Saturday, March 22, 2008

Does Music Translate Anything?

That was the name of the talk that renowned Modernist scholar Daniel Albright gave at Wesleyan University last semester. Sadly, I did not manage to attend the talk, although some other music enthusiasts who did sit in gave me some vociferous (more like voci-ferocious) feedback. Although one of my previous lecturers did enjoy his spiel, others felt as if his examples lacked clarity and/or focus, and they walked away feeling either confused or unconvinced.

The lecture was given in conjunction with Wesleyan University's Center of the Humanities research theme of "Revision and Translation", a very useful way of thinking about problems in the arts. This theme has specific musicological resonances with topics I am interested in, and Albright must have had something going with his title.

Does music translate anything? What do we conceive when we attend to the semantic space of "translation"? Translation either implies what Julia Kristeva originally meant by "intertextuality" (I know I'm stretching this idea a bit) being the transportation of signifiers from one signifying realm to the next. When we translate a chain of signifiers from one language to another, we are invariably making creative choices, working to produce a parallel chain of signifiers that have varying degrees of compatibility with the signifiers of the previous language. In other words, we import abstract meaning (or the 'embedded' structure) of a signifying chain from one Symbolic realm to another. We leap across Semantic domains, crossing vast oceans while taking stock of similarities. Or, as Lawrence Zbikowski might argue, we enact conceptual mapping over cognitive continents.

Does or can music exactly achieve this? Of course, this question implicitly assumes that there is certain autonomy to the musical work (see the great deal of scholarship on the musical work concept) which, by extension, imparts whatever this abstraction called "music" is with a certain agency to 'speak' or communicate. But remembering Bakhtin, there can be no dialogue without an Other. Another problem also exists - are we falsely according an abstraction with agency where it does not exist? After all, although objects 'have' affective potential, it takes the recognition of another being to validate the object's agency. Its agency, thus, is a ghostly reflection of the receiving Other who imparts it with such post-fact. The 'facticity' or 'objective reality' of music has been much associated with movement and variation; a biasedness towards activity rather than stasis. As Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said put it in their joint book Parallels and Paradoxes, music is the movement from "silence to silence".

I might stretch the concept a little further, claiming that the negation of the space between silences effectively negates music. What Barenboim and Said argue for are datum points of beginnings and endings, and these datums are not solely temporal. Taking the extreme case studies, 4'33'' still 'marks' the poles of musical referentiality by denoting the beginning and the end of performances. Similarly, for an open ended work like Chopin's puzzling Marzuka or Satie's "Vexations", movement is characterized by the difference articulated at the local level - i.e. between two subsequent notes. Even in the case of LaMonte Young's String Quartets, variation is maintained on a macro-level by subtle harmonic changes to the chord-changes, while variation is sustained on a micro-level with minor fluctuations in timbre and volume.

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