Music and Mimesis

Music is not intrinsically an abstract form. To begin with, conventional music— even at its most abstract— has always been bodily mimetic, derived from the sound production possibilities of the body and voice. Secondly, even with conventional instrumentation, music can still “represent,” albeit a little abstractly, as with Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition or with country rhythms mimicking the clop of a horse or the chug of a train. However, with the advent of phonography, or later with the reliable manipulation of recorded sound, music could finally represent in the most literal sense of depiction or illustration. We could make “sound-pictures.” There could be “representational music” just as there was “representational art.” Interestingly, in the early twentieth century avant garde, music and art were traveling in opposite directions in their attitudes toward representation. Art revolted against; music flirted with. As Greenberg was extolling the “non-objective” in painting, Pierre Schaeffer was formulating the “sound object” in musique concrète. New technologies had intervened in both traditions: phonography finally enabled music to faithfully represent and photography unburdened visual art from the obligation to do so. But technology only explains so much. Visual art could have easily turned non-representational in the West, as it had elsewhere and before, without the camera. And even though music now has the full mimetic range— capable of every kind of representation, recreation, suggestion, likeness, illusionism— this capability is still relegated to a status secondary to the more “primary,” mathematical, and abstract elements of melody, harmony, and rhythm as it’s traditionally conceived. There are exceptions, though usually limited to experimental music. Popularly speaking, representation is rarely more than a spice or a theme— which is funny because as much as conservative tastes prefer visual art that “looks like something,” they don’t seem to have much patience for music that “sounds like something.”

On Facebook, I posted a “survey of representational music,” to see how much we could crowd-glean of the full mimetic range of music, running across depictions, recreations, illusionism, suggestion, mimesis, diegesis, in samples, field recordings, sound effects, acoustic, synthetic, acousmatic, obscure music, popular music. The thread is embedded above. The emphasis on musical mimesis here isn’t to portray mimesis and representation as dominant characteristics of new music. They clearly are not. They’re disappointingly underutilized, or too often goofily utilized when they are. Mimesis is just one basis among many for a new music that eschews or downplays relationships in pitch (melody and harmony) and traditional rhythm (consisting of a temporal lattice). Most importantly is that musical mimesis would be nearly as rich and unmathematizable as it is for visual arts, and attempts to codify mimesis as we have pitch-relationships would strike us the same as “golden ratios” do when talking about the composition of paintings or pantheons. Mimesis also does not necessarily have to mean a fully identifiable source or figure: similarities could call on things in our world, maybe lightly or ambiguously, to create a musical semantics that was all but left out of traditional instrumentation. Source was rarely a question. For the most part, up until now, listening to piano sonatas or drum solos, music has been entirely syntactic.

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