Thursday, November 27, 2014

Followup on Nature and Intention

A few days ago I did an post titled "Nature and Intention" that took an article from the Guardian about the sounds of space exploration as the occasion to make some comments about aesthetics. My point was that natural phenomena that we perceive as beautiful, whether sunsets or the sounds of Saturn, while they might be aesthetic objects, are not aesthetic expressions because there is no creative agency. This is a question of the ontology of the work of art: what sort of thing is an artwork. A simple description is found in "The Ontology of Art" by Amie L. Thomasson in the volume The Blackwell Guide to Aesthetics (Blackwell, 2004), p. 78.
We normally think of works of art as things created at a certain time, in particular cultural and historical circumstances, through the imaginative and creative acts of an artist, composer, or author. Once created, works of art are normally thought of as relatively stable and enduring public entities that may be seen, heard, or read by a number of different people who may enter legitimate arguments about at least some of the work's features.
The whole essay is worth reading as it has a lot of sensible observations about artworks. Thomasson comments about the score of a classical composition that
although we may privilege the author's signed manuscript, it is only of historical interest, and may be destroyed without the work itself going out of existence.
An original painting may, however, be destroyed as photos and digital copies are not considered to be the artwork. Music is a bit tricky because if the original manuscript is of only historical interest (though very useful to check various editions against), then what is the actual piece of music? Is it the recording? Is it only a live performance? Is it a particular live performance? Can a performance, live or on recording be faulty to the point of NOT being an instance of the artwork? Is the real, definitive Beethoven Symphony No. 5 only an Idea floating in the minds of musicians and audiences? Some interesting questions, certainly. All these sorts of questions are what philosophers call "ontological" questions, ones that relate to the being of something.

My previous post elicited a very interesting comment by one of my readers:
"On a simple level we can see this in the movies where the subtle repartee of movies of the past is currently replaced by Things Going Boom and Things Moving Very Fast accompanied by Whoosh and Pow."
Any specific examples in mind?

Anyways, one of the failings (or successes, depending on who you ask) of late modernism was the lack of intention. I suppose Cage didn't care about intention (due to the randomness in his music) but the serialists who took absolute control over every musical aspect still managed to get something that sounds awfully close to John Cage's randomness and with almost no sound of intention to it.

I think that for a regular composer there's a good balance between intention (form, keys, dynamics etc.) and randomness (in the sense that musical ideas come out of improvisation, directly from the head or in various other ways and it's a more uncontrollable aspect than for instance choosing form or keys for various sections). I guess it can be seen as a balance between analytical creativeness and emotional creativeness.
 Oh yes, just about every movie from Hollywood I have seen recently has had an excessive use of computer-generated imagery to create a frenetic, hyperrealistic experience. Along with a really loud soundtrack, the source of the booms and whooshes. I suppose the archetypal examples would be the Fast and Furious franchise. One longs for some really good dialogue instead, like Bogart's line from Casablanca:
"I remember every detail. The Germans wore grey. You wore blue.
This was when the Germans captured Paris in WWII.

Yes, the whole idea of 4'33 was to have no aesthetic intentions. By the way, if you look at the original score for the piece (first published in an art magazine as I recall), you see that it is not actually written for any particular instrument. There are three movements, each with a specified duration (in the original), but indicated "tacet", i.e. be silent, for all movements. The total duration adds up to 4:33. As Cage says in the introduction, this was how David Tudor performed it in 1952, but it can be played on any instrument and last any length of time. This is to aggressively shirk the whole idea of aesthetic intention. Most hilariously, I think, you can purchase the score for this piece for $6.25 here.

By the way, the idea of aesthetic intention has been suspect since an article by Wimsatt and Beardsley, published in 1946, argued that "the intention of the author was neither available nor desirable as a standard for the interpretation and evaluation of the literary text." But there are two schools of thought on this and while it may be a useful tool to discourage interpretations of an artwork based on autobiographical details ("Beethoven wrote the Moonlight sonata about this woman he knew and it is all about their love") which are almost always irrelevant, it is claiming too much to say that the intention of the author is always unavailable. My point about intention was the more general one: whether we know anything specific about the composer's intentions, we do know that he intended to write a piece of music and, presumably, that it was meant to entertain us, move us in some way. And that is enough to distinguish composed music from the random sounds of the cosmos.

My commentator makes reference to randomness in a different sense: the chance discoveries that come from improvisation. While I don't use this a lot in my work, I certainly appreciate its value. Improvising is a kind of intuitive and physical activity that can turn up all sorts of interesting things. But then the composer's work consists in shaping and using these ideas in the structure of a piece.

I suppose the only logical choice of music to end this post would be either the Moonlight Sonata or 4:33 by John Cage. But I think I will choose this instead, from Casablanca:


Rickard Dahl said...

I might post a longer comment here but for now I wonder: How come you don't make much use of improvisation? Is it because your ear is well developed and it works good enough for you?

Bryan Townsend said...

I just think it is an individual thing. I did a whole lot of improvising when I was young playing in rock and blues bands--probably most of what I played was improvised. But one of the things that attracted me to classical music was the structure. When I compose, it usually starts with some sort of general texture or basic structure or something that I flesh out with notes. Or perhaps it starts with a little melodic germ. In any case, the fleshing out process might achieve similar results to what someone else might do with improvisation.