Monday, July 24, 2017

Aesthetics, part 2

As I said in my post yesterday on aesthetics, we have a desperate need for it! The reason is that as soon as we start to talk about art, aesthetic questions arise. What is truly hilarious about nearly all the articles that are constantly appearing in the mainstream media that are purportedly about music, is that the only thing they actually avoid talking about is, you guessed it, music! So what are they talking about? Most of the time, as the quotes in yesterday's post show, it is psychology, not music. They talk about brain scans, dopamine levels, the answers to questionnaires, surveys and so on. These things, while suitable things for psychologists to talk about, are not music.

There are other typical kinds of articles supposedly about music and they include ones discussing how many records have been sold (that is obviously about economics or marketing, not music), or about the scandalous things a musical celebrity has gotten up to (that is gossip, not music) or articles promoting a new album by someone (that, again, is marketing, not music). Occasionally we do get an article that seems to be talking about the music, but they are virtually always crippled by avoiding any actual musical vocabulary or musical examples. In a media universe where an image like this is perfectly acceptable:

Miley Cyrus, pop singer

One like this is absolutely forbidden:

It would be a great topic for a dissertation to trace how we got here, but my guess is that it is a consequence of a couple of psychological anomalies in our current society. Why is the top image acceptable, but the lower one not? (Oh, and if you think I am exaggerating, try and find a musical score anywhere in the mainstream media where they frequently review classical music.) The top image is ok because sex is ok and promotion is ok and notoriety is ok and, I guess, police nightsticks (the prop) are ok. The lower image is not ok because it makes people who can't read music uncomfortable. Thou shalt not present anything that might make anyone in your readership uncomfortable (though, god knows, the upper image has got to make a lot of folks uncomfortable!)

Another reason is that discrimination of any kind is now classified as evil. Never mind that discrimination is a fundamental mental activity and skill. We do it all the time. Life is impossible without it. When we go to the supermarket we discriminate between the good tomato and the soft, mushy one. When we go to the movies we discriminate between films we like and want to see and ones we don't. When we go to our CD shelf to pick a piece to listen to we discriminate between ones we want to hear at that time and ones we don't. When we are hiring an employee we discriminate between ones that seem to have the necessary skills and ones that don't. But whoa, that starts to get onto dangerous ground, does it not?

Possibly as a result of civil rights legislation running amok and being taken over by post-modernism, discrimination has been redefined as bigotry for most purposes. There are certain kinds of discrimination that are obviously unjust and wrong, so the safest course is to ban all discrimination. Also, as everyone's opinion is equally valid, we don't want to hear any talk about why a particular piece of music is better than any other. Not without scientific evidence at least! Of course there is no scientific evidence in this area. So the fact that some discrimination is perfectly ok has faded away. A big reason for that is that evidence to support someone's opinion about, say, a piece of music, has been largely forbidden. Thou shalt not quote from the musical score or use musical vocabulary. Without that, everything is just metaphor, babbling and psychology.

So I guess it is no wonder that no-one knows how to talk about music from the aesthetic point of view any more. But really, it is the only way! What kinds of music do you like? Why do you like them? Why might you dislike a piece of music? What about it do you find objectionable? What does music express and how does it do it? Why do we enjoy "sad" music? Why is it so hard to describe music in words? And so on. Virtually every kind of ordinary question about music is actually an aesthetic question. But we have, through endless propagandizing, been forbidden to ask these kinds of questions. Like I say, that would make a great dissertation...

Ok, well that was my attempt to describe why aesthetics is more necessary than ever. For our envoi, let's listen to that Bach Concerto for Two Violins. The soloists are Arabella Steinbacher & Akiko Suwanai:


Steven said...

Hm. Are pop/rock/metal fans less discriminating? It would seem they are among the most tribal, fractious people, with very strong opinions about what they like and dislike. I think, as you hint, the spirit of discrimination has never gone away. It's just that we don't discriminate between things that matter. You can say 'Beyonce is more authentic than Miley Cyrus' and people will engage with you, but you can't even whisper 'classical music is much more meaningful than popular music' without facing opprobrium and the inevitable 'who are you to...' You see the same phenomenon in modern civil rights movements. The big questions are considered closed questions, so we direct all our fervour to the smallest of disputes. Who cares about debating which loo to use? The more interesting conversation is about the nature of gender.

Will Wilkin said...

Since I was about 6 years old, I've taken music deeply into my heart. As a grammar school student in the early 1970s, I had an AM radio next to my pillow and spent hours listening to "Top 40" in my bed. Eventually by 6th grade I graduated from buying 45's ("singles") to LP's, and with that moved into the world of rock music that was perhaps at its best in the mid 70s and the decade before. I got a paper route and spent all my profits on LP's, and by Middle School became a pot dealer with even more money for LP's --I had many hundreds of LPs before I graduated HS in 1983 --all of it rock, but starting also to explore the influences behind my favorite rock artists, so I had some more authentic blues albums and a few random jazz albums. At the age of 17, I knew I lived for music and I said "but I'll never like country or classical music."

Within a year I had started (community) college, got completely sober, and in a local arts newspaper music calendar saw listing of an upcoming free symphony on the Yale campus. I went with zero background, just as an exploration, and it was Shostakovich's 9th symphony which had a certain recurring brass phradse I found hilarious and ridiculous, and in the context of the larger work I got a tragic feeling in the midst of my laughter. I was HOOKED!

I had no friends or family who knew anything about classical music, but I went to various record stores and negotiated with management ("how many classical LP's will you give me for $100?") and bought piles of stuff at random. I did not know contemporary from baroque from opera to chant, but in the next few years I read hundreds of classical album covers (they had pretty extensive notes), joined the Musical Heritage Society and took all their monthly selections and bought their annual catalog and started buying stuff at random.

Well that kind of collecting continues with me today, any month when I have a little money I buy $40 to $70 worth of classical CDs, and I feel I'm only now discovering a huge ocean of music where I have barely waded out to waist-high along the shore. I can't wait to get SERIOUS about music! Finally I picked up the violin 27 months ago and I try to teach myself something on it almost every day.

There is no moral here except to say classical music is "accessible" to those who actually notice it has --measure for measure (excluding minimalism, of course)-- a level of inventiveness that is unrivaled in popular music. Why my rocker friends, who seem to live for music but play the same songs by the same bands over and over for DECADES, can't appreciate that level of inventiveness and that ocean of traditions and evolution of such finely-crafted exquisiteness in classical music...I'll never understand.

Anonymous said...

I've never heard the second movement played so well.

Bryan Townsend said...

Wow, the comment section is just thriving! Thanks to you all for great contributions.

@Steven: yes, furious discussions abound in the pop (and jazz) music fields. The only problem is that they don't pursue these debates with much rigor and they certainly lack a technical vocabulary, so it usually is restricted to metaphor and babble. Oh yes, the post-modernists have a lot to account for in their entirely successful campaign to de-legitimize serious aesthetic discussion.

@Will: that account sure sounds a lot like mine, except since I wasn't a pot dealer, I had a lot less money to invest in LPs! I think one difference was that I tended to live in libraries from an early age. So my first exposure to a lot of music was by reading about it in books. I read about 20th century composers in a history of 20th century music before I actually heard most of them. Then, at age 20 I enrolled in an undergraduate music program which really launched me.

@Anon: it is lovely, isn't it?

Ian said...

There’s two problems I have with this line of argument, first of all as Steven mentioned people talk about aesthetics all the time, it’s often hard to get a person to stop going on about why the thing they love is great. Beyond that though, you object (rightfully so in my mind) to ‘scientific’ analysis creeping into aesthetics but then consider it a failing when people don’t use terminology that you vaguely determine to be rigorous enough. I think you seem a little overly paranoid about a cabal of ‘postmodernists’ out to destroy western civilization, and I think there’s a much simpler and less sinister reason you don’t see notation and classical music terminology come up in discussions of music, which is that it’s of very limited use for describing the things in music that most people actually care about.

In regards to notation, I don’t see it as unreasonable for a publisher to not want to use something that the vast majority of people can’t read. And while you see that last fact as a sign of corruption, my view is that there’s really relatively little music that actually benefits from being written in notation and if most music is made without notation at all anyways it seems expected that people wouldn’t bother to learn. A musical score is a great tool for understanding and parsing out music with dense polyphonic and/or harmonic content, for tracing motivic development, or for getting the sense of form in a piece of music. But if the history of the catholic church tells you anything very few people have ever really cared for too much polyphony, and I don’t think it’s even up for debate that music that is harmonically simple has a higher potential for popularity (that is, people appreciate it and think it’s beautiful) than harmonically complex music and the same is true for form. In fact if you look at the most popular music out there, it seems to me what people have the most tolerance/preference for in terms of complexity is subtlety and nuance in rhythmic/melodic phrasing as well as timbral complexity, all of which standard notation is particularly bad at conveying.

Now I know I’ve been talking about what ‘most’ people like and that can be tricky, the obvious objection is “well not all people…” which is true because yes there are a lot of people, but I think there’s clearly tiers to how popular something can be. In terms of art you could make pretty much anything and find a couple thousand people who like it, but if you want to make something that hundreds of millions of people will care about you’re not going to do it if you ignore certain trends.

And lastly, in case you’re thinking this only applies to pop music, in my personal experience classical musicians are as sensitive to this as anyone if not more so. I imagine you must have some familiarity with this but I couldn’t tell you how many professionals and top level performers have warned me about programming too much new music, too many slow pieces, too many long pieces, not enough showy pieces, etc… and certainly anyone who decides to ignore them ought to be prepared to get some coughing/complaints or at least bored audience members. Schoenberg will never be more popular than Vivaldi, but even if you look at people like Beethoven or Bach who seem to have it all, popularity and weight, I would still say most people's favorite Beethoven isn't his late quartets nor do they go right to the Art of Fugue for Bach.

Bryan Townsend said...

Ian, apart from getting the sense that you think everything is ok and that dumbing down is perfectly normal and the more popular some music is the more popular it is, I don't quite know what your point is. Except that I'm probably paranoid and music notation is over-rated.

Ian said...

Well I don't get the sense you tried much at all with what I said or that you're particularly interested in discussion, but I do feel the need to defend myself against your disingenuous claim that I think music notation is overrated. In fact I love musical notation and it is essential for conveying the things I love about music, but my interests are those of a specialist and it would be foolish and observably false to think most people care particularly about the things I care about in regards to music. As far as dumbing down, I'd be interested to see evidence of a time where there was a large segment of the population discussing music on the merits of its large scale architecture or motivic development.

Bryan Townsend said...

Ian, I read your comment through several times and while I normally am very interested in discussion, in this particular case perhaps you are correct and it might not be worth the trouble.

Steven said...

Will, that's a fascinating account and resonates with me too. Ditto your other comment about discovering the conservative aspect of yourself through aesthetics. I think those of us who are not born into these traditions feel like we owe much more to them. Zeal of the convert and all that... It's interesting to hear Shostakovich is what hooked you. It never seems to be the big three --- Bach, Mozart, Beethoven -- that do it, always something slightly unconventional. One often hears it was something like Rite of Spring. For me it was Charles Ives.

And Amen to that last paragraph!

Bryan Townsend said...

For me, the piece that hooked me was the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto! But that was soon followed by Bach, Debussy and Sibelius.

Shantanu said...

I believe appreciation of music takes a lot of time and effort. Most people either cannot spare the time or use the time they do have for a different purpose. The simple reason for this is: music appreciation does not answer any of the following questions in the affirmative:

1) Is it easy and takes only a few minutes?
2) If it takes more time, can it earn me money?
3) If it can't, can it make me more attractive, sociable, popular or healthier?
4) Is it illegal not to do it?

Things have never changed much. Classical music is the luxury of rich people with time, an intellectual bent of mind and preferably an early experience of listening to a fair amount of music devotedly.

Will Wilkin said...

Well Steven and Bryan, very early in my classical explorations I came to love both the Rite of Spring and the Tchaikovsky concerto.

Regarding what Ian is saying, and what Bryan is lamenting, I just read Leonard Bernstein's book "The Infinite Variety of Music" which was a paperback printed maybe around 1970 that includes some transcripts of television programs broadcast in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Definitely for a mass (popular) audience rather than trained musicians. The book includes many examples of notation, with explanations for the layman. Like newspapers I read from the very early 20th century, assuming not just a literate audience but also one with a decent attention span and a willingness to learn, even to the point of assuming we are willing to look at music notation seriously for the first time if that is the case.

Bryan Townsend said...

Great comments, Shantanu and Will.

Steven said...

Heh, I see the one Amazon UK review for the Bernstein book says this:

'this is not a book that everyone can understand
I was disapointed to see too many musical scores in it
it is for musicians not for everyone'

Will Wilkin said...

Steven, that says more about a reviewer from our time than it does about the book. The book is definitely meant for the layman (though also literate) public, at least the layman public of the 1960s. Today's public has to a large extent slid into a post-literate condition even in terms of cursive and print handwriting, and now with voice whatever it's called, even typing (briefly called "keyboarding") is on the wane.

Bryan Townsend said...

And in the Renaissance a gentleman or lady was expected to be able to sight-sing a madrigal or two after dinner.

Steven said...

Oh, yes, if anything the review made me want to read it more. I'm sure I've seen one of those video lectures lectures before -- 'the unanswered question' was it? -- and found it quite insightful. You can add to that list email -- which once was a near equivalent to letter-writing -- but seems to be all but dead among my age cohort (or, at the very least, it is becoming an extension of texting).

Will Wilkin said...

After all that I will admit there were some notational examples I only skimmed because at the moment I decided not to put the effort into reaching to my Max or even over my head, sometimes also just because the maestro's plain language explanation was good enough. But the point here is I didn't just read the book lightly, rather I studied it. And not just in music, for example I also read popular science where the author still has to get a bit technical, such as Nick Lane's books on Oxygen and Mitochondria. Again, all this is just to point out that good writing and good reading, whether in musicology or science or history etc, should challenge the reader and reward the effort.

Bryan Townsend said...

Back when I was a mere lad of 19 or 20 I recall reading a two volume book The Intelligent Man's Guide to the Physical and Biological Sciences by Isaac Asimov. That was a long slog! But fascinating and worth the trouble. The other day I saw a tweet quoted somewhere that suggested that if the diversity crew want to force engineering students into sensitivity training then fairness demands that diversity counselors be forced to spend a couple of hours doing differential calculus!

Will Wilkin said...

Asimov is a GREAT layman's entre into the sciences or maths! I read his Algebra decades ago, not to mention his Foundation trilogy.