Saturday, 19 January 2008

‘Dapper’ and the meaning of music

On my way back from the shops I was practising walking with longer strides (I've noticed they’ve got shorter; once, I used to overtake everyone) and holding myself upright as I advanced my stride vigorously in front, when the image came into my mind of one of my teachers who used to walk like that, perhaps because he had been a naval lieutenant, if indeed he had. The word ‘dapper’ came into my mind and I realised that it neatly illustrated how meaning gets attached to things (like words, or, strictly word-sounds or word-marks) that thereby become signs.

I could not define dapper, nor could most people who happily use the word; any definition would just gesture at what it is, picking out one or two partial indicators. (I'll look it up, but not yet.) But it’s there all right -- dapper exists; we all recognise it when we see it. Some of the connotations are pressed creases, smart (but not military: navy, not army), trim, neat, without anything excessive; any more so and it would be uptight, anal, repressed. Rather it might go the other way: canary-yellow waistcoat and bow tie (another of my teachers, but too lanky and languid to be dapper).

So, yes, that configuration of characteristics of person and dress exists. But so, presumably, do many other configurations that haven’t attracted names. Being able to attach the name to the phenomenon may indeed make it definite and identifiable, distinct from the general blur of overlapping similarities and differences in my field of awareness. Dapper becomes an object of cognition; as far as consciousness is concerned, the phenomenon of the dapper could be said to be brought into existence by the word. Conversely, the word wouldn’t work if there were not something already in our awareness for it to latch onto. It was a word that, when it was invented, we were ready and waiting for; we latched onto it for its truth.

Now, compare a piece of music that appears from nowhere and catches on, gets taken up, becomes known, gets played among friends, becomes an object of shared appreciation. I think it’s functioning like ‘dapper’. It enters the world beyond its producers as a signifier with a limited meaning produced by the references of the lyrics, and by features of sound and structure that suggest certain associations of mood or situation and perhaps generate direct physiological and psychological effects, as certain chemicals do. Then we, the listening public, attach the music to some state that we vaguely apprehend and that’s waiting to attain definition; the music becomes the word for the state; the state becomes the meaning of the music. The music, that is, becomes a full sign; a physical entity (sounds, audio effects), meaningless in itself (just noise) acquires meaning by being associated with something other than itself, a state (of feeling, of consciousness, of circumstances). It becomes the name for the state; but the state in a sense wasn’t there, not as a clear, discrete phenomenon, before it had this signifier, the music, attached to it. The state could not have been named in advance of the music; it wasn’t sharply enough there. But now the music stands for it and evokes it, making it a reality of which we deliberately induce the full consciousness by listening to the music or letting it come into our heads.

Turn back to language: certain words, like ‘dapper’, but more interestingly whole configurations of words, such as poems, operate like music. We (especially English teachers) are easily deceived by the fact that poems are composed of words, which we take to have definite meanings. Some words don’t, like ‘dapper’, but even if other words do, the meaning of the ensemble of words, the entire poem, can’t be got at by working through the meanings of the component words and syntactical structures. The whole thing ‘stands for’ something that otherwise has no name, for a state (to call it that again) or state of affairs or state of being; the experience of the poem is like recognition--we know what it’s referring to, even though that referred to state has never been named and can’t be named. It’s still like recognition even if we haven’t had any previous awareness of the state; even if, indeed, that state has been brought into existence, as a thing in our consciousness, only by the poem. Now the state has a name or a tune or a song, the poem, and can become an object of shared experience between all the people who share the language it’s written in.

Now let’s consult the OED online: dapper, a.

[Not found in OE. or ME. App. adopted in the end of the ME. period from Flemish or other LG. dialect (with modification of sense, perh. ironical or humorous): cf. MDu. dapper powerful, strong, stout, energetic, in mod.Du., valiant, brave, bold, MLG. dapper heavy, weighty, steady, stout, persevering, undaunted, OHG. tapfar, MHG. tapfer heavy, weighty, firm, in late MHG. and mod.G., warlike, brave. The sense of ON. dapr ‘sad, downcast’ appears to be developed from that of ‘heavy’. Possibly cognate with OSlav. dobr good.]

1. Of persons: Neat, trim, smart, spruce in dress or appearance. (Formerly appreciative; now more or less depreciative, with associations of littleness or pettiness; cf. b.)

c1440 Promp. Parv. 113 Dapyr, or praty, elegans. a1529 SKELTON Image Hypocr. 95 As dapper as any crowe And perte as any pie. 1530 PALSGR. 309/1 Daper, proper, mignon, godin. 1594 NASHE Unfort. Trav. 1 The dapper Mounsier Pages of the Court. 1648 HERRICK Hesper., The Temple, Their many mumbling masse-priests here, And many a dapper chorister. 1673 R. LEIGH Transproser Reh. 9 As if the dapper Stripling were to be heir to all the Fathers features. 1749 FIELDING Tom Jones I. xi, The idle and childish liking of a girl to a often fixed on..flowing locks, downy chins, dapper shapes. 1828 SCOTT F.M. Perth viii, The spruce and dapper importance of his ordinary appearance. 1861 Sat. Rev. Dec. 605 Our dapper curates, who only open their mouths to say ‘L'Eglise, c'est moi!’ 1885 M. E. BRADDON Wyllard's Weird I. 89 A good-looking man..well set up, neat without being dapper or priggish.

Well. It seems that in medieval England a word that was imprecisely understood, being Flemish for strong or heavy, (as dapper was imprecisely understood when I first came across it), and was thus an only-partly-formed signifier, was purloined by English speakers and used to name a state, dapperness, for which a word didn’t already exist but which was ready for one.

Saturday, 5 January 2008

One of my teachers

Like many teachers of my generation I went to a grammar school but supported comprehensives as soon as I became aware of them. I still don’t support grammar schools but in recent years have become more and more fascinated by them, and particularly by the tension between the schools’ official, middle-class ethos and the attitudes of many of their (often working-class) pupils—either instrumental (seeking exam passes but not buying into the values) or heavily into youth culture (and not buying into the values).

I'm interested in what the grammar schools achieved and what they pathetically failed to given the intelligence of their students and could never have achieved with so much downright incompetent teaching. Among the teachers, there was an intriguing contrast between the large body of hopeless cases who stayed in the schools for forty years and the brilliant ones, who were of two sorts: one lot remote, unworldly and forceful, teaching their discipline with intensity, high seriousness and exacting standards, and the other, no less serious in their mission, and typically including English teachers (but never science teachers), who were somewhat subversive (obviously despising the stuffy ‘Victorian’ order of the school), whose lessons were full of laughs and who we learned from because they were men we could identify with and were some damned interesting (not that they didn’t work us hard too).

A couple of books boosted my interest, one re-read after many years (Brian Jackson & Dennis Marsden (1962), Education and the working class : some general themes raised by a study of 88 working class children in a northern industrial city) and one old one read for the first time (Frances Stevens (1960), The living tradition: the social and educational assumptions of the grammar school). Sometime I hope to write more about grammar schools and my own schooling.

My school was Bradford Grammar School, a boys’ Direct Grant School. This was a school that had originally (17th century) had endowments, had declined and rotted and then been revived in Victorian times. From 1944 it was ‘aided’ by a grant directly from the government in return for 25% of free places being awarded to scholarship boys. (75% still paid fees and the school was in effect independent, having nothing to do with the local LEA.)

One of my teachers died recently, a good teacher of the first, high seriousness type, and I was asked to write something for an obituary in the school magazine. Here’s what I wrote.

H.A. Twelves

In 1958-9 there was an enlightened scheme whereby Sixth Classical took three subjects which were not to be examined and for which little or no homework was required: English literature (Dr B. Oxley), the history of science (Mr W.E. Clarkson) and French (Mr H.A. Twelves). All three were fine courses.

Before that year I knew Mr Twelves by sight and reputation, and because he supervised dinners every other day, alternating with a crude and unpleasant geography man called Downend. Whereas Downend hit a small gong to get silence and invited us to ‘say your graces, please’, Twelves simply beamed authority from his suit and, when response was not instant, uttered a cuttingly enunciated ‘I'm waiting’ (an example in linguistics of what is grammatically a sentence but performs the speech act of commanding)--after which he would say grace himself . (Rowan Atkinson would have done a good Twelves.)

I think we were not pleased when we learned that we were to have a year being taught by Mr Twelves. He appeared to us the embodiment of respectable bourgeois authoritarianness. The Sixties were stirring in their womb and the young, influenced by Sartre, the Beats, Colin Wilson’s The Outsider and the ‘real life’ of Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, were becoming openly rebellious against old conformity. Twelves was known to lead a strange church (the Christadelphians) of which none of us had ever met any other member. He was sometimes seen at Saltaire leading a subdued-looking family on a stately Sunday walk along the towpath. On school corridors he would advance prelate-like in a procession of one. The man clearly had contempt for innocent teenage pursuits like going out of an evening, drinking pints and listening to pop music. Of his own youth all I remember him telling us was that while waiting for a train on Sheffield station he would pace the platform reciting French poetry to himself. His self-revelations included the occasional wicked admission of some childish misdemeanour, followed by the injunction, ‘Tell it not in Gath, chaps.’ He would sometimes refer to himself smilingly in the third person as ‘Douze’, his nickname in the school. Such gestures of maty collusion did not come off; he did not do ‘getting on with the boys’. Though he did once, having learned to drive late in life, offer my friend Jim Patchett a lift along Frizinghall Road; as Douze steered the car with erratic determination Jim solicitously asked, ‘Are you getting used to the traffic now , sir?', to which the reply was, 'I have no fear of or concern for the traffic, but I have difficulty controlling the vehicle.’

Of course, we knew nothing about his life. He was not a master one got to know. He was unashamedly a scholar dedicated to the pursuit of humanist learning. It was not an easy time to be living for such ideals (not that it got any easier) and for those pupils who favoured the immediate overthrow of bourgeois society Twelves doubtless remained the sanctimonious generational enemy bent on confining the green vigour of youth in life-denying study. But most of us, I think, while never finding him entirely human or wanting to know him better, came to respect his mind, his seriousness, his knowledge and his passion. It was true that his general manner was stuffy. One did not josh with Mr Twelves on the stairs. He ran a tight ship. To a sixth former who had missed the first week and was slouching in his desk Twelves barked, ‘Mitchell, sit up!’ adding, in that precise articulation and with the smile of a villainous James Bond mastermind, ‘I can see you don’t know our ways.’

He made it clear (though perhaps only afterwards) that it was a pleasure for him to teach classics students; he told me years later that he could tell by our eyes, when we entered the third form (i.e. first year), that we were the brightest and the best (surely a delusion). In the course he devised for us he let himself go and seemed to pile into it everything he loved in French poetry and drama, including texts that he never had the opportunity to tackle in his main O- and A-Level teaching. He taught them with gusto and, for those of us prepared to give literature beyond Hemingway a chance and refrain from leaning against radiators, the year was exhilarating. Our previous experience of French had not got far beyond M. and Mme Lepine going to la gare (and, to be fair, a bit of Maupassant) and here we were being swept along by Racine’s unShakespearian alexandrines, racing through Romantics and Symbolistes and finally reading plays as contemporary and racy as the Beckett and Osborne we were doing with Dr Oxley in English: Anouilh, Giroudoux, Sartre, Cocteau. This stuff was so fresh it was being put on at the Civic (in English) as the latest in French avant-gardism.

The mode of engagement within the lessons varied between arduous mental effort in the face of translation problems, laughter at Cocteau’s jokes, intellectual fascination at Douze’s explanations of Mallarmé’s poetic theory or Sartre’s philosophy and intense, even reverent, attention as when (having first addressed vocabulary and grammar issues) he read the messenger speech in a Corneille play. I recall his barely suppressed anger once when the spell was broken by an interruption from the unfortunate Charlie Sommers [spelling?], another French teacher, who came in with a notice about cross-country. Mr Twelves held an Arnoldian belief, such as we rarely experienced in classics or English, in the high seriousness of the calling of literary study. Seriousness, but not pomposity or hypocrisy; his lessons were lively, even fun. Whatever Mr Twelves’s public demeanour, there was nothing stuffy about his curriculum. He demonstrated and induced in us a vigorous engagement with the texts, into which his insights were sharp. It was he as much as anyone who taught me to read poetry and who turned some, perhaps many of us into people who could and would continue to read French for pleasure and appreciate French culture—a legacy of which I hope he was proud and for which I am grateful.

Tuesday, 1 January 2008

Where is the music?

I listened to a radio recording of a concert, the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela playing Shostokovich’s Tenth Symphony in last summer’s Proms. I've heard the symphony on CD and it may be just the crudity of my musical sensibility but I found this performance especially powerful, and the players’ apparent passion infectious.

That’s not the point I want to make here, though, which concerns not that piece or that performance but something more general about music. I think it relates most particularly to classical music, though I'm open to correction on that from those better attuned to rock and pop, who came of age before they really happened.

The recording was of a live event and there were people coughing. Perhaps mainly one person, but it was bloody annoying--until I realised that if I listened properly it didn’t spoil the experience. I couldn’t block out the coughing but I could get myself to hear it on a different wavelength or on a different channel. The music belonged to another dimension and was unaffected by extraneous sound; it continued on its predetermined course regardless. The coughing belonged to a trivial sublunary world onto which this entity (Shostakovich’s) had dropped from space, its receptors deaf to worldly noise. Descended, it calmly laid out its site and in its own time and at its own pace unfolded its vast and complex construction.

It was a thing of another order come amongst us. Although manifested in sound, it was also an architecture, its reality residing as much in its abstract structure as in its audible material embodiment. It occupied time, but at another level made its own time, setting up its own measures of fast and slow, hurrying and loitering, patient attending and nervous interrupting. We were in the presence of a contingent incarnation of a timeless abstraction that had for the occasion made itself flesh. It was relentless, impersonal, beyond our reach (while apparently alluding to and actually evoking human emotion).

The effect of the coughing was to enforce awareness of the incommensurability of our world of accidents and sensual experience and the abstract structure and system that was being provisionally and partially translated into something our ears could follow. Presumably that gap is discernible at any live performance where instruments are at different distances from us and there’s some ambient noise, and even in a studio recording in which individual players and their particular instruments make sounds that are unique to them and perhaps unique to that day. At best they are alluding to something the nature of which we grasp not with our ears but with fleeting intuition.

Perhaps what intrigues us about music is its always ambiguous status. Which is real, the underlying idea or its ‘realisation’ in a performance? (A misguided way of thinking, as if the triangle I draw on a piece of paper is more real than the triangle it’s a drawing of—concepts are real but immaterial.) The same score generates many performances: are they like drawings of it? But the score is only a notation, not a likeness. A notation of what, then? The composer’s intended sound-structure? But what if a conductor, while staying faithful to the score, produces a performance that the composer hadn’t envisaged? And how do we know that the composer had anything particular in mind? Are the performances equally valid creations, as if the score is one creation, in one medium, and the performance a second, in another? (Here’s entity A, the score, and also in the world are entities B1, B2, B3, performances.) Or are the performances alternative stabs at catching the true music? This is bewildering. There is indeed something there behind the performances, and for all the physical reality of the latter (sound waves affecting our senses) we have to accord the status of reality to the composition that gives rise to them.

Or is all that just hopelessly pretentious? I'm not sure.