The Unanswered Question

Touching on the words phrase and sentence yesterday prompted me to revisit the origin of my interest in the parallels between music and language. It was more of a big-bang than a gradual dawning – namely Leonard Bernstein’s
Norton Lectures . The lectures were delivered at Harvard in 1973 and broadcast in 1976. They were repeated during the Christmas Holidays c. 1990 and this was when I saw them. With seasonal congruence, I still regard the experience as an epiphany.

What I drew from the lectures into my thoughts on teaching is on a very simplistic level and I shall try to outline some of this in the next post(s). The lectures seemed quite complex but immensely enjoyable and I’d recommend them to anyone, should the
chance ever come along to view them. Perhaps the basic thrust can be summed up in the following points:

  • Like Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker Bernstein believed there to be universal grammar and innate linguistic ability – in music
  • Universality lies in the similar deep structure of languages
  • Variety exists in the surface structure
  • This variety is brought about through the various transformations which take place through an instinctive tendency to brevity and the urge to poetic rather than prosaic expression
  • In music, the acoustical reality known as the
    harmonic series is its universal deep structure
  • Transformations differ as a result of era, nationality, the influence of one culture expressed in the voice of another, personal style, technological advance and idiosyncrasies of instrument etc. and, occasionally, dogma.

There are five lectures in the series – each illustrated by a wealth of musical examples played on the piano or by the Boston Symphony and Vienna Philharmonic Orchestras:

Phonology (sound)
Syntax (structure)
Semantics (meaning)
Ambiguity (brought about by smudging the demands and drives of the harmonic series)
The Twentieth Century Crisis (the future of music – given that many had already abandoned the traditional tonality which had unfolded in pretty much the same order as the harmonic series). This lecture features a fantastic piece by Charles Ives called The Unanswered Question (audio sample further down the linked page), which became the overall title of the series of lectures.

In my search to clarify some misty details, I came across a very interesting letter in which a student from Devon highlights the plight of the visual artist (a photographer in this particular case). Music and literature being sequential, it is possible for the writer to guide the listener/reader along the hidden tracks of his transformations (expressive means). However, it is difficult for a visual artist to insist upon the “scanning order” of the viewer. I have noticed the reverse effect of this while watching pupils pin down the notes of chords on the guitar. Even when the notes of a chord are meant to be played (and therefore placed) simultaneously many pupils apply the fingers from left to right – the direction in which we read. In 24 years of teaching, I have never noticed anyone placing the fingers from right to left. However, this could due to the fact that, for left-handed people, this would involve beginning with the weak side of the hand (the pinkie).

Another very appealing of the talks was their multi-disciplinary nature and I would love to think that some of this has rubbed off – examples to follow in future posts. The longer I teach, the more linked things seem. As the Buddhist at the burger stall says, “make me one with everything.”

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