Sunday, September 24, 2017

Veridical and Illusory Aesthetic Characteristics

Getting back to Monroe C. Beardsley's book Aesthetics: Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism, I want to do a few more posts on aesthetics.

The title sounds rather fancy, I know. It is just pointing out that some characteristics belong to the aesthetic object, while others do not. For example, knowing that Sibelius had great financial difficulties or that Charles Ives worked in the insurance industry are not facts or characteristics belonging to the music they wrote. So much of what we read in program or liner notes actually points us away from the music, rather than toward it. Things that depend on knowledge of the causal conditions of the production of an artwork, whether a building contains steel beams or not, or whether a composer used software rather than manuscript paper, are not part of the aesthetic object as perceived by the viewer or listener. Beardsley writes: hear properly certain kinds of music, it may be necessary for a listener whose phenomenal field is easily affected by his beliefs about the lives and loves of composers to push those beliefs out of his focus of attention: if Schubert's music sounds pathetic to one who sympathizes with his poverty, that is a mistake. [op. cit. p. 52]
This is not to say that we come to all aesthetic objects cold: an experienced listener brings to the table a lot of knowledge of the style, genre, and general construction of the work even if hearing it for the first time.

There are some interesting problems associated with the performing arts that do not trouble us in the case of, say, paintings or sculptures. The main ones have to do with the fact that a musical composition has various productions, each of which may reveal some, if not all, of the characteristics of the aesthetic object. Beardsley writes:
Let us, then, distinguish, in the case of music, three things: (1) There is the composer's artifact--in this case, the score. (2) There is the performance; any rendition of the sonata that is recognizably guided by the composer's instructions in the artifact will be called a performance of that sonata, but there will, of course, be many different performances of the same work. (3) There is the presentation-- a single experience of the music--and for each performance there may be a number of presentations. [He means that there is a presentation for each listener, including the performer. Op. cit. p. 55]
There is an interesting problem that arises: how do you answer the question, "how long is the first movement of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 in D minor?" If we look at this clip of the movement conducted by Jukka-Pekka Saraste we see that it is 15:34 long:

But when we listen to this clip of the same piece conducted by Vaclav Naumann it is 17:19 in length:

So how long is the movement? Fifteen minutes or seventeen minutes? This just demonstrates that the Symphony No. 9 by Beethoven, first movement, is not the name of a single aesthetic object. These are both productions of the same work, but they are not producing the same aesthetic object. Music critics, when they are reviewing a performance of a musical work are reviewing a particular production of that work as it was presented to them. A music theorist or musicologist, however, might be talking, not about any particular production or presentation, but about the composer's artifact, i.e. the score. So I might be tempted to answer the question, "how long is the first movement of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 by saying, "It is 547 measures long" which is how many measures there are in the score.

There are some interesting differences in popular music where there is often one unique production of a work. For example, The Beatles' recording of "Strawberry Fields Forever" is the one and only original production of the song (though there are some varying and fragmentary recorded versions created during the writing of the song--we could consider them "sketches"). It is 4:07 in duration. So for this composition, there is an answer to the question, "how long is Strawberry Fields Forever?" Mind you, each "cover" of the song by other artists will have a different length.

So there you go, just some little observations about aesthetics to muse over.


Anonymous said...

This distinction between artifact, production, and presentation is very judicious (at least in the case of music). It should make performers happy by confirming their essential artistic role in the process.

Still, it seems to me that true genius lies in the first leg of that tripod. At the end of the day, the magic of the 9th is in the score. In fact, the greatest composers didn't even need the other 2 legs. Beethoven was essentially completely deaf when he conducted the 9th (if I remember correctly, it was a mini-disaster), so for him the music was just in his head (production/performance being absent). All the great conductors "read" orchestral scores in bed with their brain as their only instruments.

In fact, one can go further. Even the score doesn't seem to be the ultimate locus of the music. Some of Bach's greatest music was scored (by Bach himself) for different instruments in different keys with different arrangements. Take the Art of Fugue. There's been endless debate about the instrumentation. My own theory is that it was written as an exercise (like so much of Bach's keyboard work) with no particular instrumentation in mind. So now you have a piece of music that lies upstream of any actual music itself.

Fascinating topics! Thanks for bringing that up, Bryan.

Bryan Townsend said...

I think that Beardsley is making this distinction in order to head off some potential confusion later on. No argument at all that the most important creative nexus is with the composer! And yes, the score itself, what Beardsley calls the "artifact" is itself just one realization of a creative idea. But he doesn't get into that detail.

Will Wilkin said...

Although everything in this article is obvious to me now, looking back over my life of listening I'm surprised how long it took me to see what I was hearing!

Bryan Townsend said...

Heh, heh, heh!