May 102015

On 8 May I presented at the interdisciplinary conference, ‘Beyond Speech: Silence and the Unspeakable across Cultures’ at the University of Manchester.

Beyond speech banner

The conference brought together speakers from a whole manner of different disciplines. I’ve found these sorts of conferences increasingly useful, as papers are often received with a fresh perspective and spark quite different conversations to those that may be had at wholly musicological events. The full details of the conference are on its website; I found the keynote from Dr Tom Whittaker particularly engaging and relevant to my research.

My paper was entitled ‘Perceiving musical concepts and creating languages in composition: George Benjamin’s Sudden Time‘ and took the work as a case study to explore the methods by which musical concepts can have an impact on the communicative ability of a piece. The full abstract is below.

‘For I consider that music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, a psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature, etc.’ (Stravinsky, An Autobiography, pp. 53-54)

Although often interpreted as relating to emotion, Stravinsky’s words hint at the more fundamental fact that sounds do not directly correlate to feelings or ideas, but are ascribed meaning through social and cultural means. From our first music lessons, children in the UK are told that a minor key is sad, a major key is happy. Western composers have played into these sorts of correlations for centuries and so we speak of music as ‘communicative’ despite its lack of direct linguistic parallels: music is a language beyond speech.

This paper explores ways in which a composer can communicate a nuanced concept for which common musical signposts may not exist. George Benjamin’s Sudden Time (1989-93) attempts to communicate the stretching and compressing of time, presenting music that is notionally slowed down, accelerated or moving between these states. These ideas clearly inform the compositional approach, but the degree to which they can be perceived is less definite.

Through aural examples and explanations, it will be shown how Benjamin sets up an autonomous musical language within the work that acts as both text and translation. Sudden Time sets out its own language of expression and uses it to explore conceptual concerns in a manner that endeavours to transcend speech yet be understood by listeners. Wider issues of communication within music will be reflected on, demonstrating the importance of interpreting a text—musical or otherwise—based on its intrinsic language and logic.