Friday Fun: An Exercise in Hermeneutics

Brent Reidy

In class last term, we discussed whether it is possible to listen to/play a work without engaging with it hermeneutically. Rather than argue either side and get all "smart" about it, it's time for an experiment!

Let's pretend that we are all at a concert. At a concert, one knows certain things about a piece of music before one hears it. One might read something in the program notes, or have heard other works by the composer before, and so on.

To represent this, pick a number #1-8. Be honest and click ONLY the number you picked. Do not look at the others.

Door #1        Door #2

Door #3        Door #4
Door #5        Door #6
Door #7        Door #8

Good. Now, listen to this minute long piece of music I wrote a while ago:

Click and listen

Tell me about your aesthetic experience: What did that random fact do for you as you listened? Did you ignore it? Could you? Did it matter at all? Go ahead and look at some of the other numbers now and listen again. Any changes in your feelings towards the work?

My bet is that it was impossible to ignore the thing you saw (or other things you might have considered) and just enjoy the "present" work. It is impossible to live in the present. Our state of presence is constantly influenced by what came before and what we think lies ahead. Or, as St. Augustine confessed:

“I am about to repeat a psalm that I know. Before I begin, my attention encompasses the whole, but once I have begun, as much of it as becomes past while I speak is still stretched out in my memory. The span of my action is divided between my memory, which contains what I have repeated, and my expectation, which contains what I am about to repeat. Yet my attention is continually present with me, and through it what was future is carried over so that it becomes past.”

Abstraction is unobtainable. We are hermeneutic creatures and can never listen to something without analyzing, formalizing, hemeneuting it up. These thoughts are not flights from the moment, but rather indispensable components to it.

But enough about how I felt. How did the experiment work for you?

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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10 Responses to Friday Fun: An Exercise in Hermeneutics

  1. Knock Knock.
    Who’s there?
    Herman who?
    Hermeneutics is why this joke is funny.

  2. emily says:

    this is a very good game. I originally picked no. 2 and intentionally tried to make it work. As such the ending gave it a weird little ABA thing as I recognized the opening and my brain kept trying to force the middle section into the original melodic statement.
    Some of the other doors are very interesting too… esp. ‘the work is a hectic world’ vs. ‘the work reflects the composer’s view of the world as hectic’ (paraphrasing). Also ‘the piece ends unexpectedly’ is a nice trick–with the quicktime progress bar it’s like reading a novel where you can feel only 10 pages left but don’t know how it’s going to wrap up.
    it’s very hard (impossible?) not to engage with a piece hermeneutically because the reason for hearing/playing it always connects back to where you heard it or received the music: people or places one associates with various values (e.g. your friend recommends something, you hear a song in an elevator, you hear a street musician playing something).
    thanks! that was fun.

  3. Particularly interesting is how some of the doors contradict each other. Two say what the piece means, two say it shouldn’t mean anything. Two give clues on the structure, one says to ignore the structure. It would be great to have two groups read the opposing directions, listen to the piece, and have them discuss the piece with the directions to not reveal what they had read. (The directions perhaps not necessary.) Would they end up with completely different perspectives? Nice thought experiment.
    Can you recommend any articles or books on hermeneutics that would be approachable for undergraduates? Perhaps a section of an article or a book chapter that could be absorbed?

  4. Glen says:

    I chose #4, and I took the bait a little too hardcore I think. I didn’t jump to any conclusions, it was more like pole-vaulting. In fact, I was already preparing my opinion before the sound clip even loaded. I got all hung up on “high-speed” and started setting up expectations for something ridiculously literal. So when the music started playing, my first thought was “hey this doesn’t sound high-speed” and it was then that I realized that I recalled NOTHING else about what was written. I think that I regained my mental balance at that point, when I got a gist for how the tune was going to play out, and I re-read what was behind door #4 with less hyper-attentive zeal. By that point, I was more concerned with deciding whether or not I liked the music than I was with form or structure. In fact, those things didn’t enter into my mind at all until it finished and I started reading the comments.
    In all, I think the hermeneutics functioned on a broader scale – I was searching for the trick, because I knew there was going to be one. By the time the formal “experiment” began, I was already halfway down the road. What’s interesting to me is that I don’t think the hermeneutics functioned anywhere near as strongly in the microcosm, the listening to the composition. The little bit of analysis I did was to try and deduce what the composer’s idea of high-speed life was, and that answer was pretty quick in coming.
    To pick up on Emily’s last paragraph, I’d say that the reason it seems impossible not to engage a piece in this way is that music is, by most definitions, something that comes to you with a purpose. Music doesn’t happen unintentionally, it’s brought to us with expectations – many of which precede the performance, and most of which are determined by factors other than the composer’s musical intentions.

  5. Michael says:

    Brent, did you think of reversing the game such that there was only one program note excerpt and eight short pieces? Can the h-window open for you from the other side as well?

  6. Thomasina says:

    I like Michael’s suggestion of reversing the game.
    I chose door 6. I found it influenced how I listened to the opening of the piece, but thereafter I was ignoring the information (about the end) in order to pay attention to what was happening in the moment. Then because (a) you’d said how long it was going to be, and (b) I had the QT progress metre to watch, as the music approached the conclusion I found myself wondering about what you were going to present as “unexpected” and whether that would match what I think of as “unexpected”.
    On trying the other doors I noticed a difference between the types of program note claims: subjective (even if authoritative) comments along the lines of “the work reflects the composer’s belief” (e.g. 4) didn’t seem to influence my listening as much as more objective comments (e.g. 2) that referred to motifs, structure and musical events. The latter stayed to the forefront of my mind as I listened, I think because at some level they presented as something tangible that could be “tested”. The former, while interesting to me, didn’t feature prominently in my listening, in the moment, although they would return to my thoughts as I contemplated the piece after having heard it.

  7. Birdseed says:

    I like it a lot, and it actually touches on several deeper philosophical issues beyond hermeneutics. It’s a little musical contradiction of the perceptual claims acousmatic ideal, and tries to demonstrate in listening the same sort of problem of perception as the Jastrow duck-rabbit:

  8. squashed says:

    That is the worst subliminal messages ever… lol.
    It sets off all my BS detector. (OK. this gotta be some stupid web gag with some weird sound sampling)
    and I was right!
    (what do I think about the sound? I listen to it like any other sound file I find online. play first 10 second, skip to the middle, then the end. If it doesn’t snap my ADHD neurons, it gets erased without further thought. Next file.)
    It has nice rhythm, remind me of Bjork voice work (medulla) If somebody can do that with real voice instead of sampling. then it’s something.

  9. David Cavlovic says:

    I picked #8. Yes, the instruction stayed in my mind.
    Remindes me of an essay we studied in my Mus. Bach. days about the verity of concept pieces. One work was a set of instructions mailed to the listener. The instructions were: “Choose a tautology and keep it to yourself”. That’s it. That’s the extent of the performance.

  10. Ren says:

    This was great to do. I’ve picked the most useless door: number five. Since I know little about you, it was hard to jump into any conclusion. I heard it and it was enjoyable, letting myself stray.
    In the end, I had more respect for you.
    And other seven doors to open. 🙂

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