Sunday, 18 October 2009

Twelve Tone And Serial Music And Neuroscience: A Polemic

This weekend the Zeitklänge-Festival for Contemporary Classical Music (Neue Musik) takes place in Kempten (Germany). There are concerts, workshop concerts and scientific presentations. The science journalist Christoph Drösser from ZEIT weekly newspaper reports: Zu schräg für unser Gehirn (Too Crooked For Our Brain). I seize the opportunity and reason about the neuroscientific investigation of music perception and the attempts from this direction to explain the unpopularity of Neue Musik (I use the German expression for contemporary music by the likes of the later Schönberg, Webern, Stockhausen, Boulez, Nono, Cage, Penderecki, Kagel, Ligeti etc. because there is no proper name for this particular genre in English).

In short, from the neuroscientist's perspective Neue Musik lacks structures which a) can be recognised and b) cause feelings of happiness or joy. This, so they argue, could not only be achieved by consonants absent in the dissonant Neue Musik, but also by the "game of fulfilled and disappointed expectations", which seems to be big fun for human beings. As Neue Musik does not feature recognisable structures it already lacks the prerequisites for this game. To the neuroscientist's lights, Neue Musik refuses reference to the "grammar" of musical styles which the listener is already familiar with and from which she could acquire something new. The gap is too big. In the spirit of Adorno who ranted about the emotionality and agreeability of jazz and pop music, and called for maximal innovation instead, the typical composer of Neue Musik is eager to avoid such appeals to the "pleasure principle."

This analysis is correct but incomplete. From the musician's perspective, critisism of the lacking reference to familiar structures which are comprehended as musically meaningful can be further sharpened: a composition following rigid formal principles as, e.g., in serialism, does not have a musical syntax any more, it has a non-musical syntax. It shares only the sound aspect with music, but its syntax follows mathematical principles. (From an outside perspective, the widespread traditional morphology brought about by the use of traditional classical instruments has a comic effect at times). Therefore Neue Musik cannot be deciphered by the method normally used to comprehend music, which is, well, listening to music. Similiar to that many an exhibit of modern art is in truth superfluent because everything which can be comprehended can be read in the catalogue, Neue Musik is fun only if one reads along the partition, or even studies the partition in silence, supplemented with the composer's or an insider music critic's remarks.

This leads me to the second point I would like to make. It is the question what someone who writes Neue Musik intends to communicate (or rather someone who writes a felt paradigmatic Neue Musik; this genre is of course by no means homogeneous and includes many works and composers to which nothing of what I am writing here applies). If a composer decides to compose something in non-musical syntax, she could as well write an essay and attach the partition and her diverse calculations. This would be more to the point and much cheaper. Put differently: what is a typical work of Neue Musik about?

The focus on neuroscientific aspects of music reception distracts from another aspect which is not less important: at the same time, music is a cultural code. It is not a quasi levitating technique to stimulate the cerebral system of human beings as effectively as possible without any cultural reference. Music does that too in having a musical syntax rather than a non-musical. But music also means something. (I silently pass over the philosophical question of a semantics of music, i.e. how musical syntax can carry meaning in the first place). A choral by Bach invokes a historical period, a religious attitude, indeed a whole world outlook in the listener's mind which of course largely differs from what is conveyed by a Beach Boys song. Our precision in relating music to a historical period and a milieu proves the richness of meaning music is capable of conveying - in musical syntax, nota bene. Musical syntax and, technically speaking, its neuronal correlates is the enabling condition for comprehensive music, but the effective stimulation of certain brain areas is not sufficient for meaningful music (see however NeuroPop). This makes the neurocientific investigation into music enormously complicated.

Nevertheless I believe that the unpopularity of Neue Musik is not only due to its neurological dysfunctionality. When we listen to something which is presented to us as music we apply musical patterns of interpretation even if the composition does not feature these, or if the composer was at pains to avoid musical syntax. At best this yields a music which, sometimes to the composer's dismay, perfectly fits horror movies, say. At worst we read a world outlook into the sounds which resembles the composer's outlook to a surprising extent. If I have not been polemic up to this point, now here it is: the world outlook which seems to be encoded in many works of Neue Musik is sectarian, presumptous, constructed - and above all anti-pleasure by purpose. Why should we do something like this to ourselves?
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