Friday, July 28, 2017

Musical Transactions

I think one of the less-noticed aspects of the decline of aesthetics is the confusion about the nature of an aesthetic experience or transaction. As a commentator pointed out on a recent post:
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?
This nicely highlights the difference between an aesthetic transaction and most of the other ones we experience. Most of what we experience in our daily life are transactions like those listed: we purchase things that we want or like (lunch, a ride on the subway, a magazine) and enjoy or use them in an ordinary way. Or we do work that earns us money. Or we do things to make ourselves more attractive, popular or healthy. Or we do things that are required by law: fill in our income tax returns.

But aesthetic experiences or transactions are of a different nature entirely. They often lack the easy accessibility of most other things. Yes, you might fall in love with a piece of music on hearing it for the first time (Tchaikovsky, Violin Concerto):

But more often the first time you hear a fine piece of music you might be perplexed or just a bit lost: (Schoenberg, Six Little Piano Pieces, op. 19)

One of the most basic problems is that aesthetic appreciation runs counter to the prevailing narcissism of our time: it really isn't about you! It is about you taking a journey towards something that is outside yourself. I happen to think that this is an important journey, more important certainly than a week at the beach or a shopping trip to the mall. But hey, that's just me!

One of the things that I find really appealing about aesthetic transactions is the implied freedom. You are entirely free to choose, as with few other things in life, exactly what kind of aesthetic experience you want and, depending on your other responsibilities, when and how you experience it. That's pretty cool, actually.

Here is a nice one for you (Beethoven, String Quartet op 59, no. 3, mvt 4, Alban Berg Quartet):


Shantanu said...

Thanks for quoting me, Brian. I'm honoured.

Despite aesthetics not offering any direct material reward, I think it is still compelling enough in itself. I'm really perplexed as to why more people do not have an ear for stuff like this:

...while "Despacito" rules supreme.

Bryan Townsend said...

My pleasure, Shantanu! It made exactly the right point for me. Thanks for that clip. It is one of the great strengths of Bach that his music seems to transfer so readily to other instruments.

Shantanu said...

Yes, I recently found many versions of the Goldberg variations on youtube, on string trio, orchestra, brass quintet, wind ensemble, flute, accordion. Each one seemingly more beautiful than the previous!!

PS: I hope I spell your name correctly the next time :)