Simply the Best
A Shining Light on   Broadway



Ric Burns '78
Ronald Mason Jr. '74
Victor Wouk '39
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Textures as Metaphors

Ian Bent, the Anne Parsons Bender Professor of Music, is the current chair of the Music Humanities program. A specialist in nineteenth- and twentieth-century music and in the history of music theory, Bent was born in England and educated at Cambridge University; he is the editor of Music Analysis in the Nineteenth Century (1993) and Music Theory in the Age of Romanticism (1996). In his address to the graduating seniors at this year's February Commencement ceremony, Bent used the specialized vocabulary of Music Humanities to delve into the nature of human personality.

Ian Bent suggests the three main textures of music as metaphors for human personality.

It is my great privilege - and one in which I take enormous pleasure - to greet you, the Fall graduating class, the first proud graduands of 2000, on behalf of the Faculty of Columbia College - indeed, the Faculty of Columbia University as a whole. I bring congratulations to you, and to all who have supported you over the last four years, and I offer you good wishes for all that lies ahead.

Among the "core" experiences of most of you while at Columbia will have been 50 or so hours spent in the classrooms of Music Humanities. We hope those were rewarding hours; the Music Hum staff work together to make them enriching experiences for you.

Whatever else, I can be pretty sure that you will have racked your brains over three inscrutable, long words that express the three main textures of music, the three distinct ways of organizing musical sound in time: monophony, homophony, and polyphony. And oh what troubles they cause, when it comes to Midterm and Final!

We might, however, see these three textures as metaphors for something other than just the organization of sound - as, perhaps, metaphors for human personality. You might ask yourself what sort of person you are - a monophonic one, a homophonic one, or a polyphonic one? A monophonic person is single-minded; has an inborn sense of direction, of purpose, of goal. A monophonic person needs no supporting harmony, requires no bass line against which to work, does not listen for complementing voices around her. A monophonic person knows where she is going, does not look over her shoulder, does not require affirmation. Whether she is a modern-day Hildegard of Bingen or Maria di Ventadorn, or whether he is a Richard the Lionheart, a monophonic person is self-reliant. Are you a monophonic person?

Or are you a homophonic one? Are you - in only the best sense of the term - a team player? A homophonic person prefers to work in consort with others, prefers to reach agreement at every stage, prefers to work in harmony with friends and colleagues. He may allow dissonance to arise between him and others, but only if it soon resolves into consonance. The harmony may appear to lose its way at times - the diatonic may become chromatic - but there must always be a guiding hand that restores it to the path, a magnetic force that brings it back before the end. (And that magnetic force in music, as you all know, is the tonic.) Is this the sort of person you are? The vast majority of Western music since the Middle Ages exists in some form of homophony. Without it there would be no madrigals, no symphonies, no operas, no jazz, no Beethoven, no film music, no Beatles or Rolling Stones. Probably the majority of people, the people on whom our social and political system relies, belong to this category.

And then there are the polyphonic personalities. These are people who chart their own path, but always in the knowledge that others are doing the same, and that in some mysterious way their paths will work together. They are individualists, who work best when surrounded by other individualists. They take numerous risks, but always in the belief that there is an ultimate safety net. Things may appear to get out of control, but by some magic they come right in the end.

The very real fears that one experiences along the way turn out to be illusory.

Then there is another type of polyphonist - the personality that is polyphonic within itself. This is the personality that encompasses widely divergent strands - the person in whom from time to time you discover a side that you had never suspected before; the person who keeps many apparently independent things going in her life without ever getting them tangled up; who may even, as we say, keep aspects of her life in "separate compartments." Whether she is a Josquin, or a Palestrina, or a Johann Sebastian Bach, she manages either to combine different kinds of activities, or to work in the same way and simultaneously with entirely different kinds of subjects, materials, or data.

Well, this may all sound very silly to you. And how dare I presume to stereotype you (or at least invite you to stereotype yourself)? In reality, of course, very few musical compositions belong exclusively to one texture. Most of them combine two, or all three, in judicious proportions. A sonata by Mozart uses the contrast between homophony and polyphony to wonderfully dramatic effect! Just think of Richard Strauss's Thus Spake Zarathustra - popularly known through the theme music of the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey - three glorious, glowing ascending tones of intrepid monophony, to be greeted by two contrasting chords of homophony, the first major, the second minor, the second instantly neutralizing the first, checking its exuberance, calling it in question, sowing doubts. What a stunning total effect, this microcosm of textures and modes!

No, I am not going to draw heavy-handed conclusions from this extension of my metaphor. I leave any conclusions to you. It is for me, on this celebratory occasion, to encourage you to continue your journey of self-discovery - and discovery of others - as you enter into "life after Columbia." The faculty of this University wishes you not only the prosperity that you very likely hope for for yourself, but also the fulfillment of self that brings the genuine rewards - throughout the rest of your lives. And I would add: may music (of whatever sort it be) serve as your constant companion along the way.

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