Thursday, November 29, 2007

Formalism vs. Contextualism, part one

I know, I know, I've started to look like one of those people who start blogs full of enthusiasm but forget about them within months. But since my last post, I have gone to southeast Asia for two weeks, come back to find that in addition to having, basically, started a new job, I'm also editing a new section of the magazine, agreed, nonetheless, to write a story for the next issue on a topic that I didn't really know anything about, found a place to live with my girlfriend, packed up and moved all of my earthly belongings, and gone to Texas for my sister's wedding, for which, in what might laughably be called my free time, I wrote a song. The new apartment is still full of unopened boxes, I'm still behind at work, and Elise and I spent the last two days in New Haven, but dammit, I'm determined to get something up on the blog today. [When I wrote the preceding sentence, BTW, "today" meant November 18.]

My last post prompted a bunch of great comments, which I hope to at least begin to address.

It's true that for years Arthur and I have been carrying on a debate about music, and like him, I've been inclined to think of it as a clash of aesthetic principles, between what we might call formalism (my side, a concentration on the formal properties of music) and contextualism (his side, a concentration on, as he puts it, what music "means culturally").

The distinction between formalism and contextualism is, like most distinctions, somewhat specious. It's probably impossible, except maybe for people with severe autism, to attend solely to the formal characteristics of music; my preference for particular types of melodic or harmonic movement must derive, at least in part, from the cultural contexts in which I first encountered them. Similarly, it seems unlikely that someone could attend solely to the cultural context of music and make no discriminations based on formal properties. Summer-of-love hippies and straightedge punks both considered music vital to the advancement of their cultural and political agendas, but I don't think that you could have swapped the formal properties of the music--psychedelia and hardcore--without also altering the associated cultures.

But, also like most distinctions, the one between formalism and contextualism is probably useful for some conversational purposes. Arthur's comments, however, blur that distinction in ways that I don't quite follow.

That may be because I have the opposite tendency: making overnice distinctions in cases where they're not useful. It's true that, when discussing music, I tend to talk a lot about melody. But most of the melodies I find "interesting"--the one I mentioned in my last post is a notable exception--wander out of their home keys, so they also have interesting harmonic implications. And of course, varying the durations, both absolute and relative, of the notes in a melody can change its character utterly, so it's even more difficult to wall melody off from rhythm. (Again, the Rick Astley tune provides something of a counterexample: the melody of the chorus is fairly straight, with just a little syncopation each phrase. In the first phrase, the syncopation falls on the "eh" of "forever." Interestingly (maybe), if you give equal duration to all of the notes in the melody, you fall into waltz time: to GEH-ther-for EH-ver-and NEH-ver-to PART ... ONE-two-three, ONE-two-three, etc.) I think I tend to emphasize melody because, while there's a lot of pop music with good grooves or interesting harmonic features but boring melodies, there's less with interesting melodies and boring rhythmic or harmonic features. Actually, there's less pop music with interesting melodies, full stop.

Anyway, granted that I overemphasize melody in my discussion of music's formal properties, I still consider rhythm a formal property. So I'm a little confused when Arthur says that "Sometimes he [me] admits that he likes a 'groove' or something like that; we once discussed the appeal of Outkast's 'Hey Ya.' But mostly those things seem to fall into some sort of 'visceral appeal' category." Particular types of groove may very well become associated with particular cultural movements, but the same is true of harmony and melody. A bunch of added chord tones can turn almost any pop song into a jazz piece, with all of jazz's contextual associations; and the "blue notes" of blues melodies--the equivocations between the flatted and natural third, fifth, and seventh--virtually define the genre.

Nor do I think that "groove" intrinsically falls into "some sort of 'visceral appeal'" category. All music falls into the visceral-appeal category, at least initially; that's why we get into it. It's only later that we (or at least some of us) begin to analyze its formal properties. If I've spent less time analyzing the rhythmic properties of pop music, it's probably because they seemed less mysterious to me when I started writing my own songs. Jay's right that my "first exposure to popular music was relatively late and that [I] appreciated what [I] heard as a classically trained musician." But on the other hand, the classical music I was listening to was mostly Shostakovich, Bernstein, Stravinsky, and Copland. The rhythms of pop music seemed rather tame in comparison. But the melodies--I didn't really conceive of melody as a separate formal property until I started to realize how hard it was to write good pop tunes.

Okay, I have lots more to say, but I'm going to save it for later. Because otherwise, it could be another two weeks before I get this post up on the blog. But in closing, I feel obliged to point out that it was Vanessa who introduced me to Tay Zonday mere days before I mentioned him on my blog with such casual knowingness. I am justly rebuked for failing to give her credit.