Nature and Artifice in Structure

[This is a continuation of the last post ‘Experiencing Function’. I do welcome comments and responses on what I’ve written, especially since many of those who usually read what I write actually study music or are practitioners.]

In the last post, I suggested that the experience of function in music is the experience of live possibilities as governed by a set of rules, the rules of harmony. I promised to discuss two further related questions, namely: (1) How do these rules make the possibilities salient to us? and (2) What is the status of these rules: are they merely formal constructs or are they somehow natural or innate? I then try to extend some of these findings to two other areas: logic and narrativity.

Convention in Structure

Strictly speaking, the rules of the harmony are but a set of rules, a formal structure: they dictate to us the function of the various notes and chords. How does a formal structure enliven certain possibilities for us? There is a fairly straightforward way in which this is possible — this is by actually learning the structure deliberately or by some kind of social pressure. Consider the rules of chess. Each of the pieces can only move in certain ways, the knight moves in an L-shape, the bishop moves diagonally and so on. If I observe a game of chess before I learn the rules the game would make no sense to me. Without understanding the legitimate moves, I would not understand why the pawn may not simply go off and knock the king off his rocker. It is only as I learn the rules of the game, deliberately or gradually by observing others, that I observe the game as a series of live possibilities. Only certain moves are legitimate, are ‘live’. A game would be played beautifully by a player only if he manages to artfully navigate his pieces according to the formal rules.

Using chess as an example would seem to suggest that in some sense the rules of harmony are conventional. I think this is true to some extent. Consider another larger scale formal structure in music that is somewhat based on the rules of harmony, the fabled sonata form. The sonata form governs not micro chord progressions but the various parts of certain pieces of music — it is somewhat based on the rules of harmony, however, specifically on the primacy of the tonic. (Very roughly, a sonata form always begins and ends in the initial key, throughout the music passes through other keys and passes through an stormy section known as the development where both harmony and melody are developed and extended in various ways, with the harmony tensely anticipating the return of the initial key. Think of it as some kind of musical home-coming story) The sonata form must be learnt in order to be appreciated — without it, the sonata would barely make any cohesive sense, or would be enjoyed as simply discrete sections of music. In fact, the very genius of many composers lies not in their adherence but in their transcendence of the sonata form — presupposing it but subverting it in various ways to electrifying psychological effect. This effect, however, is only felt by the discerning listener, one who has been led by convention to expect certain possibilities and is pleasantly surprised to find them subverted. This conventionality is more evident in the larger formal structure than in the rules of harmony itself, though I believe it is also present there to some degree.

[I digress here and have to add: here is wherein I believe the very definition of art music and pop music lie. Art music always has a form, but the genius of composers lie in their both presupposing and transcending the form at the same time. To simply re-use the form would be lazy, creating some pastiche as most of popular music does. To cast off form completely would result in mere noise: like one who plays chess and then decides that the pawn can move like a queen or that the game can continue when the king is dead. Some contemporary music falls into this category, some others do something more interesting: they contrive a new formal structure and play around in it, I discuss this possibility in a bit.]

The Experience of Natural Structures

Nonetheless, this cannot be the entire picture. There is a sense in which the formal structure is not merely learned but in some sense discovered. The rules of harmony are not laid down completely arbitrarily as say the rules of chess or checkers are. Instead, they purport to describe something we naturally or instinctively experience. Presumably, even before the rules of harmony were formalised, people already had a natural sense of harmony, they felt that certain notes in certain contexts tended to go well together resulting in the formalisation of various modes and scales. Furthermore, the specific kind of experience generated in the experience of function is a lot more rich than that of one who anticipates a myriad of possibilities of chess moves, they are imbued, to borrow a visual metaphor, with a number of colours. It is not merely that the dominant chord anticipates the tonic, but that this movement or anticipation generates a specific phenomenological experience, one that feels like a kind of closure — ditto for the various other kinds of progressions. Therefore, while it is true to say that there is some element of conventionality in music, at bottom there is a certain sense in which the rules of harmony are formalised subsequent to their being experienced as such.

Talk of the naturalness of the rules of harmony, especially as formulated by the old white men of the western classical tradition is sometimes met with accusations of western hegemony. There may be some truth to this suggestion — I concede that that there is some conventionality in play here. Yet I think it would be fantastic to suggest that the entire system is an artifice. Even in other musical traditions (of which I have only a passing acquaintance), the interplay between the tonic and dominant notes in a mode is still a prominent feature. An fruitful consideration here would be to examine formal musical structures that are really invented artifices. One finds such a trend in much of modern music: Schoenberg is such a case. He turns his back on the normal harmonic structure of the classical tradition, but interestingly he does not cast structure off completely; instead, he contrives a new one — what is called the 12-tone technique or serialism. I don’t pretend to understand or appreciate the system fully, but in each iteration of the system there are certain rules that govern the music. Have a listen to one such example below:

What strikes the untrained listener is probably how confusing it all sounds. One does not know what to expect and the notes that come out seem random. They are not in fact random but are the product of following a different set of rules from the ones which we are used to. This suggests that the expectations are in some sense unnatural — they are not the ones we are naturally led to expect.

Now, it might be suggested that the reason why it sounds in this manner despite there being a structure could be due to the fact that unlike the classical rules of harmony, Schoenberg’s system has not yet achieved the privilege of having hegemonic status. If one is sufficiently familiar with its rules and after it has been more widely adopted, perhaps we would come to experience its possibilities as live in the same manner we do the usual rules of harmony. Perhaps, according to the possibly apocryphal quote of Schoenberg, “milkmen would whistle his tunes”.

Let me suggest three responses to this. Firstly, I think there is some truth to the fact that more acquaintance with Schoenberg’s system would allow one to better experience his music. I have been in concerts with more careful listeners who are able to discern the structure and intentions of such esoteric composers. Perhaps the learned and discerning listener experiencing this is like one who experiences live possibilities in a game of chess after having mastered the rules — the moves are now live to him because they have been learned. Secondly, despite this, I do think that there is a manifest difference in the experience of the live possibilities as a result of learning purely formal rules and the corresponding experience when the possibilities are given naturally. The natural possibilities, in the first place, do not have to be learnt — and they carry with them distinct phenomenological qualities, the closure, anticipation etc. that I have been gesturing at. The experience or pleasure that one derives from experiencing the learned possibilities might feel more ‘intellectual’, for lack of a better word. This might suggest why Schoenberg’s prediction about the milkmen have yet to come true.

Thirdly, while I do think that there is a natural innate set of possibilities, I do not think that they necessarily have been completely represented in our current systems of harmony, not least those expressed in the western tradition. There might be new harmonic possibilities that are naturally coherent to us but that we have yet to formulate and composers may be able to grasp these somewhat intuitively. Indeed in Schoenberg’s music, one sometimes catches a whisk of such moments when the music seems to convey something — perhaps it is him as a composer intuitively mapping out some natural harmonic possibility while studiously avoiding some of the hackneyed ones. This is purely speculative of course, but the diversity of harmonic systems in various cultures ought give us some humility into thinking that the set of harmonic rules formulated in the West represent the only natural set.

Dependence and Transcendence

Let me step outside this seemingly neutral analysis of the issue here and make a normative suggestion that I have hinted at already. I believe that the task of the artist is to work within the natural set of possibilities and to transcend them at the same time. This calls for some humility — to step completely outside the natural set of possibilities would result in utter cacophony, mere sound. Nonetheless, while we should not too quickly cast off the ancient harmonic forms, it calls for boldness in that we must not assume that all the harmonic possibilities have been discovered or that artists should simply parrot the music of old. And I mention this again, but art must both presuppose and transcend its form, it must be intelligible and fresh, it must be ancient and new. Thus, there must be room for some sort of artifice in art — and yet the artifice must be in some ways rooted in nature. The sonata form for example, is somewhat based on the harmonic system; it is possible that the larger forms created by other composers may be rooted in natural possibilities as well, grasped somewhat intuitively. A lot more can be said here, and indeed many more qualifications need to be made, but I hope the general direction is sufficiently clear.

There is therefore an interesting interplay between nature and artifice in creating art. And in some ways the very task reflects our ontological status before God: as a created being, we are dependent on him and the natural possibilities he offers us — they are rich and wonderful, to step outside them is a kind of hubris. And yet as image bearers of God, we mimic in a dependent way his creative acts: as he creates new things, so do we out of the materials that he has offered us — such is our task, we must not shirk it or be lazy. We must sing to God ancient truths in a new song. (Psalm 33, 96 et. al.)

Some Extensions: Logic and Narrativity

In this last section I very briefly sketch two areas in which similar phenomenon seem to occur and in which a similar analysis might be extended. My familiarity with these topics is even more sketchy and so I dare not say much.

Firstly, the experience of logical inferences appear to be similar to music. There is a canon of logical rules in the West, the fountainhead of which is Aristotle’s syllogisms, that appear to some today as nothing but a bunch of formal rules and mere convention. And then there is a proliferation of new formal systems of para-consistent logics from the contemporary era, and some from non-western traditions. Certainly the task of logic is not the same as that of art, (on my naive view, its main task should be but aiming at the truth), but I wonder if one can, by reflecting on one’s experience of the various rules of inference, distinguish the natural rules from the merely conventional ones. When I encounter the usual logical rules and move from one proposition to another by logical inference, there is a certain phenomenological experience that I have, when I try to do the same with the non-standard logics, a more jarring experience occurs. I dare not say more.

A second area in which a fruitful connection might be made is with the area of narrativity. Let me consider this first in relation to the field of historical writing, with which I am somewhat more familiar. Historiographers such as Hayden White have noted that in writing history, historians are compelled to adopt one of various generic plot structures such as romance, comedy, tragedy, epic etc. And he notes that this structure seems to float above the facts of history, in the sense that historians can agree about the facts of the case but that they still disagree about how specifically to ‘emplot’ the case. For example, the French revolution has been variously narrated as a story of progress, of tragic decline and of comedy. The decision to make of which facts are relevant and which areas of history to focus on are all governed by the narrative structure, but the structure itself seems to be independent of the facts. Most importantly, the narrative structure provides coherence to the events, attempts to evade it by simply dictating all that has happened result in one feeling as though the historical events have not been explained.

Once again, the status of these narrative structures come into question — are they purely artificial? Were they the result of simply taking the familiar plot forms of the old myths and tales and re-using them for other purposes? Yet from where did the writers and tellers of those tales pluck out these forms in the first place? Surely, the narrative forms must firstly have been experienced before they were formalised. The way we experience history and past events, or perhaps the way we understanding them in the first place is through these structures which are somehow inherent in the way we experience the world. Furthermore the inescapability of these narrative structures parallels the fact that to step outside the natural rules of harmony in music is to lead to incomprehensibility. These are somehow natural structures that we come to experience before they are formalised. There have been narratives before there were narrativists.

Simply because a certain structure is not merely formal but natural in some sense does not yet fully answer the question about how a narrative structure is related to truth. Still, some kind of objectivity may be purchased because if we concede that the natural forms are to be privileged, it provides a heavy constraint on historical writing. Given that there are indeed a set of natural structures, we cannot simply formulate any kind of structure we want with which to explain historical events. These structures have constraints of their own, although there is some leeway on how one might emplot an event: not everything can be a tragedy or comedy, at least not in the same way. However, to answer the question about the relation of historical narrative to truth or historical reality is a far more difficult task.

Here is my intuition of a Christian response to the problem: given that God stands as the ontological ground of the world and that God is personal, it is possible that he understands historical events in a narrative fashion as well. A narrative is true or objective insofar as it corresponds to the narrative that God experiences or fashions in the world. The variety of possible emplotments is no barrier to this formulation: there is no reason why God should not experience or fashion events such that they could be understood under various narrative frameworks. The history of salvation (or if you like, Heilsgeschichte) in fact is understood under various narrative forms in Scripture, it has been described variously as a romance (the pursuit of God’s people), epic (the victory of the serpent-crusher, the coming of the kingdom of God) and perhaps even comedy (John Frame mentions this in connection to Psalm 2:4, I’m half convinced).

I’m sure more connections can be made with narrativity as it is found in literary texts, though I am less familiar with this. The proliferation of new narrative forms in literature mirrors the proliferation of new harmonic forms in music: both the result of a studious avoidance of the ancient forms. Some of these new forms may in fact reflect natural experiences that the ancient systems may have yet formalised: the streams-of-consciousness style of writing may fall into this category. Yet others who are far more experimental or who try to cast off narrative structure completely again fall into incomprehensibility. Once again there is a similar interplay between nature and artifice.


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