A PhD on counterpoint and… dialectics?

After a bit of a hiatus for this blog – due to a very heavy political workload, as well as compositional deadlines, none of which have actually subsided – I return with a post announcing the commencement of a PhD at the QLD Conservatorium.

Now, first things. Why do a PhD? I’m certainly not in it for the letters at the end of my name, nor is the academic structure and environment necessarily ideal for developing theories that have strong connections with reality and music that represents an advance for humanity. On the other hand, the process of a PhD gives me 3 years (funded!) to work on my art and theory with a large degree of autonomy. In short, I’ll take that deal. Recognising that art music and theory is rather alienated from the (late capitalist) society we live in, consignment to the ivory tower is a reality. Nothing to make a virtue out of, but nothing that can be simply wished away.

My PhD is about counterpoint today. It is largely treating the subject practically: how can I build a consistent contrapuntal approach to composition at the start of the 21st Century? I’ll investigate this in the form of short compositions (called ‘investigations’ funnily enough) and in a few more large-scale works. Numerous questions have to be treated as part of this: the phrase question, the harmony question, the texture question. Numerous modern composers will have to be examined for this: Carter, evidently, Schoenberg, of course, but many others including probably many composers who touch the shores of counterpoint, but don’t get too far onto the mainland. I’ll also have to go back and do some serious work with Bach – something that fills me with as much excitement as reading Trotsky. Each of Bach’s fugues are little knots that beg to be patiently unpicked.

The goal will not be a modern system of counterpoint. That’s not something you can hot-house in 3 years, nor is a complete system in itself desirable. The goal is a better understanding of the principles of a modern counterpoint, the remaining questions, and the application of all this in large-scale works.

At the same time, and on this practical basis, I want to begin to outline a properly dialectical materialist (that is, Marxist) conception of music. Of course only the beginnings of such a theoretical work could be sketched – again, not something you can just chuck together – but without this theoretical foundation, all the practical work is meaningless (just as the reverse is true). To my knowledge, this has not ever been properly attempted, and Adorno doesn’t count.

What are some starting points for this work? I’m finding a lot in Trotsky – a severely underrated aesthetic thinker – and Marx to go on. Here are some thoughts to begin with.

  1. “Dialectics cannot be imposed upon facts, it has to be deduced from facts, from their nature and development.” (Trotsky, ‘Culture and socialism‘). This is pretty self explanatory. We’re talking about serious work of trying to slowly unearth the laws of historical development of music and of the development within musical works, not trying to grab a sweet dialectical principle and ram it into a musical reality.
  2. “Dialectical materialism can be applied to new spheres of knowledge only by mastering them from within.” (ibid.). This one is a kind of restatement of the first, but I take it to mean in this context something like: you’ve got to practice music to understand music. This doesn’t mean that you have to be a composer or performer, necessarily. What it means is that you have to stake what you do on the development of music, you have to have an interest in seeing music develop. Only then will you have access to the correct perspective.
  3. “Yes, culture was the main instrument of class oppression. But it also, and only it, can become the instrument of socialist emancipation.” “Master all the culture of the past, otherwise you will not build socialism.” (ibid.). While art music developed as part of ruling class ideology, it is also necessary to maintain and develop in order that it may be ‘redeemed’ in a future society, and so that society has the refinement required to realise its essence. Art is split between this regressive existence and this progressive existence.
  4. “Only music awakens in man the sense of music” (Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, see here). Coming from Marx, this is massive. It means that music has a significant degree of relative autonomy from the economic and political realm from which it (in the final analysis) springs. Something similar to the point above.
  5. “Really free labor, the composing [of music] for example, is at the same time damned serious and demands the greatest effort.” (Marx, The Grundrisse, here again). Musical production is (or can be) non-alienated labour. (This is complicated, but let’s leave it at that for the moment).
  6. “Not only the five senses but also the so-called spiritual senses, the practical senses (will, love etc.), in a word, the human senses, the humanness of the senses, comes into being first through the existence of its object, through humanized Nature.  The formation of the five senses is a work of all of preceding world history.” (ibid.). So the development of the human happens by way of the development of the external object. Further refinement of humanity requires further refinement of material reality. Humanity cannot advance ‘purely spiritually’. Art has the role of developing the human senses (the human body in its totality) in the most complex way.
  7. “To find a solution to [the impasse of bourgeois society] through art itself is impossible.” “Art cannot save itself.” (Trotsky, ‘Art and politics in our epoch’). “The cultural revolution must consist of opening up to [the masses] real access to culture and not only its wretched fag ends. But this is impossible without creating very big material preconditions. That is why the machine which automatically manufactures bottles is at the present time a first-rate factor  in the cultural revolution, while a heroic poem is only a tenth-rate factor.” (‘Culture and socialism’). Of course, Trotsky’s speaking of a different time, with different concerns. But the point in essence is that economics (via politics) will have to change before the masses are able of consciously taking up their cultural development. With the advent of mass culture, it is true that the majority of the working class has access to ‘advanced’ culture. Nonetheless, they are by and large constrained by their mode of life (wage slavery) to consign art to the role at best of divertissement and at worst of the inculcation of bourgeois desire. It is important to note, despite Trotsky’s point, that there is no mechanical relationship between advance of the economy (even the advance of a socialist economy) and real cultural development. They both have to be pursued simultaneously. We’re not vulgar Marxists here. It’s just that the former is a necessary (but not sufficient) precondition of the latter. Artists shouldn’t get ahead of themselves…

More to come!