Polyphony and Language

Mark Coniglio (troika@panix.com)
Fri, 16 May 1997 10:07:59 -0400

> Johannes said

>Mark's post on "polyphony", in response to my question about whether the
>debate within contemporary anthropology (and ethnographic practice) may have
>a bearing on DTZ, veers into another direction altogether, and I am
>scrambling to catch up, since I was not really at all speaking about
>composition (however pragmatic) nor about reception (of how one hears/see
>multiple media in performance).

Johannes, a few reflections on this...

It is true that have veered into "another direction altogether" with my
statements about polyphony. The language that you use is derived from a
certain strain of the philosophical writing style that includes, in my very
limited experience, people like Roland Barthes or Delueze and Guatarri. For
me, this language is quite difficult to understand though I am challanged
to decipher it. My experience of these words is not so much one of
"understanding" but of receiving a gesalt, an overall sense of what is
being said without perceiving the specifics. I do not know if this is
because I am too impatient to read more carefully, or because at 7:30am (my
typical reading time) I have not had enough coffee to spark my neurons into
collective action.

Nevertheless these texts are useful to me, not only because of their
intended meaning, but because they generate other "lines of flight" to use
a term from Mssrs. Delueze and Guatarri. My tome on polyphony was just such
a fantasia, as I suppose somewhere deep down inside I had the need to
reveal my thoughts on these compositional ideas.

But I want to consider, for a moment, the language yourself and some of our
compatriots tend towards...

> From Johannes' transdance/ethnography V

>Polyphony is a means of perspectival relativity and is
>not just an evasion of authorial rsponsibility or a guilty excess of
>democracy, though it articulates best with that social form, and it does
>correspond with the realities of fieldwork in places sensitive to the issue
>of power as symbolized in the subject-object relationship between he who
>represents and she who is represented. Myths and folktales are authorless
>texts too, examples of the form of polyphony, even when related by someone,
>even though we must think in that case of a collective extended in time
>whose participants never convene to compose the work.

Of course I am taking this out of a larger context, so forgive me. But I
use the language above as an example of the style of which I speak. The
core idea of the first sentence seems to be "polyphonic [discourse]
corresponds to the realities of fieldwork", especally where the field "is
sensitive to the issue of power." But what does this really mean? Is the
language being used to convey, in the most efficient manner, the ideas of
the author. Or is it purposely expressed as a series of deepening recursive
ideas designed that circle around, but do not target, a main idea? Perhaps
it is done to obscure, perhaps to open the language up to a wide variety of

To me this kind of language reminds me of, to use my handy musical
metaphors, certain musical works, like the compositions of Milton Babbit.
Certainly his 12-tone language is is highly developed, and his intended
meaning (musical rule sets) is expressed with extreme clarity (though it
might only be experienced by analyzing the score out of real time.) But, in
fact, the meaning is so deeply hidden that it becomes inaccessable to a
wider audience - certainly that is the case with Babbitt.

One of my teachers, a composer called Mel Powell who was a student of
Babbit and Hindemith, said with complete self-assurance "some call this
music eliteist as if this is a bad thing. I pride myself on being an
eliteist." Mel's statement is in fact a declaration of power. The
implication is that by hoarding certain information, and keeping it from
the general group, one creates a power structure that facilitates a certain
kind of control over those who do not understand the language. It allows
the speaker of the exclusive language to artifically elevate h/erself above
those who are not in the know. Of course, I must assume that Milton would
argue that his language expresses his ideas perfectly, both without excess
and with a fine degree of subtlety and he would be right. Perhaps I am
simply making a lame populist argument against sophisticated expresion -
but I must go with my feelings here.

Is this stylized language itself the performance? I think that you are
alluding to this Johannes, that our back and forth emailing is in fact a
"polyphonic" performance of sorts. In the sense that this kind of language
can be interpreted in a variety of ways by those who are not familiar with
its form makes it a lot like abstract performances I have seen. But I have
little interest in digging into the deeper meaning of our email discussions
- for me S. Tyler's "mutual, dialogical production of a discourse" is
nothing more than a few interested parties sitting around talking about
stuff they are interested in.

I fear that all of this will sound like an attack, or a request to
simplify, but it is not. (In fact, Johannes, whatever style you use, your
writing triggers much of discussion on this listserv for which I am
personally grateful) It is simply the reactions of someone who doesn't have
ready access to the some of the more sophisticated language and is perhaps
a bit frustrated at that. Of course, one can't help being slow.

With Best Wishes,
Mark Coniglio

Mark Coniglio, Artistic Co-Director | troika@panix.com
Troika Ranch | http://www.art.net/~troika