Valences of the counterpoint

valences_coverThe opening chapter of Jameson’s Valences of the Dialectic is pretty spectacular, and immensely useful for a composer thinking about the problem of counterpoint today. I’ve often thought of counterpoint as dialectics (of the one and the many, of unity and difference, etc), but it’s often hard to pinpoint with clarity, just how counterpoint is a dialectical thing.

One thing I have been thinking about a lot lately, and it will be the subject of my upcoming paper on ‘The ideology of polyphony’ at the Orpheus Institute next month, is the question of unity and multiplicity (especially to do with temporal construction and metre), and the related question of homogeneity and heterogeneity.

Then bam! This quote comes along, not only summarising an entire thread of the history of 20th century continental philosophy (if not the essential thread), but also the fundamental question of counterpoint today:

It is clear enough that the formulation of the (internal) dialectic strongly emphasizes the interrelationship of the two phenomena, thus avoiding the problem of heterogeneous multiplicity, only to be confronted by a second danger, namely the possibility that difference might vanish altogether in some premature identity. In the case of the dialectic of incommensurables, however, the problem is the reverse: radical difference is certainly very strongly underscored in the concept of incommensurability but with the risk that the two phenomena thus contrasted may simply drift away from each other into the teeming variety of inert multiples. (Jameson, Valences, must find page number….)

So you’ve got two types of dialectic or two types of relation. One is the ‘internal’ relation, where the two phenomena are constituted (at least in part) by their relation to one another. The relation is a necessary one. The other is the ‘external’ relation of (potentially) ‘incommensurables’, where the relationship is, at best external and contingent, and at worst, a non-relation.

In counterpoint, the former could be represented by two lines of a texture being formed to compliment each other. That is to say that some ‘essential’ parameters of the lines (temporal development, or harmony, or register, or whatever) are conceived of, in advanceby considering how they will ‘fit’ together, before the lines themselves are written out (this ‘before’ of course refers to the compositional process, but it could well be deduced from listening or analysis where the composer did not think it out chronologically, so it is more a logical than a chronological relation).

It is easy to find a musical corollary for the latter: two lines composed in some essential parameters, fully independently of one another, and are therefore fully stratified, and if relations between lines emerge, they do so somewhat ‘contingently’ and ‘on the surface’ (a dangerous analogy in music, but we’ll debunk that phrase later).

Jameson points out the philosophical danger of the two dialectics: the former is at risk of an idealist and premature reunification of the two terms back into the one (not to mention the risk of a potential reduction of a potentially complex system to a simple binary), denying the relation itself since there’s nothing left to relate; the latter is at risk of expunging, in a vulgar materialism, all relation as such and letting phenomena to remain bound to their own static identity. Under neither of these conditions will thought actually take place. (There are political ramifications for these two poles, coming close to the twin problem of ‘ultraleftism’ and ‘liberalism’).

The corollary musical danger, is a loss of tension on either side. On the one hand, the two lines can become too reducible to a predominant systematic relation, and one hears their premature unity above their particular relations (their tension itself can become so codified that it becomes a non-tension, totally sanctioned by an accepted system of relations). On the other hand, the two lines could become much too unrelated to maintain any sense of visceral tension, and so seem to be a meaningless juxtaposition (which is resolved only ‘philosophically’ by a conceptual analysis of the work, which exits the properly musical arena of the lived experience of the work).

My compositional approach at the moment involves drawing upon both types of relation as strategies, while trying to avoid both of their pitfalls (i.e. keep the relations present and (to a degree) perceptible). Yet how are we to think the relation between the two of them? The idea that there might be a ‘happy medium’ between them is itself a real danger, and is not itself a strong form of thinking, shirking the question that keeps returning: are the first and second dialectics ultimately resolved in favour of the former (internal relation, necessity) or the latter (external relation, contingency)? That is to say, does one, in one and the same piece, attempt to show (perhaps through global formal processes of transition) the ‘internal’ relationship between the ‘internal’ and the ‘external’ relations themselves? Or does one simply present the ‘internal’ and the ‘external’ forms of relation without mediation, preserving their potential incommensurability?

Of course, to suggest that there is one way to resolve this, and that one could – with the right degree of reflection – get it right, is silly. I prefer to think of this as the field of problems that a composer (and a performer and a listener) must work through in the musical act, risking falling into the traps of premature unity, or total dissociation. There is no third term I can conceive of that would overcome and resolve this opposition. Hence I use the word ‘strategies’ to describe these types of relation. And strategies are not principles: they are taken up in service of a principle. What is the principle? Within the context of my art music practice I would say that, currently, the principle is the creation of a complex, tension-filled musical experience. Many strategies and tactics will be needed to create this and create it anew, over and over.

Advertisements