1. Don’t tell me you like it
Because (for the purposes of this course) I don’t care. The purpose of the analysis isn’t to prove to me that you like this stuff now. It’s difficult listening, and it was chosen for a pedagogical purpose (refer to discussions on the first day). Your analysis should show the reader how the piece works, how to make sense of it, get something meaningful from it.
2. “No wrong answers” doesn’t mean everything is right.
I’ve said before that in this project, there are few wrong answers, but many unsupported ones. It’s okay if this makes you uneasy, because it may be new for you. However, don’t let yourself think that means your work won’t be evaluated seriously. In recent teaching workshops, I’ve been shown research on different stages of learning that all basically boil down to four stages:
- Teacher is right—trust an authority figure absolutely. But eventually you’ll come across a teacher who is wrong, and your world is shattered.
- Procedure is right—the ability to determine right from wrong is in your hands (e.g., If ____ and ____ then definitely _____), but procedures can’t universally fit all cases, and procedures can be improperly applied (e.g., this dog only has two legs, therefore dogs are bipeds).
- Everything is right (in its own special way, la la la la)—also called relativism. It recognizes that there can me many right answers, but shies away from admitting that things can still be wrong.
- Constructed knowledge—at this stage, you recognize that there can be many valid answers, that some may be generated by procedures or consulting experts, but you also recognize that any of those things can also be wrong or at least used improperly. With this knowledge, you take in theses and evidence, evaluate them in context and form your own informed answer.
So, if our approach to evaluating analyses in class has been uncomfortable for you. Be heartened—you’re growing!
3. Narratives are natural (but not always sufficient)
If you catch yourself thinking, “This sounds like an alien invasion; the aliens are attacked with cannons, and… eventually one side wins,” that’s okay as a start—it’s very natural to use narratives (stories) to make sense of things. E.M. Forster reflected on this in Howard’s End:
“It will be generally admitted that Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is the most sublime noise that has ever penetrated into the ear of man. All sorts and conditions are satisfied by it. Whether you are like Mrs. Munt, and tap surreptitiously when the tunes come– of course, not so as to disturb the others–or like Helen, who can see heroes and shipwrecks in the music’s flood; or like Margaret, who can only see the music; or like Tibby, who is profoundly versed in counterpoint, and holds the full score open on his knee…”‘
So, don’t be afraid of using narratives, but heed these warnings:
- Remember that models/narratives/metaphors always fail us at some point. The show us certain things about a subject, but not every conclusion made from the narrative will be true for the subject (e.g., Africa doesn’t really have a stain where you dripped coffee on your map). Find the right scale, context, and limits of your narrative’s applicability. In most cases, your narrative will best serve you as a parallel path to discovering a way to describe the interrelationships you see, in more abstract terms.
- Sticking with a narrative means you’ll probably need to spend most of your essay connecting sonic elements and events with characters and events in your narrative, which brings you dangerously close to giving a play-by-play account without any larger view of the whole. Always make sure you’re connecting your conclusions back to the sounds in the music and to the big picture.
- Don’t force a narrative on the piece. It just might not fit, or in might only be helpful to a certain level of detail. Once you find a narrative that fits in certain ways, it’s great if you look closer and find sonic details that fit details of your narrative, but if it doesn’t fit, don’t force it.
- Back to the example at the start of this section: if you use a narrative, check to see what that narrative may reveal about you. If you say, “This sounds like an alien invasion…,” what is it that makes it sound alien? Is it just because you’ve never heard anything like it before? It’s probably not a useful analysis if you’re only comparing it to your own life experience or subjective tastes. Why an invasion? It’s not just because this unfamiliar (to you) is simply persisting in its presence, its own right to exist, is it? Be very careful when using terms that suggest value statements, intentions, or motivations like this: Find the underlying reasoning leading to these conclusions, and if you find they have emerged from your own bias, discard them. They’re preventing you from finding an objective model to understand the work.
The Football Analogy
1. Someone’s trying to tell you something
When approaching unfamiliar art, my best advice to an audience is to imagine that it’s a message from an alien: you know someone is trying to tell you something, and you know your usual tricks for making sense of it may not be helpful.
2. Stick with it
The longer version of this considers the alternative. Imagine an alien were watching a game of football. He might be inclined to say “it’s just a bunch of humans running all over,” and ignore it. He’d be missing a lot of understanding about humans and maybe missing out on an enjoyable experience. If the alien decided to stick with it longer, he might notice that certain things are predictable, other things are not predictable, and that sometimes would-be predictable moments have thrilling surprises.
(This concept is adapted from Richard Taruskin’s evocations of a “Martian musicologist,” speculating on what would appear to be most important in our music, from the perspective of an extreme outsider to our culture. Richard Taruskin, “Reply to van den Toorn,” In Theory Only 10, no. 3 [October 1987].)
3. Where’s the playing field? Who are they players? Where are their goals? (How) do they get there?
The alien might notice things gradually about the football game, and gradually begin to make sense of it, then compare it to other football games, and maybe enjoy it. These are some gradual realizations the alien might have.
- It’s just a bunch of humans running all over.
- Well, they run around inside this green rectangle.
- Actually, half of the people run in one direction, and half face the other way.
- Oh, there’s a ball, too.
- They all seem to be following the ball around, with half of them moving the ball, and the others trying to stop it.
- The people stop running when one person moves the ball to one end of the green rectangle.
- They actually run and then stop, then start again.
- They usually do that four times, and if the ball hasn’t reached the end yet, the other people try to move it to the opposite end.
and so on.
Try this process when you encounter new art. You might not find meaning in the usual places. If you’re used to listening to melodies and beats, but a piece has a constant pitch and a steady pulse with no pattern to it, then there’s no meaning there: that’s just the playing field. Instead, listen for meaningful patterns and developments in timbre or loudness or space (e.g., left/right): they may be the players. Next, figure out their goals, how they try to get there, whether they ever get there, etc.
For further reading on this approach, look at Richard Schechner’s “Seven Ways to Approach Play” from Performance Studies: An Introduction (Routledge) on eCampus.