Friday, April 10, 2015

Law, Development, and Music: a belated, overblown and far too self-absorbed tribute to Glenn Gound -- but an honest tribute non-the-less.

A long time ago, in order to prepare for becoming a failed legal academic, I first becoming a failed musician.  A composer, actually:  I made it into the doctoral program in music composition at Columbia University.*  But that was as far as I could go.  Sometime during that time, I simply stopped being able to do whatever it was I was trying to do.  It is something that consumes me to this day.  What happened?

My problem was 'form'.  I simply could not generate pieces of any significant length.  Ten minutes max.  In part, this was because I couldn't hear form.  The formal structure of music always eluded my ears, even if I could appreciate it in the abstract (on the page, as it were). 

When you study music -- what is called 'music theory' -- you study form.  In the canonical music of the 18th and 19th centuries, there are two dimensions to form.  The micro dimension is a vertical structure known as chords.  Traditionally, music phrasing was constructed out of a particular chordal progression that would typically be represented by I ... V-I (the tonic chord (I), leading to the dominant chord (V), resolving immediately back to the tonic).  The macro dimension is key: a particular relationship among notes that is structure around a particular note that serves as the tonic.  Again, here, the archetypical relationship is I-V-I, in which the first theme is expressed in a particular tonic (say, 'C' major), a second theme is expressed in the 'dominant' ('G' major), with the music returning back to the tonic in a re-expression of the first theme: an archetypical form known as the 'sonata-allegro form'.

My problem was that even as regards to the most orthodox compositions, I simply could not hear chords or keys.  I couldn't hear the transition from tonic to dominant in the sonata-allegro form.  I couldn't hear the chord structures playing out in the progression from tonic (I) to V-I.  Because of the former in particular, I could not hear 'length' -- which means that I could not write pieces of significant length.  This is what ultimately made me into a 'failed musician'.

That was many years ago.  I have not put note to stave for a quarter century, although I think about it often.  And as alluded to above, even after all these years, it still bothers me:  why could I not write music of significant length?

When I was studying music in the late 1970s and 1980s, there was a general buzz about a particular, eccentric pianist named Glenn Gould.  I wasn't a pianist, and Gould was generally known for his eccentric interpretations of non-modern classics -- Bach in particular (although, as it turns out, he was also very fond of the music of Arnold Schoenberg).  As a composer, I listened generally to music written in the 20th century.  So I never listened to him.

And since then, I haven't really listened to much any music  -- it reminds me of dreams that long ago escaped my my grasp.  But by dint of fortuity, this morning I began watching a you-tube video of Gould playing -- and more importantly discussing -- the fugues of J.S. Bach.  And two things happened: a quarter century too late, I finally heard Bach for the first time; and a quarter century too late, I finally learned, well into my later autumn, why I failed in my earlier spring.

Like his playing, Gould's analysis of Bach's work was like nothing I ever heard.  It had almost nothing to do with the analytic frameworks I had learned and pursued in Conservatory.  There was no mapping of I ... V-I.  There was no mapping of  the key structures of the 'exposition'.  Rather, Gould describes how both key and chord in Bach's fugues emerged naturally out of the melody.  Sometimes that structure followed I ... V-I.  But often, perhaps more often, it did not.  Bach appears to have been particular fascinated exploring keys built on the the III and the VI -- the mediant and sub-mediant.  I have a theory for why, but the important part is that Bach's structure is not meaningfully captured using the conceptualization of music theory that I was taught as an undergraduate.  In Bach, key and chord where products of the melody, not designs for the composition.  It is the line, not the form, that is the crucial determinant of length.

And then, something amazing happened.  As Gould was playing some of Bach's fugues, I started to 'hear' the keys.  And they are very different from what I had always imagined them as being.  They are fleeting, ever changing -- a kaleidoscopic mosaic rather than the architectural edifice I had always been looking for but could never perceive.  (I still don't hear them as well in the Preludes, but interestingly, Gould himself was not particularly interested in the Preludes.)

Like Bach, my compositional forte and emphasis was counterpoint.  What I 'heard' when I heard music was (and still is) principally the interplay of voices.  But being concerned with form and length as I was taught it, and being a product of the intellectual traditions of my time, I was always thinking in terms of large scale structures of key and chord independent of voice.  And like me, Bach's focus was also on counterpoint.  Unlike me, he was not particularly concerned with concerned with large-scale structures of key and chord.  His keys and chords and length were determined, not by formal dictate, but simply by the melody and its contrapuntal unfolding.  And -- why didn't I see this before? -- like me, his works tended to be between 5 and 7 minutes in length: but unlike me, he did not care. 

Looking back over an ocean of years, I seem to remember that that's how my work also tended to proceed.  It was the line that drove me, even while it was the form that obsessed me.  Far too late, Glenn Gould taught me want it was I needed to know those many years ago; he gave me the answer I'd been wondering about ever since: in fact, I was doing it right all along.  The reason I became a failed musician is because at the end of the day, I was too concerned with what I was not doing and not concerned enough with what it was I was doing.

And this brings me to 'law and development'. 

In law and development, when looking at 'the Global South', we focus far more on what nations are not doing then on what they are doing.  Like music theory, law and development see law as a form, as an expression of particular collection of keys and chords that make up that particular compositional structure we call 'rule of law'.  And when we don't see those keys and chords, we obsess about it: where is the dominant? why has India become trapped in the sub-mediant?

But I wonder what law and development would look like if we saw each legal system, even those of the 'lesser-developed' world, as articulating their own form, their own chord and key, out of the particular melodies they have inherited or invented?  Some doing it better than others, obviously, and all make many mistakes along the way (one of the other really interesting things about Gould's analysis is that he did not valorize Bach, his Bach was a human who often made mistakes or became distracted by his own compositional obsessions--just like our own legal systems even as they are articulated by the developed world).  I think of Indonesia -- a legal system that from the perspective of chord and key seems dysfunctional beyond measure, but operating in a society that nevertheless seem to show its own distinctive and extremely fascinating -- compelling -- legal and constitutional 'aesthetic' -- an aesthetic that somehow 'works in the sense that Indonesian society seems generally functional both sociologically and economically.  Law and development likes to focus on what it is that the Indonesian legal system does not.  And become understandably frustrated by it.  But while there is definitely value in doing so, at the same time, we might also occasionally focus on what that system does (somehow) do -- and be amazed by it.  There is need for both perspectives.  And after finally having 'met' Glenn Gould, I for the moment at least find myself feeling very much drawn to the latter.

*  My mentor was the great Mario Davidovsky, who -- ironically -- studied law before deciding to go into music.

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