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Session 3-47
Subject or Object? Concepts of Representation
In Current Music Scholarship

Eleanor Selfridge-Field (Stanford University), Organizer

 

Notions of "representation" permeate discussions of music in highly diverse intellectual quarters. The question of what (if anything) music represents has been a preoccupation of aesthetic theories of Western music for well over a century. The question of how music may represent anything external to itself has engendered much recent discussion, particularly in parallel with the rise of semiotics and cognitive studies. These subdisciplines, although entirely distinct from each other, give far greater attention to mental processes than earlier theories which concentrated exclusively on the music itself.
An apparently different set of questions emerges in computational studies, where the question of how music itself may be represented for symbolic processing reveals the binding influence of all representational systems on the results of queries dependent upon them. Such questions have had significant influence on the growth of cognitive theories, because actual applications reveal how devoid of value the results of psychologically deficient representations may be. At the same time they force the enquirer to choose between performance and notation as a basis for theorizing about music. A similar dichotomy is evident when confronting temporal processes with intellectual constructions of them. Inherent contradictions call into question the validity of such constructions. Four papers are offered as a basis for broader discussion.

 

Genuine and False Problems in Theories Of Musical Representation: A Semiotic Perspective
David Lidov (York University, Toronto)

The question whether and what represents was enormously exaggerated through much of the twentieth century. Here are four intellectual obstacles and some proposed rectifications:
1. The idea of absolute music-an absolute category of music which refers to nothing or refers only to itself. (Carl Dahlhaus has already done much to dismantle this too-neat package, showing us that the impulse to resist mimesis and verbal paraphrase in the nineteenth century was itself a sign of transcendence.) Many sign systems explore elaborations of structure which supersede their original representational functions. We can understand musical abstraction as a development comparable to these.
2. The idea that we can not incorporate brute cause and effect schemas in our understanding of subtle musical representation. Our physical responses to music are not fundamental to what music means, but fundamental to how music means.
3. The idea that music has no meaning because we can't translate it and the idea that we should not try to. This notion accords an excessive privilege to language in deciding what counts as meaning. Yet, what can not be translated (e.g., a poem) may still be described.
4. The idea that differences between the understanding of the producer of music and the understanding of the receiver of music preclude musical communication.

 

Musical Process as a Critique of Representation
Christopher Hasty (University of Pennsylvania)

Compared to other arts music is customarily viewed as paradigmatically temporal and non-representational. While the first characteristic is generally lauded, the second is frequently a source of some embarrassment for the scholar who deals in representation. I propose that temporality and problems of representation are intimately linked and that rather than regret music's representational deficiencies we might more profitably look to musical practice for a critique of the notion of representation in general. I will relate both of these propositions to questions of musical analysis because it is here that problems of representation often seem most acute.
From a temporal or processive point of view music will be understood as actual event-evanescent, transitory, subject to passage. From this perspective "present" does not mean "standing before" us stable and complete; rather, "present" will mean ongoing, in the process of becoming, as yet incomplete. To analyze process we must arrest it in order to name its parts and judge their relationships; but so arrested, it can no longer be a process.
In order to fix or arrest the event, we are forced to make a model based on whatever characteristics interest us. In short, we must construct some sort of re-presentation. But if the temporality of an event is essential to what the event is, our abstraction from process may, in fact, be misrepresentation. Through our efforts at representation, we run the risk of losing a clear idea of the actual event to which the representation might correspond. This is always a problem for intellectual analysis if we take time and passage seriously. Although music is not more temporal and not necessarily less representational than many other of our activities, music by its very resistance to our attempts to hold onto it offers valuable opportunities to question our faith in representation.

 

Domain Selection: Computational Approaches and Representational Paradoxes
Eleanor Selfridge-Field (Stanford University)

Encoding schemes which represent selected features of music symbolically are essential to all software for processing music. Although some debate is directed towards the selection of features which may influence outcomes, little debate is addressed to the more fundamental question of which domain-sound or notation-shall form the basis of a representation scheme. The choice has profound consequences for the results of later processing, however. The relationship between notation and sound is necessarily selective since not all features of sound are indicated in common notation; conversely many features of notation have no meaning in sound. Much speculative music theory of the past century is tacitly grounded on notational representations of music, whereas musical data used in computer-assisted analysis may come from either domain. Since notation is itself a method of representation, encoding schemes based on it are necessarily meta-representations and theories based on it are in a sense secondary. Yet the ephemeral nature of sound introduces much instability in evaluations based on it.
The dichotomy between sound and notation in computer applications may itself represent a different order of problems implicit in historically grounded musical analysis, for it would appear that at certain junctures of musical history (e.g., the early Baroque) a system of music-making based on signs on the page operated in direct opposition to a system of sounds in the air.

 

Representing Music: A View From Cognitive Science
Lawrence Zbikowski (The University of Chicago)

Early work in cognitive representation (from the 1950s) invested heavily in a computational/ symbolic approach and projected impressive returns within five to ten years. As Hubert Dreyfus and others have shown, such was not to be the future of cognitive science: the challenges of representing the outside world together with the complex interactions of the human nervous system (including the brain) presented formidable problems not easily addressed by the computational/symbolic approach. Music is a case in point: isolating "appropriate" musical phenomena for study is hardly a simple task. A thorough understanding of how humans process musical information must extend beyond the auditory system to include the physiological response to music and music making, and some account of how musical structures are correlated with those of other expressive domains.
Recent work in embodied cognition (e.g., by Lakoff and Johnson) together with work in perceptual symbol systems (Barsalou et al.) suggests more promising avenues for modeling cognitive representation. In this paper, I shall explore what this research has to offer music scholarship by considering a number of issues associated with musical representation, including the following:
1. the problem of "representing" a non-linguistic and ephemeral cultural product;
2. the correlation of representations of music with representations of other expressive domains;
3. the explanatory limitations of musical representations; and
4. whether music is a representational system distinct from natural language and capable of unique representations of non-musical phenomena.
By way of illustration, the opening of Schubert's "Erlkönig" will be used.

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