Saturday, July 26, 2014

Aesthetic Models

Not this kind of aesthetic model:

But an aesthetic model in the sense of a example of the aesthetic strategy of a musical composition. Hmm, well that wasn't very clear! What I mean is that, since the rebirth of aesthetics in the 18th century, various models have been proposed to explain how music works. Philosopher Peter Kivy in his book The Fine Art of Repetition: Essays in the Philosophy of Music describes three of these models as the "literary" model, the "organism" model and the "wallpaper" model. How does this work? Well, these are what I would usually call metaphors: music is "like" literature in that it can be akin to a "discourse" (think perhaps of a dialogue between the instruments in a Haydn string quartet) or a "drama" (think of piece of music that reminds you of an emotional play) or a "narrative" (think of a piece of music that is like an emotional story--perhaps the "stormy weather" of a Pettersson symphony resolving into a "lyrical island").

Why is a piece of music like a narrative? Kivy says because it is experienced as a series of ordered events. This was a popular way of looking at music in the 18th century. A theme or subject in a piece of music is perhaps similar to a character in a play or novel. Different themes interact the way different characters interact. As my conviction is that these are nothing more than metaphors, my feeling is that as soon as you try to examine the details of how this might work, the metaphor collapses.

The "organism" model might seem to have more accuracy as it proposes that a piece of music is like an organism that follows certain patterns of development as it unfolds and develops, progresses to a goal and is organized in a way similar to that of living systems.

The weakest model of all, at least to someone who is trying to establish music as a prestige art for whatever "truths" it may hold for us, is the "wallpaper" model. Music is mere patterns of decoration or adornment. It is to the ears what perfume is to the nose or wallpaper to the eyes.

Now here is where I depart from Professor Kivy who goes on to discuss how the "wallpaper" model is able to account for the phenomenon of repetition in music while the others cannot. Instead, I am going to propose some other aesthetic models for the construction of music.

  • Music is like a landscape. It is often inspired by and modeled after natural scenes (from Vivaldi to Haydn to Beethoven to Berlioz to Mahler to Debussy to Stockhausen whose Gruppen was inspired by the outline of mountains in Switzerland).
  • Music is like architecture. It is often inspired by and modeled after buildings and architectural principles (from Dufay to Gabrieli to Bach to Berlioz again to Edgar Varèse)
  • Music is like a painting. It is often inspired by and modeled after paintings (from Granados to Michael Tippett to Morton Feldman who were inspired by Goya, Picasso and Mark Rothko respectively)
  • Music is like a mathematical formula. It is often inspired by and modeled after things like the Fibonacci sequence or set theory or even chance operations, which are all mathematical (from Mozart to Bartók to John Cage to Stockhausen).
So there are four other aesthetic models. With the aid perhaps of a bottle of Châteauneuf-Du-Pape Vieux Telegraph 1985 I might be able to come up with even more.

So why have I come up with so many more models than Professor Kivy? I think the simple answer is that he is looking at the philosophical literature on aesthetic models and I am looking at the actual music.

Here is the truth of it: the inspiration for a piece of music can come from almost anywhere. A brief list of some of the most obvious would include relationships, especially ones that end unhappily (that accounts for over 50% of all pop music), sensory experiences aided by drugs (that accounts for Pink Floyd and all other "psychedelic" music), basic somatic things like dance and bodily movements generally (ballet, etc.), just walking around in the beautiful countryside (which inspired Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mahler, Bruckner and me), the calls of birds (Messiaen), philosophy (Richard Strauss), machinery and factory sounds (the Italian futurists) and on and on. In fact, if you cited any random thing or event, it is likely that there was a piece of music that was inspired by it. Boats? Any number of ballads and songs.

UPDATE: Here's a nice example:

What happens when an inspiration strikes is why I want to say that every aesthetic model mentioned above is nothing more than a metaphor. Because the instant you have an inspiration, the next microsecond you move from whatever inspired you into the music. An example? You see some absolutely striking natural sight and what happens is that you start having a musical thought: a little tune or fragment comes to you, you "hear" a particular orchestral color or perhaps a rhythm comes to mind. These things happen because your imagination is a musical one, which means that everything that inspires you is instantly converted into a musical idea.

The natural landscape, or whatever prompted the inspiration, is just the catalyst. It is like dropping a grain of sand into a super-saturated solution. This "causes" the solution to crystallize, but only because it was on the verge of so doing and needed only a tiny stimulus to flip over. That is how musical inspiration works. An ordinary person has an erotic experience and says, "wow, that was nice". Bob Dylan has one and writes a song:

Now, of course, I am departing a long way from Peter Kivy's idea of an aesthetic model. But that is because, as far as I can see, both his models and my lists of inspirations are not so different. I say this because all these attempts to link music to something in the ordinary world, whether it is a play or a living organism or wallpaper, are nothing more than metaphor and have no more real relationship to the music than whatever it might have been that gave the inspiration to the composer, from a seascape to a trout to a painting.

Here is how I see music: it is a dimension or facet of the world that is quite independent of ordinary reality. What works and makes sense in the world of music is unique to it. There is no equivalent to parallel fifths or Neapolitan 6ths in the real world. Things in the real world may inspire composers, but what they create is a musical creation, essentially autonomous of physical reality. Music manifests itself to us, with the aid of performers, as patterns of sound and silence that, in their turn, inspire thoughts in us that are actually metaphors. Music also inspires moods, feelings and bodily sensations. It may make us jump up and dance, for example. But music itself is another dimension. This is, of course, why musicians so often seem a bit other-worldly.

Let me see, what would be an appropriate piece of music? La Mer by Claude Debussy, of course:

UPDATE: I just realized that this post, a bit obliquely, explains the joke behind the title of a piano piece by Erik Satie. The piece is titled "Three Pieces in the Form of a Pear" and the joke is that anything can be the inspiration for a piece of music, even a fruit, but that there is no actual necessary relationship between the form of the piece of music and the form of the inspiration:

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