Wednesday, 2 August 2006

Announcing :The Aesthetics of Decay: Nothingness, Nostalgia, and the Absence of Reason

Readers may be interested to know that my book on memory, urban ruins, and decay is now available through Peter Lang. More information and a sample chapter can be found here.

Tuesday, 1 August 2006

Time and Melody

Is it possible to think of temporal continuity as tonal and temporal discontinuity as atonal? In Bergson, the distinction is implicit and becomes evident in that the analogy between melody and time relies on the idea that the past impregnates the present seamlessly, forging a tacit unity in which transitional borders are erased. For Bergson, this transition renders time continuous. By contrast, in Bachelard’s understanding, that duration is able to be thought of as continuous is itself a declaration of metaphor, suited to the tonality and “lullaby of continuity” (Bachelard, 2004, p. 121). Bachelard goes on to ironically characterize “tranquil duration” as full of “happy experiences…the synonym of a possession, a gift” (Ibid., p. 122). Beneath this impression of plenitude, however, “the hatched lines of discontinuity” emerge (Ibid.).

Applying this latent discontinuity to melody, Bachelard makes two claims. Firstly, that musical continuity is an “emotional reconstruction,” and secondly, that the grounds for this reconstruction are due to “heterogeneities that have become blurred” (Ibid.). Phenomenologically, Bachelard wants to prove the mind-dependency relationship musical continuity relies on. Thus, “a lapse of our attention would be enough to end this reflux” (Ibid.). Neither time nor melody flow and cohere of their own accord. Instead, melodic structure is only united as it is being learnt, that is, when it has been already been heard. Here, repetition contributes to reconstruction.

Implicit in this discussion of the formation of musical melody is the question of tonality and harmony. Both musical unity and musical structure are facilitated by the clear and distinct arrangement of tonal properties. Thus, the greater a musical passage can be anticipated, the more likely we sense it as being temporally continuous. And central to this anticipatory aspect is the employment of tonality, obeying the logic of modulation, succession, and resolution. Seen from this perspective, tonality contains time by establishing clear boundaries between what will be contained in the future and what was contained in the past. “We shall not remember having expected [the phrase];” writes Bachelard, “we shall simply recognise that we ought to have expected it” (Ibid., p. 124). Bachelard is therefore justified in aligning melodic continuity with emotional resonance (Ibid.). Melody coheres as emotion structures tension and resolution, a motif complicit with romantic notions of beauty. Indeed, concerning the relationship between time and beauty, precisely what marks the inception of beauty is its defined end. Able to navigate ourselves through a clearly established musical terrain, sufficient space is revealed for the listener to place him or herself within that horizon of musical time. Such an emplacement can only be possible under the constrictions of tonality.

To the extent that temporal continuity relies on emotions, then tonal music indeed subjects the listeners to its possession. Into this passive relationship, continuity is won at the expense of temporal dynamism. Notably, when time comes unbound, as when musical tonality erodes, then the same practice of conferring emotion upon melodic passages, as though to structure them, is repeated. Is this not how time and music is domesticated, by rendering disorder beautiful? To hear temporal emotion, which have the effect of creating pacifying boundaries, within atonal music: this can only mean creating signposts where no markers exist.