Countersubject: interdisciplinary polyphony

I’ve been meaning to write about this event for a while. Polyphony, a pecha cucha style event hosted by Emilia Telese, was held back in May to accompany an exhibition of Janet Cardiff’s The Forty Part Motet . Unfortunately I was unable to attend (West Cornwall is a very long way from anywhere), but some of the ideas presented there seemed relevant to this blog.

The event featured a number of speakers, all exploring the topic of polyphony ‘as an idea in the arts, science and humanities.’ As someone who writes about music, I’ve often drawn concepts from other fields of study. However, I’ve noticed that this is rarely a two-way process: few primarily musical concepts are used to theorize other subjects (though Richard Coyne’s The Tuning of Place springs to mind).

Seeing the ad for the event set me thinking about which other musical terms might be useful beyond their specific musical meaning. See if you can think of any examples for the following: counterpoint, atonality, chromaticism, duet, doubling, enharmonic, fugue, modulation, voice-leading, continuo, rāg, scale, key, pedal point, cadence, phrase, arpeggiation, accidentals, close position (as in a triad), (equal) temperament, melisma … (I’ll admit, however, that Tierce de Picardie may be a little difficult).

Of course, many of these already have a non-musical meanings in everyday English, and a number of them also have specialist meanings in other fields. Interestingly, even if these concepts aren’t  etymologicaly linked with their sonic associations, they may still derive from everyday experience, particularly bodily experience. Janna Saslaw’s article ‘Forces, Containers and Paths,’*  traces the use of cognitive structures derived from bodily experience in  statements and concepts in music theory. These cognitive structures, often referred to as image schema or image schemata, have been found to underpin patterns of understanding, particularly through metaphor.

Although most of the scheduled talks seemed to take the voice as their starting point (perhaps unsurprisingly, as the term polyphony originates from the Greek, meaning many voices or sounds), Dr Tiziano Poletti**, a pharmacist specializing in prosthetics, gave a talk about the human body ‘interacting in “polyphony” with artificial limbs.’ Conceptualising somatic or embodied experience as ‘polyphonic’ is an interesting idea, and one I hope to follow up in later blog posts. In the meantime, please feel free to leave comments below.

* Saslaw, Janna (1996). ‘Forces, Containers, and Paths: The Role of Body-Derived Image Schemas in the Conceptualization of Music,’ Journal of Music Theory  40/2: 217-243.

** Other speakers at the event included: Lucy Bannister; Ed Hughes; Gordon Finlayson and Barbara Keal.