Sound Sense

By Williams, Peter | Musical Times, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview
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Sound Sense


Williams, Peter, Musical Times


Sound sense Musicologia: musical knowledge from Plato to John Cage Robin Maeonie The Scarecrow Press (Lanham, Toronto & Plymouth, 2010); xyi, 524PP; £37.9?, $60. ISBN 9780 8 G?8 7696 5.

IKNOW of quite a few musicians at retirement age who, able at last to ponder what decades in the profession have taught them, now wish to answer for themselves some of the most basic questions about music: to 'get down on paper what it's all about', or 'take advantage of ways of thinking unknown to younger folk'. In my case, the questions are whether music is a discrete mode of experience unrelated to anything else, whatever people usually assume; and, less grandly, whether the changes in higher musical education are to the benefit of musical understanding. (For the record: Yes, No.) In Robin Maeonie 's case, two of the focus-points are not entirely different from these: to think about or explain anew music's physical constituents and its connection with a variety of scientific understandings, and to think about or explain certain classics of the 20th century. Any book claiming to 'take aim against the fashionable misconception that music is empty of meaning', and whose terms of reference are so wide, deserves more than a brief notice.

Maeonie 's two focus-points are seamlessly connected and could have been more so if the book had taken in the last few decades' changes of direction towards simpler music, for this bears on many of the acoustical phenomena the author clearly finds fascinating. The focus-points also correspond to the two parts into which the book's 30 shortish chapters fall. The first part ranges grandly in a rather impressionistic way across a lifetime's reading, serendipitous or otherwise, presenting the author's view of the music-sound- noise- silence nexus, and is not shy of finding ail kinds of connections and metaphors, often distant enough for the reader to wonder where the argument is going. As metaphors so often are, these remain intriguing to the reader however vague, as when the circle of keys is connected (somehow) to Galileo's idea of orbiting planets. I don't see it myself, but the book's impassioned writing has inspired people in other fields to write blurbs for an author 'building bridges between musical experience and a host of philosophical, scientific, religious and literary contexts'.

The second half of the book homes in on particular composers, styles and practices in the 20th century, resulting in a serious and enthusiastic contribution to the study of the named composers and their techniques (see below). I think, though probably Maeonie would not agree, that this part could have been published as a separate textbook for students and called something like 'Certain 20th-century approaches to composition: some useful observations'.

To speak of the latter half first: the story is necessarily selective and incomplete, saying a lot about John Cage but virtually nothing about the simple hexachordal harmony of more recent and, I daresay, more fruitful idioms (Górecki, Part and their imitators). For whatever you think of G and P, their music could be seen as a reaction to what had gone on (including much of their own music) during the period Maeonie is focused on, and they certainly do raise relevant questions about the phenomenology of sound. But the many references to Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Stravinsky, Boulez, Stockhausen, Messiaen et hoc genus are familiar territory for this author's ever-fresh and authoritative insights. There are many of these, and I am only sorry he does not look at Cage's late and characteristic As slow as possible, the work playing in one version for the next 628 years and opening the receptive listener to a world of ideas. There seems to me something both silly and not-silly about Cage, an ambivalence often recognised instinctively by, for instance, children. (I recall organising a performance of HPSCD 40 years ago and finding uninhibited children under five refusing to stay but polite nine-year-olds finding it great.

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