Understanding symphony through semiotics – Yasheng

This week’s readings are very technical and I am not sure if I understood them 100%. But I will attempt to illustrate how Jackendoff’s parallel architecture of language can be extended to music.

My wonderful friend Iva often invites me to performances by the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center. Because I don’t know a lot about symphony or classical music in general, I often rely on the program booklet for ways to appreciate the performance. One of the most hauntingly yet disturbingly beautiful piece I’ve heard is the second movement of Dmitri Shostakovich’s 11th Symphony entitled “The Ninth of January.”[1] This movement depicted the massacre of protesters carried out by the Tsarist autocracy in 1905. One specific segment of this movement especially helps to illustrate the “hauntingly yet disturbingly beautiful” quality.

To demonstrate the meaning of this movement, I will attach an excerpt of the program here,

Allegro (The 9th of January)

The second movement, referring to the events of the Bloody Sunday, consists of two major sections. The first section probably depicts the petitioners of 22 January 1905 [O.S. 9 January], in the city of Saint Petersburg, in which crowds descended on the Winter Palace to complain about the government’s increased inefficiency, corruption, and harsh ways. This first section is busy and constantly moves forward. It builds to two steep climaxes, then recedes into a deep, frozen calm in the prolonged piccolo and flute melodies, underscored again with distant brass. Another full orchestra build-up launches into a pounding march, in a burst from the snare drum like gunfire and fugal strings, as the troops descend on the crowd. This breaks out into an intense section of relentless strings, and trombone and tuba glissandos procure a nauseating sound underneath the panic and the troops’ advance on the crowd. Then comes a section of mechanical, heavily repetitive snare drum, bass drum, timpani, and tam-tam solo before the entire percussion sections breaks off at once. Numbness sets in with a section reminiscent of the first movement.[2]

The highlighted sentence coordinates to 11:00 to 15:09 in the YouTube video I shared above, and it is the segment I find “hauntingly yet disturbingly beautiful.” I will now attempt to explain processes, in my opinion, of the creation and appreciation of this segment in a semiotic fashion.

During the production of this segment, Shostakovich treated the sound of snare drum, bass drum, and others as icons to mimic the sound of firearms on the day of the massacre. Sounds coming from these instruments are “perceived as resembling or imitating the signified, being similar in possessing some of its qualities.”[3] These sound patterns are then choreographed by Shostakovich into different notes on a score. This can be perfectly explained through Jackendoff’s Parallel Architecture.[4] The process of representing one sound pattern using another is visible at the interface between the phonological structure and the conceptual structure. And the process of Shostakovich organizing different sound patterns into music notes can be perceived as the syntactic structure interfacing the conceptual structure. Furthermore, these music notes remain as abstract representations until they are played by their associated instruments – just like a speech remains as an abstract representation until it is orally delivered by someone.

On the receiving end, the process of decoding requires various layers of interpretations of different “stacks” in the structure of this segment. I commented on the piece using the phrase (or symbol in Pierce’s term) “hauntingly yet disturbingly beautiful” earlier, indicating that there are (at least) two processes of interpretation happening when I was listening to this segment.

  1. I, without knowing the context of the symphony, found the music very engaging thanks to the drums and other instruments playing in a rapid fashion. [syntactic-phonological interface]
  2. I, understanding what the icons represent, found the music disturbing as it revokes my feeling towards death by shooting. [phonological-conceptual interface]

The first interpretation comes from direct interpretation of the music, whereas the second interpretation is aided by the program booklet. Hence, I arrive the conclusion that Jackendoff’s parallel architecture model can be extended to this particular instance and even to other instances of music in different manners. This can be used to demonstrate why music functions like a language.

[1] Laurel E. Fay, Symphony No. 11 in G minor, “The Year 1905,” Op. 103 (1957), American Symphony Orchestra Program Notes

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Symphony_No._11_(Shostakovich)

[3] Daniel Chandler, Semiotics: The Basics. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Routledge, 2007. Excerpts.

[4] Ray Jackendoff, Foundations of Language, selections on the “Parallel Architecture” model of language as a combinatorial system. Chap. 5.5, pp. 123-128; Chap. 7, pp. 196-200.