Friday, September 28, 2012

Manuel M. Ponce: Guitar Composer

Manuel M. Ponce (1882 - 1948) was a Mexican composer. He was a child prodigy, fascinated by the folk and popular music of his country, but also an accomplished composer of classical music who studied in Italy, Germany and France. Though he wrote extensively for all combinations of instruments, he is particularly noted for having made a huge contribution to the guitar repertoire. The great Spanish guitarist Andrés Segovia worked closely with him to try and fill in some of the gaps in the guitar repertoire. Ponce achieved popular success with his song "Estrellita" (Little Star) that he composed in 1912 while traveling on a train. Here it is:

There is also a famous arrangement by Jascha Heifetz for violin and piano:

But probably the most-performed of his music today is his music for guitar. One of the best is his Sonatina meridional in three movements capturing some of the flavor of Mexican popular music. Here are the three movements played by Segovia:

He sometimes wrote in the style of other composers. In his Sonata Romantica, he tries to fill in a big gap in the guitar repertoire by imagining what a sonata for guitar by Franz Schubert might have sounded like. Here is Ana Vidovic, playing the slow movement:

He also wrote a set of lovely, short preludes. Here are four, played by Jennifer Kim:

The two largest pieces for guitar by Ponce are his mammoth 20 Variations and Fugue on "Folias de España" and a very substantial guitar concerto. Here is a truncated version of the former recorded in 1932 by Segovia:

And finally, Ponce wrote a Concierto del Sur for Guitar and Orchestra in 1941 that does not get nearly enough performances. Here is the first movement, in two parts, performed by Narciso Yepes:

Ponce was a fine composer, capable of writing in larger as well as smaller forms. His music is never too far from its roots in popular and folk music. Perhaps the composer one could compare him with most closely would be the Brazilian Heitor Villa-Lobos, though I think Ponce's music is more fine-grained.

UPDATE: I just realized that I have played every one of the pieces I mentioned above--even Estrellita! And, with the exception of the concerto, I have also performed all of them in public. I could never talk a conductor into doing the Concierto del Sur -- they always wanted to hear the Aranjuez.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

John Cage: Song Books

Tim Rutherford-Johnson at The Rambler blog reviews a new recording of John Cage's Song Books

Sam Belinfante has created a two minute collection of video clips from the sessions which gives us something of an idea of what the songs are like:

Oh, well.

I can't give my own review, of course, since I haven't heard the 2 CD recording. But I will pose one question that always comes to mind. How do you listen to this music? Tim comments:
Song Books Mix 2(actually the final track of the CD 2) keeps 17 songs in a state of pleasing mutual sabotage for 23 minutes. It’s not as abrasive or as extrovert as some Cage performances, but neither does it allow gentleness and elegance to fade into mush.
I believe he is saying that there is something pleasing here, something of a balance between abrasiveness and gentleness? What could the connection be between the score (glimpses of which we see in the video clips) and the performance? How could you say that one performance could be better or worse? More or less pleasing? Or even, how would it be possible to detect an error in the performance? What would an error consist in? Cage always seemed, for mystical reasons, to want to deny any responsibility for the content of his music--in one clip, I believe you can see the performers tossing dominoes, perhaps to decide on different options. Cage refused to accept any traditional aesthetic judgments. So there seems to me to be a philosophical dissonance between the methods and goals of Cage and any kind of review of a recording or performance of his works.

You may like or dislike a performance because of the sounds you heard, but it certainly wasn't because the composer meant anything by them. For comparison, here is a concert performance of some of the songs:

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Socratic Interpretation of Music

At nearly the beginning of Western thought stands the enigmatic figure of Socrates (469/470 BC - 399 BC). One indicator of his influence is that some law professors to this very day use the "Socratic method", based on asking questions to eliminate faulty hypotheses, in their teaching. Oh, and scientific method is also based on Socrates. In Plato's Apology, Socrates' philosophical life began when his friend Chaerephon asked the oracle at Delphi if anyone was wiser than Socrates; the Oracle responded that no-one was wiser. Socrates, skeptical of how this could be, proceeded to test the riddle by approaching men considered wise by the people of Athens—statesmen, poets, and artisans—in order to refute the Oracle's pronouncement. But Socrates concluded that, while each man thought he knew a great deal and was wise, in fact they knew very little and were not wise at all. Socrates realized that the Oracle was correct. While so-called wise men thought themselves wise and yet were not, he himself knew he was not wise at all, which, paradoxically, made him the wiser one since he was the only person aware of his own ignorance. Knowing that one does not know is the highest wisdom.

I have played Bach for over forty years on guitar. Indeed, the piece that was probably more influential than any other in causing me to study classical guitar in a disciplined way was the Chaconne from the D minor Partita for violin. Andres Segovia transcribed it for guitar and ever since, it has been at the pinnacle of the guitar repertoire. Let's have a listen to John Williams. This is from a concert in Toronto in 1987 and I think the quality of the performance more than makes up for the quality of the sound.

Ironically, I have never quite gotten around to playing the Chaconne in concert, though I have played several lute and cello suites and many other individual pieces by Bach. In addition to giving hundreds of performances of the music of Bach, I have also read twenty or so books on Bach and an equal number on Baroque performance practice. I have also, of course, listened to dozens if not hundreds of other performers' interpretations of Bach. But I have never quite felt confident about how I play Bach and a couple of years ago I said to a friend of mine, who has also played Bach for forty years or so that "I don't know how to play Bach." She looked at me with frank astonishment! Why would I say that? Bach poses big challenges to a performer. Big challenges. I think that I had gone through a period of real growth in my musical understanding, perhaps sparked by a greater focus on my own composition, and as a result, had come to feel that the way I had played Bach was perhaps not adequate. Mind you, I probably was starting to feel this about most performances of Bach!

So for me, the way forward, was to sweep aside all the underbrush, all the accumulated detritus of Bach interpretation and look at it with really fresh eyes. Step one, admit that you know nothing! I don't think most performers realize how much the way they play Bach is piggy-backed on the way generations of performers have played Bach. There are few that really make a fresh start. On the guitar, John Williams is one. But the greatest renewed approach to Bach interpretation is, of course, Glenn Gould, whose 80th birthday would have been yesterday. Let us listen to a whole bunch of his re-thought from scratch J. S. Bach. The Well-Tempered Clavier, Bk 1:

The unexamined interpretation is not worth playing!

Guarnerius Returned

I usually stay away from current events  because I want the posts on this blog to be interesting to read no matter when you stumble across them. But last month I did put up a story about  the confiscation of a Guarnerius violin by zealous customs officials in Germany. Here is that post. The latest news from Tokyo is that Yuzuko Horigome will have her violin returned to her as she has submitted the required paperwork. This is good to hear, but I still don't think I will be flying to Germany with my guitar any time soon! You see, I don't have any paperwork. I have owned my guitar for twenty-nine years, but there was no paperwork involved at any time. I purchased it from the builder, who gave me no receipt, nor did I ask for one. I have traveled to quite a few countries in the past, playing concerts and no-one ever asked for any paperwork. What possible documents could be created at this stage?

When society decides to bureaucratize all aspects of life, there are a lot of unintended (or are they unintended?) consequences. Maybe we should question this from time to time. Here is a little Paganini for violin and guitar:

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Stradivarius Guitars

I'll bet you didn't even know there was such a thing as a guitar built by Stradivarius. The late 17th and early 18th centuries were a particular golden era for the guitar and it was a hugely popular instrument in the royal courts of Europe so it was inevitable he would have built some. There are four guitars by Stradivarius still in existence and here is an excellent website with lots of photos.

There are some modern copies that are played by performers specializing in historical performance, but the Stradivarius guitars occupy a tiny position in the modern musical world, compared to their violin and cello cousins. Why is that?

Here is an interesting thing about guitars and violins. The violin top (and bottom, though that is less important) is vaulted as you can probably see in this photo of a Stradivarius violin:

This gives the top a great deal of structural integrity, making for a long life. The top of the guitar, however, is flat. This top, moreover, is twisted by the tension from the bridge. In a modern instrument this amounts to some 125 lbs of torque. After twenty to thirty years, the acoustic integrity of the top starts to go and significant loss of sound is the result.

But the vaulted top of a violin, with a different sort of bridge entirely and supported internally with a bass bar, is far stronger.

True, the guitar also has internal strutting, which does help, but the flat top makes for a short lifespan compared to the violin.

UPDATE [Oct. 28, 2012]: This post keeps being popular so I am updating it by including a musical clip of Baroque guitar. Here are the first four movements of the best-known suite by Robert de Visée (1655 - 1733) including the Prelude, Allemande, Courante and Sarabande. The guitarist is Rob MacKillop and the guitar looks quite a bit like a reproduction of a Stradivarius.

A Musical Instrument Bank

Whenever I see a particularly noxious piece of music journalism, i.e. most of them, I like to comment on it. But the flip side of that is that I also try to give credit where credit is due. There is an interesting story in the Globe and Mail today about an excellent project of the Canada Council: their musical instrument loan program.

Aspiring young violinists have a huge problem trying to find an suitable instrument that most other instrumentalists just don't have. As a young guitarist, just starting to really come to grips with developing my skills as a performer, one of the things I had to do was replace my student guitar (Yamaha, about $200) with a real concert instrument. You can't learn to expand your dynamic and timbral range without an instrument that can actually do it. My solution was I flew to Madrid and purchased a Jose Ramirez 1a (meaning "primera", i.e. top level concert instrument), the same that Segovia and others had played. The cost, in 1974, was a mere $650! I'm not sure what they cost now, but probably somewhere between $5000 and $10,000.

But if you are a violinist, or cellist, you are faced with a problem of a whole different magnitude. What would it cost to purchase a violin of the finest concert quality? Would you believe $4,000,000? Yes, I'm afraid so. So the Canada Council has a wonderful program to help young violinists. Every three years they hold a competition to win the opportunity to borrow a concert violin from the Musical Instrument Bank. There are thirteen violinists vying to possess thirteen different violins ranging from fine instruments worth $300,000 built in the 18th century, to the heights of instruments built by Guarneri and Stradivari! It is hard to find anything wrong with a project like this.

There are some errors in the story. The claim is made that:
 in blind tests, audiological analysts and concert violinists alike have had difficulty distinguishing one fine old fiddle from another.
which is not exactly true. The 'tests' referred to were promoted by a builder of new violins who was eager to show that his instruments were just as good as those old ones. Several question marks hover over how the test was conducted and quite a few very knowledgeable people disagree strongly. All the great concert violinists of today prefer to play the old violins built in Cremona and it isn't just because of the name of the builder. But with only some 500 of the Cremona violins still available, and especially with millions of young Chinese violinists coming along, modern builders are striving to build instruments that will measure up to the best of the 17th and 18th century ones.

Isn't it fascinating that the finest violins ever built, so far, were built in a little town in Italy, Cremona, by three builders, Amati, Guarneri and Stradivari, largely between 1700 and 1750? I can't think of any other example of technology of which this is true. Let's hear one of these violins:

Monday, September 24, 2012

Aesthetics: Hume, Part 3

We are just about done with David Hume. But first we need to look at what he says about critics, whom he considers similar to 'expert witnesses'. One of the odd corollaries of our relativistic way of looking at things is that we assume that prejudice and bias are ubiquitous and unavoidable. But at the same time, we require unbiased analysis in all parts of our society: judges, juries, environmental reports, political polling, and so on. This also extends to things that we might consider aesthetic. Companies that market blended Scotch whiskey  or fine sherry employ highly trained and experienced tasters to ensure that the blends are consistent year to year. If all taste were relative, they really wouldn't bother. But it is not. Taste is not only something that the sensory apparatus of humans gives a universal base to, it is also something that can be developed. It can be free from personal bias, what used to be called 'disinterested'. Let's hear from Hume now.

But to enable a critic the more fully to execute this undertaking, he must preserve his mind free from all prejudice, and allow nothing to enter into his consideration, but the very object which is submitted to his examination.
Oh yes, this is very much the crux of it! We seem to have the odd policy of assuming everyone is unavoidably biased in their aesthetic taste (while requiring at the same time that they show not a trace of prejudice in other areas--race and gender, for example). Anyone that writes about music or the arts is assumed to be hopelessly personally biased. This can often be the case, of course, but aren't those people inherently less worth listening to? This is the problem I keep constantly running into in writing on music. Everyone assumes everyone is biased and no-one makes the attempt not to be. Objectivity is impossible, so why bother? But this means so much of what you read about music is just half-baked nonsense.
 It is well known, that in all questions, submitted to the understanding, prejudice is destructive of sound judgment, and perverts all operations of the intellectual faculties: It is no less contrary to good taste; nor has it less influence to corrupt our sentiment of beauty. It belongs to good sense to check its influence in both cases; and in this respect, as well as in many others, reason, if not an essential part of taste, is at least requisite to the operations of this latter faculty. In all the nobler productions of genius, there is a mutual relation and correspondence of parts; nor can either the beauties or blemishes be perceived by him, whose thought is not capacious enough to comprehend all those parts, and compare then with each other, in order to perceive the consistence and uniformity of the whole. Every work of art has also a certain end or purpose, for which it is calculated; and is to be deemed more or less perfect, as it is more or less fitted to attain this end. The object of eloquence is to persuade, of history to instruct, of poetry to please by means of the passions and the imagination. These ends we must carry constantly in our view, when we peruse any performance; and we must be able to judge how far the means employed are adapted to their respective purposes.
Hard to disagree with any of this as it is pure common sense. I have my prejudices, which I try to examine and analyse so that I don't allow them to corrupt my judgment. You will note that I rarely write about jazz. The reason is that I don't entirely trust my judgment in that area. On the few occasions I have written about it, I have put forth my opinions boldly and tried to give a justification for them. Most genres of classical music I have enough experience with to make objective judgments--at least, that's the plan! I am able to distinguish in my mind a piece that has greater or lesser aesthetic value generally from one which I personally would rate higher or lower. Take Mozart, for example. He is a composer that any reliable critic would put in the absolute first rank of composers. His music is widely enjoyed and much of it is very profound. But with the exception of a couple of pieces, I personally find his music to be a bit lightweight. I recognize this as being a bias in my judgment, so I'm careful, when talking about Mozart, to compensate for it. In other words, I use my reason to compensate for a bias. Hume is also pointing out some other uses of reason in the guidance of taste. It can be used to overlook the design and consistency of a piece and evaluate it according to its purpose.
Thus, though the principles of taste be universal, and, nearly, if not entirely the same in all men; yet few are qualified to give judgment on any work of art, or establish their own sentiment as the standard of beauty. The organs of internal sensation are seldom so perfect as to allow the general principles their full play, and produce a feeling correspondent to those principles. They either labour under some defect, or are vitiated by some disorder; and by that means, excite a sentiment, which may be pronounced erroneous. When the critic has no delicacy, he judges without any distinction, and is only affected by the grosser and more palpable qualities of the object: The finer touches pass unnoticed and disregarded. Where he is not aided by practice, his verdict is attended with confusion and hesitation. Where no comparison has been employed, the most frivolous beauties, such as rather merit the name of defects., are the object of his admiration. Where he lies under the influence of prejudice, all his natural sentiments are perverted. Where good sense is wanting, he is not qualified to discern the beauties of design and reasoning, which are the highest and most excellent. Under some or other of these imperfections, the generality of men labour; and hence a true judge in the finer arts is observed, even during the most polished ages, to be so rare a character; Strong sense, united to delicate sentiment, improved by practice, perfected by comparison, and cleared of all prejudice, can alone entitle critics to this valuable character; and the joint verdict of such, wherever they are to be found, is the true standard of taste and beauty.
Again, this is so clear and so soundly reasoned that it hardly needs comment! That the principles of taste are universal (given, perhaps a couple of caveats), but that most of us labor under some defect, or lack delicacy or experience, surely this is just ordinary common sense? The academic and intellectual worlds have been over-specializing in UNcommon sense for so long, that I'm sure this is shocking to many readers. But really, "when a critic has no delicacy, he judges without any distinction" should hardly be controversial. In this blog I am constantly using the device of comparison to point out 'frivolous beauties'. It could scarcely be put better than Hume does: "Strong sense, united to delicate sentiment, improved by practice, perfected by comparison, and cleared of all prejudice, can alone entitle critics to this valuable character; and the joint verdict of such, wherever they are to be found, is the true standard of taste and beauty."
But where are such critics to be found? By what marks are they to be known? How distinguish them from pretenders? These questions are embarrassing; and seem to throw us back into the same uncertainty, from which, during the course of this essay, we have endeavoured to extricate ourselves.
My immediate response is by their fruits ye shall know them. I don't find it impossible to give credence to a critic I don't know based on the quality of his argument--even if I am unfamiliar with the piece under consideration.
But if we consider the matter aright, these are questions of fact, not of sentiment. Whether any particular person be endowed with good sense and a delicate imagination, free from prejudice, may often be the subject of dispute, and be liable to great discussion and enquiry: but that such a character is valuable and estimable will be agreed in by all mankind. Where these doubts occur, men can do no more than in other disputable questions, which are submitted to the understanding: They must produce the best arguments, that their invention suggests to them; they must acknowledge a true and decisive standard to exist somewhere, to wit, real existence and matter of fact; and they must have indulgence to such as differ from them in their appeals to this standard. It is sufficient for our present purpose, if we have proved, that the taste of all individuals is not upon an equal footing, and that some men in general, however difficult to be particularly pitched upon, will be acknowledged by universal sentiment to have a preference above others.
This is another nice crux that Hume presents. Perhaps the best argument against the irrational, individual relativism of all aesthetic judgment is that it takes away our grounds for having the discussion. Why bother? But if matters of taste can be universal and can be objective, then we can discuss them to mutual profit. We "must acknowledge a true and decisive standard to exist somewhere, to wit, real existence and matter of fact."

Now let's listen to some Mozart and see if we can hear some of those "finer touches". Here is Friedrich Gulda playing and conducting (the way it would have originally been performed) the slow movement of the piano concerto K. 466:

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Glenn Gould and Journalism

In the Globe and Mail this weekend is an article titled "The meaning of Glenn Gould". Though a 'national' newspaper the Globe and Mail is based in Toronto, Glenn Gould's home, so one might expect, on the occasion of what would have been the 80th birthday of one of Canada's greatest musicians, an article of some weight. But journalism is not what it once was and the sheer conventional stupor of this treatment shows that. It would be expected that many of the readers would not be familiar with many details of who Gould was and what he did. So does the article try and provide some of this? No, it really doesn't. We can tell he was a piano player from the photo, but we get only scattered, oblique hints of what kind of player. It says he was a 'partisan' of Bach, without letting us know that Gould was probably the most influential performer of Bach on keyboard in the 20th century. Instead of that kind of solid sense of who he was and what he did, we get frothy speculation like, would he have done podcasts, would he have blogged? Did he indeed predict today's "mash-up" culture? And what does that even mean? By the end of the article we have learned almost no solid information about one of Canada's great artists. The article sums itself up in this way:
The paradox of Gould was that behind the musical brilliance and technological precision was always the fragile human element, the lonely man who spent hours on the phone with a few close friends who describe him as generous and funny. He is not easy to box in. “He offers so many ideas to take off from. He’s this protean figure,” Egoyan says.
In those meticulous recordings, above Gould’s analytical piano music, you can sometimes hear the lyrical sound of a man humming as he plays.
It is rather sad, isn't it, that the dumbing-down of today's mass media means that you have to reduce a great creative artist and national figure like Glenn Gould to a kind of soap-opera stereotype. Let's listen to some of what he did:

The Most Audacious Composition of the 20th Century

The title of this post is itself a most audacious claim, is it not? After all, if there is one thing true about 20th century composition it is that it consists of wave after wave of composers and performers trying to outdo one another for sheer audacity. The reason for this lies in the ideology behind the notion of modernism and the avant-garde. Art must be progressive, that is to say, each new composition must be truly new in some significant way and that has usually been interpreted as new in technique. This approach really began with the New German School of Liszt and Wagner in the mid-19th century, but it steadily accelerated in the 20th century and fewer and fewer composers were able to resist it. Perhaps the last hold-out in Western Europe was Jean Sibelius and he found his ability to compose slipping away by the mid-1920s after which he wrote no more large-scale works. One of the most important figures in the progressivism of 20th century compositional technique was Arnold Schoenberg who arrived at his final method of composition with twelve tones--serialism--by 1923. I would speculate that the fact that this coincides with Sibelius ceasing to compose might not be entirely a coincidence!

Historian Richard Taruskin captures some important aspects of modernism in music by referring to it as "maximalism". More and more, once the traditional structures were broken down and cast aside, the one sure path to the future for most composers was greater and greater and greater complexity. I'm not talking so much about length or the sheer size of the orchestra, both those were well under way in the 19th century with the operas of Wagner and symphonies of Bruckner and Mahler. No, the complexity extended to the saturation of harmonic space with acceptable harmonies containing not just three or four notes, but seven or even ten! The degree of dissonance was constantly being increased. When Schoenberg finally came upon a way of setting aside the entire concept of consonance, new ways of structuring music had to be found. Again, it was always in the direction of greater and greater complexity and ways were found to structure tone rows, those building blocks of twelve-tone music, that involved complex kinds of symmetry. New and complex vocabulary was also invented so that we can talk about mysterious things like "hexachordal combinatoriality" and be talking about a piece of music, not mathematics!

These trends just went on and on to ever higher and higher levels of complexity. That wasn't the only thing that was happening, there was also the greater inclusion of new kinds of sounds, more percussion instruments and the use of new performing techniques. But the basic trend was always toward greater complexity. You start to see the problem, I think? Just as if you throw all the colors on the canvas and mix them together, you always end up with greyish-brown, if you constantly have a high level of dissonance combined with great rhythmic complexity, all orchestral music starts to sound a bit the same. Then what do you do? People like Karlheinz Stockhausen just kept adding more: by the late 1950s and early 60s he was writing enormously complex and dissonant music for three and four separate orchestras.

Ok, that's the back story. Now I will tell you how I ran across what I think is the most audacious piece of the 20th century. As an undergraduate at McGill in the mid-70s I would sometimes go to the listening library during a free period and just try and listen to some new stuff. I would wander randomly down the shelves and grab a few discs that looked like they might be interesting. Usually they would be pieces of newer music because that was a special interest of mine at the time. I don't recall much of what I would listen to, but this would be pretty typical:

  • Ligeti
  • Boulez
  • Stockhausen
  • Nancarrow
As I only had forty minutes or so, I would often just put on the beginning and if something didn't grab me pretty quickly, I would move on to the next disc. Let's recreate the experience. First some Ligeti, Continuum for harpsichord:

Not a well-known piece, but one I was listening to at the time. Next is an excerpt from Le Marteau sans Maitre by Pierre Boulez:

Here is Gruppen for three orchestras and three conductors by Stockhausen:

Notice that the complexity level is very high for all these pieces--and if you study the scores, you will just see more complexity! But this complexity was not just restricted to big orchestral music, as we saw with the harpsichord piece. One composer managed to find a way to create music for piano that was simply too complex to be performed and he did it by directly cutting piano rolls. Here is a piece by Conlon Nancarrow:

So imagine me in the library, listening to some or part of various pieces and then, I put this on, Drumming by Steve Reich:

In a context where EVERYTHING is designed for a great degree of complexity, this is simply astonishing. I was bracing myself for -- what? And then this, a single beat on a drum? Honestly, I nearly fell off my chair. You see, doing just what everyone else is doing, but just a little more, or doing it in a different medium is just not all that audacious, now is it? But if everyone else is writing fiendishly difficult music using hexachordal combinatoriality and you go out there and hit a little drum with a little stick, well, that's audacious! I'm sorry I can't put up the version I was listening to, on Deutsche Grammophon, but it is not on YouTube. Another audacious thing is that the whole piece is one hour and twenty-four minutes long, divided in four parts. The first part is nothing but those little drums and the development of one simple rhythm. Then he does it all over again with marimbas, then with xylophones and then puts them all together. Simple. And, to my mind, absolutely devastating to the musical aesthetic that says that the only road forward is to keep adding layers of complexity.

There are rare times in music history when all should be swept aside and composers need to return to the absolute fundamental basis of music. That was what Steve Reich was doing in 1970 when he wrote this piece, the most audacious composition of the 20th century.

Asian Pop!

Occasionally while doing my "catty micro-reviews" I have run across pop artists from Asia: sometimes interesting, sometimes bizarre (at least relative to what we are used to). But there is one viral South Korean video that is worth having a look at. Psy with Gangnam Style!

As of this morning, that is up to over 250,000,000 views on YouTube! On first viewing it seems like something from another universe, but it gets funnier after a couple of viewings and you may, as I did, find yourself calling out "Gangnam Style!" and cackling maniacally for no good reason. This is a kind of humor that music is particularly good at. Think Robin Williams at his most manic. Not to everyone's taste? You bet!

For a different kind of Asian pop music, have a look at this Japanese video:

The leader, Genki Sudo, is a retired martial arts champion. He writes the songs and creates the choreography. No special effects, by the way, they just do all those moves.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

How I Re-Discovered the Beatles

A lot of Gen X, Gen Y and Millennials like to scorn us Boomers for never getting past the music of our youth. "Why do you keep listening to all that old 'classic rock' crap, anyway," they say. So let me go back and explain how I got back into the Beatles--not just because I listened to them when I was young, though I did, but because I re-encountered them.

Back in 1990 or 1991 I was visiting a classical guitarist friend of mine in Toronto and was alone in the apartment one morning with nothing much to do. I noticed a copy of the White Album on the CD shelf. I quite literally had not listened to it for many, many years. At least a decade, probably more like two. So I put in on and listened to all four sides. Of course, there was nostalgia from hearing those familiar songs once again, but much more powerful than that was I discovered that I was listening closely and hearing much more than I had ever heard before. As time goes on and you acquire more and more experience in music, your listening becomes more focused, more capable. Now I was hearing aspects and relationships I had never noticed before. Let's hear just a couple of those songs. Here are the first (by Paul) and last (by John) songs on side one, which also has George's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" that I just put up the other day. First, "Back in the USSR", Paul's demonstration of how to do surf music, but set in Soviet Russia. I love how the airplane flies through your head at the beginning, from the right to the left channel. Since we were just talking about Ringo the other day, let me point out that he is not drumming on this song. There were a lot of intra-group tensions during the taping of this album and Ringo just took the day off. So Paul is playing the skins:

Now John's "Happiness is a Warm Gun", which has, apart from the pun of the title, some of the twistiest music Lennon every wrote. Walter Everett in his two-volume analysis of the Beatles points out that "there are  six different meter changes in the first twenty-one bars." At one point Ringo maintains a 4/4 meter for four and a half bars while the rest of the band is doing three bars of 12/8 (the eighths are equal). The song is in discrete sections set off with significant changes of tempo. All this is unified by using a small set of melodic motifs. Let's hear it:

I doubt there are many other groups that could even perform that song, let along write it. Let's listen to one of George's songs that isn't "While My Guitar". The last song on side three is "Long, Long, Long":

It's a melancholy waltz about lost love, but there are lots of songs like that. What makes this unique? Listen to the arrangement, especially the drumming! There are two drum tracks here: one that very quietly just lays out the 3/4 time and that you hardly notice. Then, on top of that, there are big drum fills--solos--that comment on the song and come in between the sung lines. The first comes at the 27 second mark, but they occur throughout the song and every one is different! Another interesting thing is the way the song ends: it just stops, then there are some distorted organ sounds, followed by a conclusive ka-ching from the rhythm guitar and finally, a drum cadence. It is the details they add to songs, how they begin, how they end, that often distinguishes songs by The Beatles.

After I got to the end of the fourth side in that listening session in Toronto that morning I found tears in my eyes. I don't think that was nostalgia; I think it is because this is powerful music. Here is the Wikipedia article on the album and here is a post I put up on it a while back. This could be the most radical album design ever as well. The album doesn't really have a name. Officially it is "The Beatles", but that is just embossed, not printed, on the plain white cover. So, no cover art. Everyone calls it "The White Album".

Song Lyrics

I'm not going to talk generally about song lyrics, just make a confession: I usually don't bother listening to the words the singer is singing. Yes, true. Oh, I listen to the sound, the color of the voice, the expression, the phrasing, but I don't bother also trying to figure out what he or she is actually saying. This may be a post-traumatic-stress-disorder from trying to figure out the words to "Jumpin' Jack Flash" by the Rolling Stones when I was a young rock musician. Scarred me for life, it did. Here, hear what I mean:

Of course, there are exceptions, but only three important ones. If the lyrics were written by Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen or John Lennon I will listen to them.

Light Weekend Posts!

Hello gentle readers! After those two rather heavy (and word heavy) posts on aesthetics I am going to give us all a rest and put up some lighter stuff for a couple of days. Let's celebrate with one of the lighter, poppier songs from the 60s. The Turtles with their 1967 big hit "Happy Together":

The band was led by two singers, Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman, later known as Flo and Eddie. After the Turtles they briefly joined up with, of all people, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention in their 200 Motels tour (I actually saw them perform in Vancouver on that tour). This is a bit like Joan Baez touring with Metallica.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Aesthetics: Hume, Part 2

Yesterday I was looking at David Hume's essay on aesthetics and adding my own commentary. You should read that post first. One of the great ironies of Hume's life was that though his whole ambition was to be a scholar and philosopher and though he attended Edinburgh University starting at twelve years old, and though he, along with Adam Smith, was unquestionably the most brilliant thinker of the century in Scotland, he was never able to obtain an academic post! Much of what he wrote ignited the most fervent opposition, most probably due to its truth, an ever controversial item.

I think listening to U2 and the Beatles and trying to hear the differences is an excellent introduction to the next part of Hume's essay where he talks about the complexities of aesthetic judgment. Again, my comments follow in green.
But though all the general rules of art are founded only on experience and on the observation of the common sentiments of human nature, we must not imagine, that, on every occasion the feelings of men will be conformable to these rules. Those finer emotions of the mind are of a very tender and delicate nature, and require the concurrence of many favourable circumstances to make them play with facility and exactness, according to their general and established principles. The least exterior hindrance to such small springs, or the least internal disorder, disturbs their motion, and confounds the operation of the whole machine. When we would make an experiment of this nature, and would try the force of any beauty or deformity, we must choose with care a proper time and place, and bring the fancy to a suitable situation and disposition. A perfect serenity of mind, a recollection of thought, a due attention to the object; if any of these circumstances be wanting, our experiment will be fallacious, and we shall be unable to judge of the catholic and universal beauty. The relation, which nature has placed between the form and the sentiment will at least be more obscure; and it will require greater accuracy to trace and discern it. We shall be able to ascertain its influence not so much from the operation of each particular beauty, as from the durable admiration, which attends those works, that have survived all the caprices of mode and fashion, all the mistakes of ignorance and envy.
The best kinds of music, as with all art, can be very subtle indeed and the right appreciation of them depends on learning to listen with attention and clarity. Any conclusion about the quality of a piece must follow an understanding of just what it is you are listening to. There may be things you need to know about how this kind of music tends to be put together (fugue, for example), or about the harmonic structures of the period. Then you need to be of a focused state of mind, without distractions. If only there were an easily accessible place on the web where one could find on-going suggestions of how to approach particular pieces of music... Oh, wait! Also, let me call attention to the brilliance of Hume's writing. He has to be read carefully, but what a wonderful prose stylist! I think he is also perhaps suggesting that listening to Bach on your iPod, while jostling along on a NY subway train may not be the best approach--that would constitute an "exterior hindrance"!
The same HOMER, who pleased at ATHENS and ROME two thousand years ago, is still admired at PARIS and at LONDON. All the changes of climate, government, religion, and language, have not been able to obscure his glory. Authority or prejudice may give a temporary vogue to a bad poet or orator, but his reputation will never be durable or general. When his compositions are examined by posterity or by foreigners, the enchantment is dissipated, and his faults appear in their true colours. On the contrary, a real genius, the longer his works endure, and the more wide they are spread, the more sincere is the admiration which he meets with. Envy and jealousy have too much place in a narrow circle; and even familiar acquaintance with his person may diminish the applause due to his performances. But when these obstructions are removed, the beauties, which are naturally fitted to excite agreeable sentiments, immediately display their energy and while the world endures, they maintain their authority over the minds of men.
Here, I am gratified to point out, Hume is calling attention to what I have called the 'time quotient' of music (I even mentioned the example of Homer); the process by which, with the passage of time, the lesser pieces tend to fall by the wayside. How clearly and succinctly he explains phenomena such as Bach: at his death an obscure Saxon organist, but now, 250 years later, admired nearly everywhere. What Hume says about envy and jealousy is sadly true. Unless you are agent looking to make a buck off someone's career, it is not likely you are going to say anything nice about a performer, especially if they are represented by another agent. Singers are notorious for their hatred of other singers and few composers have anything nice to say about other composers. But fifty, a hundred years later, all that is left is the music. It is safe to say that the music of Bach has been beloved of more people every year since his death.
It appears then, that, amidst all the variety and caprice of taste, there are certain general principles of approbation or blame, whose influence a careful eye may trace in all operations of the mind. Some particular forms or qualities, from the original structure of the internal fabric, are calculated to please, and others to displease; and if they fail of their effect in any particular instance, it is from some apparent defect or imperfection in the organ. A man in a fever would not insist on his palate as able to decide concerning flavours; nor would one, affected with the jaundice, pretend to give a verdict with regard to colours. In each creature, there is a sound and a defective state; and the former alone can be supposed to afford us a true standard of a taste and sentiment. If, in the sound state of the organ, there be an entire or considerable uniformity of sentiment among men, we may thence derive an idea of the perfect beauty; in like manner as the appearance of objects in daylight, to the eye of a man in health, is denominated their true and real colour, even while colour is allowed to be merely a phantasm of the senses. 
The color analogy is a pretty good one. Hume is making the point here that even though beauty is in the eye and ear of the beholder, still there is a kind of general similarity in the way these organs work. Colorblindness aside, if two people with normal vision are looking at the same color, they see the same color. To take a musical example, we can perhaps find an even better analogy. Take two people with normal functioning ears. With some ear training one might be able to identify intervals the other not. In other words, some people have a natural inclination to hear things musically, and others less so. With musical training you can hear the difference between a fourth and a fifth, easily know what meter the music is in (1234) and perhaps even write down the melody. All these skills certainly add to one's powers of discernment.
Many and frequent are the defects in the internal organs, which prevent or weaken the influence of those general principles, on which depends our sentiment of beauty or deformity. Though some objects, by the structure of the mind, be naturally calculated to give pleasure, it is not to be expected, that in every individual the pleasure will be equally felt. Particular incidents and situations occur, which either throw a false light on the objects, or hinder the true from conveying to the imagination the proper sentiment and perception.
I think I know what Hume is talking about here, but from many years teaching music students, I am tempted to put it differently. Isn't what he is talking about what we often call 'talent'? What is ordinarily called talent is usually the result of some natural inclination, many years of hard work and a bit of inspired guidance. Hume here is talking about the natural inclination part, I believe. The "defects in the internal organs" are what people call being tone-deaf. I have had adult beginners come to me and apologize for being 'tone-deaf' when they merely lack any training in how to hear. But some people do indeed have difficulty appreciating the pleasures of music due to a deficiency in listening. I'm not talking about anything physically wrong with the organs of hearing, just the brain's ability to sort out the data. What is it that I am hearing? I have a little anecdote to share: my first audition for music school was a very odd one. I had been in the music education program for a year, but for that, there was no audition. Music education majors do not receive private lessons on their instrument so they don't have to do the traditional audition which consists of going into a room with your instrument and performing in front of one or two professors of music. Egad! People prepare for that for years! I, having recently come from a rock background, had no idea of these things. In fact, the day I was supposed to do my audition because I was switching from music ed to being a real music major I didn't really know what was on the agenda and hadn't even brought my guitar. The music professor just gave me this frustrated look, dragged me into a practice room, played a low note on the piano said "sing it back", played a high note on the piano, said "sing it back", played an interval, major third or something, said "sing it back" and maybe played a minor chord and said "what kind of chord is this?" That was it. If I could do that, they could teach me the rest. Actually, I taught myself most of the rest. Still am. But you get my point? A professor of music can do a rough evaluation of your ability to learn music in about one minute with a piano. Or a zither, for that matter. You just have to know what to look for.
One obvious cause, why many feel not the proper sentiment of beauty, is the want of that delicacy of imagination, which is requisite to convey a sensibility of those finer emotions. This delicacy every one pretends to: Every one talks of it; and would reduce every kind of taste or sentiment to its standard. But as our intention in this essay is to mingle some light of the understanding with the feelings of sentiment, it will be proper to give a more accurate definition of delicacy, than has hitherto been attempted. And not to draw our philosophy from too profound a source, we shall have recourse to a noted story in DON QUIXOTE.
 It is with good reason, says SANCHO to the squire with the great nose, that I pretend to have a judgment in wine: this is a quality hereditary in our family. Two of my kinsmen were once called to give their opinion of a hogshead, which was supposed to be excellent, being old and of a good vintage. One of them tastes it; considers it; and after mature reflection pronounces the wine to be good, were it not for a small taste of leather, which he perceived in it. The other, after using the same precautions, gives also his verdict in favour of the wine; but with the reserve of a taste of iron, which he could easily distinguish. You cannot imagine how much they were both ridiculed for their judgment. But who laughed in the end? On emptying the hogshead, there was found at the bottom, an old key with a leathern thong tied to it.
 The great resemblance between mental and bodily taste will easily teach us to apply this story. Though it be certain, that beauty and deformity, more than sweet and bitter, are not qualities in objects, but belong entirely to the sentiment, internal or external; it must be allowed, that there are certain qualities in objects, which are fitted by nature to produce those particular feelings. Now as these qualities may be found in a smaller degree, or may be mixed and confounded with each other, it often happens, that the taste is not affected with such minute qualities, or is not able to distinguish all the particular flavours, amidst the disorder, in which they are presented. Where the organs are so fine, as to allow nothing to escape them; and at the same time so exact as to perceive every ingredient in the composition: This we call delicacy of taste, whether we employ these terms in the literal or metaphorical sense. Here then the general rules of beauty are of use; being drawn from established models, and from the observation of what pleases or displeases, when presented singly and in a high degree: And if the same qualities, in a continued composition and in a small degree, affect not the organs with a sensible delight or uneasiness, we exclude the person from all pretensions to this delicacy. To produce these general rules or avowed patterns of composition is like finding the key with the leathern thong; which justified the verdict of SANCHO's kinsmen, and confounded those pretended judges who had condemned them.
Hume has his own anecdote about the leathern thong and the key in the barrel of wine--an excellent analogy. Let me recount a couple of more from music. I was both an undergraduate and graduate student at McGill University in Montreal and was often impressed with the "delicacy of taste" or what we might call the "precision of perception" of the faculty. I took a graduate seminar in the Shostakovich symphonies and was whistling a theme from one of them as I went into the photocopy room one day. Standing there was a theory professor who immediately said "Shostakovich 5". At the end of that course, by the way, there was a little listening exam where we had to identify not only what symphony a theme came from, but the movement and, if possible, what part of the movement: development, recapitulation? Another time I was taking a course in paleography where you study how music was written before modern notation. Again I was in the photocopy room, this time with a volume from the collected works of Guillaume de Machaut (1300 - 1377). Another theory professor was at the next machine. He glanced over and immediately said, "Machaut". There was nothing on the page to indicate the composer: no text, just the page number. I looked at him with puzzlement and he said, "when I was studying Machaut at Columbia, I spent a lot of time with the collected works and I know the typeface!" This kind of 'delicacy of taste' was not so unusual. A fellow graduate student that I shared an office with was so knowledgeable about Haydn symphonies that he would dash off themes from them on the piano at the drop of a hat. There are one hundred and six Haydn symphonies, by the way.
 It is acknowledged to be the perfection of every sense or faculty, to perceive with exactness its most minute objects, and allow nothing to escape its notice and observation. The smaller the objects are, which become sensible to the eye, the finer is that organ, and the more elaborate its make and composition. A good palate is not tried by strong flavours; but by a mixture of small ingredients, where we are still sensible of each part, notwithstanding its minuteness and its confusion with the rest. In like manner, a quick and acute perception of beauty and deformity must be the perfection of our mental taste; nor can a man be satisfied with himself while he suspects, that any excellence or blemish in a discourse has passed him unobserved. In this case, the perfection of the man, and the perfection of the sense or feeling, are found to be united. A very delicate palate, on many occasions, may be a great inconvenience both to a man himself and to his friends: But a delicate taste of wit or beauty must always be a desirable quality; because it is the source of all the finest and most innocent enjoyments, of which human nature is susceptible. In this decision the sentiments of all mankind are agreed. Wherever you can ascertain a delicacy of taste, it is sure to meet with approbation; and the best way of ascertaining it is to appeal to those models and principles, which have been established by the uniform consent and experience of nations and ages.
Now here is a paragraph that we may indeed find puzzling because it hardly seems that in our present world we so universally acknowledge a "delicate taste of wit or beauty". But this is one of the rewards of reading someone like Hume, who comes from quite a different situation than our own. If the "uniform consent and experience" of his age was in favor of a "delicate taste", then this is good to know. The narcissism of our age seems to scarcely know that such a thing is even possible, let alone desirable! Apparently the only thing we acknowledge as universal is the unique individuality of every special snowflake that is the individual consumer of music. And every special snowflake is listening to, uh, Rihanna!?!
But though there be naturally a wide difference in point of delicacy between one person and another, nothing tends further to increase and improve this talent, than practice in a particular art, and the frequent survey or contemplation of a particular species of beauty. When objects of any kind are first presented to the eye or imagination, the sentiment, which attends them, is obscure and confused; and the mind is, in a great measure, incapable of pronouncing concerning their merits or defects. The taste cannot perceive the several excellences of the performance; much less distinguish the particular character of each excellency, and ascertain its quality and degree. If it pronounce the whole in general to be beautiful or deformed, it is the utmost that can be expected; and even this judgment, a person, so unpracticed, will be apt to deliver with great hesitation and reserve. But allow him to acquire experience in those objects, his feeling becomes more exact and nice: He not only perceives the beauties and defects of each part, but marks the distinguishing species of each quality, and assigns it suitable praise or blame. A clear and distinct sentiment attends him through the whole survey of the objects; and he discerns that very degree and kind of approbation or displeasure, which each part is naturally fitted to produce. The mist dissipates, which seemed formerly to hang over the object: the organ acquires greater perfection in its operations; and can pronounce, without danger of mistake, concerning the merits of every performance. In a word, the same address and dexterity, which practice gives to the execution of any work, is also acquired by the same means in the judging of it.

This could hardly be said any more clearly! I have often thought that a good practice for the premiere of a new work would be to play it twice in the same concert: once at the beginning and once at the end so the experience of the audience could become more "exact and nice" the second time. Possible for short works, if not for longer ones.
So advantageous is practice to the discernment of beauty, that, before we can give judgment of any work of importance, it will even be requisite, that that very individual performance be more than once perused by us, and be surveyed in different lights with attention and deliberation. There is a flutter or hurry of thought which attends the first perusal of any piece, and which confounds the genuine sentiment of beauty. The relation of the parts is not discerned: The true characters of style are little distinguished: The several perfections and defects seem wrapped up in a species of confusion, and present themselves indistinctly to the imagination. Not to mention, that there is a species of beauty, which, as it is florid and superficial, pleases at first; but being found incompatible with a just expression either of reason or passion, soon palls upon the taste, and is then rejected with disdain, at least rated at a much lower value.
So much of the music today seems to be intended to take advantage of the "flurry or hurry of thought" and combined with the most distracting videos it is possible to conceive, it seems almost that we are trying to avoid even the possibility of judgement. This is probably an unintended consequence of the commercialization of music. In pop music you want an instant hit. If it takes a few listenings with "attention and deliberation" then forget it! There is indeed a species of beauty which is "florid and superficial" and that is  precisely what a lot of pop music is intended to be. I'm sure that in all places and times in the history of music there have been artists that specialized in dressing up in colorful costumes and leaping and cavorting about on stage to the accompaniment of loud pounding on a drum. But I'm pretty sure that they were never before paid so highly as they are today, nor given so much prestige. Did Louis XIV attend private fundraisers with his court jesters?

We are still not at the end of Mr. Hume's little essay, but I think I have kicked around Jay-Z enough for today and perhaps bored you, the reader sufficiently as well. Let's end with a Haydn symphony, just to clear the palate:

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Aesthetics: Some Hints from David Hume

David Hume (1711 - 1776)

I'm sure you are asking yourself exactly the same thing I am: what is he wearing on his head? A velour tea cozy?  But never mind. I was tempted to title this post "Of the Standard of Taste in Music", imitating the title of a very important essay on aesthetics by the Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711 - 1776). One of the interesting things about Hume, apart from his stature (the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy calls him "the most important philosopher to write in English") is that he is usually left out of most discussions of aesthetics, such as the one in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy that I was talking about in this post. I would like to have a look at Hume's essay, and add some of my own comments. First some quotes from Of the Standard of Taste (my comments will be in green):

The great variety of Taste, as well as of opinion, which prevails in the world, is too obvious not to have fallen under every one's observation.
Some people like Bach, some like Wagner, some like Beyoncé and some, shudder,  even like Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Every voice is united in applauding elegance, propriety, simplicity, spirit in writing; and in blaming fustian, affectation, coldness and a false brilliancy: But when critics come to particulars, this seeming unanimity vanishes; and it is found, that they had affixed a very different meaning to their expressions.
At first, objectivity in aesthetics might seem easy to achieve; after all, don't we all admire the same qualities in music: good tunes, good harmonies? When you ask what kind of music people like they might say they like all music or all 'good' music, but when it comes to describing exactly what is meant by good music, it turns out they meant quite different things.
There is a species of philosophy, which cuts off all hopes of success in such an attempt, and represents the impossibility of ever attaining any standard of taste. The difference, it is said, is very wide between judgment and sentiment. All sentiment is right; because sentiment has a reference to nothing beyond itself, and is always real, wherever a man is conscious of it. But all determinations of the understanding are not right; because they have a reference to something beyond themselves, to wit, real matter of fact; and are not always conformable to that standard. Among a thousand different opinions which different men may entertain of the same subject, there is one, and but one, that is just and true; and the only difficulty is to fix and ascertain it. On the contrary, a thousand different sentiments, excited by the same object, are all right: Because no sentiment represents what is really in the object. It only marks a certain conformity or relation between the object and the organs or faculties of the mind; and if that conformity did not really exist, the sentiment could never possibly have being. Beauty is no quality in things themselves: It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty. One person may even perceive deformity, where another is sensible of beauty; and every individual ought to acquiesce in his own sentiment, without pretending to regulate those of others.
Some philosophers tell us not to bother and point to the distinction between knowing something and feeling something--what Hume calls 'sentiment'. All sentiment is right: I can no more disagree with your feeling about a piece of music than I can with your sensation of pain at the dentist. On the other hand, I can argue with your understanding of something because that is based on "real matter of fact". Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 was premiered in 1808; that is a matter of fact. But how you feel when you listen to it is in you, not in the piece itself. A sentiment is a relationship between a piece of music and a listener and it cannot be mistaken the way an understanding can. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, which means that beauty is what is perceived subjectively.

But though this axiom ("de gustibus non est disputandum"), by passing into a proverb, seems to have attained the sanction of common sense; there is certainly a species of common sense which opposes it, at least serves to modify and restrain it. Whoever would assert an equality of genius and elegance between OGILBY and MILTON, or BUNYAN and ADDISON, would be thought to defend no less an extravagance, than if he had maintained a mole-hill to be as high as TENERIFFE, or a pond as extensive as the ocean. Though there may be found persons, who give the preference to the former authors; no one pays attention to such a taste; and we pronounce without scruple the sentiment of these pretended critics to be absurd and ridiculous. The principle of the natural equality of tastes is then totally forgot, and while we admit it on some occasions, where the objects seem near an equality, it appears an extravagant paradox, or rather a palpable absurdity, where objects so disproportioned are compared together.
"Do not argue about taste" as the saying goes, is balanced by another piece of common sense that says that surely not all pieces of music are of equal aesthetic value? Are Beethoven and Justin Bieber of equal aesthetic worth? Hume sets aesthetics and ethics side by side in the way he handles them. In ethics this is the problem of relativism: everyone has a different opinion of what behaving ethically is, but surely not everyone's view is of equal worth. As Bertrand Russell put it, "I cannot see how to refute the arguments for the subjectivity of ethical values, but I find myself incapable of believing that all that is wrong with wanton cruelty is that I don't like it." Hume cites pairs of authors that are not as familiar to us as they would have been to his original readers. In doing so he is following a standard practice on this blog: I am constantly putting up clips of different music for you to compare. The Beatles vs U2, Bach vs Telemann. Some people's taste is truly absurd. We pretend to aesthetic relativism when we are talking about things that are more or less of a similarity: some people prefer Haydn to Mozart and vice versa. Nothing odd there. But when we compare two pieces of music that are of utterly different levels of quality, it is quite easy to discern the quality of the listener! If you love grindcore and hate Bach, I don't need to hear any more of your musical opinions!

 It is evident that none of the rules of composition are fixed by reasonings a priori, or can be esteemed abstract conclusions of the understanding, from comparing those habitudes and relations of ideas, which are eternal and immutable. Their foundation is the same with that of all the practical sciences, experience...
In another post I have tried to lay down some of what Hume calls the "rules of composition" and what I called "Aesthetic Virtues and Sins". Just as Hume says, these rules are not fixed a priori, but are gathered slowly through experience. I'm sure a thousand fugue composers tried different ways of answering the subject before they collectively settled on answering on the dominant. And then Beethoven found good reasons for answering on the subdominant. But in neither case did it come from an abstract concept.

There is quite a lot more to work through in Hume's essay, so I think I will stop here and leave you with a couple of clips to listen to while you mull over the above. By way of introduction, let me quote another philosopher, Roger Scruton, who has written extensively on music aesthetics:
It is only by making discriminations within the realm of popular music that we can encourage young people to recognize the difference between genuine musical sentiment and kitsch, between beauty and ugliness, between the life-affirming and the life-denying, the inspired and the routine--in short between The Beatles and U2.
So one each from U2:

And those other guys:

Do you hear what Scruton was talking about? I wasn't even trying to exaggerate the differences. I picked the U2 song completely at random and choose a Beatles song written by their second-string songwriter, George Harrison.

UPDATE: If you don't know what to listen for, try just picking out the drumming. The U2 drummer is laying down an absolutely standard, heard in a thousand songs, rock drum part. The only thing remotely interesting is the 'fill' he does a couple of times. On the other hand Ringo, as he does with just about every song on the White Album, almost reinvents rock drumming. He gives us a minimal treatment here: a little snare, some castanets on another track, some nice high-hat work. Mostly he stays out of the way, adding touches here and there. Makes you realize how overdone the U2 drum part is... Then try listening to the bass line. Here's a hint, the Beatles song has a nice descending bass line. U2, I'm not sure what the bass line is. Listened to it twice and I can barely remember it: scattered and formless might be a good description. Anyway, listen a few times and try to hear how each group puts together their song.

UPPERDATE: I got a chance to listen to "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" again (and by the way, that has got to be in the top five song titles, right?) and followed my own advice by listening just to the drumming. First of all, it is very delicate drumming, no pounding on the skins! The oddest thing I noticed is that I think he avoids putting anything on the 4th beat throughout the song (maybe a fill passes through it...). No back-beat! This is probably one of the things that gives the song its feeling of almost floating. A heavy back-beat, ubiquitous in rock and roll, gives a song a thrust all right, but it also tends to nail it down. Most of the time Ringo is giving us 1, 2 and 3. Nothing on 4. so where we are always expecting a heavy thump there, we just float... But keep listening, he is constantly varying the patterns, plus fading in other percussion instruments on another track: castañets, plus something going tickatick on the right channel but I'm not sure what it is--oh wait, I think it is sticks on the hub of the high-hat closed. Ringo really is the most creative drummer you are ever likely to hear.