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 clich├ęs. 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 Einf├╝hlung (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.

Liturgical fail

For those of you who don't follow such things: FailBlog is currently featuring a news clip in which a cardinal mistakes his microphone for an aspergilium.

I'm always delighted to see liturgical matters reflected in pop culture, but I'm also glad that FailBlog didn't yet exist on that fateful Sunday many years ago when I dropped my hymnbook on the keyboard during a homily. (EPIC ORGANIST FAIL?)

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Con fuoco

Given our established taste for the senseless destruction of pianos, we would be remiss not to direct your attention to the following:
See also: here and here.

Monday, August 3, 2009

A correction

We all make mistakes. Those of us who have blogs, of course, are prone to a different class of mistake than other life-forms.

Regular visitors to this page (as opposed to those who follow TBWCTW by RSS reader) will recall my rather poorly-written "About Me" blurb, which for some eighteen months graced the right-hand sidebar. In the course of general site updates, I finally decided to slash the blurb down to a more manageable size. This reflects the fact that I, a mere mortal, am simply not a good enough writer to handle this most challenging of forms. To avoid on the one hand the Scylla of Too Much Boring Personal Information, and on the other the Charybdis of Trying To Be Funny And Not Succeeding, is flatly beyond my powers. So I've given up; my new "About Me" blurb states the necessary information in as few words as possible, as if urging you to go read something else instead.

The essential futility of "About Me" blurbs, of course, extends not only to blurbs on Blogger but to those on any form of communications platform. Having read innumerable such blurbs on Facebook and various other dark corners of the Internet, I have never encountered one that I would consider a successful example of the form. The Internet pioneers can congratulate themselves on having created a form of literature that defies mastery; while the sestina, villanelle and the other fixed forms of past generations have been mastered by many talented poets, no author has yet demonstrated a command of the "About Me" blurb. The first to do so may well revolutionize English literature.

My first mistake, therefore, was a certain artistic hubris: I thought I could succeed at a literary form where all others had failed. I was wrong. But paring down my "About Me" blurb to a more manageable size has also given me the excuse to correct a second mistake: the inclusion of the phrase "radical positivist."

Anyone who has spent more than ten minutes in a university musicology department is familiar with the tired debate between "positivist" and "hermeneutic" interpretations: the former supposedly treating only the formal characteristics of the music under consideration, the latter incorporating social-science methodology to treat the music's social context. Now, it should be perfectly obvious to any thinking person that neither method is sufficient. On the one hand, no-one wants to read your wonderful Roman-numeral analysis of Beethoven's Fifth unless you have something interesting to say about it; on the other, no Beethoven scholar wants to read your wonderful paper on gender studies or comparative religion or whatever unless you also have something to say about music. The fact that musicology is still taught in this manner has nothing to do with current scholarship and everything to do with professors who went to school in the 1980s.

In any case, I felt a strong sympathy with the sort of scholarship that was labelled "positivistic," primarily because it was unpopular, but also because I found much of the "New Musicology," despite its pluralist pretensions, to be crudely prescriptive and Neon Arrow in its approach to music. And so, within the musical community, describing one's approach as "positivist," especially if understood ironically, signifies a mistrust of fashionable postmodernism, a somewhat old-fashioned orientation with which regular readers will by now be familiar. Yet the term has always bothered me, because to those coming from outside the musical world, "positivism" is the biggest Neon Arrow of all - the scientistic assumption that only positively verifiable facts have any meaning, and that anything else (especially metaphysics and theology, and by extension art itself) is utterly useless. Someone with that orientation, of course, couldn't possibly be a professional musician.

And so it's with great relief that I finally drop "radical positivist" from the masthead. Chaucer's warning still stands; if you don't like my aesthetic orientation, you can read a more politically correct blog instead. But I think TBWCTW has been running for long enough that the warning is no longer necessary, especially when the term "positivism" is meaningful only within the world of musicological in-fighting. I wouldn't want you to think that I'm a disciple of A. J. Ayer, or anything like that.

On Mexican cuisine

Overheard at the Toronto Zoo:

Mother: Look at that - it's some sort of a porcupine thing!
Child: That's not a porcupine. It's an enchilada!

Fig. 1: The wild enchilada in its natural habitat.