The atom of meaning is the phrase

I recently read an interview with philosopher Timothy Morton where he said something about language that resonated with how I think about musical composition as well:

Rail: It’s interesting how your writing style is very far-reaching, fluid, and lyrical, and I wonder how your background in Romantic literature and Shelley scholarship affects the way that you think about writing.

Morton: There’s a form question and a content question. Form is first. I love sentences. I’m an English literature scholar by training, and when you are an English literature scholar, you train to study sentences. I’m saying sentences rather than words because—I think I’ve said a few times—the atom of meaning is not the word. It’s like a subatomic level. The atom of meaning is the phrase, right? The art of writing and speaking is to put phrases together into sentences. There are really crummy sentences out there, and I think I would like to make some nice new sentences that don’t suck.

I do think that words are triggers – a title, a sampled voice or sound can evoke whole fields of associations – but the real compositional interest lies in how these „atoms“ are arranged in relation to each other – how they interact on sonic and conceptual levels to form bigger entities. As I wrote in a 2012 post called Expanding my grammar:

It seems to me, then, that at this point I am not that interested in ‘expanding my vocabulary as a musician’ – if pushed to stick with the analogy of language I’m much more interested in questioning, testing, manipulating and yes, expanding my grammars – the internal workings of music on all levels of form, structure and events.


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