Monday Musing: Musical Experience and And The Location Of Meaning

Posted on November 28, 2011

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The critic has confused himself (again).

I often mention in the reviews I write, that I locate musical meaning in the experience of listening. This is in contrast to linguistic meanings, which are located somewhere other than the sound of the language, which points you at ideas to which it is only arbitrarily connected. This can be a difficult thing to grasp: this is what it sounds like, one might say, but what does it mean? If it means anything, then it must be something further, or deeper, than just its sound: otherwise, the word ‘meaning’ doesn’t really mean anything, does it? Or even if we concede that it does, surely a form of art that means only what it sounds like, is self-referential, abstract and navel-gazing?

This is the sort of topic, where once I get going, it’s easy to forget what I wanted to talk about, and go off at a massive tangent. This is because it deals with certain fundamental aspects of the way we understand the world, and the way in which we construct our identities: dig into an idea like ‘meaning’, and you can end up almost anywhere! So without straying too far into the territory staked out by philosophers, I would contend that music can be as relevant or otherwise, as engaged or hermetic, as representational or self-regarding, as any other language, but that these characteristics are manifest in music in very specific ways.

Because musicians do not make objects, the way that painters do, we can’t just have their work in front of us and digest it at our leisure: we have to press play, or attend a concert, and we have to experience the whole process just to receive the musician’s message, as though we had to watch a film of the painter making her work each time we looked at it. This is partly why the new intellectual class of the Enlightenment was so keen to focus on the score, and to notate music to the nth degree: it enabled them to view it as both object, and literature, where anyone who’s been to a rave could tell them it’s neither (not that there were raves then, but you get the picture…) Literature is halfway between music and the ‘plastic arts’ in a sense: you can look at a bunch of words on the page, but you still have to sequence them to understand them. There is however something about a written text that freezes language into a new, equally but differently digestible form, in a way that the score doesn’t do for music. Music is a sound: a sound can’t be stopped and remain a sound.

This is something I feel quite passionately about, particularly when confronted by pieces of music writing whose authors think they are getting at fundamental meanings by analysing lyrical texts, or who manage to talk about everything except what the music sounds like, and the experience of listening to it. You can paraphrase literal verbal language: it is structured to point at meanings that can be expressed in other ways, but music’s meanings are never denotational, which makes it impossible to abstract them from the ‘thing itself’. A Black Flag song is a political statement, but it can’t be reduced to a slogan or other verbal distillate, because its politics are all about what it does to you: music’s politics are the politics of the body, even when very clearly positioned within a broader discourse.

What I’ve been wondering about lately is the extent to which meanings are something that are put into pieces of music by their authors. The ‘common sense’ view would be, I guess, that whatever meanings were originally intended, in the music’s production, are the ‘real’ ones, the important, authentic keys to the work. If the musician says it means x, then it means x, right? Common sense is usually bullshit, however (unless you’re putting up a shelf), which is not to say that the creator’s intentions are irrelevant, just that important meanings come from other places too. This is the thing about work without a literal, denotational meaning: unless you control the entirety of the experience, you can’t dictate the meaning. This is why Rothko was so specific about the conditions in which he wanted his Seagram Murals to be hung, and it’s why Bob Dylan wrote a protest song for the Thatcher years in 1965 (‘I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more’).

Obviously there are a bazillion things that will affect how you take any piece of art or discourse: time of day, the weather outside, how recently you’ve eaten, and all of those other things that add up to ‘what mood you’re in’. To say that these are important to the meaning of a work, to the experience of it, is obviously true, but it’s equivalent to saying that things get wet when it rains. We already knew that. The task of analysing a piece of music, or just of thinking about it in the hopes of understanding it, is not appreciably facilitated by this. The important insight here, for me, is that if the meaning is in that sequence of events as experienced by the listener, then it can’t be anywhere else, and that the major determining factors that structure the listener’s subjectivity have at least as large a part to play as the composer’s intentions.

I recently read an interesting piece on portable listening by Michael Bull: the Walkman user (as they would be known at the time the piece was written) experiences their music in a very different way to the miniaturised concert hall of the home stereo listener, or the bottled minstrels’ gallery of the radio in the background at work. His research showed personal stereo users frequently experiencing their surroundings in a filmic way, with their music choices serving as a dramatic soundtrack, and their music acquiring new meanings in relation to its changing physical and visual context. This is something that is clearly beyond the control of the composer/ performer, and at the time it was written, for the most part, beyond their imagining as well. Does that render these meanings spurious, or imaginary? Or does it simply mean that new contexts show the work in new lights, in ways that may enrich them, but which exist independently of the process of production? It’s probably too glib to be important, but it’s too neat for me not to mention the parallel between a changing physical location, and the relocation of the site of meaning.

My own view is that meanings are accreted at all stages of production, distribution and consumption. Of course, what a listener knows about the artist and the work will affect how they ‘read’ it, just as the artist’s idea of their public will influence the way they ‘write’ their work. Every piece of music implies, or even constructs, a listening subject, as well as an authorial one, and the way it does this is inevitably too ideological for its composer to be fully aware of it. Put simply, our assumptions about the way our music will be received structures the way we make it: if it didn’t, no one would understand it, any more than a piece of writing that abandoned all assumptions about language could be legible.

So what conclusion can I draw, or suggest that my long suffering reader might infer? Answers and conclusions are, I feel, a sign of intellectual failure. Too easy. The important point, I would argue (and it’s one that’s reinforced whenever I think deeply about anything like this), is that you should never assume you’ve nailed it. If you locate the important site of meaning over here, it will pop up over there: it’s important to keep open ears, an open mind, and to stay alert. Most of all, I would like to reinforce my deep seated prejudice, that the most important thing is to listen closely to the sound itself!

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