Friday, September 5, 2014

Friday Miscellanea

Let's start with something serious. Here is an essay by Roger Scruton on opera, our "most expensive noise". Scruton is a big admirer of opera:
I see opera as the supreme art form, not so much a representation of human life as a redemption of it. For dramatic music can rescue our feelings from their randomness, and vindicate our immortal longings in the face of chaos and decay. 
 Much of the essay is about Scruton's own attempt to compose an opera:
I came to see more clearly why opera is and has always been the high point of the modern composer's art. To compose music in which drama and music move towards climax and closure not just simultaneously but in a single movement, so that the drama becomes the music and the music becomes the drama — this is to endow life with a form that it cannot otherwise reach to. It is to prefigure what we humans might be, were we rescued from time and remade in eternity. Writing The Minister was therapeutic, as no doubtThebans has been for Anderson and Pincher Martin for Rudland. And here, perhaps, lies the explanation of the operatic urge — the real cause why Beethoven tried not once but three or four times to extract from himself the story of Leonore. For his opera is both an objective drama and the transfiguration of his inner life. He yearned for a love so strong, bold and otherworldly as to change woman to man and man to woman. By finding the objective correlative for this hermaphroditic fantasy he was released from its grip. And in healing himself he conferred on the world a tribute to freedom and joy that will remain in the repertoire as long as operas are staged.
But read the whole thing.

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This will cheer you up: the scintillating Bäckström Brothers doing a captivating version of the Rite of Spring with three cups and an upright piano:

UPDATE: Tragically, this very cool cover of the Rite of Spring was taken down and the only trace of it that remains is this tiny little clip:

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I have just been reading a fascinating essay about how the Great War of 1914 - 1918 has been misunderstood and in it I ran across something about the nature of kitsch. I previously talked about this aesthetic category here. But the essay in The New Criterion goes into it in considerable detail:
We tend to think of sentimentality as extravagantly intense or overpowering emotion. Really, though, it is a kind of false or manufactured feeling. “Sentimentality,” the poet Wallace Stevens observed, “is a failure of feeling.” That is where the element of “untruthfulness” comes in. The intensity is a sign not of conviction but of spuriousness. As the critic Clement Greenberg put it, “Kitsch is vicarious experience and faked sensations.”
The sentimentality of kitsch is a sign of its falseness. But it is also a sign of its extravagance. Unanchored to reality, sentimentality is naturally unbounded. Kitsch is a response to a failure or disintegration of cultural values. When the world no longer speaks meaningfully to us, we shout into the void and pretend the echoes come to us from on high.
The grandiosity of kitsch is in proportion to the existential poverty out of which it arose. In this context, it is worth noting a limitation of that dictionary definition of kitsch. The sentimentality of kitsch can be “sweet,” but it can also be sour, malignant. Hence the phenomenon of Nazi kitsch. Whole books have been devoted to the subject. It was not confined to preposterous images of Hitler in gleaming armor astride a white steed and the like. It went much deeper. It was the aestheticizing not just of politics but of existence as a whole. “The German everyday shall be beautiful,” insisted one Nazi motto.
Which brings us to the curiously amphibious nature of kitsch. Kitsch lives with one foot in the realm of aesthetics and another foot in the realm of ethics. Which is why to say that something is kitsch is to utter a judgment that is moral as well as aesthetic. The failure of kitsch is not just an artistic failing. There is an ethical dimension as well. Hermann Broch identifies kitsch as “the element of evil in the value system of art” and notes that “kitsch” describes not only certain works of art but also a certain attitude towards life. Again, the element of untruthfulness is key. “He who produces kitsch,” Broch writes, “is not someone who produces art of meager value. He is not someone of little or no talent. He is definitely not to be judged according to the standard of aesthetics but is ethically depraved; he is a criminal who wills radical evil.”
I have talked before about the connection between aesthetics and ethics, but this makes that connection nicely. There is a relationship between the Good, the True and the Beautiful, but there is also a relationship between the Bad, the False and the Ugly.

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Here's something that makes a great aesthetic point:

What you get when you try to cram in as many notes as you can is Bad Music. There are lots of less-extreme examples of this, such as Alvin Lee at Woodstock, a warning to electric guitar soloists everywhere:

As Schoenberg said to student composers, the eraser end of the pencil is more important than the pencil end. When I am writing for orchestra, I often throw a bunch of ideas down and then start taking things out until it sounds good: clear, transparent, crisp and pithy. Those are some of my aesthetic ideals. Shostakovich seems to be observing them too sometimes, as in this piece, with its opening of utter simplicity:

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And for some truly "natural" musical sounds, here are the sounds of Uranus, captured when Voyager II passed by it in 1986:

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And finally, for comic relief, the Wall Street Journal has a huge article on the Greatest Artist of Our Time, who is apparently Pharrell Williams. I never before noticed how really horrible the idea of "happiness" can be! My favorite Pharrell Williams quote: 
"The movie of life is a kaleidoscopic time lapse of co-creation."
So here you go:

Now are you happy? Personally, this kind of stuff makes me really depressed...

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Let's NOT end with that! Sometimes I criticize Alex Ross for being just a bit too predictably politically correct, but darn it, he can write really well about music. For example, have a look at his latest essay about being a serious music listener in the Age of Spotify:
The idiosyncrasies of aging critics aside, there are legitimate questions about the aesthetics and the ethics of streaming. Spotify is notorious for its chaotic presentation of track data. One recording of the Beethoven Ninth is identified chiefly by the name of the soprano, Luba Orgonášová; I had to click again and scrutinize a stamp-size reproduction of the album cover to determine the name of the conductor, John Eliot Gardiner. A deeper issue is one of economic fairness. Spotify and Pandora have sparked protests from artists who find their royalty payments insultingly small. In 2012, the indie-rock musician Damon Krukowski reported that his former band Galaxie 500 received songwriting royalties of two hundredths of a cent for each play of its most popular track on Spotify, with performance royalties adding a pittance more. Spotify has assured critics that artists’ earnings will rise as more people subscribe. In other words, if you give us dominance, we will be more generous—a somewhat chilly proposition.
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