Monday, February 27, 2006


Numbers game

Steve Augustine, who's left a number of very sharp comments on this blog (thanks, Steve, wherever you are), had a fairly skeptical response to William Gass's 12-tone trickery, which I mentioned in the last post. Here's what he said:
I am deeply grateful for Gass' brave work but I can't help being jarred by the essential silliness of this: "The Tunnel was built on Schoenberg's 12-tone system--I divided it into 12 chapters, with 12 basic themes." Schoenberg's 12-tone system can be no more of a meaningful algorithm for the structuring of a literary work than the 12 months of the year can, or the number of the participants of the Last Supper minus one. Your subsequent reference to Burgess is too apt (more Burgess numbers: remember how the original version of A Clockwork Orange was 21 chapters long; 21 representing the age of majority?)...and Burgess, of course, picked up the tic from Joyce. Joyce's excuse for such numerological literary voodoo was probably a case of OCD-flavored genius meeting Jesuitical cryptomania.

But how can modern Gass pretend that a numerical motif in any way evokes a corresponding musical effect (12-tone, pentatonic or otherwise) in prose? It's really not a question of the effect being " most readers"...there's nothing there to be heard, not even synesthetically, in the 12x12 motif, even for the most sensitive score-reader on Earth.

I only make a big deal about it because I think this is a (subconscious?) left-over from the extra-literary effects once used to sell literary art to the masses (nowadays we just use sex or personal tragedy)...the writer as Wizard; the reader as Rube.
This is funny, vehemant, and (I think) about seventy percent correct. I agree, there is no real correspondence between Gass's structural motif and Schoenberg's music--not even, as Steve says, "for the most sensitive score-reader on Earth." That was what I meant to suggest, perhaps too gently, by saying that the resemblance would be inaudible to most readers. In that sense, yes, Gass is being silly. But if this enables him to finish the book, it's a practical sort of silliness. Of course I prefer that the author dismantle his theoretical scaffolding once he's done and cart it away, so I don't have to keep stumbling over it. Even so theory-mad a composer as Schoenberg himself came to a similar conclusion. Here's what he wrote in a 1944 letter to Roger Sessions:
And finally I want to mention what I consider the greatest value for a possible appreciation of my music: that you say, one must listen to it in the same manner as to every other kind of music, forget the theories, the twelve-tone method, the dissonances, etc., and, I would add, if possible the author.

Ha ha! Now I feel like a bit of a putz for not reading your Gass-chiding irony correctly in the first place! I doff my High-Grade Ha to both you and Schoenberg
Steve, since I don't have your email address, let me state a salient fact right here: you're no putz. And I hope you'll keep leaviing comments--your bit about Joyce as an OCD-flavored Jesuit was priceless (and probably accurate.)
Sorry for coming in here late, but this is an interesting topic. Can't speak for anyone, but I can't imagine that Gass thought anyone would be able to actually hear schoenberg (I realize I'm probably not disagreeing with you guys), but using a system like's Schoenberg's is merely an intellectual structure, which Gass probably used to create balance - the 12 note method used all notes the same with none dominating. So I don't think Gass is trying to sell anything to the masses, but creating a framework for what is otherwise a pretty messy bit of work. Structure can be anything, the Comedia is highly structured, but what's wrong with using a structure that the author identifies with, particularly since he doesn't burden the reader with it (as Joyce did naming his book Ulysses).
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