Thursday, December 22, 2005


I love the "Very Short Introductions" series from Oxford University Press. This is the third one I've read and I've got three or four more on my shelf waiting to be read. They're prone to idiosyncracies of the authors -- the ones I've read seem to be introductions into the latest scholarly work in the subject moreso than general introductions -- but they are consistently interesting.

The "Music" VSI by Nicholas Cook is a characteristically odd book. He spends the first 120 pages bringing together pieces of an idea that I couldn't really "see" until the last five pages, though once I saw it it was clear how everything fit together. Maybe I'm just a slow learner.

Cook's approach is to reject the standard "music as a consumable product produced by a composer" mindset, instead substituting a variation of Wittgenstein's theory that language determines our perception of reality. This is brilliant (though see my footnote of complaint below). Seen this way, the author suggests, composers like Beethoven don't just give us something new to hear -- they give us a new way of hearing and thus open our minds to new possibilities, not just in music but all around us.

The master stroke comes in the conclusion where the author rejects modern criticisms that say because we are cut off from the historical-culture world of the composers-of-old we can't really have access to what their music "means." Against this Cook (drawing on the Wittgensteinian idea) claims that human consciousness is "irreducably public" (a concept I love) and the "private thought world" of the modern criticism simply doesn't exist.

(Notice the applications of this to religious tradition [maybe even Tradition] and Biblical interpretation. Cook draws parallels between musical interpretation and Biblical interpretation a couple of times, though primarily to borrow concepts.)

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