As we on Earth began measuring another one of our orbits yesterday, I read a thin paperback called Myth and Meaning on a 737 trekking across a handful of states. The book, a collection of essays by the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, puts the idea of myths behind many lenses in five chapters, the fifth (“Myth and Music”) being a comparison between Western music and myths. Lévi-Strauss says:
…it is impossible to understand a myth as a continuous sequence. This is why we should be aware that if we try to read a myth as we read a novel or a newspaper article, that is line by line… we don’t understand the myth, because we have to apprehend it as a totality… we have to read the myth more or less as we would read an orchestral score, not stave after stave, but understanding that we should apprehend the whole page… it is only by treating the myth as if it were an orchestral score, written stave after stave, that we can understand it as a totality, that we can extract the meaning out of the myth (44-45).
He goes on to describe the pieces that make up these two phenomena; while language has phonemes, words, and sentences, myths (presumably orally told) only have words and sentences, and music only has “letters” and sentences (chords as words are up for debate). Even though a myth is something that can be abstract, and music is certainly no easier to boil down to phonetics, each become seemingly understandable and sealed to manageable ideas with this comparison. With the description of linguistic terms, Lévi-Strauss calls music and myth “sisters,” both mediums that offer meaning and resolution through similar structures. However, just like the creation of myths died out, Lévi-Strauss’s comparison has as well in some ways. Music now, ever different from music yesterday, is learning to both be a totality and suggest an infinite world beyond itself.
Old and new pictures of Lévi-Strauss, equally kick ass.
Under airplane light and now in front of a computer, I agree with Lévi-Strauss in many ways. Much of the reason music is so enjoyable to listen to is its ability to tell full stories, finished resolutions of sound that we can experience in a given amount of time. Experiencing an idea from start to finish, and, perhaps more importantly, the idea having a finishing point in the first place, is extremely comforting. Along with fairy tales, movies, and myths, a large portion of all music is made up of pieces like this—“closed systems.”
Take almost any symphony with a conventional structure. Let’s use Milhaud’s Symphony no. 1 as an example (tip: listen to a lot of Les Six music in the winter with endless hot beverages). A sanguine, modernist work, the symphony has a structure like any basic movie plot; it lays a calm, impressionistic foundation, builds tension and conflict in the second movement with heavier and more intense brass, contemplates itself in the third movement with moody, smoky timbres and hints of resolution, and expels energy and action in the fourth movement, which ends in heavy snare and a triumphant blare from all the instruments. When listening to it, the listener is taken away like any listener to a great symphony should be—regardless of the things produced by his/her mind, whether they are images of a winter countryside or an underwater happening or an indescribable stew of good old fashioned feelings, the story is started and finished in that same mind. Meaning is extracted when the piece is looked at as a totality, an entire story.
Lévi-Strauss also refers to fugues as music with myth-like structures:
You have what we call in French ‘le sujet et la réponse.’ The antithesis or antiphony continues through the story until both groups are almost confused and confounded – an equivalent to the stretta of the fugue; then a final solution or climax of this conflict is offered by a conjugation of the two principles which had been opposed all along during the myth (50).
One of the most pivotal and utilized forms of music can be equaled to, basically, the form of the birth of history (what Lévi-Strauss calls myths in chapter four of Myth and Meaning). Thanks, Zarlino, Frescobaldi and the like.
In fact, Lévi-Strauss’s comparison of history and myths in chapter four (essay “When Myth Becomes History”) makes me think more about music as well. He discusses the differences between myths and history (the former being the earliest form of the latter), illustrating how myths were the replacement for history in areas without writing and were the product of oral storytelling, while history counteracted the production of myths with the emergence of written documents in the Renaissance. One of his sentences in this essay, though, refers to music without even trying:
Mythology is static, we find the same mythical elements combined over and over again, but they are in a closed system, let us say, in contradistinction with history, which is, of course, and open system (40).
The music he talks about in chapter five is, as he says, like a myth—a closed system. And, of course, much of music is closed. The double bar is the happily ever after, at least for the plot and area for extraction of significance.
But what if we want to compare music to life, not myth or story? Here is where Lévi-Strauss’s comparison stops being entirely accurate. Life, as we live it, is an open system, like the book’s description of history, which is the patchwork of lives. Like the Milky Way, we’ll never be able to take a full picture of our own life; we can only reflect on it and piece together the pieces we have.
While music according to Lévi-Strauss is a closed system as a whole (because of his comparison of it to myth), we have more pieces of the picture of music history to say this is not longer entirely true. He does touch on his future inaccuracy at the end of the essay: “It is quite possible that what took place in the eighteenth century when music took over the structure and function of mythology is now taking place again, in that the so-called serial music has taken over the novel as a genre…” (54). We can still examine what has changed with his comparison.
Part of the reason for Lévi-Strauss’s belief of the relationship between music and myth is because his book was published in 1978, the time period when Ligeti, Penderecki, Xenakis, and Crumb were pivotal figures in the music industry, Robert Ashley’s opera Perfect Lives and Glass’s Einstein on the Beach premiered, John Adams wrote his Gates piano pieces (ones that started his distinct style), and Steve Reich was composing important works of his career. While these events obviously were changing “classical” music’s definition during that time, they were not placed into history just yet. They were not far away enough to be looked at as part of the past.
|MS Paint collages forever|
Now, though, we can look at this time period as history—with indeterminacy already established, minimalism was beginning to change the form of music again, allowing pieces to flow in repeating waves and cells instead of lines or (somewhat) follow-able, fluctuating tones. This structure is much more like life in first person—each experience is met as a continuation of the last, and past changes in the landscape are only felt after understanding the permanent shift in the present. So many pieces composed in and since the 70s can end without resolution. In our mind, they can continue beyond the double bar. There is no “happily ever after,” because the after is unclear.
As it turns out, music can be, and is, an open system.
I have been listening to “Timber” by Michael Gordon recently, and, through the ensemble that plays Gordon’s piece, one by Nick Woodbury, “Bells.” Both pieces reflect the importance of open system styles, creating sonic spaces that develop and morph but never resolve or come to a definitive end.
Michael Gordon, one of the founders of Bang on a Can, has been a prolific figure in music. He and his music are influenced by legends such as Reich, and “Timber,” a recent commission by the dance ensemble Club Guy & Roni and percussion groups Slagwerk Den Haag and Mantra Percussion for six wooden simantras (slabs of wood that are basically prepared 2x4s), is no exception. As he says in his program notes, “I imagined that the six instruments would go from high to low, and that, through a shifting of dynamics from one instrument to the next, the group could make seamless and unified descending or ascending patterns.”
The piece is meditative. While multiple instruments can be detected, their blending makes for a wall of sound that fluctuates like a billowing curtain. The untuned simantras don’t necessarily tell a story, like a symphony or myth, but they create a world in which infinite stories could occur. Their dry, hollow timbre fills all empty spaces in the air and somehow creates rich new ones that are then filled again, like a fountain continually using its own water.
“Bells,” by Nick Woodbury, a member and co-director of Mantra Percussion, reaches a similar effect with different methods. With bells, airy drones, and what sound like melodica bursts, Woodbury creates cycles (or at least sounds that somehow feel like circles) that merge into a comprehensive, changing organism; only after living in its world of sound for a while, however, can it be reflect on and observed. When it ends after five minutes, though, unlike closed system pieces, it doesn’t really “end.” It rings, continues, and has a further life in mind of the listener. It becomes history, not in a sense of its place among other pieces, but in a continual trajectory that could be influencing things as it floats further away from the instruments, speakers, or headphones.
Myths will likely survive for centuries more, and by no means will music with definitive resolutions die out any time soon. However, as we are seeing each day, meditative, indeterminate, and minimalist music has a portion of the reigns, even if a small one. Our ears are becoming more courageous, accepting sounds that never truly resolve, but build worlds that can ring and continue in our heads long after the music has officially stopped. “Closed systems” are comforting—they let us ride trajectories that leave nothing unknown, and they let us understand the totality of a story that we can reflect upon and decipher with confidence. Despite this, we are no strangers to the unknown—we live. And when we all can start listening like we live, maybe the unknown will lose its ability to frighten us.