Campus & Community

Hasty connects intellect, spontaneity:

7 min read

Unabashed, scholar brings intellectual curiosity to music’s mystery

Christopher Hasty: ‘I think people with more or less functional nervous systems know a huge amount about music. We just don’t know how to talk about it.’ (Staff photo by Stephanie Mitchell)

Professor of Music Christopher Hasty embodies contradiction. A music theorist who specializes in 20th century music, his work is far less concerned with the traditional categories of music theory – the separate studies of harmony, counterpoint, rhythm – than with the fleeting, mysterious, sometimes messy way in which we experience music.

Yet, rather than surrender this temporal, experiential view of music to the realm of the mystical, where it has traditionally lived, Hasty wants to put an intellectual finger on it.

It’s a challenging approach, he says, but it offers the promise of relating the study of music to more general problems of meaning and communication.

“There is a fear that focusing on the experiential and performative will lead to hopeless subjectivity and irrationality,” says Hasty. “But I believe that if we try to understand what’s going on in these situations, we may be rewarded with a much more adequate, a much more intellectually satisfying, understanding of music. That understanding, I think, can teach us about the world and about who we are and what we are as human beings, not just about this piece of music or this style.”

Hasty, who joined the Harvard faculty in fall 2002 from the University of Pennsylvania, wrestles with these ideas in his 1997 book “Meter as Rhythm,” which won the Wallace Berry Award from the Society for Music Theory. It draws on insights from modern “process” philosophy to explore the traditional opposition between meter, which is fixed, and rhythm, which is “expressive and unruly and perhaps even dangerous for that reason,” he says.

He’s continuing work on this project with his next book, “Repetition and Novelty.” He describes his research as a serious and systematic attempt to address questions of musical experience and musical meaning.

“His analysis of the music focuses on processes of perception and reception,” says Kay Kaufman Shelemay, G. Gordon Watts Professor of Music and the acting chair of the department when Hasty was offered the position. An ethnomusicologist, Shelemay notes that Hasty’s research cuts across musical boundaries. “He’s lively, he’s interested in so many different things, and he’s an extremely gracious colleague,” she adds.

Experiencing, not labeling, music

Music theory, particularly of Western classical music, has traditionally been tied to a system of graphic representation. Its tools – musical notation and knowledge of rhythmic and harmonic concepts – are inaccessible to anyone who cannot read a musical score.

“There’s a feeling that if you can’t read music, if you can’t label chords and don’t know the rules of harmony and counterpoint, then there’s something in music that will always be closed to you,” says Hasty.

He believes that’s not the case: most of us have listened to music all our lives and know how to make sense of it, absent the theorist’s toolbox.

“I think people with more or less functional nervous systems know a huge amount about music. We just don’t know how to talk about it. That’s where, I think, a lot of our insecurities lie and why we rely on the expert,” he says.

Not only do we, as lay listeners or practical performers know more than we think, Hasty believes our experience should inform music theory. When musicians gather in a practice room, for instance, their concern is not about key or meter. Rather, they want to know where the piece breathes, where the phrases are: information that’s interpretive, not noted on the score.

While some theorists may consider such questions naïve and nonspecific, Hasty thinks they’re profound.

“That’s the level at which we make sense of music. All the harmonies, all the counterpoint, all the pitches, all the rhythmic patterns have no meaning in themselves. They’re there precisely to create – for us to create – intense, richly imagined rhythmic events, to make things happen,” he says.

Yet because those questions are answered by the personal feelings and intuitions of the performer, and then the listener, rather than by the composer’s score, they’ve proved difficult for theorists to understand.

“It looks like meaning gets out of control when you start valuing the temporal and sensible, the actual,” he says. “The score, then, is much easier to deal with, because it looks like it’s always the same.”

Musical versus musicological listening

Hasty’s interest lies in a particularly intense musical moment many of us – trained or not – have experienced. Players describe it as being “into the music”; Hasty likens it almost to a trance.

“It’s where one is rhythmically engaged with music, where one is locked in, where one is following the music,” he says.

You’re chopping onions in your kitchen listening to a Brahms intermezzo, he offers, and you’re completely absorbed, even lost, in the music. You move with the music into a new phrase or section, and whether or not you’ve ever learned that this is the “B” section of the piece, you’re aware that you’ve left one section behind and are moving into a new one.

“You have gotten it. This is valuable,” says Hasty. “It means you’ve picked up all of this incredible counterpoint, rhythmic intricacy, and that you’ve made something of it. That is what is so fulfilling about this experience.”

That experience, he believes, comes from rhythmic engagement rather than technical or intellectual curiosity; he describes it as musical, not musicological, listening. He compares it to listening with understanding to a Shakespeare sonnet and being fully engaged with its rhythmic and lyrical power versus scanning its stanzas.

Messy, spontaneous, intellectual

Hasty’s literary reference is not accidental. He’s hopeful that his ideas about experiencing music might inform other artistic genres, turning the tables on a comparison that, he says, has not served music well.

“In this culture, in particular, music is often, while greatly appreciated, mistrusted or at least held to be mysterious because of its nonrepresentational nature and our puzzlements about its cognitive contact,” he says. “In comparison [to other arts like literature, visual art, or film], music often comes out very badly, partly due to its evanescence, to the fact that it always seems to be slipping away.”

Hasty hopes that by bringing the intellect to this evanescence of music, he can show that music is not exceptional among the arts; that reading, writing, and thinking are similarly involved in this messy, irrational place.

The response, he says, “would be an obligation to come to a different understanding of rationality and to allow the intellect to explore areas that may have been off-limits before.” The spontaneous would have a seat at the intellectual table.

He acknowledges that his work probes difficult questions that aim to reconceptualize the field of music theory and beyond, which won’t happen quickly. Ours is a culture that embraces control and is slow to trust our senses and what Hasty calls “our rhythmic spontaneous understanding of the world.”

Yet it’s precisely that tension between control and spontaneity that so engages Hasty.

“It’s that opposition, that seeming dichotomy between the fixed and the free, the past and the future, that meet in present, where the past exerts its pressure and the future opens us to freedom and creativity,” he says. “That’s where music happens. That’s where I think our lives happen.”