Sunday, December 27, 2009

Lines composed in a bus terminal

The Seven Causes of All World Problems
  1. Nominalism
  2. Praise band music
  3. Buses
  4. Delius
  5. Buffalo, NY
  6. Poor intonation
  7. Olives

The staff of TBWCTW hopes that you all had a restful and enjoyable Christmas holiday.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Advent hymnology

Last Sunday's music schedule, quite by accident, consisted entirely of hymns beginning with either "O" or "Lo!" This, of course, prompted much spirited philosophical debate on whether there is a disproportionate amount of Oing and Lo!ing in Advent hymns. (Answer: slightly above average.)

A friend commented, however, that a list of rhyming monosyllabic Yuletide exclamations ought to include "Ho!" and where are all the Santa-themed hymns in my music selections anyway? Without further ado, I present to you the following suggested hymn list for Advent III:

Processional: Up on the housetop (New Paris)
Canticle: The twelve days of Christmas (plainsong: Mode VIII:1)
Gradual: Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer (Nasus Lucidus)
Sequence/Offertory: White Christmas (Crosby)
Communion: Baby, it's cold outside (Loesser)
Recessional: All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth (Duos dentes meos)

Of course, before the week is out I expect to hear from someone who has actually attended the service I detail above. There can remain no liturgical indignity that someone, somewhere, hasn't yet inflicted upon their congregations.

Church musicians reading this entry should know that "The twelve days of Christmas" actually works surprisingly well to the mode VIII:1 psalm tone. Armed with this knowledge, you can expect to be a smash hit at Christmas parties.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Languedocian curates

1967 saw the publication of a hitherto unknown manuscript of medieval French poetry, in a critical edition by renowned scholar Luis d'Antin van Rooten. With the cryptic title of Mots d'Heures: Gousses, Rames (Words of the Hours: Root, Branch), the d'Antin manuscript provides a fascinating glimpse into the world of the Middle Ages. Here, with d'Antin's annotations, is one of my favourites:

Et qui rit des curés d'Oc?1
De Meuse raines,2 houp! de cloques.3
De quelles loques ce turque coin.4
Et ne d'ânes ni rennes,
Écuries des curés d'Oc.5
_______________________________
1 Oc (or Languedoc), ancient region of France, with its capital at Toulouse. Its monks and curates were, it seems, a singularly humble and holy group. This little poem is a graceful tribute to their virtues.
2Meuse, or Maas, River, 560 miles long, traversing France, Belgium, and the Netherlands; Raines, old French word for frogs (from the L., ranae). Here is a beautiful example of Gothic imagery: He who laughs at the curés of Oc will have frogs leap at him from the Meuse river and
3 infect him with a scrofulous disease! This is particularly interesting when we consider the widespread superstition in America that frogs and toads cause warts.
4"Turkish corners" were introduced into Western Europe by returning Crusaders, among other luxuries and refinements of Oriental living. Our good monks made a concession to the fashion, but N.B. their Turkish corner was made of rags! This affectation of interior decorating had a widespread revival in the U.S.A. at the turn of the century. Ah, the Tsar's bazaars' bizarre beaux-arts.
5So strict were the monks that they didn't even indulge themselves in their arduous travels. No fancy mules nor reindeer in their stables. They just rode around on their plain French asses.
Despite the antiquated French idiom in which the manuscript is written, many English speakers find that when these poems are read aloud, they sound strangely familiar.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Ethics, virtues and zinc oxide

Whether or not we realize it, the smooth running of our society is facilitated by an extensive network of support structures, of which we are mostly unaware. The following educational film reveals the extent to which this is true of a seemingly innocuous chemical: zinc oxide.

Zinc oxide isn't something we think about on a daily basis, perhaps, but its role can be highlighted by something as simple as an omnipotent filmstrip narrator with the power to cause household objects to suddenly disappear. The disaster that results speaks for itself: in a developed, industrialized society, we depend on zinc oxide for our physical well-being. Many writers, however, have made the point that our social well-being is likewise dependent upon an elaborate support structure of beliefs, values and ideals. The only difference is that our beliefs and ideals are wholly intangible, and that rather than vanishing suddenly, they tend to erode gradually, so that we rarely realize that anything has happened.

An argument along these lines is made by Alasdair MacIntyre in his 1981 book After Virtue. He argues that our society has lost its ability to think in ethical terms:

[Our] culture has continued to be one of unresolved and apparently unresolvable moral and other disagreements in which the evaluative and normative utterances of the contending parties present a problem of interpretation. For on the one hand they seem to presuppose a reference to some shared impresonal standard in virtue of which at most one of those contending parties can be in the right, and yet on the other the poverty of the arguments adduced in support of their assertions and the characteristically shrill, and assertive and expressive mode in which they are uttered suggest strongly that there is no such standard. My explanation was and is that the precepts that are thus uttered were once at home in, and intelligible in terms of, a context of practical beliefs and of supporting habits of thought, feeling, and action, a context that has since been lost, a context in which moral judgments were understood as governed by impersonal standards justified by a shared conception of the human good.
Prologue to the third edition (2007), ix.

What was originally shared by all premodern moral codes, according to MacIntyre, was a sense of innate human purpose to which all ethical actions were to be directed. Necessary for any coherent ethical system are three components: a realistic evaluation of flawed human nature as it is now, a positive vision of transformed humanity as it ought to be, and an understanding of the sorts of actions that will transform one into the other. Good and evil actions are defined relative to a shared conception of what a good human being ought to be. MacIntyre traces this tradition through ancient epic poetry, the Hellenic philosophical tradition, and the Aristotleianism of mediaeval Europe. Although different cultures conceptualize the good in different ways (Aristotle, for example, would not have admired Christ and would have been horrified by St. Paul), each of the cultures examined shares a single idea of the good life which determined its moral code. Conspicuously absent are the irresolvable moral dilemmas that characterize modern discourse.

The villains in MacIntyre's narrative are the philosophers of the Enlightenment, who sought to overturn Aristotelianism in favour of a new, wholly "rational" philosophy. The problem they faced was with their overly narrow concept of reason. To the Enlightenment philosophers, rationality was primarily instrumental; reason is a tool, and one that can be used to exert power over the natural world. Instrumental reason is a great thing - it's the tool that allows us to transform chemicals like zinc oxide into everyday objects like emergency brakes, refrigerator shelves and pacemakers - but because it's only a tool, it can't tell you why you should want brakes, shelves, or pacemakers in the first place. Reason can help you make a bomb as easily as a fire extinguisher, but falls silent when you need to decide which one to use. David Hume was perceptive enough to recognize the problem, but concluded that ethics must therefore be a matter of the emotions rather than the intellect. From Hume followed a series of attempts to reconstruct an ethical system based on Enlightenment rationality, all of which ultimately reveal themselves as incoherent. And for all their pretensions at creating a truly new ethical system, all of these philosophers coincidentally end up advocating something like the Judaeo-Christian morality with which they were brought up. The entire enterprise of modern ethics begins to seem like an exercise in question-begging.

Laments for an idealized past are a dime a dozen, and MacIntyre's book would have little value if it merely noted social problems without offering a solution. After all, most the societies MacIntyre discusses have disappeared irretrievably: no-one today can or should act like Hector, Andromache, or Antigone. MacIntyre instead urges us to consider the concept of a virtue. Most people assume that virtues require a previously articulated moral code for their existence, as with the Christian "cardinal virtues" of prudence, justice, temperance, and courage. However, no human practice can exist without virtues and vices of its own. Few of us would hesitate to describe a pencil that fails to make a mark on the pencil as a "bad pencil," or a doctor that fails to cure any of his patients as a "bad doctor". And to master a practice as complex as medicine, many virtues are necessary beyond mere technical skill at healing: good judgment, compassion, and intellectual humility, for starters. The ancient virtues re-emerge, whether we invite them or not.

It's a big jump from the concept of "good doctor" to the more extensive "good human being," but the virtues necessary to activities like medicine are transferable to all other human endeavours. If the virtue of compassion was directed towards the goal of being a good physician, it can also be directed towards the goal of becoming a good human being. This sense of human purpose will develop organically within a group of people who share common practices, and if left alone will provide the basis for a healthy and just society. It is only when our sense of purpose becomes confused that our society fails to congeal, and we find ourselves divided on the most basic questions of ethical behaviour.

Without zinc oxide, your stove erupts in flames. Without a shared network of values and ideals, society dissolves into moral confusion. If our culture invested as much effort and care into cultivating shared values and ideals as it did into zinc oxide, we would be better equipped to make difficult decisions.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Coincidence?

On the somewhat enigmatic blog Hilobrow, Matthew Battles eviscerates the New Yorker review of the new film The Box. After paying the film a series of backhanded compliments, the reviewer suggests that the film's director "drop his reliance on religio-mystico-eschatological humbug and embrace, in realistic terms, the fantastic possibilities of ordinary acts of murder, fear, heroism, and death. If he pulls himself together, he could be the next Hitchcock." Says Battles:
Get serious. Get realistic. Get ordinary. If we want the human career entire, however, we must accept that religio-mystico-eschatological humbug will never die out, middlebrow bromides notwithstanding.

HiLoBrow celebrates the ordinary possibilities of the fantastic. Humbug, too, deserves its Hitchcock.
To me, this sounds suspiciously like the thirteenth of the Radical Orthodoxy Theses:
Radical Orthodoxy rejoices in the unavoidably and authentically arcane, mysterious, and fascinatingly difficult. It regards this preference as democratic, since in loving mystery, it wishes also to diffuse and disseminate it. We relish the task of sharing a delight in the hermetic with uninitiated others.
What's going on here? I think it unlikely that Hilobrow is endorsing the explicitly antimodern Augustinianism of Radical Orthodox theology, but both statements reflect an animus against middlebrow culture. In Battles's article, we are confronted with a critical establishment that looks with disapproval upon anything "religio-mystico-eschatological," whatever that means. The critic even has the temerity to suggest a list of themes for the director's next movie ("ordinary acts of murder, fear, heroism, and death") which suggest nothing so much as a mediocre episode of Law and Order. In the Radical Orthodoxy manifesto, we are urged to reject a mode of discourse that attempts to reduce religious faith to the mundane and socially acceptable; in its place, they seek to develop a theology that accepts the full implications of the Christian mystery, and a liturgical praxis that embodies that mystery. Both writers have noticed the same trend: a middlebrow distaste for the complex, fantastic and mystical.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Concertina Brow Manifesto

1. The Concertina Brow acknowledges his mission as a subset of the general war on Neon Arrows.

2. The Concertina Brow reserves the right to enjoy any artistic product, activity, food, beverage, or cultural artefact of any kind, with no regard for the degree to which his tastes may or may not align with highbrows, middlebrows, lowbrows, or any other brow style of which we may not be aware. The fact that a cultural artefact was favoured by Dead, White, European Males is of no significance, either positive or negative. The opinion of his contemporaries is likewise completely irrelevant to the Concertina Brow, with the exception of individuals whose critical acumen he respects. "Popular" and "unpopular" are terms neither of approbation nor contempt.

3. The Concertina Brow affirms that the relationship of differing artistic traditions (whether divided along highbrow/lowbrow lines or along cultural lines) is one of partial incommensurability. It is logically impossible to state categorically that Italian cuisine, mystery novels, and "pop" music are "better" or "worse" than Thai cuisine, philosophical treatises, and "classical" music, since these terms represent nothing more than conflicting standards of culinary, literary and musical success. It is nevertheless possible, however, to make judgments of quality between particular works, either of a similar genre (a Dan Brown novel versus a Dorothy Sayers novel) or of an entirely different genre (a poorly prepared Italian meal versus an exquisite Japanese meal).

4. The Concertina Brow believes that all forms of cultural expression are of interest and merit based on their unique characteristics, which cannot be encapsulated in any other form of experience. He objects strenously to statements that "Form X is just as good as Form Y," which he recognizes as the veiled insult that it is.

5. The Concertina Brow denies that there is any particular merit to highbrow tastes against lowbrow tastes; indeed, a convicted lowbrow may be more discriminating and tasteful than a highbrow within his own domain.

6. The Concertina Brow believes good taste to be of greater moral significance than is currently believed. His goal is to develop this quality in himself and to encourage its development in others, within the sphere of artistic endeavour that interests them.

7. The Concertina Brow believes that the attempts of institutions to "convert" anyone to a different form of aesthetic expression, whether "higher" or "lower," is presumptuous and insulting. It is the business of arts organizations to present the broadest possible spectrum of expression within their genre at its highest level of quality, not to attempt to alter individual taste preferences. If a person wants to explore a new art form, he should consult knowledgeable friends for guidance and direction. Under no account should a highbrow be pestered for not drinking Bud Light, or a lowbrow pestered for not listening to Xenakis.

8. The Concertina Brow's natural ally is the Highbrow, who shares his concern to articulate the positive qualities of high culture against its cultural attackers. His natural enemy is the Middlebrow, who seeks to subsume both Highbrows (by shaming them) and Lowbrows (by "converting" them) into an "inclusive" culture, neither fish nor fowl. The Concertina Brow likes Lowbrows too, but he doesn't talk to them about aesthetics.

9. The Concertina Brow objects to all self-conscious "crossover" art as exemplifying a baleful Middlebrow influence. He is reconciled to such efforts only if they acquire a definitive expressive form of their own, which he will then judge on its own merits.

10. The Concertina Brow philosophically accepts today's artistic pluralism as a necessary consequence of the centuries-old broader social trend toward individualism and subjectivity. Any attempt to gather our fragmentary cultural forms into a single monoculture therefore has the character of a utopian fantasy, and is thus extremely dangerous.

11. The Concertina Brow nevertheless affirms the special status of the European "High" tradition in the arts and humanities as one which should be given pride of place in the education system, for three reasons. First, it represents the most significant example of an unbroken literate tradition in human history, and thus has qualities which do not exist in oral or vernacular traditions. Second, it represents the basis of today's cultural and political milieu, for better or for worse, having been either inherited or voluntarily adopted to a significant extent by all of the world's societies. Third, its current underrepresentation in the mass media means that only in the schools will young men and women be exposed to it, even if their ultimate choice will be to reject it.

12. The Concertina Brow objects strongly to manifestos as being prescriptive and tacky.

(with apologies to the author of Radical Orthodoxy: 24 Theses)

The browbeaten masses

A terrific post at The Transcontinental on the recent musoc.org dustup, and the overwhelming dominance of a "middlebrow consensus" in the classical music community:
To be clear - I am not saying high culture is better than mass culture. What I am saying is that people on the high culture side of things feel a very great tendency to say out loud, and often, that they think mass culture is just as good as high culture. . . What they are really doing is making it clear that the middlebrows are still the arbiters of taste, even though most people's complete indifference to classical music, and the classical music community's intense, nearly overwhelming desire to proselytize, to convert, the lowbrows over to the fold suggests the complete opposite.
It seems to me that this is exactly right. There is no demand from the many, many fans of Céline Dion, for example, that we acknowledge her music as having the same aesthetic and formal merits as the Saint Matthew Passion; indeed, anyone who starts thinking along these lines at a Céline Dion concert is probably missing the point. There is likewise no demand from cranky, dyspeptic organist-bloggers that Céline Dion fans should be forced, perhaps at gunpoint, to attend performances of the Saint Matthew Passion - they would probably be unhappy, confused, and disruptive. (Would you rather sit next to a Dion fan at a symphony concert - or me at a Céline Dion concert - or someone who actually wants to be there? Think hard.) The demand for a spurious "reintegration" of classical and popular music comes exclusively from a middlebrow intellectual elite, who accuse the highbrows of snobbery and condescension while simultaneously condescending to the lowbrows by their patronizing attempts to "convert" them to classical music, or Shakespeare, or multigrain bread, or whatever.

The highbrow/lowbrow distinction itself, of course, is a relic of medieval phrenology, in which the dimensions of one's skull were thought to be indicators of one's mental characteristics, particularly intelligence. I'm not sure who coined the term "middlebrow," but the concept is certainly foreshadowed in Hazlitt's 1816 essay "On Common-Place Critics":
A common-place critic has something to say upon every occasion, and he always tells you either what is not true, or what you knew before, or what is not worth knowing. He is a person who thinks by proxy, and talks by rote. He differs with you, not because he thinks you are in the wrong, but because he thinks somebody else will think so. Nay, it would be well if he stopped here; but he will undertake to misrepresent you by anticipation, lest others should misunderstand you, and will set you right, not only in opinions which you have, but in those which you may be supposed to have. . . He thinks it difficult to prove the existence of any such thing as original genius, or to fix a general standard of taste. He does not think it possible to define what wit is. In religion his opinions are liberal. He considers all enthusiasm as a degree of madness, particularly to be guarded against by young minds; and believes that truth lies in the middle, between the extremes of right and wrong.
The central characteristic of the middlebrow is a sort of intellectual parasitism; because the very concept of "middle" is epistemically secondary, he depends upon the concepts of high and low culture to orient himself. As the public prestige of high art continues to dwindle, and public figures avoid showing any support for Western culture for fear of being represented as snobs and racists, the middlebrow is obliged to invent more and more ludicrous highbrow straw men against whom to inveigh. He urges artists to strive towards an integration of high-art and low-art elements in their work, in the name of artistic "diversity" - which, in this case, means that all styles should become exactly the same. The only downside to the career of a middlebrow is that he would be immediately put out of a job if his dreams of cultural integration ever came true - which shows how carefully he's chosen his target, for they never will.

Middlebrow culture, in short, is a culture that can only be defined negatively. It is utopian, therefore another example of Neon Arrow thinking, and therefore ultimately nihilistic. It claims catholicity of taste against highbrow snobbery and lowbrow Philistinism, but its position is in fact rather more precarious, with its constant nervous glances upwards and downwards to make sure they haven't slipped too far in one direction. But no-one who reads classical music blogs can plausibly claim their tastes to be "lowbrow," nor can anyone cling exclusively to European highbrow culture in this media-saturated age. The only alternative seems to be what Robertson Davies, writing as his inimitable alter ego Samuel Marchbanks, described as the "concertina brow," able to alternately enjoy "middlebrow" red wine, "lowbrow" farces, and "highbrow" Wagnerian opera. (It seems to me that this is probably what the folks at hilobrow.com mean by "hilobrow," but I find myself stymied by their cryptic website.) The concertina brow will partake of artistic products and other cultural artefacts solely because he enjoys them and for no other reason, and will resist the efforts of the middlebrows to consolidate and amalgamate highbrow and lowbrow culture into mush.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

A free thought

It's not so much that bad prose ruins the effect of good music precisely, although even that is closer to the truth than most people suppose. Rather, there is something profoundly pathetic about seeing the noble charger Gregorian Chant harnessed to the clattering shopping cart of Inclusive Language.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Career tips for young musicians

Want a satisfying, low-stress job with decent pay and benefits? Then don't become a church musician, says CNN. "Music ministry director" is fifth on CNN Money's list of "Stressful jobs that pay badly," following hot on the heels of "reporter" and "probation officer."

Anyone who's worked as a church organist will know exactly why this is: performances every week, a schedule that makes it impossible to take a weekend off outside of vacation time, the terrifying world of parish politics, mechanical problems with the organ at odd moments, and the dreaded Sunday morning phone calls from sick tenors that scuttle your carefully laid music plans at the last minute. Add to this the fact that most organists work a second job during the week to pay the bills, and you have a singularly unattractive career path.

For many church musicians, conflicts with clergy are a major cause of work-related stress. But don't look so smug, organists - your local priest probably finds you just as irritating as you do him. ("Minister" is tenth on the CNN list.)

(h/t The New Liturgical Movement)

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Pitch-class set class 3-3 is like a journey

The staff of TBWCTW has lately been provided with much hilarity by Sigmund Spaeth's Great Symphonies: How to Recognize and Remember Them. Published in 1936, Spaeth's book sets lyrics to the principal themes of the most frequently performed symphonies from Haydn to Franck. Judging by the number of used copies floating around the Internet, Spaeth's works seem to have been quite popular: it would be hard to imagine another book of music appreciation from the Depression era that can still be readily obtained for under two dollars. Yet something seems to have changed between then and now: Spaeth's lyrics to the great symphonies, which he intended as memory aids, are now unintentionally hilarious. So for the opening theme of Schumann's "Rhenish" symphony, we have the following:
Rhineland, lovely Rhineland, Super-fine land,
Full of beauty, song and story,
Land of legend, land of glory!
For the english horn melody in the slow movement of Dvorak's "New World" Symphony:
English horn, all forlorn,
pipe your plaintive lay,
Dreaming slow, soft and low,
What does Dvorak say?
Nothing loud, nothing proud,
naught of pomp and pow'r,
Simple song, not too long,
shy as hidden flow'r.
Once again, sad refrain,
here it rise and fall,
Tender, true, ever new,
human heart-throbs' call.
and for the contrasting second theme (approximately 4:50 in the video):
Whither away?
No answer?
Whither away?
No answer?
Seeming to say,
"Let the music play,
Let's call it a day."
And, finally, Spaeth's arguable masterpiece, to be sung to the opening of Mozart's 40th:
With a laugh and a smile like a sunbeam,
And a face that is glad, with a fun-beam,
We can start on our way very gaily,
Singing tunes from a symphony daily.
And if Mozart could but hear us,
He would wave his hat and cheer us
Coming down the scale,
All hale
and strong
in song,
all hale and strong in song.
Now, whatever one might say about the quality of this verse, Spaeth's book has one great strength - the author's ability to communicate the essence of a symphonic narrative to a broad audience without vulgar programmaticism. Spaeth is not embarrassed to give his readers a concrete image to associate with each musical theme, but he usually derives these images from musical characteristics that are already obvious (the peasant dances in Haydn symphonies, or the gypsy fiddling in Brahms's Second). In the absence of explicit references of this sort, Spaeth never makes up fanciful stories about leprechauns and herds of wildebeest; instead, he generally gives us a skeletal narrative about a "hero" and his struggles, with their eventual resolution. This sort of thing is precisely what an untrained listener wants when he tries to follow an hour-long symphonic narrative: he doesn't need a fanciful story to distract him, but he should be told to listen for the varying characters of the different musical themes, to try to perceive an agonistic or complementary relationship between them, and to be aware of an eventual resolution to the conflict, when it arrives. Spaeth's book may be too dated to return to general circulation, and his lyrics may deserve oblivion, but his basic approach to music education is by no means unsalveagable.

What occurs to me, however, is that the themes in Spaeth's book - from composers like Schubert, Beethoven, or Tchaikovsky, are already memorable to begin with. No-one needs lyrics to remember the opening of Beethoven's Fifth or the chorale theme in the last movement of Brahms's first symphony. Such a memory aid, however, might be invaluable in confronting, say, Schoenberg's Five Orchestral Pieces, or Xenakis's Keqrops. There's a substantial market, I think, for a latter-day Spaeth who can come up with catchy lyrics to the various tone-row permutations in Webern, the octatonic melodies of Messiaen, or the jagged-edged motives of Stravinsky. The book would sell to classical music newcomers, of course, but could also be popular with aged symphony subscribers, who have long complained of the lack of "singable melodies" in Maderna and Stockhausen. Prove 'em wrong!

Friday, October 23, 2009

The history of subjectivity

Part V of an occasional series.

In a series of posts over the life of this blog, I've attempted to come to grips with the way we write about music history, and why it's usually so awful. One is forced to choose between two versions of Whig historiography: one, slightly older, sees twelve-tone serialism as the apotheosis of musical development, while the other sees the New Tonality (always with capital letters) of Adams, del Tredici, Rochberg, Whitacre, and whoever else as being the logical continuation of the classical tradition. Both viewpoints, of course, besides being boring and useless, are unpleasantly doctrinaire. If the Old Whigs are correct, then all tonal composers are pitiable reactionaries; if the New Whigs are correct, then all atonal composition is a temporary historical aberration, a gruesome traffic accident at the side of the road. In reality, of course, hundreds of composers are at work at any given time, and future listeners will judge them by the quality of their work, not by how well they reflected a largely imagined Zeitgeist. In my most recent post, therefore, I proposed a metaphor of dynamic equilibrium: at any given time, hundreds of composers are at work, each with a unique musical language. Only from far away do the interactions of individual artists seem to coalesce into an identifiable pattern.

That's all very well and good, of course, and seemingly uncontroversial, but one could very well object that this approach negates the obvious differences between historical periods. Isn't music history something more than just the record of works produced by individual artists, interacting only with each other? If I am to avoid conceiving of music history as a wholly random process, irrelevant to the rest of the world, I find myself in need of a credible metanarrative. So I offer you the following history of Western music from the emergence of polyphony to the present, conceived as a process of subjectivization: whatever virtues it may or may not have, it at least avoids the usual fallacies of the Whig historians.

Stage One: The Catholic Church promulgates a metaphysical picture of an orderly universe, in which man has a relatively insignificant place; fallen from grace, he can reach his ultimate telos only by the grace of God. Aside from a few warning tremors (Ockham's nominalism and Scotus's voluntarism), this ideal seems stable. Music is conceived as an imitation of this heavenly order, giving audible form to its beauty. It is thus classed as a speculative science of sorts, and the writings of Pythagoras are used to determine a priori which intervals are "perfect" and which "imperfect." The sounds produced are thus concordant, but sounding nice is not really the point. Medieval polyphony.

Stage Two: Pico's Oration on the Dignity of Man inaugurates Christian humanism; the self-sufficiency and power of the individual over his destiny is asserted. The Reformation encourages individuals to read and interpret the Bible for themselves. Music adopts the so-called contenance Angloise, admitting the "imperfect" intervals of thirds and sixths because they sound nice. Renaissance polyphony.

Stage Three: Pietism increases further the subjective focus of Christianity, emphasizing the individual's acts of personal devotion over the communal life of the Church. The formerly synthesized body of human knowledge begins to separate into a variety of component disciplines, most notably with the development of empirical science. The subjective focus of music is made explicit by Frescobaldi and Monteverdi, who advocate a new aesthetic of expressiveness, with the rules of polyphony subordinated to the desired affective character of the music. Goal-directed tonality replaces modality. The Baroque.

Stage Four: The Age of Reason; a fully-developed humanism elevates the intellectual faculty above all other human qualities, and cultivates a mythology of medieval obscurantism and anti-intellectualism. Rationalistic approaches to politics lead to bloody revolutions in France and America, the first of which aimed to immanentize the utopian vision of an egalitarian society through an upheaval in the social order. In music, the static binary, ternary or strophic forms of previous generations give way to the goal-directed sonata principle: themes are no longer merely "worked out", but must "develop." Classicism.

Stage Five: Technical progress leads to widespread economic prosperity; rural society gives way to urban life, farming to industry. Human strivings are ordered by the "American dream" or the "Protestant work ethic;" metaphysical consciousness survives, if at all, as a secondary concern. The rationalist, revolutionary strain in politics exemplified in Marx. The birth of nihilism as an explicit philosophical movement. The artist is encouraged to plumb the depths of his individual personality for material, particularly if he can dredge up something particularly grotesque; in return, he can expect to be fêted as a hero, with the concert hall recast as a secular temple. This new subjectivity is represented in music by an increased chromaticism, by self-conscious nationalism, or by the imposition of programmes on unsuspecting instrumental works. Romanticism.

Stage Six: Technical progress has totally transformed society; science has been recast as the crowning glory of human endeavour. At the same time, this total freedom is seen by many as ambivalent at best, and the default state of mankind has become a sort of bored anomie, interrupted only by wars of unprecedented violence and savagery. Composers strip away the "restrictions" of conventional tonality or pulse, and cultivate a wide range of new styles. The Romantic cult of expression is maintained in the fetishization of originality, and in the Expressionist's fascination with the depths of the subconscious mind. In apparent contradiction, scientific positivism appears in music in the guise of serialism, nevertheless retaining the construct of composer-as-hero ("Who cares if you listen?").

Stage Seven: While technical progress continues unabated in the wake of the two world wars, the world loses faith in its ability to bring about real improvement in society. The idea that liberal democracy is capable of bringing about a fully just society is diagnosed as a secular eschaton, parasitic upon lingering Christian metaphysics. Social change is now pursued through non-democratic channels, beginning with the violent cultural revolution of the 1960s, which aimed to remove all remaining restrictions on individual behaviour. Epistemic relativism becomes the default philosophical position; European thinkers adopt an ontology of violence, in which the only true metaphysical reality is that of individuals with conflicting thought systems attempting to impose them upon each other. Composers adopt chance techniques (Cage), use repeating processes in lieu of traditional development (minimalism), or make more or less fatuous attempts to reconcile their literate tradition with the new pop music - turning completely on its head the Stage One picture of music as a representation of an external order.

Stage Eight: As yet hypothetical. The work of subjectivization seems more or less complete, with the metaphysical picture we began with turned completely upside down. The only hope for further development lies in a truly postmodern school of thought, one which offers a true critique of the philosophical premises in the previous seven stages. A first glimmer of Stage Eight can be seen, perhaps, in the work of theologians associated with Radical Orthodoxy, whose goal is precisely to offer a retrospective, diagnostic critique of modernity. Radical Orthodox theologian Catherine Pickstock, writing in the winter 2007 issue of Sacred Music, describes Messiaen's music (along with some works by Schnittke, Ustvolskaya, and James MacMillan) as adopting a truly "postmodern music" in this sense - not merely a reactionary critique of modernism, but a synthesis of the modernist impulse with premodern materials. In Messiaen we hear, arguably for the first time in centuries, a music that can credibly express the idea of eternity. The circle completes itself; everything old is new again.

What you read above is not complete. There are certainly omissions; there are undoubtedly some mistakes as well. Your comments welcome.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Two reasons to be a musician

But when intemperance and disease multiply in a State, halls of justice and medicine are always being opened; and the arts of the doctor and lawyer give themselves airs, finding how keen is the interest which not only the slaves but the freemen of the city take about them.

Of course.
And yet what greater proof can there be of a bad and disgraceful state of education than this, that not only artisans and the meaner sort of people need the skill of first-rate physicians and judges, but also those who would profess to have had a liberal education? Is it not disgraceful, and a great sign of want of good-breeding, that a man should have to go abroad for his law and physic because he has none of his own at home, and must therefore surrender himself into the hands of other men whom he makes lords and judges over him?

Of all things, he said, the most disgraceful.
Would you say 'most,' I replied, when you consider that there is a further stage of the evil in which a man is not only a life-long litigant, passing all his days in the courts, either as plaintiff or defendant, but is actually led by his bad taste to pride himself on his litigiousness; he imagines that he is a master in dishonesty; able to take every crooked turn, and wriggle into and out of every hole, bending like a withy and getting out of the way of justice: and all for what? --in order to gain small points not worth mentioning, he not knowing that so to order his life as to be able to do without a napping judge is a far higher and nobler sort of thing. Is not that still more disgraceful?

Yes, he said, that is still more disgraceful.
Well, I said, and to require the help of medicine, not when a wound has to be cured, or on occasion of an epidemic, but just because, by indolence and a habit of life such as we have been describing, men fill themselves with waters and winds, as if their bodies were a marsh, compelling the ingenious sons of Asclepius to find more names for diseases, such as flatulence and catarrh; is not this, too, a disgrace?

Yes, he said, they do certainly give very strange and newfangled names to diseases.

[. . .]

[But] our youth, having been educated only in that simple music which, as we said, inspires temperance, will be reluctant to go to law.

Clearly.
And the musician, who, keeping to the same track, is content to practise the simple gymnastic, will have nothing to do with medicine unless in some extreme case.
Plato, Republic III: 405-410, s. v. "The vanity of doctors and lawyers".

We all perhaps recall the medieval story of the juggler who could not speak or pray or craft well, but who silently before the altar performed his juggling act. He was more pleasing than the rest to God.
James V. Schall, Another Sort of Learning, 220.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Heavens to Betsy

High on my list of coveted possessions at the moment is the new DVD of Messiaen's Saint Francois d'Assise. I was lucky enough to be able to attend a live performance of this work during a centenary festival dedicated to Messiaen's music; the experience of hearing the score performed by a live orchestra, chorus, and soloists remains one of my most memorable musical experiences. Messiaen's score is one of enormous power; although the spiritual journey of Saint Francis is long and accompanied by often dissonant music, the score builds inexorably toward moments of exquisite beauty, and the final C-sharp major peroration is jaw-dropping.

You can imagine my reaction, therefore, when I encountered a review of the new DVD in my hometown paper, the Toronto Star, which begins as follows:
It may not be the right thing to say in polite company, but sitting through a lot of new music feels like sonic self-flagellation. If, as the late philosopher Bertrand Russell once said, pleasure is the absence of pain, silence might be bliss. That concern could come to a head during the 5 1/2 hours of Olivier Messiaen's only opera, a series of vignettes depicting St. Francis's hourney toward light and grace. The music is atonal. Jean Kalman's set is stark, laden with rough-hewn symbolism.
Had I read this when it originally came out, I would have been sorely tempted to report an error in this article to the editors. Saint Francois, of course, is not atonal. This is simply factually wrong; Messiaen's score, like almost all of his music, is organized using an extended tonal language which encompasses many dissonant chords but which always resolves to a tonal center. If Mr. Terauds really believes that Messiaen's music is atonal, he has quite a bit of homework to do; it would be as though the Star's pop music critic thought that John Denver was a death metal artist. Of course, I don't think Terauds is quite that foolish; rather, I think he's using the word "atonal" carelessly, as a sort of mental shorthand for any music that sometimes doesn't sound nice. But, people, if any music that contains dissonance is atonal, then all music since the abandonment of parallel organum is atonal. Words have meanings.

But the broader problem (and one I see came up the last time Terauds reviewed Messiaen) is that this sort of classical music reporting, the kind that assumes a priori that all contemporary music is undesirable, is unhelpful, anti-intellectual, and tiresome. The presumption is that before listening to a piece of new music, you ought to assume that it's awful and atonal and unlistenable, and that you should abandon your preconceived opinion only slowly and with great reluctance, should the work turn out to be any good. (Terauds does in fact come around and give the opera a qualified recommendation, but by the time you've read that far into the article, the damage is already done.) This attitude should be anathema to a critic, consisting as it does in reviewing a work before hearing it. It also reflects a very small view of classical music: under this model, the normative pattern of classical music is to take a score by some long-dead composer off the shelf, perform it, and put it back. Performing a work of "new" music (and by "new" we mean anything written more recently than the birth of your grandparents) is a peripheral activity, one to be regarded with great suspicion.

But this sort of reporting is also extremely old-fashioned - it ignores the most interesting parts of the contemporary music scene in favour of the increasingly stagnant scene in the symphony hall and opera house. Festivals of new music like New York's Bang on a Can are attracting an increasingly mainstream audience, Greg Sandow reports that works like Messiaen's Quatuor frequently share the bill with pop musicians at clubs, and Toronto's recent Luminato festival combined more mainstream entertainment with a new music theatre piece by R. Murray Schafer. It is difficult to imagine that these events would have had the same appeal to a broad audience had the organizers instead programmed, say, all the Mozart string quintets. New music has proven itself to be capable of reaching out to a much wider audience than the blue-rinse brigade at your typical symphony performance; it can do this because its complexity, dissonance, and many of its mannerisms connect to trends in the experimental wing of the pop music scene. The traditional repertoire, especially the eighteenth-century music of Mozart or Haydn, seems more remote to non-classical music fans, like upper-class dinner music in a period film. For traditional classical music listeners (like Terauds and, let's face it, myself), there is something a bit counterintuitive about this, but we should welcome the development as a chance to rejuvenate the musical culture, and eventually bring more listeners into the fold.

The bottom line: should we review new classical music in a way that reflects the knee-jerk prejudice of your aged Aunt Mildred? Or should we consider reviewing new music with an open mind, witholding an opinion until we've judged the work on its own merits, just like arts journalists are expected to in any other area of creative endeavour?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Postmodernism and liturgy

In my previous post, I discussed an irritating and silly philosophical mistake made by a lot of people who ought to know better. Yes, our impressions of the world around us are dependent upon our idiosyncratic viewpoints as individuals; no, this does not imply that objective knowledge is impossible. Our experience of the world may be coloured by our own flaws and limitations, but at bottom it depends on an objective experience of reality that can be communicated to others. And I'd argue further that this is a good thing. Postmodernists, influenced as they are by post-1960s liberal politics, tend to associate any appeal to epistemic objectivity with an intellectual hegemony perpetrated by Dead, White, European, Heterosexual Males. Seen from this viewpoint, objectivity is merely a thinly veiled excuse for a power grab; indeed, the very concept of an objective viewpoint is indelibly associated with repression and violence. There are many points that can be made against this viewpoint, such as that it is paranoid and silly, but the most pertinent one is this: only by appealing to some common reality beneath our individual viewpoints can we overcome violence and build a better society. If I really believed that our ideological differences were incommensurable, that I had no possibility of genuine communication with the elderly gentleman in my congregation, or the woman on the bus, I would be quaking in my boots; for where the evils of European imperialism, racial hatred, or even National Socialism were at least circumscribed by a shared ideology, there is no limit to the violence and destruction that can be done in the name of Nothing.

I dwell on this point at some length because I increasingly believe understanding these presuppositions to be essential in effecting any sort of change. People are lazy, to begin with; they are overly fond of their own comforts and preferences; they are creatures of habit. Given an ideology that convinces them further that their every disagreement is a reflection of irreconcilable ideological presuppositions, that every position they might take is "just their own opinion", we can expect little positive change to be achieved, and much decadence and stagnation.

A clash of this sort occurs within most congregations surrounding the subject of liturgy, expressed crudely as some people wanting "more liturgy," and others wanting "less liturgy." As the so-called "worship wars" continue to take their toll, the faithful have increasingly taken to voting with their feet - moving between churches in the same denomination, or different denominations, until they find the "amount of liturgy" that is "right for them." It isn't my intention to cast aspersions on this process as such - for many people, certain forms of worship can be a genuine barrier to spiritual growth - but to point out that the entire discussion is miscast. There is no possibility of escaping from liturgy, or even of having a greater or lesser "amount," but merely a choice of different forms of worship. Consider, for example, the following liturgical text, found in a variety of denominational settings:

V. Good morning!
R. Good morning.

In most churches, this versicle and response is proper to all Sundays and holy days, falls immediately after the processional hymn or entrance antiphon, and is recited in the same tone of voice at its every appearance (with the congregational response usually at least 30% less enthusiastic). The Gloria in excelsis comes and goes with the changing liturgical seasons, the musical settings of the Mass change around, but "Good morning" stays. This level of liturgical standardization, of course, exceeds anything to be found in the Roman Missal. Given the prevalence of this response across all faith backgrounds, it is surprising that composers have not considered it for musical setting.

My example may seem rather facetious, but the broader point is this: liturgical patterns are not restricted to antique formulae found in missals and breviaries. Liturgy is nothing more or less than a corporate expression of our human need for routine and predictability. Denominations which attempt to eschew formal liturgy, whether a megachurch service of the Willow Creek variety or the "informal" youth service in the Anglican church basement, quickly settle into predictable patterns. The essence of liturgy is found in any circle of close friends, where conversations keep returning to the same old inside jokes, or a favourite topic of discussion. We liturgize our own environments instinctively, establishing a communal routine. This sort of routine is not to be derided; it comforts us, orients us toward our central values and interests, and causes differences from the pattern to stand out more clearly. Easter Sunday would not be so different from a normal Sunday if not for the innumerable ways it was precisely the same.

If there is no escape from liturgy, then, it follows that our task is to determine who determines the forms we use. Some portion of the liturgy will inevitably be determined by the particular worshippers and their unique traditions and habits. Another portion will be determined by the individual habits and mannerisms of the priest. But the rest of the liturgy is up for grabs: will we follow a particular historical pattern to the letter, will we allow some individual or group to create a liturgy as they see fit, or will we let the service fall together in a more or less inchoate manner? Your answers to these questions will depend on your theological stance, and may not be arrived at easily, but the question of liturgy suddenly seems much more difficult and more complicated than it did when liturgical matters were "just my opinion." The choice of what to eat for lunch is "just my opinion," and is therefore of no conceivable interest to anyone; the choice of how to celebrate a worship service, however, is of wide interest precisely because it is subject to objective discussion and debate.

There is a deadly facetiousness in the way many people, including clergy, approach the liturgy. We imagine liturgical form to exist in a content-free neverland, in which there is no reason whatever except personal preference to prefer a Mass following the Sarum Rite, a Mass following the Canadian Book of Alternative Services, or a Mass in Pig Latin. There is something remarkably wooly-headed about this: it requires you not only to believe with the postmodernists in the irreconcilability and immutability of individual preference, but also to profess a quasi-Gnostic idealism about human activities. (Our actual words and actions, according to this view, are wholly irrelevant and carry no meaning; the only real meaning is inside our minds, or our hearts, or perhaps on a cloud somewhere.) Such people are impossible to argue with; they simply smile at you and say that yes, your opinion is perfectly valid, and then continue to think up other equally valid liturgical innovations, perhaps involving cotton candy machines.

Let us, then, disagree about every aspect of the liturgy; let us reconsider the most basic elements of worship from the most elementary theological standpoint; let us argue for hours over the smallest detail of the service; but if we must go through all of this, let's do it because liturgy matters, because our actions as a community shape the way that we think, and because the way that we think is, at bottom, based on a common experience of an external reality.

Postmodernism and the work-concept

The central insight of postmodernism is that there is no privileged standpoint from which we can know any subject perfectly. All of our perceptions are coloured by our individual perceptual habits, our particular life experiences, our everyday heuristic routines, and the value judgments of our society. When I claim to have access to objective knowledge about some subject, therefore, my readers ought to look more closely - is he really stating a universal truth, or is his perspective coloured by some bias, or some attempt to serve his own interests?
All of this, of course, can be accepted without capitulating fully to the postmodern philosophical picture. Indeed, a version of what I describe above was known long before the twentieth century, under names such as "critical thinking" and "common sense." Where postmodern thought goes astray is in its extension of this principle, via a breathtaking leap of illogic, to the idea that our individual worldviews prevent us from ever knowing the ultimate reality (if any) beneath our subjective perceptions. This argument, described by Australian philosopher David Stove as "the worst argument in the world," can be roughly summarized thus:

"We can know things only as they are related to us/under our forms of perception and understanding/in so far as they fall under our perceptual schemes, etc.":

therefore

"We cannot know things as they are in themselves."
which is roughly analogous to the following:

"We can see objects only as they appear to us with our eyes":

therefore

"We cannot see objects as they really are."
In other words, much of contemporary philosophy, including the debased form of philosophical language we use in everyday conversation, is based on the presupposition that having any particular means of perceiving the world utterly prevents us from perceiving it. I don't know who first conceived this little argument, or why no-one picked up on the problem with it, but you have him to thank every time you hear someone say "Well, that's only your opinion" about a matter that should be subject to external verification.

Note also that this philosophy is impossible to apply consistently. If you believe that another person is so locked in his perceptual cage that he is incapable of perceiving or responding to an external reality, why would you try to change his mind about some topic? (Indeed, what makes you so sure that your own perceptual apparatus reports accurately that he is disagreeing with you?) Likewise, if you think that the following caveat is necessary in an introductory book on the philosophy of music:

[T]here are two habits of thought which are deeply ingrained in Western culture as a whole and which largely determine the way we think about music . . . [One is] the tendency to think of language and other forms of cultural representation, including music, as if they depicted an external reality.
Nicholas Cook, Music: A Very Short Introduction, 50.

Now, if Cook actually believed that language, as a mere "form of cultural representation," cannot really "depict an external reality," no task could be more futile than writing a book to tell us this. If language had no relation to external reality, Cook's eventual readers would be just as likely to conclude that the book is a study of the mating habits of the flamingo or a collection of Indian recipes as to conclude that it is a critique of the classical work-concept. By expecting you to agree with him that language cannot represent reality, Cook affirms that language is, at bottom, a perfectly clear and comprehensible method of communicating meaning. One must simply remember that this meaning is composed not only of facts about the external world, but also of the subjective impressions of humans - not only the human who wrote the words, but also the human who read them. But then, is anything necessarily wrong with that? And would we want it to be otherwise?

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Epilegomena to any past metaphysics

or An Attempt to Correct the Meteorological Misunderstandings of Various Dead Philosophers

The division of reality is essentially bipartite, and can be divided into:

1) The majority of the physical world, which is so designed that it is governed by a complex set of natural laws, each of which are at best partially determinate.

2) The weather, which is so designed as to annoy me personally.

Even in its irresistible personal vendetta against me, however, the weather is bound to observe various physical laws. By understanding and following these laws, the wise person can deflect the fullness of the weather's wrath. One of these laws, discussed previously in this space, is the inverse relationship between your decision to carry an umbrella and the probability that it will actually rain. Carrying an umbrella about in plain sight, especially if it is large and unwieldy, will greatly reduce the chance that you will have any reason to use it. If you happen to be an organist, the chances that it will rain are further reduced to (approximately) zero.

What has not, however, been hitherto understood is the degree to which the umbrellas themselves, far from being mere tools in the battle of mortal men against the weather, obey a teleological imperative of their own, viz.:
  • The goal of an umbrella's existence is to become a broken umbrella. The state of "broken-umbrellahood" represents a state of social stability which umbrellas strive for, just as humans strive for a comfortable home, satisfying work, an adequate salary, and an impeccably organized iTunes library; more than that, broken-umbrellahood seems to bear some resemblance to the theological concept of the eschaton, representing the ultimate fulfillment of each umbrella's aspirations and the end to its terrestrial struggle.
  • To fulfil this end, young umbrellas gather in such places as dollar stores, pharmacies, and souvenir shops at tourist traps across the land.
  • The umbrella's journey towards self-fulfillment begins by being "purchased" by a "customer." If the umbrella is lucky, it will discover itself to be one of the cheaper and flimsier brands of umbrella, and at its first use a passing breeze will serve to turn it inside out, cause its tightly stretched fabric to rip away from the frame, or otherwise negate its water-repellent properties.
  • If stymied in their attempts to achieve this goal by insufficiently cheap construction or by being carried about by an organist, the umbrella pursues its second-best strategy: to become a lost umbrella. Its owner forced to go out in the rain unprotected, the lost umbrella considers its mission in life adequately accomplished, even though it has not fully realized its telos by becoming broken.
  • Broken umbrellas, having reached the fullness of their destiny as umbrellas, feel no need to pursue the secondary goal of becoming a "lost umbrella;" rather, they cling to their owners with a strong affection, thankful to them for having enabled them to reach their state of blissful brokenness. This is why any household will accumulate at least eighteen broken umbrellas.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

More byways of music history

A few pianists still perform the Busoni arrangements of Bach's organ works - a corpus that includes about a dozen of the chorale preludes and three of the most popular free works (the inevitable D- toccata and fugue, the "St. Anne" prelude and fugue, and the C+ Toccata, Adagio, and Fugue). I don't perform the piano solo repertoire anymore, but I enjoy playing these over from time to time - if you know the organ originals, the audacity of Busoni's arrangements is jaw-dropping. Reading through the scores, you can hardly turn a page without encountering an unpleasant surprise - a sudden fortissimo corresponding to nothing in the original score, or a few measures of added arpeggiation, just to make sure you get the point. Purists would undoubtedly scoff at this, but Busoni's arrangements shouldn't be taken as a diplomatic transcription of the "original" - rather, they're reimaginings which are valuable primarily as a window into Busoni's aesthetic, and the performing practice of some 100 years ago.

Few people would lump Bela Bartok in with Busoni as part of the school of turn-of-the-century pianist-arrangers. Yet a quick visit to IMSLP turns up Bartok's piano arrangement of Bach's G+ trio sonata, as unpianistic a work as one could expect to find in the organ literature. What's more, the arrangement was published in 1930 - at which point Bartok was well into his middle age, and no longer performing regularly as a pianist. I don't know why Bartok made the arrangement, and would love to find out more about it (any Bartok experts in the room?), but in the meantime, I am fascinated to learn that the work exists, and delighted to have such ready access to it.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A use for the useless

Over at Mind the Gap, Molly Sheridan draws our attention to a recent Harper's essay on the neglect of the humanities in the modern education system. I see your eyes rolling already, but this essay is far superior to your average jeremiad, mostly because of its superb writing. (The author, Mark Slouka, is a published novelist and a professor at the University of Chicago). He neatly skewers the obsession American educationists seem to have with Singapore, supposedly a paradise of efficient, workforce-centred education:
If only we could be more like Singapore. If only our education system could be as efficient as Singapore’s. You say that Singapore might not be the best model to aspire to, that in certain respects it more closely resembles Winston Smith’s world than Thomas Jefferson’s? What does that have to do with education?
Ouch.

Despite the efforts of our government to keep up (or, arguably, down) with Singapore by privileging math and science over other subjects, an occasional student still gets the opportunity for a transformative encounter with the humanities:
Even a dessicated, values-free version of the humanities has the potential to be dangerous, though, because it is impossible to say where the individual mind might wander off to while reading, what unsettling associations might suggest themselves, what unscripted, unapproved questions might float to the surface. It’s been said before: in the margins of the page, over the course of time, for the simple reason that we shape every book we read and are slightly shaped by it in turn, we become who we are. Which is to say individuals just distinct enough from one another in our orientation toward “the truth” or “the good” to be difficult to control.

This “deep” civic function of the humanities, not easily reducible to the politics of left or right but politically combustible nonetheless, is something understood very well by totalitarian societies, which tend to keep close tabs on them, and to circumscribe them in direct proportion to how stringently the population is controlled. This should neither surprise nor comfort us. Why would a repressive regime support a force superbly designed to resist it? Rein in the humanities effectively enough—whether through active repression, fiscal starvation, or linguistic marginalization—and you create a space, an opportunity. Dogma adores a vacuum.
Well, I suppose. This sort of rhetoric is simultaneously extremely true and rather tiresome, and depending on what mood I'm in, my reaction will vary from enthusiastic approval to eye-rolling irritation. On the one hand, this writing captures an experience that any sympathetic reader will recognize: the free-floating stream of ideas that follows when we imaginatively engage with a worthwhile piece of art, or literature, or philosophy. On the other, I resent the idea that the value of the humanities lies in their supposedly subversive political implications: is that why we return to the B Minor Mass, or Turangalila, or the Four Quartets? To value art primarily, or even particularly, as a pleasant way of inciting political dissent smacks of the most vulgar Marxism. Surely we return to our favourite works of art because we once discovered them to be beautiful, and because recognizing and apprehending that beauty makes us feel more intensely what it means to be human.

There is something ultimately counterproductive about defending the humanities from their fashionable detractors. I would be surprised to discover that anyone's mind was ever changed by articles like Slouka's - your allies in the humanities cheer, your opponents make the usual facile and cynical comments about the uselessness and impracticality of your discipline, the bureaucrats in the Board of Education carry on as before, and the dean of the business school makes plans for a new addition. Nothing has changed. Prospective university applicants are left with the impression that math, science and "business" courses equip one to "succeed in the marketplace", while the humanities equip one to write eloquent yet snarky essays in newsmagazines. Given the choice, few 18-year olds would choose the prospect of eloquent snarkiness over material success. Indeed, although I've written a number of snarky essays of my own in this space on various subjects, I don't find that they read well in retrospect. (In fact, of all the posts on this site, I am probably proudest of this one, which encompasses literary pastiche, commentary on the midcentury American music scene, and the Bishop of Fad Dieting.)

I am always reminded of high school, at its best and at its considerable worst, when the "crisis of the humanities" comes up. In retrospect, the history of my secondary education can be read as a war of attrition between the humanities and "practical education," waged against such fearsome opponents as the guidance counsellor who urged students away from music and into computer classes, or the vice-principal who attempted to stop a student-run drama production because it might interfere with our academics. I was particularly shocked to see a number of promising humanities students choose to "go into" something called "business." ("What on earth is 'business'?" I asked at the time, and no-one could give me a satisfactory answer. Thanks mostly to Facebook, I have regained contact with some of these people, who now work for corporations but seem either unable or unwilling to articulate what, exactly, they do all day. I still have no idea.)

Perhaps the "crisis of the humanities" would be resolved if we stopped thinking of it as a battle between disciplines. There is something dehumanizing about an outlook that views each student only as a potential scientist, or a potential humanities student, or a potential inhabitant of the shadowy halls of "business" - an outlook that views students as somehow interchangeable. Yet no profession can be so desperate for new blood as to seriously want employees who would rather be doing something else. Indeed, my interactions with many companies, and especially with the public sector, suggest that our society is full of workers who would rather be doing something else. Their problem seems to be less a lack of energy or talent than a lack of enthusiasm for their tasks, a managerial outlook that serves only to maintain the status quo. In an earlier age, these people might have been artisans or farmers, but those sectors of the global economy were long ago outsourced to the Third World.

There is no easy answer to the ills of the humanities: if an eloquent jeremiad could have fixed the problem, our troubles would have ended in 1987. (In Slouka's defence, his article goes far beyond the usual stereotypes: I was especially pleased to see him lay partial blame on the humanities themselves, for their simultaneous embrace of triviality and obscurantism.) However, a start would be to depoliticize the high school guidance office. Students don't need further pressure to go to university and pursue a lucrative private-sector career; even less do they need to be shielded from the realities of the marketplace and told to follow their wildest dreams. What they need is to be left alone and given an opportunity to figure out what line of work suits their interests and skills. Those who appreciate most keenly the importance of the humanities to our human identity will take appropriate steps, and those whose literal-mindedness prevents them from seeing anything in the arts except a waste of time and money will pursue careers in which this characteristic is a positive boon, like chartered accountancy.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

On being a creative artist in a recession

All civilisation, as well as all religion, ultimately rests on the truth that we do not "need" beautiful things to be good. Beautiful things belong precisely to that category of reality which is, as the Greeks first taught, beyond necessity. They are precisely "unnecessary". This is their glory.

Thus man is, in fact, that being in the universe who can build unnecessary things and make them beautiful. And conversely, the ultimate sign of barbarism is to burn down something that is truly lovely - and to burn it down in the name of man himself, as if this act would somehow ennoble him further. Indeed, even more, the final mark of incivility is never to build a beautiful thing in the first place. This is why in the end, all barbarism, even all heresy, comes to attack beauty in the name of bread. In other words, the most radical contempt for the poor is to proclaim that they need bread more than beauty, that they literally do, in fact, live by bread alone.
James V. Schall, S.J., The Praise of 'Sons of Bitches', 24.

Very little remains to be said. The sort of facile Puritanism attacked here recurs in every age, but it seems to be endemic to our own era in particular, and to take root especially among the young. To my mind, this attitude is uniquely infuriating, demanding as it does that the universal human need for beauty be put on hold until some social ill is solved - as though our world will ever be completely free of poverty, corruption, crime, disease, or any other manifestation of human frailty. Meanwhile, in an age of such affluence that even the modest stipend of a graduate student or a welfare recipient is sufficient to purchase a host of luxury products beyond the imagination of Louis XIV, fewer and fewer resources are available for the creation and dissemination of beauty.

Schall's essay was spurred by a reflection on the great cathedrals of Europe, and of their builders - all hopelessly impoverished by today's standards - who thought it worth their time to produce a lasting monument to the craftsmanship, artistic vision, and religious faith of their community. I can think of few projects conceived today that bring art into the public square as decisively as a Gothic cathedral. Certainly, we spend millions of dollars on "the arts," and much more on "entertainment," some of which has significant artistic value - but the mechanisms of the marketplace are such that our enjoyment of art is always somehow circumscribed. At best, our artistic appreciation might be shared with a select group of other ticketholders; more usually, it takes place in the privacy of our own home. Yet, as we go about our everyday lives, the spirit of the medieval cathedral builders sometimes slips through the cracks - a Donne sonnet on a subway poster, a bust of some long-forgotten civic figure outside a government building, or a neo-Gothic church that has not yet been torn down to make way for condominiums.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Under scrutony

There's an awful lot of writing on musical aesthetics. Unfortunately, most of it is highly unsatisfactory. Most of the great philosophers seem to have had tin ears, and so the topic of musical aesthetics has largely been left to amateurs - critics, composers, and musicologists - rather than to trained philosophers. For the most part, these efforts have not fully succeeded in establishing a convincing theory of musical meaning. Other writers have tried to develop an philosophical theory of music by extension from the better-established aesthetics of painting, theatre, or poetry. These efforts are doomed to failure from the outset: painting, theatre and poetry are by nature representational arts, where music is inherently abstract. And so, with the most pressing questions about musical aesthetics left unanswered (Why do we listen to music? What, if anything, does it express?) discussions of musical meaning tend to degenerate into clichés. On the one hand, "formalists" like Igor Stravinsky or Eduard Hanslick insist on music's complete inability to express anything at all; on the other, Marxist and feminist critics regularly ascribe the most implausible sociopolitical narratives onto quite unassuming pieces of music. What are we supposed to make of all of this? Who cares?

Enter Roger Scruton.

The Aesthetics of Music is a comprehensive treatment of the subject, running to some 508 pages, and manages to balance musical and philosophical discourse to the betterment of both. This necessarily limits his audience: musicians unused to reading academic philosophy will have a hard time of the first, errr, four hundred pages, and philosophers unable to read the musical examples will need to make friends with a pianist. Yet the book is never unnecessarily complicated: the ideas are not simple, but the writing is always clear and precise.

Much of the fun of reading The Aesthetics of Music is watching Scruton neatly skewer various fashionable musical personages; some of the corpses strewn in his wake include theorist Heinrich Schenker, feminist critic Susan McClary, arch-nominalist Nelson Goodman, and the entire school of musical semiology. But most of his argument is directed towards a solution to the vexing issue of musical expression. On the one hand, to deny music any expressive properties won't do. Eduard Hanslick is within his rights to insist that music means nothing other than "forms moved through tones," but few listeners would believe that this is really all we hear when we listen to music - and, as Scruton points out, the concept of musical motion is itself a metaphor. (Because sound objectively consists only of vibrations in the air, it's unclear how one piece of music could have "more motion" than another in any quantifiable sense.) On the other hand, if there is expression in music, we're left with the vexing question of where it comes from. The emotions we associate with musical works can't be the same as those felt by the composer while writing the work, or those felt by the performer onstage - indeed, when we consider how quickly these feelings wash over us in a performance, and how readily they dissipate afterwards with no lingering consequences, we begin to wonder whether "emotion" is even the correct word for this sort of a reaction at all. Our sloppiness about ascribing emotional content to works of music leads us into all sorts of strange ideas, including the bizarre theory that works of music literally "resemble" some emotion or other, which we then experience by a sort of osmosis. If we feel the emotion of hope is expressed by the "Hebrides" overture of Mendelssohn, for example, it's because the music "resembles the posture, attitude, and life of a hopeful person." Scruton dryly comments that the overture "resembles a duck in a state of gastric distress just as much as it resembles a man in a state of hope." If there's any hope for a theory of musical meaning, we won't find it in these sorts of platitudes, which befit a second-rate programme annotator better than a serious scholar.

Scruton's own theory describes music instead as the "intentional object of an imaginative perception." The sounds created by musical instruments, without an intelligent listener, are mere vibrations in the air having no significance whatsoever, emotional or otherwise. Heard properly, however, meaningless sounds transform themselves into meaningful tones, and we attempt to understand them through metaphor. The most basic musical metaphors, of course, are those of movement, or of tension and resolution - concepts so basic to our understanding of tonal space that we forget they would be totally meaningless to an acoustician. Other metaphors soon follow, ascribing "emotions," "narrative," or even "character" to a musical work. All of these metaphors, says Scruton, are expressions of Einfühlung (empathy): to understand a musical work, we try to move along with it, empathizing with it as we would empathize with the emotions of a friend. Because we view both musical works and other human beings from a third-person perspective, we can never experience their emotions firsthand. In striving to empathize with them, we come as close as we can to understanding their experience, recalling emotional experiences from our memories that provide the most appropriate response.

All of this could seem like a gateway to the worst kind of subjectivism. If the listener creates the meaning of a musical work from memories of his own emotions, how could we ever establish an agreement on the meaning of a musical work, or on the relative quality of different pieces? The future is not quite so bleak, however, for our musical impressions can be changed. To present us with new ways of thinking of a musical work, in fact, is precisely the role of the critic. The critic's reading of a piece of music, if convincing, can become part of our mental furniture, changing the way we hear the piece forever. Less plausible readings may influence a few, but in the long run fail to convince. In this way, our initial judgments of works give way to better-informed readings, until each listener is eventually able to serve as his own critic, distinguishing genuinely affective music from the merely sentimental.

Scruton's book could really have ended at the point I've just reached in my summary, as the bulk of his work is to develop this theory of musical meaning and to defend it against all comers. For better or for worse, however, Scruton appends a further three chapters on musical analysis, on performance practice, and on musical culture, which could practically have come out of a different book. Where the bulk of the book moves slowly and methodically, with the glacial force of deductive argument, these last chapters read like Scruton's journalism: pithy, readable, and extremely controversial. Those of you who find Scruton's brand of cultural conservatism uncongenial are advised to proceed with caution: if you disagree that the songs of REM consist of "shapeless cries" draped over "the last sad skeleton of rhythm," for example, you might find yourself becoming offended. I myself was flabbergasted at Scruton's dated attack on the early music movement:
The authentic performance is a kind of tacit reprimand of the audience. Listeners to Beethoven's Ninth, thinned with white spirit by Roger Norrington and painted in fast brush-strokes on the air, are meant to be shocked. They are meant to understand the vulgarity of their taste, in wanting the full-throated brass of a modern orchestra, and the silken saturation of ten- or twenty-fold strings.
I consult the publication date: 1996. Nope, no excuse. In 1996, the early-music movement had moved far beyond the sort of lifeless, pedantic (and frequently out-of-tune) performance style that Scruton criticizes. Nowadays, listeners are likely to be seduced by the sheer tonal beauty of early-music performances: the richness of a gamba consort, the perfect intonation and blend of a small ensemble singing Renaissance polyphony, or the gravitas of a Silbermann organ.

Enough of this. Philosophy and cultural criticism are not the same thing, and The Aesthetics of Music will stand or fall as a work of philosophy. Anyone with the slightest interest in musical aesthetics owes it to themselves to read this, as it knocks almost every other book on the subject out of the ballpark.

Friday, August 28, 2009

The medium, or the message?

Someone has decided to post the entire works of Shakespeare on Twitter, at ten-minute intervals. The feed can be followed here.

I can't claim to understand why anyone would embark on such a project, or why it has attracted over 850 followers to date. (If I want to read a Shakespeare play, I set aside an evening and finish it in one sitting if at all possible: I can think of few things more frustrating than reading King Lear backwards, one line at a time, over a period of several weeks.) But then, I have never really understood the import of Twitter in the first place, and maintain a posture of dyspeptic mistrust towards all forms of new technology except for organ console accessories.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Just stick to music, Osbert

The mass media are full of invective on the current American health-care debate, most of which is exceedingly tiresome. (I refer in particular to statements by the lunatic fringe of the Republican party, which collectively seem to suggest that Obama is simultaneously a socialist, a fascist, and a deformed anarchist/supervillain.) Discussion has spread to areas of the blogosphere that normally avoid politics, with predictably disappointing results. The last thing you want to read is an organist's opinion.

I realize, too, that my Canadian background makes it almost impossible for me to understand what the fuss is all about. You mean not all countries have government-funded health insurance? How would that even work? Canadians have a broad consensus that their health-care system is essentially successful, and generally fail to understand the strong libertarian streak in American politics.

Yet, it seems to me that the following from Charles Taylor is particularly applicable here:
What should have died along with communism was the belief that modern societies can be run on a single principle, whether that of planning under the general will or that of free-market allocations. Our challenge is actually to combine in some non-self-stultifying fashion a number of ways of operating, which are jointly necessary to a free and prosperous society but which also tend to impede each other: market allocations, state planning, collective provision for need, the defence of individual rights, and effective democratic initiative and control. In the short run, maximum market "efficiency" may be restricted by each of the four modes; in the long run, even perhaps economic performance, but certainly justice and freedom, would suffer from their marginalization.
Charles Taylor, The Malaise of Modernity, 110.

Detractors of Obama's health care plan oppose it on the basis that it could compromise the defence of individual liberty, both for the doctors who would come under the regulation of a nationalized system, and for the patients who would have no choice but to accept the State as their health care provider. Defenders of Obama's health care plan support it on the basis that it would enable society to provide more effectively for the needs of the underprivileged. They are both right.

"Defence of individual rights" and "collective provision for need," to take two almost at random, are irreconcilable goals; irreconcilable because incommensurable.* For a government to provide for the needs of the underprivileged will always endanger the individual liberty of others, because this provision will necessarily involve some level of government coercion; for a government to uphold the absolute rights of every individual will prevent the forcible transferral of resources that is necessary for a redistributive concept of justice. One sets out a separate sphere of influence for each individual, the other insists on the individual's responsibility within a broad social context. These goals will never harmonize properly, to use a musical metaphor: they belong to different tonalities, and one will always sound out-of-tune with the other. Depending on which chord you hear as the tonic, you will try to strengthen it and drown out the others. No compromise is possible, only a continual struggle for position. This, perhaps, explains the essentially agonistic quality of liberal democracy, with its sometimes fractious policial parties and its innumerable checks and balances: its founders realized that the future was not a peaceful one.

If we accept this battle at the heart of the democratic process, we might be able to wage it more constructively, alleviating the fears of both parties by agreeing to spurn both unchecked individualism and Orwellian statism. By making the most intelligent and forceful case for their positions, both sides would ensure that the resulting decision would approximate an ideal state of equilibrium. The British parliamentary system does well to refer to the second-place political party as "Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition": that party's influence, if properly used, can produce political institutions of lasting value.

Of course, none of this will happen as long as Republicans make near-slanderous remarks about the sitting President, and Democrats dismiss all opposition to their plans as the fearmongering of ill-informed hillbillies. Intelligent, forceful statesmanship begins with "intelligence".

*Someone will probably realize that this argument could be completely collapsed if we consider the provision of adequate health care, a guaranteed minimum income, etc., to be rights in the same sense that freedom of speech is a right. I think this common objection is an example of fuzzy thinking about the nature of "rights": surely rights come with complementary responsibilities, which does not seem to be the case with a "right" to health care. Better, I think, to approach the issue of provision for social need with respect to the virtue of charity: providing a social safety net for those who fall should be seen as a virtuous action and an expression of the collective goodwill of society, rather than as the fulfilment of a default entitlement, which breeds resentment.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Life is a bitter charade

Daniel Wolf sums up the life of the creative artist: some people will never like your work, no matter what you do. Move on.
It is difficult, very difficult, when the music one makes and loves does not make others happy. But when you are in a position to recognize there are some people who will never be made happy by music and others for whom their musical happiness is predetermined by a categorical preference for this or dislike for that, isn't this an opportunity to recognize that these people are lost causes, and it's better to treasure and cultivate people who still have their ears open than to worry about, let alone make music for, lost causes?
I am reminded of the last parish I served as organist, where I grew intimately familiar with two parishioners in particular, seated on opposite sides of the chancel: Mr. The-organ-is-far-too-loud and Mrs. The-organ-is-far-too-quiet. The one was convinced that I was a megalomaniac set upon drowning out the congregation's singing with blaring reeds; the other was convinced that the only thing preventing the congregation's singing from getting off the ground was my reluctance to "open up" the organ sufficiently. By the end of my tenure there, they had both given me up as a lost cause.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Asking the wrong questions

What is music?

In most times and places, this would not be a difficult question to answer. I doubt it would occur to a contemporary of Mozart, for example, to ask for a definition of "music". If they did ask, they would probably get an ostensive definition rather than a theoretical one: music is this, someone would say, pointing to the string quartet politely minuetting in the corner. The particular performing practice of eighteenth-century Austrian culture provided a unitary framework for music, and all was well.

Contemporary North American culture, by contrast, lacks any unifying worldview, artistic or otherwise, and so the performing conventions of "Western classical music" jostle for position with those of various vernacular musics from all over the world. We also live in a world accustomed to the extremes of postmodern art, in which the accepted boundaries of art are deliberately crossed. With so many competing examples of musical praxis, it seems difficult to come up with any definition of music that would include everything we want it to: Bach's B-Minor Mass? Nam June Paik's Solo for Violin? Easy listening? Inuit throat singing? And so the question becomes increasingly pressing: what is music?

I understand why this question seems imporant to so many people, but I never found it particularly interesting. I now believe it's the wrong question entirely, and that putting the matter in these terms does more harm than good.

Consider: are we trying to define the musical experience from the perspective of the creator, or the listener?

From the perspective of the listener, the significance of art lies in the fact that it provides access to an aesthetic experience. In the case of music, the listener's aesthetic experience is one where sounds become the intentional object of an imaginative perception in a sympathetic listener.* As we listen to sounds, we project upon them the musical qualities of pitch, rhythm, tonal orientation, and goal-directed movement which we value in our culture. These sounds can be produced by musical instruments, but they can equally be produced accidentally by phenomena in the natural world, or by machinery, just as a person can receive as much pleasure from a natural landscape as from a painting by Picasso. In this sense, literally any combination of sounds can become music; only the listener determines what is or is not significant. Cage's 4'33" is quite uncontroversial from this perspective: it is music because it causes us to hear the random noises of a concert hall as tones rather than as random noise.

(An anecdote. On my recent trip to the zoo, shortly after having viewed the enchiladas, I stopped to watch a group of birds. One individual, a pheasant of sorts, walked round the cage uttering forth a guttural croak at regular intervals; after a few minutes, a crane standing nearby added its distinctive squawk to the ensemble. For about a minute, they maintained this ostinato pattern with a precise rhythmic relationship. Finally, when no-one else joined in, the crane got bored and flew away. The significance of this experience was not in any musical expertise possessed by the zoo animals, but in my propensity to interpret their sounds in musical terms.)

On the other hand, one can equally look at music from the perspective of the creator: music is something created by a human intelligence (whether improvised or composed in advance, and whether one person is involved or many), and therefore ought to be held to the highest standards of craftmanship. If the work in question is a work of music, these standards demand that it should be written with skill, and that it should be successfully geared towards its purpose: to produce an aesthetic response in a receptive audience. This is the view of art endorsed by neo-Scholasticism. From this perspective, a work like 4'33'' or Paik's Solo is not art; it requires no skill to produce and thus often fails to produce any aesthetic reaction in its listeners.

People who take one perspective or the other will give diametrically opposed answers to the question of "What is music?". This is because they're really answering two different questions. Confusion then prevails. The person in your high-school music class who insisted that Cage's 4'33'' wasn't music was right: it doesn't display the purpose-driven craftsmanship we expect from successful compositions. Her sparring partner across the classroom, though, was also right: 4'33'' is certainly music, because it can create an aesthetic experience in a properly-disposed listener. The problem was not in either of these well-meaning people, but with their teacher for putting the question so crudely.

*I borrow this terminology from Roger Scruton's wonderful The Aesthetics of Music, shortly to be reviewed in these pages.