Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Defining Music

"Music" has always been "meaningful sound"; but the definition of "meaningful sound" has not always been the same.

  • Pre-Cage: meaning is found in your local culture. One culture's music is another culture's noise.
  • Cage: meaning is found in your personal experience. One person's music is another person's noise.
  • Post-Cage: meaning is found in contextualization. There is no noise, only sound that is more or less contextualized.

12/27/08: I still agree with the distinction between the three stages above. I'm less certain about "music" being "meaningful sound". By extension, "art" is anything with meaning. However, there are many things that people with pre-Cage (pre-Duchamp) — or even Cagian/Duchampian definitions of art — would call "meaningful" but not "art". The beep of a crosswalk has a meaning, but is not often called "music". Is there anything in common between Cage calling the crosswalk beep "music", and a pre-Cage audience calling Debussy "music"?

Have we ever called meaningless things "art"? Very briefly, when Cage or Duchamp were busy with 4'33" or "The Fountain". With those transitional exceptions, then, "art" is a subset of "meaningful things".

Three sets:

  1. A Art.
  2. M Meaningful things.
  3. U The universal set.

Three steps (where ⊂ means "strict subset"):

  1. Pre-Cage: AM, MU
  2. Cage: A=M, MU (not quite right, because of the crosswalk problem)
  3. Post-Cage: A=M, M=U

1/22/09: Music is not necessarily "meaningful sound", but music is "named" the same way meaning is "named". Naming, and meaning, has always come from contextualization, but we've imagined contextualization differently over time.

  1. Pre-Cage: societies are the contextualizers, deciding what is meaningful, what is music, etc.
  2. Cage: individuals are the contextualizers (remove society).
  3. Post-Cage: nature itself is the contextualizer (remove the individual), and humans identify subsets of these relationships.

Transcoding-based art (i.e., visualization, sonification...) and highly analogical explorations (e.g., VJing as an analog to DJing) can be heavily Post-Cage in that they acknowledge the many possibilities, and that they are sampling a subset of those relationships.

8/18/09: Attali has a note on these ideas in Noise, p 25:

In fact, the signification of music is far more complex. Although the value of a sound, like that of a phoneme, is determined by its relations with other sounds, it is, more than that, a relation embedded in a specific culture; the "meaning" of the musical message is expressed in a global fashion, in its operationality, and not in the juxtaposed signification of each sound element.

In short, while considering the origins of music, he identifies the pre-Cage contextualizers (society/culture) as bestowing meaning upon music.

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