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RE: URe: [xmca] Victor Wooten: Music as a Language

(Sorry about that last one, everybody--something wrong with this new address, too--I keep getting bounce notices!)


When I was at art school, a kid in our workshop, who is now a fairly well known artist, was discovering phenomenology and Cezanne. We made fun of him, because everything he painted looked like you were seeing it through beads of sweat or a frosted transparent shower curtain. But he was the one who insisted that painting was a language; and what he meant was that he had discovered a form of painting with a very strong accent.


Of course, in a perfectly banal non-metaphorical sense, music is language, but that really says more about the word "is" than about the word "music" or the word "language". Language is, as Volosinov tells us, a neutral sign, and therefore we can use it to describe more or less well almost any form of human experience, including musical experience. The reverse relationship does not work so well; music is not very good at naming things, or even at indicating objects in the perceptual field, much less defining, exemplifying, etc.


Of course, you can say that a donkey is an animal without saying that all animals are donkeys.  It's precisely because music is only one type of language and it is NOT clear the way that language can be that Shostakovich could write a symphony that was both anti-Hitler an anti-Stalin, and Mozart could howl "Long live liberty!" right in the chops of the Habsburg emperor. 


I thnk that mostly when we say that music is a language, we are speaking in a completely metaphorical sense, as Wooten does when he tries to draw lessons about musical acquisition from first language acquisition. I think the idea that first language acquisition is somehow painless is really a myth; the truth of the matter is that we have no choice, and the reason why most of us fail at some point in our second language learning is that we do have a choice, and the fact that painting and music are among those choices, and I may choose to paint or to play the lute instead of doing my Russian, is enough to demonstrate to me that at some very proximal point, music ceases to be language.


Don't get me wrong; I have nothing against music and even less against metaphor. Actually, I am wrestling with metaphors right now. We are bringing out a Korean version of "The HIstory of the Development of the Higher Psychic Functions" in October, and I have become convinced that the Soviet editor just took the title from the first line of the manuscript (like "Nessun Dorma" or "My lover's eyes are nothing like the sun"). Vygotsky would never have called it that at all, because "higher" is really too metaphorical, and so is "function".  Vygotsky loved a good metaphor, but, like any other name, the metaphor is only ready when the concept is.


David Kellogg

Hankuk University of Foreign Studies


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