Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Pinker redux

A. C. Douglas responds to yesterday's post; he feels that in my rush to condemn Pinker's antimodernist bias I have in fact misread both Pinker's own writing and that of Virginia Woolf. I have no desire to pick a fight with ACD, who I very much respect and who has the distinct advantage of having actually read the book in question, but there are a few points I think ought to be made in response to his comments:

First: ACD acknowledges that Pinker has misquoted Woolf, but feels that the terms "human character" and "human nature" are so close in meaning as to make no difference in context. I can only disagree. To me, the terms have entirely different connotations; "human nature" refers to the immutable qualities shared by all human beings, regardless of their life experience and social context, while "human character" is something which differentiates individual people, and which can be altered by events in a person's life. This problem, of course, is Wittgensteinian; we're using the same words, we just disagree on what they mean.

Yet in this context, it doesn't matter how ACD or I want to use the terms "human character" and "human nature": what matters is how Woolf and Pinker uses them. It's instructive, then, to consider how Woolf uses the two terms; first, "character":
My first assertion is one that I think you will grant - that every one in this room is a judge of character. Indeed it would be impossible to live for a year without disaster unless one practices character-reading and had some skill in the art. Our marriages, our friendships depend on it; our business largely depends on it; every day questions arise which can only be solved by its help. And now I will hazard a second assertion, which is more disputable perhaps, to the effect that on or about December, 1910, human character changed.
It seems fairly clear here that she intends the term to mean not some immutable set of human qualities, but the unique behaviours and quirks of individuals. The change of human character she describes, then, is not a change in our essential genetic makeup, but a change prompted by a new social and political environment. For example, the influence of the womens' suffrage movement causes us to look at characters like Clytemnestra, or historical figures like Thomas Carlyle's socially repressed wife, with new sympathy. (This example is Woolf's.)

So much for "character". What does Woolf say about "human nature"?
There she sits in the corner of the carriage - that carriage which is travelling, not from Richmond to Waterloo, but from one age of English literature to the next, for Mrs. Brown is eternal, Mrs. Brown is human nature, Mrs. Brown changes only on the surface, it is the novelists who get in and out - there she sits and not one of the Edwardian writers had so much as looked at her.
To read an essay that contains this statement as a "militant denial of human nature" is, I believe, stretching Woolf's meaning somewhat. Pinker, anxious to pursue his agenda of radical genetic determinism, is forced to acknowledge only one side of the nature/nurture debate; Woolf, however, is able to encompass both the changeable and permanent aspects of the human psyche. As a writer, it is her business to understand both.

I am further accused of misunderstanding the purpose of Woolf's essay. Perhaps my understanding of the essay is not complete, but I great have difficulty following ACD when he states that "Woolf's essay's intent was to fire a warning shot over the heads of the Georgians, so to speak, by admonishing them to take a lesson from the Edwardians". Woolf goes to great lengths in her essay to demonstrate how artificial the technique of the Edwardians was; how it focuses on the irrelevant details of people's houses, occupations, and economic circumstances at the expense of exploring their character. If Woolf expects any lesson to be gleaned from the Edwardians at all in terms of depicting character, it's a purely negative one. It's the Georgians who are attempting, in their halting way, to paint a fuller picture of "Mrs. Brown".

I should add, for readers who are patiently sloughing through all of this, that the Woolf essay in question is entitled "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown", and can be found widely anthologized. If you've read all the quotations that ACD and I are throwing at each other, you've read a significant portion of the essay already. It is worth tracking down a copy; this is a crucial piece of literary criticism.

Finally, ACD points out that Pinker is talking about the theories underlying works of art, not the aesthetic objects themselves. I understand this, but feel the distinction to be a porous one for several reasons. First, many artists throughout history are poor critics of their own work; therefore, one cannot assume that the aesthetic theories of a writer or composer represent accurately the content of their output. Second, Pinker directly refers to twentieth-century art works as "ugly, baffling and insulting"; because this is an aesthetic judgment on a group of works, it is best answered by aesthetic judgments of our own. Finally, it's been my observation that the twentieth-century saw a particularly wide schism between theory and practice; composers preached an intellectual and ascetic approach to art, but they could not prevent their works from having emotional and expressive content. Books by Boulez and Xenakis scowl at the reader, and say "No", but their music, heard properly, says "Yes".

Monday, February 9, 2009

Pinker on the brain

A. C. Douglas approvingly quotes a book by linguist-neuroscientist-psychologist-author Steven Pinker on the "artistic malaise" of the twentieth century. According to Pinker:
The dominant theories of elite art and criticism in the twentieth century grew out of a militant denial of human nature. One legacy is ugly, baffling, and insulting art.
As so often happens when non-artists try to pontificate on the arts, Pinker's comment betrays a lack of appreciation for the art works themselves. But he also gets his facts wrong: Pinker cites a comment by Virginia Woolf "In or about December 1910, human nature changed". A quick search for the source of this comment turned up the original essay. What Woolf actually says is the following:
. . . On or about December 1910, human character changed. . . The change was not sudden and definite. . . but a change there was, nevertheless.
Not only has Pinker significantly misquoted Woolf, but he's removed Woolf's careful qualifiers in order to make the statement more sensational than it actually is. As I read the essay, Woolf's intent was to propose a more realistic portrayal of character than that of 19th-century authors, who dwelt on the surface details of characters rather than exploring their deeper humanity - or in Pinker's terms, their human nature:
That is what I mean by saying that the Edwardian tools are the wrong ones for us to use. They have laid an enormous stress upon the fabric of things. They have given us a house in the hope that we may be able to deduce the human beings who live there. To give them their due, they have made that house much better worth living in. But if you hold that novels are in the first place about people, and only in the second about the houses they live in, that is the wrong way to set about it.
Woolf's point, then, is one that Pinker would agree with - that art should focus primarily on the inner character of a person, not on the picturesque incidentals of their physical appearance, cultural background, and surface behaviour. Indeed, modernism is set apart from earlier movements precisely by its special focus on the human psyche. The aim of Woolf's fiction was not tp embrace cultural relativism, making each person an island; the aim was to paint convincing portraits of individuals, and thereby to show what these fictional characters might have in common with real-life people. I see that the New Yorker review of Pinker's book makes the same point, citing Ulysses as a case in point: by equating twentieth-century Dubliners with characters from Homer, Joyce makes a compelling case for the immutability of human nature. The argument that modernism denies a fundamental human nature simply doesn't hold water.

In retrospect, the twentieth century now seems one of the most astounding creative periods in human history, as well it might be: when else in history did so many people in so many countries have the economic means to become artists? Unfortunately, in many art forms - particularly music - the modernist tradition was hijacked by a problematic aesthetic, one which argued that music should be ugly because, well, life is that way. One can deplore the ideology while still conceding that much of the music written under its shadow (Boulez, Xenakis, Maderna, Dallapiccola) has a unique beauty of its own. Pinker thus fails on several levels:

1) He lacks the familiarity with modernist art works to judge them as aesthetic objects, or to make accurate comments about the movement;
2) He equates the aesthetic effect of the works themselves with statements made about them in essays;
3) . . . which he either misunderstands or deliberately misquotes.

But then, what do you expect from the man who dismissed the entire art of music as "auditory cheesecake?"

Sunday, February 8, 2009


I give up.

(for an explanation, see here.)

And, on Anglican Music, an extremely pertinent quotation from Eliot's Four Quartets.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Playing the sniper

Despite the somewhat misleading URL of this blog, I try to stay away from areas of enormous controversy. I've railed against general trends in sacred choral music, but I try not to name particular composers - after all, it's quite possible that the works I heard were unrepresentative. But in this case, I feel obligated to be more specific, because the composer in question is now one of the most famous and revered figures in the choral scene. If I'm missing something, I'd love to be proven wrong; on the other hand, if the emperor has no clothes, this should be pointed out.

I speak, of course, of Eric Whitacre. I've sung works of his with choirs in the past, of course, but slighter pieces which I was always told were unrepresentative of his output. However, I'm now preparing this work for a concert, which is considered to be one of his better pieces:
"Sleep" has been widely performed wherever choirs exist, has been recorded numerous times, and has legions of fans. Why, then, do I think the piece is devoid of almost any redeeming characteristics?

The first problem is the text. The inside front cover of the sheet music tells the sad story: Whitacre was commissioned a setting of Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" for a concert, but was then denied permission to use the work by Frost's publishers. Is all lost? No, a poet friend steps in and agrees to write new words to fit the previously composed music. Presto, the music is saved! Except that the poem is pretty small beer. Compare the last quatrain of Frost's poem
The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
to the newly written version:
What dreams may come, both dark and deep,
Of flying wings and soaring leap,
As I surrender unto sleep,
As I surrender unto sleep.
There are so many things wrong with this. The words "dark and deep" are there only to preserve key words from the earlier Frost setting, which is why they make absolutely no sense in context (dark and deep dreams?). The horrible tautology of "flying wings". The unbelievably awkward phrase "soaring leap" which, like "clouds of dream" earlier in the poem, reads like a machine translation - the poet is working so hard to fit the meter that the words no longer form idiomatic English. Finally, look at the opening quatrain:
The evening hangs beneath the moon,
A silver thread on darkened dune.
With closing eyes and resting head
I know that sleep is coming soon.
The same sort of problems: unbelievably awkward phraseology, and a dangling modifier to boot (it's the moon, a slim crescent against a dark background, that's like a "silver thread", not the evening). There are some nice ideas here, and the complete text telescopes sleep and death in a way which has potential - but the expression is simply too leaden for it to take off as a poem.

It's obvious that the task in question - to completely remake a poem to fit an existing choral piece, including some of the key vocabulary - was a Herculean one, and I wouldn't wish to judge the poet based on it. And this in itself wouldn't damn the work entirely; plenty of good composers, from Verdi to Ives, have set less-than-stellar texts. Unfortunately, I see little of value in the musical style either. Regular readers know how I feel about the "modern choral style", with its declamatory, homorhythmic style, unresolved suspensions, bassploitation, and naive exploration of vertical sonorities at the expense of all other musical elements. Whitacre gets points for avoiding the worst tricks of the style (the incidents of bassploitation all occur near the beginning of the piece, and it's not completely homophonic). Yet in his harmonic audacity, Whitacre goes one step further than most of his contemporaries, embracing a style where dissonance has absolutely no syntactical meaning whatsoever. Added notes can be inserted into any chord at any pitch level, approached by any interval, and never have to be resolved. Because the structure has no soundness or logic to it whatsoever, the result is a voyage of unending, merciless prettiness. To say that listening to the piece is like taking an aural bath is an understatement - it's the aural equivalent of sitting in the bathtub for eight hours, playing with the bubbles while eating ice cream straight out of the pail with a spoon.

Why, then, do so many people have such a high regard for Whitacre's music? Because his style, so sickeningly sweet, has a genuine attraction; he appeals to a palate unused to subtler tastes. Because he displays a genuine craft in doing what he does; the chords are carefully voiced, the climaxes well timed, and the text setting generally quite competent. But I think the broader problem is that people see music purely as entertainment, and so don't think to apply a reasonable moral or ethical standard to the music they sing. Music like Whitacre's is founded on instant gratification, with its plump, juicily voiced chords on the audible surface, ripe for the taking. No effort required - simply sit and bask. In my view, one of the greatest virtues of the great composers is their ability to force you to listen more carefully, focusing your attention on new details at each successive listening. This is not merely an aesthetic virtue, but a moral one - it teaches us to mistrust superficial appearance, for a pleasant-sounding piece can prove tiresome on multiple listenings, or, equally, reveal new levels of meaning. Works like "Sleep" have their place in the repertoire, but their current fetishization in the choral world reveals a skewed sense of proportion and a disturbing indifference to the moral implications of art.

Monday, February 2, 2009

On archery

The great discovery of the Gothic architects was the practice of ribbed vaulting, wherein a series of stone ribs support the weight of a vaulted ceiling. The earlier, Romanesque style of architecture had employed barrel vaults, which are essentially solid stone tubes, shaped like the cross-section of a barrel. This design was structurally weak - while under construction, the vault had to be propped up with timbers to prevent it from falling apart. The completed vaults were prone to collapse, and because every stone in the structure was load-bearing, it was impossible to include any windows without risking the entire ceiling coming down.

In a ribbed vault, by contrast, the ribs bear the load of the entire ceiling, which is transferred to the ground through the piers on either side of the vault. This means that the ceiling itself can be made of lightweight stone, and that there is room between the ribs for stained-glass windows. The result is a style of architecture which is elegant, fills the finished building with light, and is in the long run structurally sound. All depends, of course, on the structural integrity of the ribs, whose arch shape is best suited to supporting a heavy load.

Anyone who has worked with choirs long enough to understand the basic principles of musical phrasing, of course, knows that the shape of the arch is crucial not only to the structure of Gothic buildings, but to the repertoire that was sung in them.