possible misapprehensions

I wonder if it’s viable to claim any legitimacy at all for a genre of writing that intentionally goes off half-cocked. Via Franklin Bruno’s Nervous Unto Thirst, I read a review he wrote of Julian Dodd’s Works of Music: An Essay in Ontology, an examination of the ontology of music that, according to Bruno, asks two key questions: “the categorical question (what sort of entity is a work of music?) and the individuation question (how are works identified and distinguished?).”

These questions are, of course, much harder to answer adequately than one might think. I, however, haven’t read the review carefully, but in reading through it (much as one might look through a windowpane), I found myself asking some questions about the questions Dodd raises. For example: Bruno notes that “Dodd’s ‘sonicism’ (2) holds that ‘work-identity consists in acoustic indistinguishability’ (8),” contrasted with contextualism, under which “various properties not readily described in acoustic terms are also essential to work-identity.” This seems similar to me to the old literary-critical argument between the New Criticism, which argued against any sort of extra-textual considerations and asked to read solely, and closely, the work itself, contrasted with numerous later (as well as earlier) schools of literary interpretation, which argued for the importance in interpretation of, variously, contexts historical, biographical, literary, sociological, psychological, and so on.

The example and question I’m thinking of initially raises the secondary question of what counts as a “work” not only under these considerations but also in terms of wholeness and integrity: what constitutes the boundaries of a musical event? Is a single movement of a symphony a “work”? Is a single song on a through-segued concept album? More directly to my silly little example to come: is a two-bar sample? Because there, context is clearly relevant. I’m thinking of MF DOOM’s “Tick, Tick…” specifically – which samples the queasy string figure at the end of the Beatles’ “Glass Onion.” MF DOOM further distorts the source by altering pitch and tempo (further queasifying it, for that matter), but even assuming a particular two-bar segment in the identical tempo and key as that of the Beatles’ original (that is, which possess “acoustic indistinguishability” relative to one another), clearly the acoustic context makes a huge difference in the effect of that two-bar segment. Now, granted, this isn’t a case of a “propert[y] not readily described in acoustic terms”; but it’s pretty easy to imagine examples which clearly would fulfill that criterion quite readily. Let’s imagine a public-domain recording by a marching band of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” In one context, it appears on a 45-rpm record in a flag-festooned package called “The Soul of a Great Nation,” given away free to young men and women at an armed services recruiting center. In the second context, it is presented as the b-side of a single whose a-side is an incendiary piece of anti-nationalistic punk rock. Yeah, I’m weighting the example ridiculously – but equally obviously, the self-same acoustic phenomenon (tentatively, “work”) is going to have a very different meaning in each context. How reasonable is it even to call the two acoustically-identical recordings “the same”? (Let’s ask the renowned musicologist Jorge Luis Borges…)

Please note that I’m using a dense and technically written review of an even more dense and technically written text, a text I have not read, as a jumping-off point: I’d be very surprised if I’m saying anything at all interesting about Dodd’s work. But I do think it’s interesting to ask, regardless of that context (a context I can’t claim to be able to work within), a different question, however tangentially related: what do we mean when we say that a piece of music is the “same” as another piece of music?

Carrying on with my attempt to sculpt a cube from someone else’s sphere, I note that Bruno paraphrases Dodd’s answer to “the categorical question” by stating that “works are sound-event-types, the tokens or occurrences of which are their performances,” and that “an ontology of music [must] account for works’…audibility (works are the sort of things that can be heard [11]).” This last raises an interesting question: is a work of music not a work of music until it is heard? If a fully fleshed-out orchestral score exists, but the musical performance that would render that score into an acoustical event has not yet occurred, does that mean the piece is not yet a “work of music”? I note that we’re in some curiously murky terminological waters: it’s fairly common for musicians to refer to scores as “the music,” or in some senses to argue or imply that the score is, in some sense, music: the score is referred to by the title of the piece; or at any rate, it’s hard to find a clear way to distinguish the work that comes into being only when performed or recorded from the representation or abstraction of that work which is the score. If a manuscript positively verified as being in Beethoven’s hand were discovered, a manuscript which was a complete score to a tenth symphony, it would be very odd indeed to claim that this wasn’t a work of music until it was performed, even in a very formal usage of the term in question – particularly since many musicians can hear, in their heads, a virtual performance as they peruse a score.

The questions get even more vexing when modern, studio-based popular music is considered. Take a remixed version of a particular song, constructed from the exact same recorded tracks as its initially released version, only with those tracks re-equalized, re-balanced, remixed, etc. Many non-professional ears would be incapable of hearing the difference between the two recordings; it seems odd to argue that the question of whether a “work” is distinct depends on who’s hearing it, or on the readings of a carefully calibrated oscilloscope. Further: at what point does the work become a work, given the second criterion of “audibility,” given in turn that the whole song doesn’t exist until all the tracks are mastered in their final form? How many works of music are we talking about here?

Again: Dodd might well say I’ve utterly and completely misconstrued his point (entirely possible), but nonetheless I think the questions I’m asking are interesting, and (again) more difficult to answer than it seems. Consider: if, as I imply, it’s absurd to talk about two near-identical mixes of the same track as two different works of music (one version, say, brings up the treble on the piano track, raises the volume of the bass drum slightly, and digitally reduces some tape hiss on the original recording; and the whole mix is compressed and increased in volume), it seems equally absurd to say they’re the same work in other senses. Certainly, more experienced or subtler ears would hear the differences, and collectors would consider the two as different enough that, say, someone who lacked one or the other version would not be considered to have the artist’s complete discography.

What constitutes a “work of music” – even to the apparently simple questions of when is it music, or what makes it different from some other work of music – is, then, by no means a simple question.

Which, of course, is why philosophers can write books on questions that most people would imagine are simple and obvious. Very little, it seems, is truly simple or obvious.

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