Bach is an ass

Phil Ford

Jonathan’s nifty post about a fallacy in search of a name — the bad habit of extrapolating from one’s own psychology to, say, Mozart’s — has drawn approving comment. There’s a certain kind of music person who likes to issue annoyingly presumptuous statements about major composers — as if someone like Brahms is a schoolboy on whom they are issuing an end-of-term report. Such persons have an unspoken assumption of familiarity with the elders, an assumption that Brahms or Mahler or whomever is a peer with whom they may join in learned colloquy and sometimes (more in sorrow than anger) bring to account for their failings. Byron Almen and I knew an irritating composer at IU back when we were piano students who was especially prone to this sort of talk — for almost 20 years we’ve had a running joke about it, sometimes yelling “Bach is an ass!” at parties. (See, it makes you sound sophisticated.)

But Jonathan craftily sprang a trap towards the end of his post:

 What about Liszt? Anton Rubinstein?  Can I talk about them?  Because I hacked through ballet exercises, varying them in certain utterly predictable (to me, at least) ways, does that mean I can speak for the improvisation experience of all pianists, living and dead?

[Cue: Sound of a mousetrap being sprung.]  How can
any of us be sure how people’s minds worked?  Particularly people whose minds are better than ours, by many parsecs?

And here we suddenly find ourselves in deep waters, because while it’s fun (indeed necessary) to poke fun of the “Bach is an ass” guy, does his error lies in his presumption that he and Bach are the same sort of people and could therefore understand one another? Such an assumption underlies an entire tradition of hermeneutic philosophy wherein an interpretation, whether by a scholar or a performer, is a (virtual) conversation with an (absent) interlocutor. To continue Jonathan’s example: the latter day scholar, armed with a certain first-hand knowledge of improvisation, seeks to extrapolate from that knowledge and understand something of Chopin’s improvisatory practice. It goes without saying that Chopin and the latter-day scholar (LDS) have never met. And yet the LDS is asking Chopin* questions, and Chopin is supplying answers; in his scholarly practice, the LDS is creating a heuristic Chopin he can bounce ideas off, and if he’s keeping it real (being an honest scholar and not just turning Chopin into his sock puppet) the answers he’s getting back are sometimes unexpected. You might object at this point that this is only a self-indulgent fantasy, since Chopin never had any idea that some guy named Jonathan Bellman would be writing about him one day. And yet, as Elisabeth Le Guin points out in Boccherini’s Body (online excerpt here), her groundbreaking study of performative interpretation, there *is* a degree of reciprocity in this hermeneutic relationship.

Yet I do claim it as reciprocal. My role
constitutes itself as follows: as living performer of Boccherini’s
sonata, a work which he wrote for himself to play, I am aware of acting
the connection between parts of someone who cannot be here in the
flesh. I have become, not just his hands, but his binding agent, the
continuity, the consciousness; it is only a step over from the work of
maintaining my own person as some kind of unitary thing, the necessary
daily fiction of establishing and keeping a hold on identity: different
perhaps in urgency and accuracy, but not, I think, in kind. As this
composer’s agent in performance, I do in this wise become him, in much
the same manner as I become myself. My experience of becoming him is
grounded in and expressed through the medium of the tactile.

As a performer, she finds a version of herself in the music she plays
— “that which is supposed in the voice of the executant,” in a phrase
borrowed from Rousseau’s Dictionnaire de Musique. And perhaps what goes for performers goes also for scholars, or indeed any kind of interpreter. I make an utterance in the expectation that it will be understood, and, so doing, I envision (or at least have an enabling tacit background assumption about) the kind of person who will understand that utterance. In speaking, I am positing a speaker, and in interpreting, my interlocutor (whether physically present to me or not) is entering that role. Donald Davidson, one of the most important philosophers to carry on this line of thinking, has argued that this is a basic, non-negotiable aspect of all communication. If you cannot assume that your interlocutor (real or virtual) shares the same basic habits of mind and standards of rationality as you, then there is no basis for any kind of interpretation at all. “If we cannot find a way to interpret the utterances and other behavior of a creature as revealing a set of beliefs largely consistent and true by our own standards, we have no reason to count that creature as rational, as having beliefs, or as saying anything at all.” (Davidson, “Radical Interpretation,” in Truth and Interpretation, 137.)

In answer to Jonathan’s question — How can
any of us be sure how people’s minds worked?  Particularly people whose minds are better than ours, by many parsecs?
— we may not ever be sure, but we have to proceed from the assumption that other minds work basically the same way as ours. We don’t have any choice, because the alternative is to say nothing at all.

*or what there is left of Chopin, which means the scores, letters, second-hand accounts, and so on.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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One Response to Bach is an ass

  1. John says:

    Jonathan and Phil,
    I appreciate both of your workings-through of these topics, but I do have to take issue with one small aspect. Jonathan originally wrote: How can any of us be sure how people’s minds worked? Particularly people whose minds are better than ours, by many parsecs?
    To which Phil supplied, to my ears at least, a sensible answer. But I’m worried about that last sentence about people whose minds are better than ours by many parsecs. I’m sure it was only modesty on Jonathan’s part to originally include this, but I don’t think it’s necessary. To advance such a notion, even for the righteous cause of modesty, is to come a bit to close for comfort to saying that Chopin or Liszt or whomever is a genius far beyond our woeful capacity to understand. That’s not a place that I’m willing to go or think that musical scholarship should go (again?). And even if Chopin or Liszt is “better” than us, the struggle to understand them through the traces they’ve left behind doesn’t appear to me to be any different than if we assume that we are their equals or even superiors.

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