Friday, September 29, 2017

Friday Miscellanea

From The Quietus comes Songs Of Discomposure: Quietus Writers Pick Their Most Disturbing Pieces Of Music.
For this feature, we set our writers a brief: write about the most disturbing music you own, or have ever heard. The responses were varied. 'Disturbing' is a broad term, and the resulting 40 pieces of music, compiled below, plumb all manner of darkness.
I wish I had thought of this! Mind you, I don't have forty people to consult. But if you want to weigh in in the comments, please do. Most of the selections are from pop music, but there are some classical choices:
Composer György Ligeti is one of the few artists to even come close to getting a glimpse of what a possible image of the absolute could be. Having in his youth experienced the horrors of the Nazi death camps and the brutal totalitarianism of Soviet-backed Hungary, he was ready to push the boundaries of what we call music beyond any accepted boundaries, systems, or ideologies to try and find a musical riposte to the horrors of the 20th century. His most profound statement was with Requiem.
Along with 'First We Take Manhattan', 'The Future' is one of the most illustrative and potent of Leonard Cohen's brilliant mid-period albums when he managed to combine superficially cheery production values with prescient lyrics of humanity out of sorts with itself - or as he so brilliantly put it, "the blizzard of the world has crossed the threshold / and overturned the order of the soul". All you really need to do to point out why this is one of the most chillingly disturbing songs of all time is to read the lyrics in one browser tab and the day's news in another. Leonard Cohen saw what was coming. Leonard Cohen was right.
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Finally a scientific "study" that makes some sense: Playlist of the Lambs: psychopaths may have distinct musical preferences
Contrary to the movie trope epitomised by Alex in The Clockwork Orange and Hannibal Lecter in the Silence of the Lambs, psychopaths are no fonder of classical music than anyone else, though they do appear to have other musical preferences, psychologists say.
In a study of 200 people who listened to 260 songs, those with the highest psychopath scores were among the greatest fans of the Blackstreet number one hit No Diggity, with Eminem’s Lose Yourself rated highly too.
Well that makes more sense, doesn't it? I often wonder if a lot of nonsense that we seem to put credence in isn't just the attempt of some director, columnist, writer, somewhere to "push the envelope." More from the article:
Kevin Dutton, a psychologist at Oxford, and the author of The Wisdom of Psychopaths, has been gathering data on musical tastes and other preferences for a psychopath study with Channel 4. More than three million people have responded so far, and while online surveys have serious weaknesses, the results so far suggest psychopaths favour rap music over classical and jazz. They also seem more likely to read the Financial Times than other newspapers.
Regardless of its accuracy, Dutton suspects movie directors like the idea of classical music-loving psychopaths because of the “irresistibly alluring” juxtaposition. “The coming together of the dark, visceral, primeval psychopathic mind and the higher aesthetic of classical composition is inherently incongruous, and there is a whole body of literature on the creative potential of incongruity,” he said. “It is the hypnotically captivating and age-old appeal of the ‘beauty and the beast’, only under the same cortical roof.”
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This seemed so interesting that I wanted to share: Three wild speculations from amateur quantitative macrohistory. I know it is rather off-topic, but we talk a lot about music history here and the contrast between that and world history is rather interesting.  We sometimes have the feeling that there was a kind of aesthetic peak somewhere in the past--different times and places according to taste--and that we are now living in an age of aesthetic decline. There may be some truth there. But taking a wider view, the lot of humanity was pretty bad for nearly all of history, then, at the time of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century, everything got fantastically better:
In How big a deal was the Industrial Revolution?, I looked for measures (or proxy measures) of human well-being / empowerment for which we have “decent” scholarly estimates of the global average going back thousands of years. For reasons elaborated at some length in the full report, I ended up going with:
  1. Physical health, as measured by life expectancy at birth.
  2. Economic well-being, as measured by GDP per capita (PPP) and percent of people living in extreme poverty.
  3. Energy capture, in kilocalories per person per day.
  4. Technological empowerment, as measured by war-making capacity.
  5. Political freedom to live the kind of life one wants to live, as measured by percent of people living in a democracy.
(I also especially wanted measures of subjective well-being and social well-being, and also of political freedom as measured by global rates of slavery, but these data aren’t available; see the report.)
Anyway, the punchline of the report is that when you chart these six measures over the past few millennia (data; zoomable), you get a chart like this:

Click to enlarge
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Anthony Tommasini, the chief classical music critic for the New York Times, pens a piece talking about his job:
Music, especially purely instrumental music, resists being described in language. It’s very hard to convey sounds through words. Perhaps that’s what we most love about music: that it’s beyond description, deeper than words. Yet the poor music critic has to try. Musicians can use a precise terminology to describe music. But I have to assume that these complex terms — chromatic harmony, canon, tone row — will baffle the majority of readers, even amateur music lovers who go to concerts all the time.
Well, perhaps, unless you make the minor effort now and then to acquaint your readers with their meaning? Chromatic harmony: chords that use notes not normally part of the key; canon: when the same melody overlaps with itself as in "Row, row, row your boat"; tone row: all the notes available arranged in a certain order--used by modernist composers to avoid any suggestion of a key. There, that wasn't too hard, was it?

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This piece at NewMusicBox is almost a demonstration of the problems of using a psychological approach to aesthetics--what I was talking about in my post a couple of days ago on Aesthetic Objects:
At its most simple, [post-genre] is a system of thinking about music that steps away from using genre as the main method of characterization and appraisal. Post-genre thinking seeks to move away from objective judgment of music towards a subjective reality, where the emphasis is no longer on whether a certain piece fits/does not fit a pre-conceptualized genre “bin.” Instead, the emphasis is on the individual intent of the composer.
 "Genre" is a word standing in for all concepts of aesthetics that involve an objective element. Instead, everything is subjective. Which makes evaluation impossible, of course.

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I just don't seem to have anything frivolous for you today, well, except for the NewMusicBox theory of aesthetics! So let's have a lovely, light and airy piece of music as our envoi. This is pianist Grigory Sokolov playing "La Poule" by Jean-Philippe Rameau:


Christopher Culver said...

"Chromatic harmony: chords that use notes not normally part of the key"

Why do you think that many young readers today, who never had musical education in school, even know what a key is? Within electronic music circles, it is not usual to see mixing tracks by key (basically DJs just marking the key of each track in their collection and then going along the circle of fifths as they mix each track into the next) called an "advanced skill" for anoraks who want to delve "deep" into theory. Even many electronic music producers for the last two decades at least have learned harmony completely by ear without really understanding the principles behind it or the terms used to describe it.

Never overestimate how much the average person these days – even classical music listeners – knows about music theory. And if a music critic had to define every single technical term, he would quickly run out of the space allotted to him, leaving little room for actual discussion of the piece or performance. Space for critics in print newspapers is infamously limited, and even online publications are under pressure to keep each piece of their content short and sweet for SEO and ad revenue purposes.

Bryan Townsend said...

You can't relieve the darkness of ignorance all at once.

Christopher Culver said...

Perhaps a newspaper critic’s column is a poor venue for trying to relieve the “darkness of ignorance” about music theory in general. If the classical music-interested public is supposed to recognize such musical terminology again, that education has to come from somewhere else where there is more space to discuss things.

Anonymous said...

They should run a series called "Music you'd like to be played at your funeral." I'd be curious to see the results. (How many would pick the second mvt of the eroica? I surely wouldn't.)

On the role of the music critic, I agree that they could easily go into the technical weeds a little by taking the time to explain the terminology. Good science writing does that. Whether it's relativity or quantum mechanics, the best articles for the public try not to infantilize their audience but rather capture in a paragraph or so what the basic idea is about. And physicists don't mind at all. I've never heard a scientist complain that an article in the NYT or Scientific American was bad because it spent time explaining concepts that for them are obvious. Likewise, only a music snob would complain if Tommasini had a line or two to explain what a canon is, or a cadence, or a dissonance, or a modulation, or for that matter even a key. As Bryan showed, it's not that difficult (certainly far easier than explaining Schroedinger's cat).

Marc Puckett said...

Still haven't gotten to reading the 'most disturbing music?' article but noticed this article about four measures of Erik Satie repeated for 19 hours in the Times this morning, from yesterday-- "agitated, frozen and delirious" is the phrase that made me think of this post. I will not have Satie at my funeral, no.

Bryan Townsend said...

I think I would choose Froberger and Rameau for my funeral. But I'm likely eccentric.

Ah yes, the famous piece by Erik Satie that I'm pretty sure modernists do as a kind of flagellation or pilgrimage. One page of music to be repeated 840 times.

Marc Puckett said...

Very much off topic, but have decided to go ahead and try to learn to play something approximating music on the guitar. I figure if I cannot do that, then it's unrealistic to even think about the lute.

Am left-handed for most purposes but am right-handed for some, so have been advised to begin with a standard 'right-handed' instrument; have only spoken to salespeople at this point. Thousands of hours of practice will apparently 'correct' for the peculiarities of lefthandedness.

There are approximately hundreds of people in the vicinity who will give lessons although the prospect of teaching old folks seems to appeal to only a certain number of them for some reason. I imagine over-thinking that choice and turning it into a long process but perhaps will just ask if he or she will promise not to throw a chair at me when I fail to respond correctly to some point of instruction and go with the first one who agrees to that stipulation. :-)

Bryan Townsend said...

Marc, I encourage you wholeheartedly! Yes, you probably should learn guitar right-handed if you are right-handed in some aspects. You might just pick it up and see if one way feels better than the other, though! The problem, pace Jimi Hendrix, is that there are very few guitars made for left-handed guitarists--the internal strutting is not symmetrical.

Regarding teachers, choosing the right one is pretty important. I think you should do some research into local teachers. Look for ones that have a good reputation. Ask around. See if they have adult beginners or are associated with a respectable institution. Do they perform? If so, try to attend a concert.

Several years ago I wrote a post on adult beginners:

Oh, and you can play lots of lute music on guitar!