On “re-generalizing” polyphony

I’m increasingly agreeing with the more humanist bent of Michael Finnissy. I’m interested in the preservation of the human dimension of music making within the context of an art-music practice that accepts its condition of (near-)total alienation. I believe that this element, which is a political gesture, provides a bulwark against music becoming a tensionless abstraction or totalising spectacle. Abstraction (the result of undeniable historical processes) is the condition for modern composing, not necessarily its ethics.

In this sense I cannot agree with Aaron Cassidy’s suggestion in his article “Interconnectivity and abstraction” that today we have to ‘re-generalize’ the idea of polyphony, if this means we no longer think about a polyphony (or counterpoint, even) of instrumental lines:

Polyphony as a concept must first be distanced from polyphony as a stylistic concern, and by this I of course do not simply mean the historical “polyphonic style” of the Rennaissance but also a particular set of practices inferred by the direct, literal meaning of the term. It seems quite clear that polyphony, as a term, must be “re-generalized” in order to be especially useful for our discussion. Of course, the primary aspects of the conventional definition remain—interdependence of multiple musical objects, with such an interaction resulting in a new, singular object—but instead we must allow these issues to be separated from technical concerns and normative approaches to the creation of pieces of music. In particular, one must permit the separation of “polyphony” from “counterpoint,” the latter seemingly a more technical, procedural term. (2002, p. 147)

Leaving aside the polyphony-counterpoint distinction for now, it is interesting to note that Cassidy’s approach is explicit in its emphasis on unity. He defines polyphony in such a relational manner that it becomes simply a matter of weaving complex totalities from smaller-level musical elements: “interdependence of musical objects, with such an interaction resulting in a new, singular object.” While I agree that sometime the aim of counterpoint is a complex unity of parts, Cassidy’s perspective seems to write-off in advance a total dissociation, or something approaching it (see my recent post about dialectics). One wonders whether this is simply a repercussion of not wanting to deal with lines, but rather a polyphony of abstract parameters. On a perceptual level, no matter the stratification of notation, the sonic result will, to my ears, tend to be singular and unitary, especially if the language is that of short-range gesture.

He goes on:

This more generalized approach to polyphony as a concept allows us to move away from relationships of pitches and rhythms to one another and instead deal with larger conceptual issues. My own work, for example, deals quite frequently with “single instrument” polyphony of varying approaches: a decoupling of component performing techniques; a polyphony of parametric strata; a polyphony of the physical and aural elements of a performance; a structural polyphony of larger musical objects, processes, and techniques, etc. (2002, pp. 147-148)

While I agree with Cassidy that polyphony (or counterpoint) today should be able to include more parameters and conceptual elements than rhythmic and pitch, and I certainly believe that single-instrument polyphony should be pursued, I believe these aspects should be pursued with the goal to a multiple linear polyphony. All of these elements discussed by Cassidy may well extend the possible ways of relating lines, of shaping lines themselves, and of undermining the self-identity of lines. But they do not, in themselves, yield the kind of humanist counterpoint that I am after: they are necessary, perhaps, but not sufficient conditions for it. (I think this also means that single-instrument polyphony is a much harder goal than Cassidy makes it out to be).

In general, I believe the ‘generalization’ of polyphony destroys the concept of counterpoint, which is not simply ‘mutually interacting layers’ or ‘dialectics in music’ or whatever. This is because the concept of counterpoint is rooted in concrete social practice, its truth is concrete social practice: that is, people getting together to make music, people getting together to relate to each other through music. Counterpoint is the rendering of this practice in the context of art music. It can problematise the identification of line with human performer or instrument, but it can’t negate it entirely, else it lose its materiality.