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.


Anonymous said...

One of the problems is that aesthetics itself is misdefined . . .

recent research has show that pure aesthetics is the use of formulas of a universe without participating in any Games.

Beauty/ugliness is aesthetics PLUS game-considerations (the game is often Survival, plus the beings playing that game are aberrated!).

Once a few practical definitions are sorted out, the subject becomes a lot more meaningful :)

See my blog post on related issues of aesthetics vs. emotions, fine art vs. popularity . . .

Osbert Parsley said...

I'm not sure what sort of "recent research" you've been consulting, but I don't think the distinction you're trying to make is particularly coherent or useful. "Aesthetics" and "beauty" cannot possibly be defined as separate domains of artistic endeavour, because the one is a field of study and the other a property of the object studied. To define beauty as dependent on "game-considerations", moreover, goes deeply against the grain, as the history of philosophy has always tried to categorize it as a universally valid concept.