Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Music of Plants

In the local paper yesterday there was an article about an art installation at our botanical gardens. It began with this sentence: "Plants are capable of producing extraordinarily sweet and relaxing music." That does bring to mind a begonia I once knew that really had a way with Ravel... The article goes on to mention that the artist wants to "appeal to the free exercise of human spirit that searches to solve enigmas and mysteries through sensations and emotions." Well you might search for some explanation or description of these enigmas and mysteries, but I'm afraid the rest is just more of the same. I was sitting with an artist acquaintance when we ran across this and for some reason I went into my guerrilla musicologist mode where I hoist the black flag and start being provocative. I said that plants don't make music, she said, it's an art installation, I said, but it says it's 'music' so that puts it on my turf and so on. I ended up by claiming that I strove to have the narrowest, most closed-minded approach to music possible. At which point, everyone laughed.

Isn't it odd that if you say very radical and possibly true things in a certain tone of voice, everyone will chuckle and think you are charming? But if you say them in the voice of a jihadist fanatic, everyone will back away slowly. You see I do work to have a narrow, though I like to call it 'focused', approach to music. I think if you set out to "solve enigmas and mysteries through sensations and emotions" you just end up wallowing in confusion because you don't actually know what you are doing. Some people tend to use words for their color without actually knowing what they mean. What I try to do is look at the specifics. If you look over the posts on this blog, which range from discussions of John Cage, to gamelan, to U2, to Radiohead, to Bach, to Mozart and on and on--if you look at the list of posts you might think that I am very open-minded and diverse in my tastes. I'm really not. I only like good music. But you can find good music in a lot of surprising places. Unfortunately you also find bad music in those same places. There is a lot of very bad classical music. It won't cause you to bleed from your ears like some genres of pop music, but you will be regretting that part of your life you lost forever listening to it!

This brings to mind a principle that Karl Popper contributed to the philosophy of science: empirical falsification. This roughly means that any genuine scientific theory must, in principle, be falsifiable. It must be possible to make empirical observations that could confirm or deny the theory. I apply this to music criticism in this way: it must be possible to decide whether a piece of music is worth listening to or not. There must be qualities that the piece possesses that we can hear and enjoy--enjoy in the widest possible sense. That seems rather simple and obvious, but some kinds of music don't have these qualities. Music from plants (which is actually sounds produced by an artist installation), for example. Or music written so as to defy any aesthetic judgment by using chance procedures or just silences. If the composer has no aesthetic intentions, then one can hardly accuse him of failure! This was the point of my joking remark in a previous post on John Cage's Water Walk, when I accused him of making several mistakes in the performance. If you cannot make mistakes, if it cannot be a bad performance, then it certainly can't be a good performance. This is the principle of falsifiability...

Here is John Cage playing an amplified cactus and plant materials with a feather so you can hear for yourself:


Anonymous said...

Pick a random Beethoven piano sonata. Then pick another random Beethoven sonata different from the first one. Now play them simultaneously by turning on two CD players at the same time. What you get is NOT another Beethoven sonata: rather, what you get is garbage.

But if you try the same experiment with John Cage, you get another perfectly acceptable John Cage piece. There has to be a music rule against that. Playing in parallel two random works of music should not give you another work of music.

Re. music from nature, Messiaen drew inspiration from birdsong. As country singers did from freight trains. Nature is not art but it is a tremendous source of inspiration.

Bryan Townsend said...

That's a great example! It works for Cage because his music has no real form or content, therefore multiplying times two causes no problems.

Nature is a great inspiration, not only for Messiaen, but Vivaldi, Beethoven, Berlioz and a host of others.