a building—is made to be perceived. Art is not fully formed unless and until it enters the consciousness of someone other than the artist. It has no absolute identity apart from the perceiver’s interaction with it. Reception is, in a sense, the completion of creation. Our own personalities—our characteristics, inclinations and experiences—actively shape what we perceive, thereby nullifying (or mitigating) whatever trace of the creator’s persona is present in the work.

The key is to preserve our initial response to art, which occurs on a pre-rational and pre-interpretational level. It is only when the analytical mind kicks in that gut reactions are obscured by thoughts of the artist and other reflections. To avoid such second-level impediments, it is helpful to remember that art is not artist.

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

Theory and Practice

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Theory and practice in music are often portrayed as opposing modes of discernment. Theory is viewed as abstract, analytical and remote from the musical moment. Its tools and methods distill a work to its elemental components and provide the mechanical framework for a piece’s construction; but they hardly account (or attempt to account) for music’s affections or aesthetics. At its most austere, theory becomes what seventeenth-century philosopher Marin Mersenne conceived it to be: the reduction of music to the movement of air. Opponents of this approach, like social critic Morris Berman, point to its apparent spiritlessness. For them, music is a happening, existing to be heard and felt, not dissected or diagnosed.

If we take the extremes of either position, then listening and analysis are two unrelated activities. True, the theorist rarely dwells on the effects of a piece while examining it under the microscope. And the listener rarely ponders specific properties that are stimulating a musical response. However, theory and practice are not as distant as we might presume. Not only are they aspects of the same phenomenon—music—they also address companion human needs for order and wonder.

The combination of formal design and amorphous impact is at the root of music’s appeal. Though features such as pitch, timbre, duration and harmony are susceptible to meticulous examination, their cumulative effect cannot be accurately predicated, precisely measured or empirically determined. It is at the same time science and art.

Mathematician and polymath Jacob Bronowski made a related observation in his influential book, The Identity of Man (1965). Using science and poetry as contrasting pathways of human inquiry, Bronowski explained that while scientific imagination seeks to resolve ambiguities by conducting decisive tests between alternatives, artistic imagination encourages divergent paths without deciding for one or the other. Science is miserly, weeding out the proliferation of new ideas; art is generous, exploiting the vastness of ambiguities. For Bronowski, these two trajectories of the imaginative process—narrowing and expanding—form the basis of human consciousness.

It is intriguing that both avenues exist simultaneously in music. A musical selection is receptive to the scientific approach of the theorist, who separates, labels and quantifies its basic materials. But it is also open-ended, inviting subjective reactions and creative interpretations. These modes of engagement can appear mutually exclusive and certainly call upon different devices and frames of mind. Yet, when we apply Bronowski’s insights, it becomes clear that theory and practice satisfy the concurrent and fundamental human needs for certainty and possibility. Science and art merge in music, enriching the entirety of consciousness.

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

The Role of the Listener

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

In The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts (1979), Umberto Eco carefully elucidates “the cooperative role of the addressee in interpreting messages.” When processing a text, the reader derives meaning(s) based on his or her linguistic and cultural competencies. Eco explains that the text itself is never a finished or enclosed product. Its essence is incomplete until it meets the readers’ eyes. And each time it does so, it assumes a new and person-specific character.

This observation fits into Eco’s wider theory of interpretative semiotics, in which words and other signs do not disclose a full range of meaning, but invite readers to construct signification from them. As Eco writes elsewhere, “Every text, after all, is a lazy machine asking the reader to do some of its work. What a problem it would be if a text were to say everything the receiver is to understand—it would never end” (Six Walks in Fictional Woods, 1994). Among the types of signs open to individualized interpretation are natural languages, secret codes, formalized languages, aesthetic codes, olfactory signs, cultural codes, tactile communication and visual input.

Eco distinguishes these systems from music (or “musical codes”), which he considers to be resolutely indeterminate. In his view, there is no depth to the semantic levels produced by musical syntax. A musical line, even when conventional, reveals no real baseline or essential undercurrent for the interpretive process. Virtually everything we extract from the listening experience is culturally conditioned and subjectively filtered. To be sure, this issue is less indicative of song, which is actually a species of text, or “music with a message.”

The abstractness of music is evident whenever an instrumental piece is performed. Take, for example, Vivaldi’s “Spring.” Though it is programmatic—linked by title to a seasonal theme—its Baroque pleasantries can inspire an endless slew of associations, even for listeners familiar with the intended subject matter. It can conjure images of horseback riding, a morning cup of coffee, aristocratic tea parties, falling snowflakes, frolicking dinosaurs, a tray of cupcakes, a journey to Mars. Along with these representations are companion feelings, such as relaxation, invigoration, exhilaration and boredom. The possibilities are as numerous as the individuals who hear it. And, because music is a living and continuously unfolding art, any future listening can evoke an assortment of different connotations.

The vagaries of music make the listener’s role even more crucial than that of the reader (or the receiver of other semiotic stimuli). Not only is musical meaning absent without someone to derive it, but music’s very existence depends on ears to detect it. Operating in the amorphous medium of sound and traveling through the invisible element of air, it needs sensory organs to hear it, bodies to feel it and imaginations to engage it. It has no material form; it takes shape inside the listener. And it is in that materialization that meaning is born.

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

From Thin Air

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The genesis of musical creativity has long been perplexing. As a medium comprised of the invisible properties of silence and sound, music seems to emerge from and return to thin air. Its substance and impact defy pictorial and linguistic descriptions, and the experience of it is beyond the grasp of notated scores and mathematical graphs. Of all the arts, music is both the most mysterious and the most intimate. It is intangible and transient, yet deeply affects the interior of our being.

Because music-making is so difficult to unravel, many cultures have arrived at supernatural explanations. These range from calling musical genius a “gift from heaven” to more involved mythologies. An extreme example is found among the Suyá, a tribe of about three hundred located at the headwaters of the Xingu River in Mato Grosso, Brazil. The Suyá maintain that all new music originates outside of their dwellings. The composer’s spirit is sent to a village of animal spirits, where it listens to and learns different songs. When the spirit returns, the composer transmits the songs to the people.

The Suyá also believe that the spirits of tribespeople are linked with particular animal spirits. This has musical implications, as the spirit of one person may travel to the spirit village of fish, while the spirit of another might go to a community of deer spirits. The former will return with fish songs, the latter with deer songs. According to Anthony Seeger, an anthropologist and author of Why Suyá Sing: A Musical Anthropology of an Amazonian People, about thirty percent of Suyá men and women in a generation claim to have spirits that acquire new songs.

However fantastical this and other beliefs about musical creativity may be, they do illustrate the enigma of the process. Musical inspiration is difficult to pinpoint, as it is often spontaneous and rarely perceptible by sight or other senses. Cultural factors naturally shape the details of the musical stories. A monotheistic group places its deity at the inspirational center, animistic tribes locate music with animals, polytheistic societies assign the role of muse to a god or two, and so on.

Whatever form a myth takes, its impetus is the mysteriousness of musical creation. While a painter begins with paints and a sculptor starts with stone, the composer commences with seemingly nothing but air. Of course, on a technical level, all of the available notes, durations and articulations are already present in nature, and the organization of these sounds can be distilled, mapped and analyzed with precision. But music-making may be as close to creatio ex nihilo as we can approach.

The materials of music differ from materials in the physical sense. Most creative activities involve selecting, arranging and shaping pre-existing external matter, or creatio ex materio. But music, while played on instruments and within mechanical parameters, seems to reside in a spiritual or otherwise inexplicable realm. As a result, musical creativity lends itself to supernatural storytelling.

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