Harvard lectures


If I were not a writer, I would want to be a composer. Musical language has been a mystery to me, and still mostly is, but I'm learning, and Leonard Bernstein is an inspiring teacher. In his Harvard lecture series of 1973  he uses Noam Chomsky's linguistic theories to explore phonology, syntax and semantics in music, and you want to pay close attention.

Because I am a writer, certain words and phrases of Bernstein and Chomsky stick with me as possibilities to consider in my own workshop. An aspect of Chomsky's transformational grammar, for example, is transformation by deletion. This applies across the arts. Something actual can be transformed by deleting parts of it. I think of that apparently facile brush stroke that Georgia O' Keeffe used to recreate the curving highway at the bottom of her property in Abiquiu. I think of wordiness and how one should be careful not to say "it", whatever "it" is, in too many words. But couldn't that leave a sense of ambiguity? That same sort of ambiguity Bernstein defines as that which arises from "twoness," this and that, a bit of each? LB would throw up his arms and smile and shake his wonderful grey hair, eyes open wide, encouraging. That's just the point, he might shout, instead of say, because he would be excited to see I'd learned that ambiguity is what gives a piece its poetry.

Patterns, patterns, and how they all seem to conform to a story shape... initiate, complicate, resolve. The word melisma that describes the ornamentation of a single musical note and may have its counterpart in overly lyrical writing. At least in my view.

Interesting also to learn that ambiguity in music, at least before the 20th century, was reined in by diatonic "fences," as Bernstein calls them. Chromaticism held in check by diatonicism. Using the example of Debussy's Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, which was inspired by Mallarmé's poem, Bernstein shows how the poet reined in his tumbling words with rhyme, how Debussy reined in his whole tone scale by returning to comfortable consonance. In other words, by all means go for it, but give the listener, the reader, something to grab hold of, something familiar.

Listening to these lectures fertilizes my awareness of music composition techniques and, with luck, my prose writing will grow. Listen, I tell myself. There's more than what you first hear.