Musical Literacy: Listening in the mode of reading?
"The IoC debate on musical literacy compellingly endorsed the need for reading notation as a counterweight to formulaic music, as a means of learning from tradition, and so on. Much the same case can be made for free improvisation. Might there be a more productive distinction between listening and reading, ‘operating’ (as Barthes describes it) a text / score?
The ultimate myth of a founding gesture through text – of the primacy of the written form – is that of Moses and the Ten Commandments, literally ‘written in stone’, as told in Exodus. Moses receives the tablets from God on Mount Sinai. He descends to the Israelites’ camp to find them worshipping the golden calf. Smashing the tablets in disgust, he demands obedience and secretly incites the Levites to massacre those not ‘on the Lord’s side’. Moses returns to the mountain to reinscribe the Law with God’s handiwork, and this become the treasure of the Ark of the Covenant. In short, the written Law is granted authority retrospectively by its performance (the meting out of judgement).
The case for musical literacy too often boils down to a veneration of scores as the repository of musical authority. Yet scores often post-date composition that has already happened through performance or other preparations (e.g. scores of purely electronic works). The same process was at work in the way national music movements from the late 18th century ‘validated’ folk music through transcription. Reading here is a form of unreflexive re-reading.
Schoenberg’s Moses and Aaron also focuses on the failure(s) of language. Aaron insists that Moses’ word would be meaningless unless interpreted to the community in terms they understand. Moses declares such (verbal) sophistry misrepresents God’s nature and insists on the superiority of abstract (written) thought. The Austrian Moses believed fundamentally in the value of abstract thought made possible through notation, but it’s the realisation of his music through performance – with all its non-notated contextual and cultural baggage – that has the power to communicate. Purity of abstraction is for score-readers, not listeners; it’s for listening as a form of reading.
The most remarkable retelling of the story comes from Thomas Mann. In The Tables of the Law, Moses invents an alphabetic (phonetic) written language for the Law, an alternative to the pictographic (symbolic) form familiar to the Egyptians and Babylonians. In this account, Moses forms the Law and the sounds of the words in stone. The distinction is equivalent to moving from graphic score (a representation of relationships) to staff notation (a representation of sound). For the Law to gain its true authority, reading must become a form of listening – a kind of ‘aural literacy’, as opposed to a ‘formal literacy’.
In Mann’s story, when Moses returns to the mountain to reinscribe the tablets, he improves on his initial attempts at the script – a possibility he secretly had in mind when smashing the first set. That is, he recognizes that an alphabetic text is both phonetic and at some level also pictographic: a representation of the sound of speech and not the speech itself. Poets (and calligraphists) recognize this when using the shape of words on the page (e.g. Cage’s mesostics) as well as homophony, alliteration and other ‘sonic’ devices.
Perhaps the real lesson, then, is that musical literacy can be a form of listening in the mode of reading: not a substitute for hearing the music (in our heads), but a means of imagining the possibility of the music, including the relationships (with the community, between the musicians, with ancestors) that the music represents and performs. ‘Operating’ a piece of music shouldn’t be a form of music listening to itself, but of music listening to us."