Sunday, November 23, 2014

Nature and Intention

Tom Service has been really struggling to find a new theme for articles over at the Guardian. His latest effort is to collect together several "soundtracks" from space explorations and call it "implacable awesomeness." These are electronic emanations from comets, Saturn, the sun and Jupiter simply (though one wonders about the details) transposed into human auditory range.

I suppose the rough equivalent would be the beauty of a sunset or any other natural phenomenon. But these sounds of space exploration are special because they are relatively new. Our ancestors did not have access to them. But while they sound "spacey" enough, there really isn't much there to be interested in. While I love and appreciate natural beauty, and I suppose this could be characterized as a kind of natural beauty, there is a fundamental aesthetic emptiness to all this sort of thing.

What I think is important about natural beauty is our witnessing of it. As Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in the First Duino Elegy:
Ja, die Frühlinge brauchten dich wohl. Es muteten manche
Sterne dir zu, dass du sie spürtest. Es hob
sich eine Woge heran im Vergangenen, oder
da du vorüberkamst am geöffneten Fenster
gab eine Geige sich hin.

Yes--the springtimes needed you. Often a star
was waiting for you to notice it. A wave rolled toward you
out of the distant past, or as you walked
under an open window, a violin
yielded itself to your hearing.
[from The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke edited and translated by Stephen Mitchell p. 150-151]

We are the witnesses and real art is the expression of our reaction to the world's beauty (and ugliness and every other aspect). It is one of the fundamental dumbnesses of our time that we are getting a bit foggy about this. But there is another even more disconcerting aspect: we seem to be losing our ability to notice the difference between aesthetically finer expressions and cruder ones. 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.

Getting back to the spacey music of Tom's article, he says:
Thanks to Cassini, Voyager and Rosetta, we can encounter the music of the spheres as a physical, sonic phenomenon rather than only as an abstract philosophical concept
The "only" is the interesting word. Tom is making a typical move in valorizing the "physical, sonic phenomenon" over the "abstract philosophical concept". What are, more or less, random clickings and sheaths of sound are less interesting than the philosophical idea behind the music of the spheres, aren't they? What is perhaps appealing about these kinds of aesthetically vacuous sounds is that they are indeed empty of meaning. The wonderful thing about that for our narcissistically obsessed generation is that we can derive or impose or simply imagine any content at all. It's all about us!! I suspect that this might even be some of the appeal of the music of John Cage where you can also pretty much imagine whatever content you wish.

But real aesthetic expression does have content--not always obvious or simple, but really there. Whatever the inspiration might be, natural beauty or philosophical concept or Greek myth or just the musical materials themselves, the composer crafts his or her music as an expression of or reaction to (or against) something in his or her experience. Gustav Holst wrote a suite of pieces for orchestra called The Planets whose inspiration is more astrological than astronomical, but it still gives us something of a musical example:

The difference between this and the soundtracks that Tom has in his article is intention. Composers usually mean something by their music, though due to the abstract nature of music, we need to use a rather broad definition of "meaning". Some of the meanings found in the "Mars" movement of the Holst are martial. This is an otherworldly march, otherworldly because it is set in 5/4. But the stern, martial qualities are evident. What are missing from the space soundtracks are any intentions or meanings. Saturn is not trying to tell us anything or express anything; this is literally nothing but the swirling of atoms in the void. To our time, in which all meaning and intention seems fraught with danger, this is refreshingly empty, it seems. But empty it is.

Some composers have managed to capture both the spaciness that we seem to like, but within the context of an expressive musical composition. One of the best examples of that that I have heard lately is Nyx, named for the Greek goddess of the night. This piece uses, as Salonen describes them: "the almost constant flickering and rapid changing of textures and moods" to capture a kind of contemporary spaciness, but still the music is highly organized and "meaningful":


Rickard Dahl said...

"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.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Rickard. This is such an interesting comment on the post that I think I will give my response a post of its own!

Jay Jay Lozano said...

Hello, Bryan. Beautifully written I must say. It's a pleasure encountering your blog online. A lot of the things I have been thinking have been confirmed here I mean It's good to know more or less my views on Music are similar to yours, if not in the same direction.

I'd like to express my enthusiasm about this topic through this 4-bar musical piece I devised. Hope you can find time to look at it. Would be perfect to hear from you. Thank you

Bryan Townsend said...

Hi Jay,

Welcome to the Music Salon! And thanks so much for the compliment. I thought there was room for a music blog that was thoughtful and informed yet not in thrall to all the fashionable opinions of the day. Your composition is certainly interesting--reminds me slightly of LaMont Young, perhaps.

moogvibrations said...

Sounds perfect. Thanks for your thoughts, Bryan. Honored to hear that. Again, thanks for having me. There's so much for me to explore and learn here.