Response to Frederick Bashour
Published online: 1 October 1999
Dr. Bashour has a sure grasp of modal history as well as the jazz repertory, its techniques and jargon, so I welcome his response. He does a splendid job of confirming the initial premise of my argument, that the Miles Davis pieces don't live up to the modal assignments alleged for them. Furthermore, the lexical conditions he outlines—contemporary jazz musicians' indifference to the historical nuances of modering true to my own experience. I regret his implication that a part of my agenda was to demean Davis and colleagues for not hewing to the purist modal line. In fact, I should only be surprised if they cared a whit for such taxonomic delicacies. They were one of a kind, in this respect, with their 14th Century French counterparts so ably described by Christopher Page.1
Beyond that first concurrence, Dr. Bashour finds nothing more to agree with in my essay. What really bothers him are the two broader aspects which constitute my major premise, both of them related to how we know about and describe musical events of the remote past. The first derives from my rejection of a fashionable dogma advanced by a respected segment of our historian colleagues, to the effect that "The experiential truth of the past can be found only in the conceptual accounts of that past." The second is my obvious discomfort with ersatz locutions in music theorizing, whether made in ignorance or innocence
Perhaps the motivating premise of my essay was either too seditious or too subtle for Dr. Bashour. He remains indifferent to the long term dangers of learned doublespeak; I pass no opportunity to air my own rejection of such. He accepts the laying-on of verbal veneers, the post- and neo- and pre- kinds of affixes that limn our stylistically loaded verbiage; I opt for stripping our descriptive language to the functional simplicity it can achieve only when carefully tended. The problem is that our conceptualizations are in part shaped by the words we use to frame them. Relying on already slippery language, language developed from a milieu often guided by ancient authority or imposed doctrine more than by perceptual verity, leads only to flawed theories. But since one group of our colleagues mean by modal something that doesn't tally with what earlier writers seem to have meant by it, Dr. Bashour opts for a cheap fix: Forgive them their sloppy terms; just call it neo-modal.
And this misses the big point. A more rational choice is eminently available, although it is an unpleasant option for those defended in Bashour's rejoinder. Why? Because it would demand reducingperhaps even discardinga bit of entrenched musicological orthodoxy.
The waves of mode-speculators through some eight centuries of our past are no more to be trusted as preservers of taxonomic precision than our contemporaries. A lopsided reliance on what they had to say should be as suspect as the claims of those who speak authoritatively about "the modes" in So What and All Blues. We can reject the lingering fantasy that our ancestors exhibit at all times "a distinctly Gothic amalgam of reason, piety, and Pythagoreanism."2
So what's the big deal about gussing-up frayed concepts to coin new definitions? In the case of modality such bargain linguistics defy two elemental rules of theory-making:
(1) Be sure your axiomatic base is solid and complete; and
(2) establish that your theory conforms better than alternative theories with what it attempts to explain.
Regarding the first rule, The Modes, as a wholesale conceptualization, make a shaky foundation for structural identities. As A Theory, it was never a finished blueprint, never a conceptual singularity whose elements were collectively authenticated over the centuries, even for monody. Why derive subsequent conceptualizations from it without judicious overhaul or even replacement?
Is my evaluation excessively harsh?
Writers whose conclusions I find most compelling give modal theory less than high marks. They remind us that writers who passed on those Boethian shards from a Greek past show less than concordance in their hypotheses. To use those hypotheses one must sift through the centuries of modal explanations, choose their parts judiciously, and then be guided by musical horse sense. That which is salvageable is eminently useful. But that taxonomic complex—dominant (reciting tone, tenor, repercussio, tuba), finalis, afinalis, mediant, cadential preference (differentiae, differentiones), ambitus, melodic type, et al.—confronts us with a maze of sometimes conflicting markers, a scenario whose frequency of emendations, through history, would force any modern "theory" into retirement.3
And regarding that second rule of theory making, attempts to classify (or explain) sacred or secular medieval melody via the strictures of medieval theory lead too often to the kinds of speculative plots and special pleadings better suited to Freudian analysis. Willi Apel was but echoing the sentiments of remote predecessors in his frequent reflections that mode theory maps out some frustrating trips, even for ecclesiastical chant. As early as the 12th century, reflective writers began to express concern that the modal partitions were less than secure, ambiguity of classification a common problem. (The author of De Musica [John Cotton?] especially noted that chants in some modes, particularly tritus and tetrardus "resemble each other closely".4) The Phrygian problem (for which Dr. Bashour seems to be in denial) was especially troublesome. As a taxonomy, the maneria lacked strategic structural conformities with its companion modes, its dominants and cadential preferences curiously placed as they relate to its finalis. Many tunes officially identified as of modes 3 and 4 burst the gates of taxonomic order, leading Apel to regard them as the most unstable of the Gregorian repertory. The problem is not trivial,
for there are numerous chants in this group whose opening phrases, through their outline and cadential points, suggest any other tonality than E; among the shorter chants there are not a few in which this tonality is never established until the very last note appears. . . 5
Which brings us to the "Phrygian" Sanctus I used as an apex of rhetorical speculation toward the end of "On Miles and the Modes." If one behaves as a good anthropologist and "lets the bones do the talking," E has only cadential significance. But encased within the recurrent E-G-A-C pattern and an overall ambitus of C - c, a more credible interpretation of tonal hierarchy is available.6 Indeed, if this Sanctus "sounds a lot like other Phrygian chants," as Bashour attests, that's good cause for questioning the classification of the whole lot. His sense of family resemblance may be excessively swayed by those final Es. And yet, ". . . it is not out of place," as Zarlino testified,7 "for a composition to end on a note other than its finalis. . . Churchmen also did this in their chants." And Zarlino had a more general tip, one especially pertinent here:
I would consider it reasonable to determine the mode of a composition not merely by the final note, as some have wanted, but by the whole form contained in the composition.8
I continue, unblushingly, to question that the Phrygian phylum does justice for the pitch kinematics of this chant, unless one is hopelessly immersed in a perspective that favors associative (emic) over inherent properties (etic).9
Dr. Bashour's accounting demands a number of indefensible presumptions, a central one being that scales lack some of the key hierarchical expectations possessed by modes. I am puzzled when he justifies ". . . the alternate interpretation of mode as scale."10 I find empty his excuse for Bill Evans' technical vocabulary, saying that he ". . . used the word [modal] simply in place of 'scalar'." And his speculation that "Davis is still doing what he set out to do—improvise on that D-d white note scale" strikes me as beside the point. Each of these special pleadings implies an untruth. These two abstractions are not so separable, at least not at two intersections of their properties, so that the following synopses ring true:
DORIAN MODE: (among other claimed properties) collection of diatonic note set; hierarchical axis in one note (finalis), thus a "d-mode (although eminently transposable).
C-MAJOR SCALE: (among other claimed properties) collection of diatonic note set; hierarchical axis in one note (tonic), thus a "C-major scale" (although eminently transposable).
What Davis was thinking, as he improvised, and what he produced as a musical structure may well be at odds. That is the main point of my argument, which Dr. Bashour fails to grasp. If a D-scale (A.K.A. mode) is projected by this work, then there should be better evidence within its interior, evidence that in fact a D-d archetype encompasses it all, whether one calls it mode or scale.11D-scales, like D-modes, carry their mantles of identification for a reason, and it goes far beyond their alphabetic names. If medievalists such as David Hiley are convinced that "'mode' is an abstract quality, having to do with the tonality of a chant,"12 then I feel vindicated for considering "D'ness," or "whateverness," as it might or might not be projected by So What, a worthy concern.
Dr. Bashour's permissive epistemology enables one to compound the basic concepts by which things are identified and described. Where fits don't occur, one need only retain the old name yet impose some new guidelineskeeping in mind, of course, that in this century it means This, but for musics of other times it means That. Such shabby science fails by ignoring "Occam's Razor." Articulated first in the early 14th century,13 this procedural guide help us shave away the excess fat of theory making. It has helped thinkers dispense with such useless coinages as protoplasm, revoke such "Laws" as the "Germ-Layer." It even helped us to quietly forget that the pineal gland is the "seat of the human soul." It tells us to avoid precisely the kind of taxonomic gerrymandering Dr. Bashour condones.
When theories prove to be impotent in the face of perceptual reality, they must be revised, be tucked into better-formulated theories, or simply be discarded. As biologist Peter Medawar explains, "Sometimes theories merely fade away . . . More often they are assimilated into wider theories in which they rank as special cases."14 The evidence I find in these two pieces reveals our need for that "broader theory," one that subsumes two excessively narrow perspectives, the "modal theory" of some eight centuries15 and the prevailing "harmonic theory" of the past three. As I have shown elsewhere,16 remnants of the modal conception, despite overall limitations, can tell us more about some aspects of the tonality of common practice than the scalar/chordalparadigms of the Fétis-Rameau-Riemann-Schenker traditions.17
The recent work of several engaging historian-theorists—Cristle Collins-Judd, Peter Lefferts, Dolores Pesce, Sarah Fuller—reveals distrust of inherited modal stereotypes. Following the lead of several older scholars such as Bernard Meier, Siegfried Hermelink, and Harold Powers, their procedures suggest that modal theory must be weeded out, amended, and augmentedin other words, "assimilated into wider theories"—if questions of tonal ordering in real music are to be answered definitively.
The position Dr. Bashour defends is not new. In the West the sentiment goes at least back to Fétis, who insisted that the music of his predecessors (Palestrina, for one) could not be understood in the same terms as the music of his own era.18 Given the limitations of harmonic theory as known by Fétis ("The major scale is the basis of all music"), that was a wise call. But recovering the past only from that past is not always productive, although there are those who have made a fetish of trying. They suffer a serious misconception, as historian David Lowenthal has observed, the assumption that we understand only what we observe as it happens.
They overlook the value of retrospection, minimize the importance of hindsight, and travel back to see the past as though it were the present, because for them things are explicable only in the present.19
And yet, so it is—those champions of past chronicles argue. Current paradigms can't provide the basis for explaining old music; only careful siftings of on-the-spot reports render it knowable. But the history of modern ontologies is rich with examples of things we know well without help from supporting transcripts. We track celestial worlds, we describe prehistoric animals, we analyze the diets of ancient cultures without a word of description from coeval sources.
Our predecessors took for granted some things we regard as unusual, even eccentric. And then they sometimes ignored things we consider to be crucial. Anthropologist Ellen Dissanayake delineates the general problem with the observation that for some cultures unmentioned matters may indicate only a lack of language for expressing them. Indeed, ". . . not having a word for something is not proof that the something does not exist: Many societies have no words for 'love' or 'kinship,' yet these abstractions are evident to the outsider who names and then looks for them."20
But even naming something (a mode, for instance) may disclose nothing of conceptualization. Our forebears endured uncountable phenomena that were named and which stimulated descriptive speculation, but whose causes and natures eluded effective formulation. Some of their "diagnoses" marshaled explanations that today are only laughable. The "experts" of medieval France reported that the discomforts of gout were produced by "leaking morbid humors." That condition's relation to inefficient uric acid metabolism awaited modern chemistry for its discovery. Yet it seems reasonable to believe that the same metabolic imbalance was as much the cause of 14th century inflamed joints as those suffered during the 20th. Should we nonetheless retain for all persons prior to, say 1800, their quaint explanation? Does historical concurrence grant some kind of epistemic privilege?
My attribution of Scarborough Fair to the Beatles was arguably the most careless act of my career. I apologize to Paul Simon and Art Garfunkle. (At least I got the decade right.) As for Kinda Blue, that error is the product of a speech impediment suffered by many of us who retain traces of their Texas origins. It is no excuse for flawed titles, but to this day I must force myself to utter the words "kind of blue." I am grateful to Dr. Bashour for correcting my spelling of Cannonball Adderley's name.
1In Discarding Images: Reflections on Music and Culture in Medieval France (Oxford, 1993).
2Page, loc. cit., 15, and N.B. 37-41.
3The "short melodic formulae" touted by Dr. Bashour are not reliable modal markers. Derived, perhaps, from the Byzantine Echoi, they replace objective artifactual analysis with a matching game that relies on sets of broadly applicable possibilities. Calling them melodic types, Willi Apel (Gregorian Chant, (Bloomington, 1958), 136) offhandedly dismisses them as quaint passing fancies of description. Carl Dahlhaus ("Definitions 1, d" in "Tonality," The New Grove . . . ) claims they were important at one time, but only "within an early pre-tonal period of chant history," whenever that may have been).
4Dolores Pesce discusses such observations in her Affinities and Medieval Transpositions (Bloomington, 1987), 14-46. In this light it is fascinating that Odo (Dialogus, Chapter 8) observes that one exception for initial notes (which in other modes must be the finalis) occur in Mode 3, where it is often C.
5Apel, loc. cit., 142.
6Speaking of chant collections in general, David Hiley (Western Plainchant, Oxford, 1993) remarks (page 167) that melodies transposed "between G-mode, C-mode, and F-mode with B) are common."
7On the Modes, trans. by Vered Cohen of Part IV, Le Istitutioni Harmoniche (New Haven, 1958), 91.
9We are indebted to Sigfried Hermelink (Dispositiones Modorum, Tutzing, 1968) for the etic/emic distinction, although Harold Powers has been responsible for its adoption by a number of American scholars.
11I am disappointed that Dr. Bashour says nothing about modal claims made for All Blues.
12Hiley, loc. cit., 61.
13Entia non multiplicanda praeter necessitatem.
14Peter Medawar, Pluto's Republic (New York, 1982), 90.
15Let us ignore for the moment modal doctrines of the classical Greek and Byzantine worlds, as well as similar pitch abstractions of more recent non-Western cultures.
16Tonality in Music: A General Theory (San Marino, 1999), especially chapters 3 and 4.
17For example, the recognition of an ambitus spanning a split octave, the authentic/plagal distinction, explains more about the melodic causes of tonality in music from Josquin to the present than anything set down by theorists of our immediate tradition.
18Traité Complet de la Théorie et la Pratique l'Harmonie, Book III, ¶250.
19The Past is a Foreign Country (Cambridge, 1985), 23.
20What is Art For (Seattle, 1988), 35.
Last modified on Monday, 28/10/2013
William Ennis Thomson
After a youth playing jazz trumpet and French Horn, the professional life of William Ennis Thomson (b. 1927, Ft. Worth, Texas) was devoted to collegiate-level music theory and composition. His primary thrust in research and writing centered upon the cognitive/perceptual foundation of music, but the range of his many books and articles extends to political and historical aspects of academe. A complete listing of published articles can be found in Wikipedia, (William Ennis Thomson).
His academic history includes Music School, University of Southern California (Professor and Dean, 1980–1992; SUNY-Buffalo (Music Chair and Ziegle Professor, 1975–80); University of Arizona (Director, Graduate Studies 1972–75); Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Institute of Music (Kulas Professor, 1969–72); Indiana University (Music Theory Chair,1961–69)); University of Hawaii (Scholar in Residence, 1967–68); Sul Ross State College (Prof., 1951–59); Ford Foundation Composer in Residence, Elkhart, IN (1960–61). From 1967-77 he guided the formation of the public school music curriculum for the state of Hawaii.
1975-79 Thomson chaired the Advanced Placement in Music Test Committee; 1971-75; served as Music Panel Member and Examiner for the National Endowment for the Arts; was Fellow and Policy Committee member of the Ford Foundation CMP, 1963-76; and board member, Buffalo Philharmonic,1976–80.
Early in his career Thomson composed award-winning works for band, orchestra, chorus and various chamber media. He served in the U.S. Navy from 1945-46, mainly as band member aboard the aircraft carrier Lexington.
Now retired from USC, he lives in Bloomington, Indiana.