Sunday, March 20, 2016

The Ineffable Beauties of Music

Despite the title, I am not actually going to talk about those ineffable beauties of music--I do that in most of the other posts on this blog. Instead I am going to talk about a phenomenon that is present, to a greater or lesser degree, in nearly all other kinds of human activities but is thankfully largely absent from the world of music. I will call this phenomenon "administrative truth". Here is an article that beautifully describes administrative truth and how it works: "999".

It is the story of a father and his daughter, who was mathematically gifted, and how she was mistreated because of the difference between administrative truth and real truth. He was called to the principal's office one day because his daughter was being "disruptive in class". Here is the story:
"Your daughter tried to correct her math teacher. The teacher explained why she was wrong, and she insisted that she was correct."
I laughed.
I knew she was right and the teacher was wrong. I couldn't wait to hear this one.
"What was the question?" I asked as the principal was about to interject a rebuke to my outburst.
The teacher was also present, and he spoke up. "The question was, what was the largest number that can be represented with 3 digits. I said it was 999, your daughter disagreed."
I remember thinking "Uh-oh. What the heck was she thinking?"
That's when she spoke up, anger in her voice, "Oh yeah? Tell me what 9 raised to the 9th power raised to the 9th power is then??"
Holy crap! She was right! Technically, the problem is not asking for the largest 3-digit number, which is exactly where my mind went upon hearing the question. The question is asking you to represent a number using 3 digits, so exponentiation cannot be ruled out.
You really have to read the whole thing. In order to get the administrative truth overruled in favor of the real truth it took three months and an attorney, but he was finally successful. Sadly, I suspect that the usual result in cases like these is quite different. As he says:
Forget about it being my daughter for a second. The truly sad thing is, look how a unique mind was mistreated for being brilliant. How many times does something parallel to this happen in our once great country? How many teachers squelch out the faint cry of genius from some shy personality sitting in the back of a classroom?
Now let me present a different example. The other day I was in a discussion with someone about building inspections. Here in Mexico we have a lot of buildings that are constructed using traditional methods and materials such as thick walls made up of stone, bricks and pieces and brick and tile in a melange held together with mortar. Ceilings are often wood beams or vaulted brick. These methods are centuries if not millennia old. The question was, are these buildings inspected by an official for conformity with standards regarding not only construction but things like plumbing, electrical and so on. The answer is, no, they are not. Where I live the only significant inspection is for conformity with historic norms. This is a world heritage site according to UNESCO so nothing can be built in the historic part of town that conflicts with the appearance of colonial structures. No neon! No glass towers! But the idea that the building we were standing in was built according to age-old principles and not according to the latest official standards was shocking to him. It was, you might say, built according to real truth, not administrative truth.

Bear in mind that other structures built according to real truth include all the cathedrals of Europe such as Notre Dame in Paris. Construction was begun in 1163 and completed around 1345. It is still standing last I heard! Contrast this with modern constructions that passed an administrative building inspection but later had to be demolished for all sorts of reasons--asbestos!

What does this have to do with music? I think that one of the things that has always attracted me to music is that it inhabits a world of its own, a world in which administrative truth can find almost no foothold. As a performer, you are judged on how well you play. True, there can be considerable disagreement on what "playing well" consists of, but there is no "official" or "administrative" truth to refer to. At the end of the day, playing well is just playing well. The same with composition: a good piece of music tends, at the end of the day, to be noticed. Sure, the most fashionable pieces tend to win the composition contests, but it is remarkable how rarely the contest winners actually make it into the repertoire. Over time they are replaced by the pieces that are actually good, a kind of group judgment by the whole corpus of musicians and music-lovers.

It is hard for me to think of many examples in music where truth is determined, not by the facts and realities, but by some sort of official code or rule. The Soviet Union tried something like this with its banning of composers who did not adhere to "socialist realism", but what that was, was vague enough so that composers like Shostakovich could finesse their way around it. Recently I have seen signs of a project to install principles of "social justice" in the world of music in the form of what seem to be civil rights. Political correctness demands that, for example, there be some sort of equality of gender in the world of music. We must have more women conductors and composers. I think that a lot of people sense instinctively that this is a mistaken project, but that doesn't seem to stop activists agitating for it. After all, they have been very successful in so many other areas of life.

Apart from projects to encourage more women and minorities to pursue careers in music, which is perfectly reasonable, I don't see this as making too much more of an impact. Still, the idea that 50% of all conductors and composers must, by administrative fiat, be women, is one that will continue to be argued for, or demanded, at least. Witness the kerfuffle surrounding race at the Oscars this year.

But the real truth, as opposed to the administrative truth, is that the only thing that really matters in the world of music is aesthetic quality. Everything else rests on that.

Here, as an example of aesthetic quality, is the Symphony No. 29 in A major, K. 201 by Mozart played by the English Concert conducted by Trevor Pinnock:

UPDATE: After I wrote this post I noticed that a number of people have pointed out that there are a lot of incongruities and errors in the math class story. So it might be entirely fiction! But I hesitate to take it down because it is a beautiful example. I might do so if I run across a better example. If anyone has one, please put it in the comments.


Marc Puckett said...

I saw that Trice post, too (someone else must've linked to it, since that's not a site I would ordinarily see). The example I think of is someone passing on the sidewalk glaring at me smoking my Camel, as if I were an immediate threat to human life-- that half-second of 'meeting', three feet apart. (Fact is, I stopped in May last year but that's not convenient to the point.) The administrative state has declared the truth, and its truth stands, common sense be damned.

When the state music faculties begin to require that incoming classes are gender-balanced (and how many of those are there?)... oh, I don't suppose that anybody is that daft.

Bryan Townsend said...

I think that the situation at colleges is already biased against males, which is why there is a gender imbalance the other way.

Jeph said...

There seems to be a whiff of an administrative truth coming from academia around the worthiness of various musics, tonal vs atonal, traditional vs progressive. I remember a link a while back to an article bemoaning the neo-Romantic gestures and pallete today's young composers are using. My first composition teacher drilled the Modernist ethic into us in a way that took me literally decades to recover from. All remotely tonal music was characterized as "a very nice 19th century piece" or "not speaking to your time."And I wasn't even in a big-time music program, I can imagine what kind of conditioning conservatory students have to overcome.

Bryan Townsend said...

Yes, very true. And what I find most annoying is the hypocrisy: while they are insisting on the value of modernist musics and asserting that anything else is worthless, they are also claiming not to be making value judgements! You might call this academic obfuscation.