Quibbles and Bits

The Sound Of Music

The entirety of the field of Philosophy arises from two fundamental questions – the Adam and Eve of Philosophy if you like. Adam asks “What is real?”, while Eve asks “What do we do about it?” Adam’s question appears to be fundamentally concerned with rationality, and seems to demand clear, black and white answers. On the other hand, Eve’s question is far more nuanced, and leads one down a much more difficult and tortuous path. Adam’s descendants split off, to a large degree, and became the sciences. And to this day, doctoral degrees awarded in the sciences are styled Doctor of Philosophy (PhD).

The boundary between scientific and philosophical questions is a tenuous and evolving one. To the ancient Greeks the movements of the sun, moon, planets and stars were fundamentally philosophical questions (even though evidence is strong that Greek philosophers had a surprisingly strong grasp of what we would today call celestial mechanics). But even so, your average ancient Greek looking up at the night sky would have found himself pondering the mysterious machinations of the Gods. Today, your average 21st Century human looks up at the night sky and understands to some degree the concepts of planets, stars, and galaxies. After all, most of us have seen Star Trek and are comfortable with its fundamental premises. (We know, for example, that the galaxy is populated by strange humanoid races, each with different wrinkles on their noses, and all with a remarkable command of American-accented English). The sky at night has evolved from being a philosophical matter to a scientific one.

We can perhaps consider that as being analogous to the way humanity today views consciousness. Is consciousness real? Is it a physical thing or a spiritual thing? Who or what possesses it? Is it possible to create it? These would all be considered purely philosophical questions rather than scientific ones. However, science is now beginning to scratch at the surface of a true understanding of human consciousness, and while we are still a long way from being able to answer any of those questions, it is not beyond the bounds of possibility (or even probability) that a detailed scientific description may one day arise that will provide clear answers to each of them. Today we are like the ancient Greeks staring at the heavens, treating our great unknowns as philosophical issues. But many of those philosophical discussions will evolve to become scientific discussions as our understanding matures.

Other things, though, remain – and must surely forever remain – purely in the realm of philosophy, and these are mostly the descendants of Eve’s original question, “What do we do about it?”, for which there are, arguably, no fundamental or universally applicable answers. This is perhaps best illustrated by the classic “trolley car” problem, now over 50 years old. A trolley car in San Francisco breaks free from its cable and hurtles uncontrollably down the hill, where it must crash at the bottom. Near the bottom is a junction, where the trolley car must go either left or right, and you are in control of the switch. You have to decide whether to send the trolley car down one track or the other, but at the end of each track is a person or persons (or maybe even a sad faced puppy) who will be killed by the trolley car. You are given different scenarios of who or what is at each of the track ends, and you have to decide which way you will switch the points. The problem is wonderful, because no matter who you are, and how well developed your rationale for responding to the dilemma, a skilled inquisitor will always be able to find endless scenarios that put you in a bind, or even force you to re-think some of the choices you may have previously made.

What is interesting about the trolley car problem is that, while it was conceived as a purely theoretical teaching exercise with no practical counterpart, it has now turned up as a fundamental implementation issue when it comes to programming driverless cars. People programming these vehicles are, effectively, having to build into their programs specific trolley car type choices in order to determine how the vehicle will behave in different circumstances. These decisions surely cannot in any practical scenario be left to the vagaries of a programmer…but on the other hand who should be making these calls? The trolley car problem, a hypothetical teaching construct to which no fundamental solution exists, is on the brink of becoming a real-world practical problem whose solution, in all probability, may end up being determined by public policy. What a scary thought that is.

That’s a lot of rambling about philosophy, and you may be wondering where all this is going. It’s because the subject I want to write about – the relationship between Sound and Music – seems to me to be a philosophical point, and all too often when you introduce philosophical issues, it is often too convenient to dismiss that key aspect as being a pompous 13-letter word meaning “just a matter of opinion”. But really, I see it as quite a fundamental issue, one which touches on all aspects of our relationship with it. So I thought it might help if we started off by getting ourselves into the right frame of mind to consider the philosophical aspects of the matter.

For example, let me frame the issue this way. Beethoven sits down to write a symphony. He’s gone deaf, and won’t even be able to hear the finished product when he’s done. He writes a complicated set of individual parts to be played together in an orchestra, under the direction of a conductor. When it’s all written down his job is done. The music is written. In other circumstances he might have got to hear it performed, and maybe as a result he’d have chosen to revise it. But for many composers – never mind our deaf Beethoven – that was not a luxury afforded them (see, for example, Havergal Brian, who I wrote about in Copper #77). So, has our Beethoven written music? He’s never heard it, and, for the sake of our argument, it’s never even been performed.

And what of the performance, when it finally comes around? By convention, the conductor chooses the tempi, the phrasing, and the dynamics. He aims for a particular tone color. He’s made choices that the composer may have indicated, but not specified to the level of fine detail accessible to the conductor. A performance of the piece is the only way in which it can actually be heard by anyone. So a convenient hypothesis might be that the written score is the actual music itself, whereas the performance is the sound of the music. Yet the performance by one orchestra, under the direction of its conductor, will result in a different sound than that of a different – yet nominally identical – performance of the same piece by a different ensemble. And neither may correspond to the mental image of the sound that the composer had in mind when he wrote it. Therefore, there is no such definitive thing as the sound. Instead there are infinitely many possible sounds. This is the philosophical conundrum – the chicken-and-egg-ness of the problem. What is the essence of the relationship between the sound and the music?

Further complications arise when we consider the possible contributions of the conductor. What if, in order to get what he thinks is the musically correct sound he elects to consciously modify the directions of the composer? The composer writes a tempo indication of “Andante”, but the conductor has other ideas and instead plays the piece at a tempo more akin to “Allegretto”. What are we to make of that? Let’s take the idea further – the conductor wants more bass heft to the sound, so he takes the cello line and asks a double-bass to double up on it. Just how many liberties should the conductor be free to take? Suppose he fancies taking the first recapitulation in the second movement and re-scoring it into the minor key? Aha!, you’re saying, now he’s going too far!

As a real example, no less a luminary than Otto Klemperer, preparing for a performance of Shostakovich’s notoriously difficult 4th Symphony (see, for example, Copper 39), famously inquired of the composer whether he would consent to Klemperer reducing the number of flutes called for in the score from six to four. He was told in no uncertain terms “What has been written with the pen cannot be scratched out with the axe!”. There are no hard and fast rules, but in general, messing in any way with the score is usually held to be a step too far.

OK, so classical music with its staid formalities perhaps occupies one extreme position. At the other end lies a lot of modern popular music, where in many cases the creator of the music never actually writes the music down in the first place. So there isn’t a formal written entity which can be held to define what the music actually is. If it’s a song, then the music is often held to be the words and the melody (the melody, in fact, holds special significance when one thinks of some of the famous lawsuits that have been filed alleging plagiarism). Instead, the primary expression of such music is usually the first recording of it…one could even be somewhat cynical and say the first commercially successful recording of it. In other words, the sound rather than the music attains a preeminent aspect.

But just as the conductor has a lot of influence on how the sound of a piece of classical music comes across, in the popular music world this responsibility is normally laid at the feet of the producer. It may be a surprise to many who have never stopped to think about it, but for much of modern music the artist surrenders a surprising degree of control to the producer when it comes to how their song will end up sounding in a recording. Oftentimes, the producer will have totally different ideas to the artist, and the producer will typically prevail. This is why, for example, George Martin was held in such elevated esteem, and revered as the “Fifth Beatle”. It’s why people like Cookie Marenco are universally admired. Not only does she, wearing her recording engineer hat, capture recorded sounds with exquisite delicacy and clarity, but wearing her producer hat she ensures that those sounds are well worth listening to in the first place.

This decoupling of the relationship between the music and the sound has allowed the genres of modern popular music to evolve to a point where “cover versions” of a piece of music – in which the resultant sound can comprise rather drastic alterations to what you might call the inherent music – are actually celebrated as attributes attesting to the value and status of the music itself. Such things just don’t happen with classical music (well, let’s just say that they don’t happen often).

I have discussed these separate concepts of the music and the sound, and I want to finish by addressing their relationship to the listening experience. Because, as audiophiles, the listening experience is central to our interaction with the musical world. When we listen to music we are actually interacting with the combination of the music and the sound. We may love the sonic textures, the rhythms, the dynamic contrasts, the melodic qualities, and other attributes of what we’re listening to. But if they don’t all gel in some meaningful way we find ourselves unsatisfied. Likewise, the most wonderfully constructed musical composition performed in a listless, half-hearted, or just plainly incompetent manner will as often as not disappoint. We strive for that killer combination, where the music and the sound come together at their finest.

As audiophiles, we may also be music lovers, but what sets us apart is our desire to improve the sound part of the experience. No matter how great our equipment, we can’t make the music any better. And no matter how bad the equipment we can’t make it any worse. All we can hope to achieve is to get closer to the sound, and in the process, hope to feel closer to the music.