More On the Relationship of Structure to Detail

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I recently reflected on how Abby Whiteside’s book Indispensables in Piano Playing had helped bring into focus thoughts I had been toying with about the mapping of the structures of a body that plays music onto structures implicit in the music itself. The other set of thoughts she helped bring to the surface were about theoretical traditions in how we think about music.

Those of you with a background in academic music will recognise the distinction between structure and ornament, and the idea of shunting attentionally between different levels of structure (surface details to mid-range and longer-range processes) as belonging to the theoretical tradition generally taught in higher education under the banner of Schenkerian Analysis.

Now, there are a lot of reasons to have mixed feelings about Schenker’s work. Chief among them, for me, have always been (a) the way Schenker himself framed his ideas in terms of a culturally imperialistic agenda that claimed superiority for Western Art Music, and by extension, the economically-advantaged White men who created and that subset of the music regarded as ‘canonical’ and largely control its promulgation, and (b) the way that the Music Theory industry has institutionalised the method as a form of academic gate-keeping.

But I have still always felt it was in many ways a fundamentally musical and insightful way of approaching things. I feel I am a better musician for having spent time with the method, and can think musical thoughts I wouldn’t otherwise have had. Over the years I have dealt with this implicit conflict chiefly by using the insights the method affords me with musics of which Schenker himself would have thoroughly disapproved, and with people that the Music Theory industry would generally wish to keep out.

Lurking at the back of my brain for some time has been the observation that you quite often bump into informal discourses in practical musicking that feel really quite Schenkerian in spirit, if not systematised as music theorists, and (arguably to a lesser extent) Schenker himself like to present them.

I first noticed this in a singing lesson with Mollie Petrie when I was an undergraduate, in the way she was encouraging me to think about the over-arching shape of some of the intricate phrases in the ‘Et exultavit’ from Bach’s Magnificat. I’ve seen it recently in piano teachers talking about ‘line’, by which they mean something related to both legato and projection of melody (themselves standard challenges in pianism), but more abstract: the teleological musical concept that legato and melodic projection both serve.

I have also been chasing a memory of an article by Nicholas Cook from the 1990s in which he discussed a similar discourse in the writings of Wagner, and thus read Schenker’s dismissal of Wagner’s work as lacking the capacity to create long-term background coherence as a form of Anxiety of Influence: denying the source of an inherited idea in order to make space to make it is own. But my google-fu fails to locate the article, alas. I don’t think I hallucinated it (though if I did it’s a pretty plausible hallucination, as it’s just the kind of thing Nick would have written about back then). Rummaging for something else I also came across my own post about Henry Coward and the ‘Line of Beauty’, which explores similar themes.

Anyway, these thoughts all came to the surface while reading Abby Whiteside’s book, which, as I mentioned in my previous post, posits a causal relationship between bodily structures and musical structures mediated by the mode in which one listens to and thinks about music. She works these ideas out through the parameter of rhythm rather than voice-leading, though her practical examples for working with musical content, melding figuration into primary harmonic progressions, look very how you’d start off working on a Schenkerian analysis.

The realisation that emerged was that actually what I should have been bothered about all along with Schenkerian analysis is the way that thinking about music in terms of its shorter-, medium- and longer-term processes has been so totally appropriated under the Schenkerian banner by the music theory gate-keepers. The approach been out there all along in the discourses and thought patterns of practical musicians, but the academy has been claiming it as something special and clever that allows scholars to claim their status as guardians of the inner secrets of the Great Masters.

So my instinct that Schenker’s approach is fundamentally very musical is actually quite accurate, because in fact it arises from a much wider conceptual tradition that continues to subsist and circulate amongst practical musicians. (Indeed, not just among musicians – I also reflected some years ago on the resonances of this mode of musical thinking with the ideas of Stanislavski.) Schenker’s contribution wasn’t to invent this mode of musical thought, but merely to give it a form that allowed its academicisation.

And some of this contribution is useful. Having a means to capture one’s thoughts about different levels of structural processes on paper is a useful aid to reflection. (Being graded on the extent to which one’s wielding of it conforms to a notional static distillation of a ‘method’ is rather less valuable.) Having a way of thinking about music metaphorically that gives us multi-dimensional ways to relate felt musical shape to felt lived experience helps us grow as musicians. (Framing these metaphorical mappings in terms of cultural hierarchies that preserve the hegemony of white men is something I find less interesting.)

I find the realisation that Schenker’s contribution was to elaborate on a more widely-shared tradition of artistic wisdom, rather than to be the originating genius of a distinct discipline, remarkably freeing. I no longer have to feel that combination of inadequacy and rebelliousness that arises from not having absorbed all the detail of the canonical literature that I secretly harboured even when I was teaching the method. If the musical insights that enrich my life from having met this approach aren’t fully ‘by the book’, well actually that’s fine. The book was racist and sexist and if Schenker was only one of many people exploring these ideas, there is no obligation to aspire to be like him.

So let’s listen out for those other voices that have been crowded out by the Schenkerian monoculture. It appears that I was already making a collection of them before I even noticed it, so please do drop me a line as and when you find other examples to add to it.

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