Ways of Listening: Aesthetics, Metaphors, and Quotations in Music - Part I
For some listeners, the response is almost instantaneous. A mistuned March parade easily sparks the most spectacular sound picture in Ives’ orchestral set. A hurdy-gurdy waltz furtively occasions in the movement of the most ambitious Mahler’s symphonic music. The ability in both to weave banalities into wonders, with the mundane – whether it be the band music in one or the street waltz in the other – being transmuted into the stuff of marvels, reconfirms us a saying, that, “in music, nothing seems impossible.” Would it be a singer’s voice, a familiar tune, a sonic gesture or a rhythmic pattern or any other musical device that can exert such tremendous impact on listeners? I would suggest that musical quotation is able to do it.
Musical borrowings have long occupied an important place in western music. For centuries, composers have incorporated materials from existing music or earlier works into their compositions. From the parodic masses of Dufay’s or the use of Lutheran hymns by J.S. Bach to the “re-composition” of earlier music in Stravinsky, borrowing as a compositional procedure constantly presents itself as a challenge to the composer’s imagination. Yet there has never been such an epoch as the 20th century in which quotations and references feature so extensively in works of numerous composers. And it is in the music of Charles Ives, an American native composer that one discovers, perhaps for the first time in history, some missed opportunities and unrealized potential in western music.
One of the first tasks that confront Ives’ scholars who undertake research into his music has always been to go through the labyrinth of quotations in the composer’s works. Peter J. Burkholder, who identifies different kinds of “quotations” in Ives’ music, focuses on exploring the complex musical, psychological and philosophical motivations behind the borrowings, and shows the purpose, techniques and effects that characterize each one. Wiley Hitchcock offers a general but succinct survey of Ives’ music in his Ives: A Survey of the Music, providing analyses of some important pieces and tracing the sources of the quotations. Philip Lambert’s studies apply set theory analysis to music, revealing the pitch organization and structural coherence of the works. Larry Starr adopts Lambert’s approach but offers analyses that relate Ives’ musical settings to the composer’s philosophical ideas and biographical background. Other scholars also advocate research on Ives’ uses of quotations in relation to the European musical tradition, American patriotism, the early 20th century socio-cultural background of
New England and other European masters such as Stravinsky, Mahler and Schoenberg. Doubtless the above-mentioned research takes place in the domain of either the compositional dimension or the biographical terrain of Ives. As such, the issues of quotation, if any, are viewed mainly from the composer’s scope.
Despite the multifarious approaches, however, few regard it an issue of aesthetics or attempt to address quotations from the perspective of the audience. How does a listener experience, feel or respond when facing the network of quotations in Ives’ music? In what way do listeners respond to these quotations in relation to their own socio-cultural surroundings? Referring to the functions of music, Tia DeNora remarks that music “is not merely a ‘meaningful’ or ‘communicative’ medium. It does much more than convey signification through non-verbal means. At the level of daily life, music…may influence how people compose their bodies, how they conduct themselves, how they experience the passage of time, how they feel – in terms of energy and emotion – about themselves, about others, and about situations.” Music in general, and quotations in particular, can be read as a force of social life, a medium of social relation, a technology of self, or a device of social ordering. Furthermore, if music, just as what Nora has claimed, consists of an interlacing of experience (feeling, action) and the materials that are accessed as the referents for experience and its metaphoric and temporal parameters, it may thus be seen to serve as an operating platform for the temporal structure of one’s past events, as well as the emotional responses.
This article attempts to explore different ways of listening to Ives’ quotations by offering a critical survey of some of his music. Quotations, as I would like to argue, can and ought to be read and understood in terms of metaphor. In fact, just as Lakoff has claimed, “metaphor permits an understanding of one kind of experience in terms of another, creating coherences by virtue of imposing gestalts that are structured by natural dimensions of experience.” From this sense, metaphor is not only a matter of imaginative rationality, but also aesthetic experience. It is created from our daily surroundings and cultural experiences, and is able to conceptualize our cognitive minds and to induce our emotional sensations. New metaphors are capable of creating new understandings and new realities, involving all the natural dimensions of our sense experiences, especially that of sound. Analysis, therefore, is no mere counting of quotes or characterization in terms of compositional techniques. It rather evokes the totality of the sonic world of a specific time, place and event, operating in every dimension of the listeners’ psychological and aesthetical states. Be it a tune, a rhythmic pattern or a specific sonority, a reference to a style or genre, a quotation is a tangible link between the sonic and cultural reality of the past and those of the present, as well as a metaphorical representation in one’s own imagination. Applying ideas and concepts borrowed from paintings and literature, it is hoped that an intertextual reading of the quotations will open up new areas of scholarship on the subject.
To Be Continued.....
David Leung (theorydavid)
 Peter Burkholder, “Borrowing: Types of Borrowing,” in New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd ed., 1 [computer music Library], cited on
2006/5/1, available from www.Grovemusic.com/data/articles/music/5/529/52918.xml?section=52918.1
 DeNora Tia, Music in Everyday Life (
Cambridge: Press, 2000), 16-17. Cambridge University
 Ibid., 7.
 Ibid., 67.
 George Lakoff and M. Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1980), 235.