Closing the Gap: Music Theory, Psychoanalysis, Neuroscience

In each chapter of this book, I seek to understand the syntactic coherence of a work (music theory), the context of a work (music history), how our subjectivities form and are formed by a work (psychoanalysis), and how our nervous systems enable a work's apprehension (neuroscience). For me, a work is less an ontologically stable entity than a representation of threshold-crossing among these three dimensions. Each of these approaches yields knowledge when applied to a work directly; for me, even more knowledge results from listening awry, a process that reveals data in the margins, in the shadows, at the edges of each discipline.

An Overview of the Chapters

Vivaldi's Adagio from the "Autumn" Concerto for Violin and Orchestra from The Seasons: Music as Dream

In this chapter I explore the Adagio from Vivaldi's Concerto in F major for violin and Orchestra from The Seasons as a musical representation of dream. I begin with a musical-theoretical analysis of the treatment of dissonances in the voice-leading of the work, an account of harmonic sequences, and the presence of an anomalous sonority to suggest a principle of the work's composition in purely musical terms. Having found such a principle (it is one of controlled disorder), I compare the syntax and structure of the movement to Freud's account of dreams formulated in The Interpretation of Dreams of 1899. I conclude the chapter by relating the claims of Freud, the musical-theoretical features I have discovered in the work with theories of the "overfitted brain" from recent writings in Neuroscience.

Pappenheim and Schoenberg's Erwartung: Repression and Disavowal

In this chapter I begin with an overview of neuroscientific theories about how we process trauma with an emphasis on what parts of the brain are activated and which de-activated in the processing of traumatic experiences. I then discuss how the libretto by Marie Pappenheim and the monodrama by Arnold Schoenberg came into being. The libretto is a highly paratactic series of fragments uttered by the work's single character—die Frau. Although it is difficult to distinguish among these fragments as expressions of memory, dream, hallucination, fantasy, I suggest that there is a subtext of "what really happened" that it is not only possible but necessary in order to understand the libretto. This subtext is, in a nutshell, that while we seem to be witnessing die Frau is a disordered state of panic looking for her lover who has abandoned her, in fact, she has killed him and the disorder of her senses is the product of the traumatic shock at the violence of her own actions that she cannot bear to know. For me, Schoenberg represents this state of psychic disorder perfectly with paratactic fragments of musical signifiers (triads in second inversion, pitch-class sets that belong to set class (016) especially, oscillating drone-like figures, symmetrical bits of music like twin shells, and chords in open pitch space that verticalize these figures) that are not sublated by any over-arching principle of hypotactic order. I conclude the chapter with the distinction between repression (which involves the r eturn of transformed emotions) and disavowal (the utter inability of the psyche to absorb an element of reality) as articulated by Freud, locating the libretto and monodrama within the latter modality—disavowal.

Barber's Adagio for Strings: Mourning and Melancholy

I begin to explore this work following a performance I attended in which I felt an unusual degree of piognancy following the F-major dominant of tonic B-flat minor in measure 56 followed by the iv7 V 4-sharp 3 progression with which the works is saturated in measure 57. I shall show that at the work's climax, Barber touches upon a first-inversion B-flat minor sonority for the first and last time in the work, modulating to F-flat major. There is a grand pause following this F-flat major sonority and it is reiterated an octave lower in pitch space, initiating a counter-clockwise circle of fifths progressions that lead us (again) to the never-resolving dominant of B-flat major (courtesy of enharmonic re-spelling of course). For me, the affective power of this one non-resolving dominant exceeds this explanation and I ask what it would mean if we see the enharmonic re-spelling but hear the music become ever more thick with flats as it pauses not on an F major chord (the dominant of tonic B-flat minor) but G double-flat (the dominant of C-flat). If so, the return of the iv7 V will drive home the reality that we have been and will always be—"besides ourselves."

I sample the F major dominant of measure 56 in three different recordings (Toscanini, Dudamel, Bernstein) using Sonic Visualizer, comparing the frequencies of that F natural with the F natural of the dominant sonority first heard in measure 2. In all three recordings, the F natural of measure 56 was lower than the F natural of measure 2.

I then discuss the differences between mourning and melancoly in the writings of Freud, followed by an examination in neuroscientific research how the brain functions in terms of expectation and reward, since the nature of the differences between mourning and melancholy depend upon the effects of repetition.

Ligeti's Mysteries of the Macabre: (non)sense, the Law, and the Brain

I shall open this chapter with a discussion of Ligeti's opera Le Grand Macabre from which the Mysteries of the Macabre derive (the work is an excerpt of three arias from the larger opera). I shall examine therie text (a play entitled Le Grand Macabre by Michel Ghelderode) and Ligeti's adaptation of the text in both Le Grand Macabre and Mysteries of the Macabre. I shall discuss the text from the point of view of Liget's own characterization of the text as "near nonsense" and examine the saturation near citation of music in the work from what Ligeti refers to as the "waste basket of music history."

I shall then examine the (non)sense of the opera (in both text and music) in light of notions from Lacan and Žižek (via Kafka) of obscenity at the heart of the Law.

I shall conclude the chapter with a neuroscientific look at how the brain reacts to chaotic sensations.

Ligeti's Lux Aeterna: A Fluid Pitch-Class Set, the Sublime, and the Brain

In this chapter I locate Lux Aeterna in Ligeti's work as a passage originally intended as part of his Requiem. Ligeti has said that the Requiem and Le Grand Macabre are two works which embody critiques of both Fascism and Communism. Many scholars have pointed out that the 16 voice canon upon which the work is based on a trichord that belongs to set class (025). Ligeti characterizes the dynamic of Lux Aeterna as a contrapuntal / harmonic flux towards and away from a referential sonority. For me the ontology of that sonority is by definition constantly in flux. At moments (such as the beginning) there is a single pitch class F natural; at the end of the work there is a dyad of pitch classes (F natural and G natural); a few measures before the end there is the trichord (D natural, F natural, G natural--belonging to set class (025). And monads, dyads, and trichords flow into and away from each other throughout the work making it impossible to determine what any referential sonority "is" creating an embodiment of the sublime.

I shall continue the chapter with an examination of the sublime from an 18th Century perspective (Kant), 19th Century perspective (Michaelis), and 20th Century perspective (Lacan). I shall conclude the chapter with a neuroscientific examination of how the brian functions in states of nirvana, bliss, wonder.

Caretaker: Music and Nostalgia in the Soundtrack to the film Patience

In this chapter I explore the popular music of Caretaker. Caretaker calls into question the nature of popular music composition, performance, and reception. In a nutshell Caretaker works sound almost just like classic popular jazz and Tin Pan Alley standards. My phrase "just like" in the previous sentence is crucial. Since the works sound subtly distorted, slowed down, thick with quiet ambient noise, warped, they evoke the wow and flutter of tape recording imperfections of reel-to-reel and cassette technologies.

I shall suggest in this chapter that the music of Caretaker evokes the Lacanian notion of nostalgia as described by Žižek. Žižek, describes the essential structure of nostalgia as looking at oneself looking, remembering, listening. Nostalgia is a psychic mirror of mirrors in which frames of reference contribute to the memories being evoked. I find Caretaker to have created a musical nostalgia through the texture of technological interventions it uses to thicken, to mediate, to draw attention to the visceral sounds of the music. And the essence of this nostalgia is a two-fold texture of technology: first, to use sounds of noise and distortion from the early days of tape recording; second to use digital technologies available today. I shall conclude this chapter with an exploration of the implications of this nostalgic music for subjectivity in our post-Cartesian present. And finally I shall explore how neuroscience maps acoustic memories.

Music of the Flesh and Music of the Machine: Arvo Paert, Emily Howell, and Artificial Intelligence

Arvo Paert is a composer; Emily Howell is the name given to an algorithm written by David Cope. In this chapter I shall begin by discussing the musical materials of a work by each. I shall then ask what it would mean if the binary opposition human/machine (in which the "human" is essential and the machine a replicant with dubious implications for humanity) were turned on its head, as Žižek has shown in an analagous structre in Ridley's Scott's Director's Cut of Blade Runnder of 1982. In that film, Žižek argues that the issue is not that or whether replicants (robots) are like humans but that humans are like replicants. The idea that "we" are like robots connects to the Lacanian idea that our subjectivity is always / already of the Other--not essential and internal but contingent and irrevocably a function of social space. In transposing Žižek's argument to music and artificial intelligence, I ask what it would mean to understand a continuum between the codes of a program and the neurons firing in our brains.

Strange Loops: Bach, Schubert, Risset

In this chapter, I begin with the theory of "strange loops" put forward in Douglas Hofstadler's Gödel Escher Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid of 1979 as a structure of loops found in math (Gödel), visual art (Escher), and music (Bach). Hofstadler's example from Bach is the "Canon per Tonus" from A Musical Offering. That work begins in C minor and modulates (ostensibly inaudibly) in an ascending series of major seconds resulting in the piece ending where it began (although an octave higher). I examine the pitch structure of the theme to determine what internal evidence there is for a work that modulates in such a way as to resist apprehension. I extend the argument to a similar looping structure in Schubert's "Der Wegweiser" from Winterreise". In that work the text describes the dejected narrator wandering a winder landscape; he stops at a road sign and has a premonition that it points to his death. Schubert sets the narrator's hesitation on his journey with a progression that unfolds a fully-diminished seventh chord. The progression has a flaw (one skipped sonority) and it is incomplete. Had Schuber completed the progression it would have ended up in the G minor with which it began. I then move to Risset whose electronic composition Mutations contains a Shepard's Tone, which, I shall argue is an electronic version of a strange loop. I conclude the chapter with explanations for cognitive dissonance in contemporary neuroscience.

Chaconne as Movement and Memory: Bach, Corigliano, Glass

In this chapter I discuss the relationships between movement and memory in music. I begin with the Bach Chaconne from his Partita no. 2 in D minor and focus on the nature of the Chaconne theme and its composing out in the first movement of Philip Glass's Violin Concerto no. 1. Glass repeats, expands, varies the 8 harmonies of the theme in a number of ways throughout the movement. What remains constant (despite frequently shifting meters) is a voice-leading procedure of holding one note of a sonority and changing two, or holding two notes of a sonority and changing one. This underlying pulse "beneath" the shifting harmonies and meters suggests the Lacanian drive to which the chapter turns. I then discuss John Corigliano's Chaconne from The Red Violin and its structure in the film. I conclude with neuroscientific writings that propose that the human brain at its core function is to facilitate physical movement through reflexive responses to stimuli as well as the incorporation through memory of stored information. This is key to the origins of the Chaconne as a dance; early Chaconne's were erotic in nature (16th Century); the Chaconne became associated with more stately forms in subsequent centuries.