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A Note on Rigor

Author(s): Mel Powell


Source: Perspectives of New Music, Vol. 1, No. 2 (Spring, 1963), pp. 121-124
Published by: Perspectives of New Music
Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/832109
Accessed: 01-11-2018 19:07 UTC

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A NOTE ON RIGOR

MEL POWELL

To know how to question


to know how to wait ...
HEIDEGGER

SAYING exactly what you mean, saying i


a word more-this still is considered the
English-speaking world. I say "English-
cause in the hands (and opinion) of a Fre
with a German something else, and in nei
like Oxfordian dispassionateness or simil
States. If most of the time European tho
personal, aesthetic, the other-the "qui
a form of rationalism that fights shy of mo
sometimes exhibiting the impersonalism
event, those strong unimpeachable mod
insights and reflections recently develop
rists have been inspiring imitations of at
the "method," so that just now almost eve
mainly in terms drawn from mathemati
erally austere scholastic climate, and w
musical discussion relinquishes its "whirl
or two to the already peerless collection
science is what the systematic century is
is about, mathematics is what rigor i
mathematics is about.
Whether or not mathematics is what music is about, musicians
enjoy mathematics and its network of links with logic. The musician's
business is structure; he is therefore drawn to a profound science of
structure. Looking closely at music itself, he is likely to ask: "What
changes? When? By how much?" This means that eventually even
the musician who has not mastered more than elementary algebra can
find himself on familiar conceptual ground in the high temple of

0 121.

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PERSPECTIVES OF NEW MUSIC

group theory, for transformation and invariance


subject matter. And he is similarly able to feel at h
exhibit techniques for "isolating relevant structur
involving analyses of syntax and meaning. In gene
of hard thinking under the rubrics of rigor are s
musical minds. There is always the desire to disting
is mainly systematic and what is mainly capriciou
to identify ranges of values of all kinds and to kn
known about them. In particular, the aim is to
of nonsense, so far as that is possible.
But what of the disadvantages here for music
exist, and it is not out of order today to acknowle
The heart of the matter can be stated at once: taki
scopic definition of the word science in today's co
be understood, intuitively or otherwise, that first
"science"; and secondly, if it were, or in the sense
that it might be, the business of applying strictly
concepts to its elucidation-to say nothing of i
mains, it seems to me, very questionable. This is t
the concepts are being managed by those qualified
is the fundamentally awkward circumstance th
traffic in the pursuit of truth (poetic talk aside), b
in a very local logic, in "logically frivolous" hierar
are not systems, transient judgments and purpose
and arbitrary realities, variant idiosyncrasies--s
these and other slippery qualitative factors that w
whether someday someone will be able to come up
as a reasonable measurement theory adaptable to th
worth measuring. The "theoretic" projection, prop
velops a world but invades no part of it. It is p
supreme synthesis, but of course that is to say
directly to supreme non-analysis. "If values are va
"and if they are always too broad for the concret
that we are considering, the only thing left for us
instincts." At least with some instincts, that ha
great disadvantage.
On the other hand there is at present a notab
perfectly concrete charts, counting the notes, listi
as the statistical universe requires. Despite all th
welcoming gentlemanly tabulation, it is a majo
mistake nowadays to view this most modest of m
one true key to a new kingdom. By now we have
S122

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COLLOQUY AND REVIEW

dred lengthy charts and at the accompanying pages an


scrutinize "samplings" and "distributions," and I am sure
of us have observed how rare a thing is a real idea-and
may have been led to cherish more than ever Frans H
definition of The Beautiful as provider of "the greates
ideas in the shortest space of time." Labor conquers all th
now and then, insight. I am afraid that much too often i
ness and what is called elegance of presentation cloak
triviality of findings. It turns out that this is a serious d
not only because of the discouraging yield, but because th
is almost never identified as such. Here, plainly, is a kind
tion: rigor as some sort of contemporary academic gla
pelling weapon which too easily goes unchecked among
the admiration of rigor (or its trappings) is as pervasive
tent manipulation is rare. In short, rigor for its own sak
entirely negotiable, and not only around the campus. But
kind of talking about music, especially this kind, begins
music itself, sometimes representing and sometimes const
a composer's main contribution, then a state of affairs ex
suited to the breeding of errors of all types and sizes.
As I suggested, what we may be encountering again a
fiercely rigorous guises is, ironically, a disregard of defi
tional matrices" for logic and mathematics. The parado
should find so much confidence just where professional th
the greatest caution. I am imagining here a musician's rab
rigor placed opposite either von Mises' statement: "Inner
is certainly a necessary criterion of the usefulness of a sy
for its applicability, i.e. for the possibility of coordinatio
world of experience, a sufficient 'scientific' proof cannot
all"; or Hempel's warning that where rigor applied to emp
ters aspires to mathematical certainty of knowledge,
attained only at the price of analyticity and thus of com
factual content"; or others, including Einstein's famous ap
far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are
and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to realit
there might be a culprit at all, in truth it would not be ri
very absence in appraising the objectives, the values, t
a word, the pertinence-of rigor.
After all, it is simply "reality" in which, I think, we are
some musical reality with not so much room for impecca
this is not the case, there has to be room enough for imp
of another kind-say, from Camus: "Art disputes realit
S123

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PERSPECTIVES OF NEW MUSIC

not hide from it." The question is whether we


what it is we want to hide from in trying to dra
from logic and mathematics the persuasive releva
universe" that logic and mathematics try to withh
from Camus: "Reason does not preach, or if it d
reason." There too is the rub: under the name and
alism, its opposite may be making an appearance, a
of rationalism occasionally become formidable threa
of musical speculation. Possibly what matters is th
templative musician explains exactly only exac
matter. Yet I know that this kind of nay-saying i
if these generalized, undocumented indictments ea
the just I can only hope to make amends before lo
Of course the difficult thing is the rendering of
difficult than ever when what has to be set out is
cating the rebirth of professional commitments su
to launch a rediscovery of proper contexts. So l
there, all talk about art remains virtually doub
momentarily fashionable "delusions of accuracy
of older, more innocent dreams, and with the
stripped of a true profession, finally coming to
dilettante thinker and amateur "objective scientist.
certainly not a bad beginning, to suggest that ther
to be done on the subject of what it is that real e
with, and how the attractions of such enlightenme
I hope I have been saying plainly that even thou
demoniacism may deserve stigmata for its wick
been absolutely outlawed in aesthetic enterprises t
has turned irrational. My conclusion for the mom
more conclusive than a preliminary notion-or rat
the guess that advanced musical thought, if it is t
advance toward new outlooks on the nature and
newer searching-let me say again: I know I am
some ways at first resemble, but in any case will
more fruitless rigor-pedantries that are (still
today with certificates of intellectual virtue. Clea
very ripe for a musical "science," in the perilo
"knowledge," to offer something different from
what current scientism is yielding.

S124

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