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Friday, June 12, 2009

Umberto Eco's Cognitive Types and Bach's Suites for Cello Solo

Johann Sebastian Bach's Suites for Cello Solo have been a part of my life since I was 11 years old. These are essential pieces for every cellist. As a cellist, I have played them and enjoyed them over 2/3s of my life. They are never old or boring; I always find some thing new in them when I play them, and also when I listen to the numerous recordings I have by different cellists. So, imagine the surprise I received when upon turning a page in Umberto Eco's "Kant and the Platypus: Essays on Language and Cognition," I discovered that our good Italian semiotist included a chapter on Bach's Suite No. 2 as an example of cognitive types and nuclear content. The issue at stake here is as follows. The simplistic premise of the book itself is "when we say 'cat' how do we know that a 'cat' is a 'cat'." Basically, how does language transfers the meaning (or fails to do so) of 'cat' if we don't have a sample of a cat at hand? When applied to music, Eco makes a wonderful problematization of performance of a piece vs. the written work, and the potential variations within. In his example, Eco writes about a recording of the Suite No. 2 for Cello Solo performed on a recorder flute. The question related to the "difference between the physical phenomenon and its transcription on the stave, on the one hand, and between it and the 'musical idea' on the other. Transcription to the stave certainly represents a (highly conventional) way of rendering the musical idea public. That the procedure is conventional (highly codified) does not eliminate the fact that the sequence of the written notes is motivated by the sequence of the sounds imagined or tried out on an instrument by the composer." Add to this the idea of whether or not a piece that is not executed on an instrument, sang by a singer, etc. or even played in a record exists. That is to say, since the piece is transferred and made public by being printed (much as we print works of literature) it remain static and "dead" until someone picks it up and plays it. But imagine an orchestra conductor picking up an orchestral piece and seeing the entire piece (all instruments) in front of him, as he begins to read the score (much as you are reading this page... with the same facility) does that not constitute bringing the piece to "life?" I suppose that perhaps humming counts, no? At any rate, Eco then takes the argument to another level where he believes that "[i]t is clear that, if the relationship between the sound waves and the grooves of the disc is a case of primary iconism--and if the relation between [the performer's] execution and the notes of the score is already substantiated by multiple interpretative inferences, choices, and accentuations of pertinency--we have then arrived, with the physiognomic type, at an extremely complex process that seems very difficult to take account of." Looking at it from another angle, if a recording of the Bach Suites for Cello Solo performed by say, Mischa Maisky differs from that of Pablo Casals in the way each of them interprets them, then what we have is a version of the piece in execution that is much different from what the composer intended, if it was in fact that he intended anything at all but the phraseology and "message" behind it (which I admit is interpretable as well). I remember having a similar argument with a philosophy professor of mine when I was an undergraduate. I resorted back to my music training (which might have been unfair) and asked whether or not it was the same piece of hundreds of people played the same notes but with a different interpretation (his contention was that there was no variance). I can't remember how we resolved the matter, but he was a gracious old scholar and a lover of classical music. I do remember we ended up meeting at his house where his wife prepared elaborate dinners for three, and afterwards retiring to the salon to listen to his old LP recordings collection. The man had every one from Leonid Kogan to Gaspar Cassado, and numerous difficult to find recordings. Those were happy days, but I digress.

Eco posts another excellent problem. If the Bach Suite for Cello Solo No. 2 is an artistic endeavour that appears differently to everyone, could the Mona Lisa be appreciated similarly? Where do Da Vinci's brushstrokes end, and our appreciation begin? I'd be hard press to think that even a contemporary professional painter would stand in front of the Mona Lisa and say, "oh, sure... but I would have changed the light hits the side of her cheek here..."

I do, however, enjoy reading Eco very much. This is the kind of thing my students tell me to stop thinking about, just to "let it go," or the proverbial "you think too much." How little do they know of the pleasures of the life of the mind.

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