Monday, February 3, 2014

Substance and Accident

Some interesting issues came up in the comment thread to this post. The question was posed, is there video game music that is influenced by classical music and are there popular music genres like heavy metal that are particularly influenced by classical music?

The easy answer is yes, of course. Here is a particularly strong example from Final Fantasy:


I think that the implicit assumption behind pointing out that this music or other music has something of a classical sound or feel is that the music is better because of it. Sounding vaguely classical is better than sounding vaguely pop or world music or whatever. But I think I want to question that on aesthetic grounds.

Aesthetic questions are always a bit awkward for the reason that they necessarily involve value judgments. Music theorists avoid all that by sticking to stuff like "the composer makes particularly adroit use of the secondary dominant to prepare the return of the main theme". One is never quite sure if this makes the music sound "good" or not. Value judgments tend to be subjective--in fact, capitalism depends on that! If you spend some money to buy something it is because you value the thing more than the money it cost to buy it. The transaction occurs because the seller prefers to have your money rather than what he is selling. So every free transaction depends on a different judgment of subjective value.

Similarly, every aesthetic judgment is subjective as well. But I think that there is also an objective value. Just as in the world of financial transactions it is objectively recognized that a Lamborghini will always cost more than a Volkswagen, and therefore be objectively more valuable than a Volkswagen, a particularly artwork can be recognized to be more valuable than another. After all, at auctions of famous paintings, no-one expects the Van Gogh to sell for less than something by a relatively unknown painter. I think we can make the argument that some pieces of music have greater aesthetic value than others, but due to the immaterial nature of music, this might be more difficult and we should probably allow a fair amount of wiggle room.

Still, I have had no hesitation in the past about talking about objective aesthetic value when it comes to music. This is a recurring theme or motif in this blog. The passage of time seems to sort out the good and the great from the dull and ordinary. Everyone knows the name of J. S. Bach, but the names of dozens or hundreds of his contemporaries are forgotten because their music is, compared to that of Bach, quite insignificant.

Now, back to our video game music. I want to make the argument that sounding vaguely classical is not an aesthetic virtue. The piano music in the clip above is nice-enough sounding, but of only modest aesthetic quality. This is probably because it imitates the accidents of classical music while ignoring the substance.

These categories of substance and accident go back to the philosophical theories of Aristotle, the ancient Greek philosopher. I make no claim of using this distinction in the same way or for the same purpose Aristotle did, but I am going to use the basic idea to create an aesthetic distinction in music. The article I linked above uses the example of a chair. The substance of the chair is the basic design and function, the accident is whatever materials are used. A chair can be made of wood or metal and it is still essentially a chair.

Now let's move over to music. When we usually think of "classical" music we tend to think of the accidents that are associated with it: a concert hall with musicians in formal dress, a conductor waving a baton, the sound of bowed string instruments or tympani, perhaps a soprano belting out an aria. These are not the substance of classical music, but rather the accidents. The Kronos Quartet playing their arrangement of "Purple Haze" by Jimi Hendrix while dressed in ordinary street clothes and playing in a non-typical environment are doing "classical" music in essence. But a symphony orchestra in formal attire with a conductor waving a baton playing  pop songs in a traditional concert hall, I would argue, is NOT "classical" music but merely displays the accidents.

What makes something "classical" in my mind, and I want to stress that this definition may not be widely accepted, is the way the musical materials are handled. It has to do with the creativity involved more than the particular instrument or even style. Yes, a piano concerto by Mozart is classical music, but not because it is using an orchestra or the players are dressed a certain way. It is rather because of the creative way the music is put together.

In the piano clip from Final Fantasy above, we have the presentation of various sorts of musical elements that are common in classical music, but the piece as a whole is not very creatively structured and tends to wander aimlessly from one idea to another. In order to call it classical, I would prefer to hear a more creative approach. In fact, even though this piece sounds the way we think classical music should sound, with nice chords and scales, a piece by the Beatles, even though it sounds like pop music, is more what I would call "classical". Isn't that a funny way to look at it?

What I am always listening for in music is creative expression and one finds it in a lot of different places. A lot of what we call "classical" music really isn't, under my definition. But music in other styles and genres might be. How I am conceiving of classical music has a crucial component of aesthetic quality. Sure, there is something subjective about it as all judgments have a subjective component. But there is an objective component as well and arguing about that is what makes talk about music interesting.

Now let's hear Kronos play "Purple Haze" and make it classical:


Well, that was certainly deliberato, wasn't it?

11 comments:

Rickard Dahl said...

So, a piece that is commonly referred to as classical music can sometimes not be classical music according to you? Can you give a few examples?

And on the other hand you refer to Beatles as classical music. In a sense I get it, Beatles' is pretty original/creative, especially since they were one of the first to explore the possibilites offered by the pop music setup and probably did so well. But, I don't completely get it, to me it doesn't sound so good mainly because of the pop-setup (if compared to one of the many classical music setups).

So, basically your definition of classical music is music that sounds good enough AND is creative enough? So, most (if not all) of John Cage's compositions can be considered creative as he used lots of crazy things that none really thought about using before but since it lacks the good sounding music quality it isn't classical? And a video game music piece that might sound good enough and even be creative in various aspects but not creative enough is not classical? Well, if going by that definition I find much video game music to sound both good enough and be creative enough but on the other hand you don't. Of course, creativity doesn't necessarily have to mean doing something none else has done, it can (and often is) be doing something original within an existing framework. And a curious question, do you consider my music (the short three pieces I've finished so far) to be classical and if so, why or if you don't then why not? (see http://www.youtube.com/user/Rickeeey1/videos?view=0&flow=grid)

Bryan Townsend said...

The very best thing to do when someone puts out some crazy theory or definition is to put it to the question. In the middle ages, that meant bring out the thumbscrews, luckily today it just means lots of difficult questions to answer.

I think my definition of classical is music that stands the test of time. Some of that is music that sounds classical to us, but what about music from the Renaissance and Middle Ages? Does that still sound "classical"? And what about the Beatles? Yes, my assumption is that music that stands the test of time is music that is creatively written, but that may need more thought!

As for John Cage, I doubt that we know yet if he is classical or not.

I don't have time right now to thoughtfully ponder your comment, so I will get back to it later.

Rickard Dahl said...

Well, your definition is unusual. That means for instance that a folk song composed hundred years ago can be considered classical because it is familiar today (and it generally agreed on that it's good), eventhough it might not sound classical. I may understand you wrong but what I wrote is pretty much the same as saying that Beatles is classical music eventhough it sounds nothing like it.

Either way defining classical music is ofc tricky. Most of us agree on what is, yet we can't define it properly. For instance we could define it as music in the tradition of music notation. But that excludes music which might have sounded classical but was lost due to lack of notation availability (or evil people burning it during the reformation) or music or in the case of Beatles, choosing not to notate. If it's defined as art music then the question needing to be posed is what art is defined as. Is it music for the sake of music or can music used for utalitarian purposes be included? Or if refers to certain time periods or maybe certain forms, harmonic frameworks etc. then everything that isn't fitting the criteria gets excluded.

Personally I just listen to something and judge if it is or isn't classical. I guess it can be classical for different reasons at different times. While John Cage may have been pretty much throwing away most previous musical traditions I still consider him classical as he was working creating art music, doing music for music's sake & writing creative music (eventhough it most often sounded really bad). He lived for music even if it meant being relatively poor.
Guillaume de Machaut also wrote classical music, he was after all a part of the music notation tradition, creatively used counterpoint, harmonies and so on. Sure he did it to large extend to external purposes (church for instance) and sure his music sounds foreign to what we are used to (modality, no instruments just voices, his use of counterpoint and harmony) but his music has a "timeless" beautiful quality.
A piece from the Demon's Souls soundtrack, for instance http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x3WBu8Lxa9Q or http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O_bbALTxXpg) may not have had a chance to stand the test of time yet, yet it's creative in its' atmosphere, use of instruments etc. In some way it may be simple, in others complex but when was that a problem in classical music (see for instance http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dGA8YFzHAys, it uses the infamous Pachelbel progression (or it seems like it at least), it has a bit of a drone-like part and fairly simple structure, yet it sounds very interesting). Anyways, enough of my rambling for now.

Bridge said...

Have to disagree strongly with your definition of classical music. Classical music, as we refer to it, is on a fundamental level music rooted in the tradition of Western music. Mentally italicize the word "tradition". Its adherents share a common culture, and every "accident" that comes with it, the formal dress and crazy conductors, is as much a part of it as the music itself - even if they consciously disapprove of it (although I do like wearing a suit when I go to the symphony). They choose to associate with the "accidents" and also to uphold or uproot the traditions the music is founded on. I would argue that the arbitrary distinctions made between classical works and non-classical works is simultaneously not based on the accidents and is fully based on them. Consider the country of Iran. This fascinating country, home to one of the most impressive empires in history, is as you are probably well aware located in the Middle East/West Asia. Like its neighbors its culture is deeply rooted in Islam, it shares much of the same topography and visually they are not very distinguishable from Arabs. And yet they are not Arabic simply because they say they aren't. They have their own language and choose not to associate with the Arab League despite fulfilling all the basic requirements. I won't bore you more with talks of the Middle East, but want to draw a parallel between the example I just gave and classical music. What if the only thing that makes somebody a classical musician was their desire to be a part of the classical tradition and study everything that comes with it? After all, classical music does have its idiosyncrasies. To distill it down to only the vaguest hint of a philosophy by saying it is the urge to creatively forward music or whatever is to rob the word of all meaning. It's true that classical music has the express goal of doing this, but so do many other genres. Furthermore, one can talk about many types of "classical music", for example one can speak of Arabic classical music or Japanese classical music, or Indian classical music. But the classical music we are talking about is the one based on the European classical tradition. Mind you, that does not mean that only works that mimic Western European music can be known as classical music, but it is a requirement that it be based in some way on it (in the sense that dodecaphony is an answer to diatonicism). Personally I am glad to be a part of this shared culture, "accidents" and all, and am also glad to be a part of many different cultures such as jazz, progressive rock or folk music for example (admittedly, I am less active in these areas). Well anyway, good luck deciphering that mess.

Bridge said...

As for video game music, I think you somewhat misunderstand. It is not intended to be consumed in the same way that absolute music is, being at its core accompaniment to visuals. In fact, they depend on whatever it is they accompany to work. Enjoying a piece of incidental music requires a direct reference to the incident itself. The elements that comprise a film or a video game form sort of an azeotrope that are irreducible. Is incidental music inferior to absolute music, when considered in absolute terms? Yes, of course, always. But you forget that film scores both enrich and are enriched by the the other elements they work with. It's a delicate balance, one that an absolute music composer doesn't need to think about, but the downside is that he has many more things he needs to consider because the music needs to be self-sufficient. When people say that video game music is of high aesthetic quality I don't think they mean that it can stand on equal grounds with concert music. Another example: if you have seen the Lord of the Rings movies and listen to the Gondor theme, played so beautifully on the horn, you instantly think of the movie. You see Gondor as if it were a real place, you think of the symbolic meaning of having the horn state the theme, you think of the characters and their struggles, and so on. It is not just the music. In the same way, video game music is dependent on these meta-experiences, and it's for these reasons we who would call ourselves fans of video game music accept and even love it despite its clear "inferiority", because the music, rather than expressing musical ideas through the metaphoric use of structure, melody and harmony, expresses the ideas of the work it belongs to. Naturally there are good scores and there are bad scores - bad music neither enriches nor is enriched by even a good work under any circumstances, period. It's just important to realize it, as in your post you seem to be judging it on unfair terms. There are examples of composers writing self-sufficient pieces in the medium, but it serves mainly a textural role. To hold that fact against it is to me unjust. After all, it is impossible to read a movie script without having seen the movie and then entertain notions of being able to judge its aesthetic character, no offense. No movie script can equal a good novel in terms of depth and masterful use of resources, because that really is not the goal at all. Slightly non-analogous seeing as movie scripts are inherently intangible, but it is still perceptible in an indirect way. Anyway, my point is that movies express ideas visually, and the intangible script while hugely important serves only to further that goal. I'd imagine that many scripts read more like a set of instructions than anything artistic, actually. And yet, the ideas are still there. It's a common misconception that there is some kind of (almost literal) war between style and substance, but it is my opinion that in film there is no style without subtance and vice versa. It's a different way of expressing things from novels, which is what films are often compared to. The nods to classical music in film and video game scores is exciting to fans of both for no reason other than because it is a reference, which is something that even classical composers do. For example, would you accuse Rimsky-Korsakov of being aesthetically bankrupt by making a nod to Eastern music in the monumental Scheherazade even though the latter has very little to do with the other apart from being superficially connected?

Rickard Dahl said...

I'm not sure what happened to my 2nd comment here. I surely didn't delete it, if I did then by mistake. Anyways, here it is:

Well, your definition is unusual. That means for instance that a folk song composed hundred years ago can be considered classical because it is familiar today (and it generally agreed on that it's good), eventhough it might not sound classical. I may understand you wrong but what I wrote is pretty much the same as saying that Beatles is classical music eventhough it sounds nothing like it.

Either way defining classical music is ofc tricky. Most of us agree on what is, yet we can't define it properly. For instance we could define it as music in the tradition of music notation. But that excludes music which might have sounded classical but was lost due to lack of notation availability or music or in the case of Beatles, choosing not to notate. If it's defined as art music then the question needing to be posed is what art is defined as. Is it music for the sake of music or can music used for utalitarian purposes be included? Or if refers to certain time periods or maybe certain forms, harmonic frameworks etc. then everything that isn't fitting gets excluded.

I personally just listen to something and judge if it is or isn't classical. I guess it can be classical for different reasons at different times. While John Cage may have been pretty much throwing away most previous musical traditions I still consider him classical as he was working creating art music, doing music for music's sake & writing creative music (eventhough it most often sounded really bad). He lived for music even if it meant being relatively poor.
Guillaume de Machaut also wrote classical music, he was after all a part of the music notation tradition, creatively used counterpoint, harmonies and so on. Sure he did it to large extend to external purposes (church for instance) and sure his music sounds foreign to what we are used to (modality, no instruments just voices, his use of counterpoint and harmony) but his music has an "timeless" beautiful quality.
A piece from the Demon's Souls soundtrack, for instance http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x3WBu8Lxa9Q or http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O_bbALTxXpg) may not have had a chance to stand the test of time yet, yet it's creative in its' atmosphere, use of instruments etc. In some way it may be simple, in others complex but when was that a problem in classical music (see for instance http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dGA8YFzHAys, it uses the infamous Pachelbel progression (or it seems like it at least), it has a bit of a drone-like part and fairly simple structure, yet it sounds very interesting). Anyways, enough of my rambling for now.

Bryan Townsend said...

Great, Rickard, thanks for putting it up again. I saw it, but then it disappeared. It wasn't me!

Thanks to both of you for your passionate reaction to my post. Is that a sign it was a good post? In any case, I was innocently trying to find a fresh angle to look at classical music from and one that was both more demanding and more inclusive. I was not desiring to denigrate, for example, video game music. It is likely that I simply don't know it well enough. I was going to make mention of the fact that it, like movie soundtracks, has a specific function to perform and that is not to be absolute music, as such.

What my post was trying to do was, on the one hand, to smuggle value judgments into the discussion, and on the other, to take cognizance of the fact that music is now a global phenomenon. In every tiny little village in Indonesia they are probably listening to Beyonce right now. We also have to recognize that, for example, there are millions of piano students in China these days. And Lang Lang is having a big career. In other words, "classical" music is not just something that is done in Western Europe. I was trying to make the case that there are, basically, two kinds of music: one kind that is autonomous, composed, often notated and drawing on though not restricted to musical traditions deriving from Western Europe, though now practiced worldwide. The goal of this kind of music is usually to produce something of high aesthetic quality that might stand the test of time. The other kind of music is more commercial, consumed more casually and usually more limited to the restrictions of whatever genre it is within.

Uh-oh, now I might have tramped on a whole new set of toes!! I really wasn't using the word "creativity" as a club to beat with. The early music people have been accused of doing that by saying their performances are on "authentic instruments" as if the rest of us are playing inauthentic ones. But my sense is that being musically creative is only a fundamental virtue in some music.

I still like my substance/accidents metaphor, because it has legs, I think. The very, very best part of my argument was the Kronos performance of "Purple Haze" because that is a big challenge to all of the current definitions of classical music, unless you simply define it as "whatever is played by a string quartet".

Bridge, points to you for using a word that I had to look up: azeotrope

Bryan Townsend said...

Of course, when I said "music is now a global phenomenon" what I meant was music that is descended from the Western European tradition.

Bridge said...

To what are you referring when you say the Purple Haze arrangement is a challenge to our current definitions? It's clever (actually sounds remarkably good), but it's certainly not classical music. I do agree that it's difficult to define the term "classical music" though. Somehow, I like to think that if Bartok were still alive and kicking he would have done something similar, only instead of a mere arrangement he would internalize the music and adapt it into a classical idiom. Why is Bartok referencing folk music classical music and not folk music? I think that there is a certain air of pompousness, of cold indifference, that characterizes classical music. Not to its detriment, not at all. Whereas most genres engage in unfettered sentiment which quickly gets boring, classical shows restraint. It uses its elements carefully and there is always a very good reason for including or excluding absolutely anything (if we are speaking of a good composer). Honestly, I think that the only reason we are even debating semantics like these is because music is such an approachable artform. The written word has no such distinctions - there are only good books and bad books. Same with painting. Sort of the same with film - it is definitely very approachable but people do not ridicule the recognized masterworks as readily. I guess my point is that in every other artform the works that can truly be said to further their craft, to enrich and enchant, are only called good works. I have no doubt that classical fans also think this way, for example I never say "This is probably the greatest classical piece I've heard". Why? Because I believe and know that classical music is the epitome of ... well everything, in music. I don't have the patience to be all neutral and say "all music is equal" or "strokes/folks" like some people, even at the risk of sounding like an elitist. I don't actually think that people that dislike classical music are stupid philistines like some, I just think that they aren't interested in music as a serious form of expression. Just like people who don't have patience for the greats of cinema or don't want to read great books are not interested in those pursuits. As an art-lover and would-be artist I do all of those things simply because I love "art" too much. I want to see every possible way it can be improved, and maybe make some small contributions of my own in the future.

Bridge said...

Well that post certainly went nowhere. Please excuse me, it's rather late. This is a great discussion by the way, and this blog is awesome if that wasn't abundantly obvious to everyone.

Bryan Townsend said...

Wow, Bridge, thanks for the praise and for the great comment. Yes, what I hope for in many posts is to provoke exactly this kind of discussion where people are not afraid to just come out with their thoughts. I write posts a bit like I compose: I get a little idea and then I try to imagine what might follow from it.

I think that what you were arguing for in a previous comment was an essentialist definition of classical music: it is what it is, derived from its traditions and all the accidents associated with those traditions such as concert dress and the characteristic ensembles such as the string quartet or orchestra. I don't have anything against an essentialist definition, but my choice of Purple Haze as an example was a challenge to that kind of definition because I suspect it is incomplete. Just what sort of thing IS a Kronos performance/interpretation of this piece of music? It is certainly not rock or blues, right? I argue that by playing the piece the way they do, they are incorporating it within the classical tradition, just as Haydn, by using a traditional folk song, was incorporating it within the classical tradition or Bartók with his use of folk song.

Interesting point about what you call the "cold indifference" of classical music. If you permit, I might rephrase that as a classical musician preserves a certain amount of objectivity towards his materials, whereas some other kinds of musicians might be entirely swept up in the feeling. Classical music should not descend to maudlin melodrama as, say, in a musical by Andrew Lloyd Weber.

When you say that "classical music is the epitome of ... well everything in music" I think you might be suggesting something not too different from what I was trying to get at.