Michael SPITZER: "Meditations on Meyer's Hobby Horses:
Levels of Motivation in Musical Signs" (2/7)


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Meyer's recent work has dwelt on distinctions between "natural" and "conventional" signs. In semiotic terms, his writings engage with the degree to which stylistic tokens can be said to be "motivated', or even "iconic" (as opposed, in the Peircian sense, to "symbolic"). In this respect, music analysis has only just caught up, at a distance of a quarter of a century, with art criticism. This time-lapse conforms to the historical pattern I sketched at the start ofthis essay. I will argue, moreover, that if we view Meyer's mature theory as a delayed convergence with the problematic of pictorial representation, than we will gain fresh insights into semiotic, even mimetic, dimensions of musical processes. Starting with a brief review of Gombrich's celebrated article, "Meditations on a Hobby Horse", I will track the evolution of Meyer's ideas as they ride, as it were, on the horse's back.
The subject of Gombrich's article is a very ordinary hobby horse. "It is satisfied with its broomstick body and its crudely carved head" (1). Gombrich wonders how we should address it. "Should we describe it as an 'image of a horse'?". Is it rather "a portrayal of a horse", or even "a substitute for a horse"? Gombrich opts for the latter. The stick is neither a sign signifying the concept "horse", nor does it represent or refer to any aspects of real horses. It is "horselike" only because it can be ridden by a child. The implications for art criticism and semiotics are profound: the tertium comparationis of a symbol and its object is not external form but function. "We may sum up the moral of this "Just So Story" by saying that substitution may precede portrayal and creation communication" (5). Objects with functional utility or biological relevance become invested with significative value. "The greater the biological relevance an object has for us the more will we be attuned to its recognition - and the more tolerant will therefore be our standards of formal correspondence" (6-7). Objects rooted in deep-seated biological or psychological principles thus behave like "attractors" to processes of signification. The upshot of Gombrich's argument is that the distinction between nature and convention is simply a matter of degree, not kind. In the words of W.J.T. Mitchell, it is "the difference between conventions that are abiding, deep, and widespread, and conventions that are relatively arbitrary, changeable, and superficial" (1986: 76). In semiotic terms, Gombrich's essay suggests that the Peircian "icon"/"symbol" distinction can be replaced with a gradient of iconicity; an ascending scale of motivation. On one level, of course, Gombrich's ideas are not especially new. The processes of "stylisation" and "ritualization" are staples of anthropology, and have become central to the emerging field of bio-semiotics. According to Irenäus Eibl-Eibsefeldt,
During the process of stylisation, schematization takes place: Certain features ofthe objects become emphasised, and less important characteristics are left out. Thus, by gradual abstraction, an object may even change into a sign. The process in many ways resembles the ritualization of behaviour, by which animal and human behaviour patterns change into signals through phylogenetic and cultural evolution (Rentschler, 1992).






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AS/SA Nº4, Article 3 : Page 2 / 7


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21.12.1997