Monday, May 26, 2008

Not. Easy.

Dennis Báthory-Kitsz responds to a post of mine from earlier this year. With all due respect and affection, I disagree with almost everything Dennis writes. Let's go through this item by item:

Music is easy.

There is no monolithic music, music is plural: while some music is blissfully easy, other music is entirely uneasy, and much music wanders with all determination in the space in-between.

Its actual content is insubstantial.

Music, the temporal art par excellence, is transitory, but it is not insubstantial. It's pushing wave fronts around in real space and in real time, and the physical impact of that motion is thrillingly real.

It is about clever noises,

Noises are not clever, but they may be used as cleverly or idiotically as one may, and our interest in those noises is precisely in their application.

and all the numerical pomp brought into it by modernists or discovered in the baroque by musicologists is as meaningless as the educational spout that claims music offers the benefits of greater intellectual acuity or physical coordination.

I don't follow this at all -- are you suggesting that music cannot have a depth and complexity to reward intellectual or physical engagement?

It makes no valuable contributions to human progress,

While I can't, personally, find much utility in the phrase "human progress", I can immediately recognize that music is one record of the current state of the human condition, and a state often -- and tellingly -- independent from political economy or technological resources.

(But if we do wish to reduce music to a "contribution to human progress", certain technical developments are directly due to music, for example the regulation of air pressure in the wind chest in the hydraulis or the opposable crank on the hurdy-gurdy. More impressively, it is entirely plausible that the material needs which were answered by the invention of the mechanical clock, in which a fixed and repeating unit of time was divided precisely at several levels, emerged only in the continent, Europe, in which musical counterpoint and its notation had been developed.)

it is pitifully self-referential,

Why should self-referentiality be pitied? Isn't there precious value in imagined worlds -- of music or other art forms, design, mathematics, theology -- in which the point of departure is the familiar, but through disciplined, internally consistent work, new worlds are constructed that are orthogonal to and enriching of everyday experience.

it is a garbled and inconsistent means of communication, it has nothing to communicate but the personal and unarguable choices of the artists, and it is hardly worth that angst brought to it by so many nascent composers.

Again, music is plural, and plural from its very origins. While music shares physiological organs and cognitive apparatus with speech and one form of music originates in and continues to be a heightened form of speech, and although music may well be held to be "garbled" when tasked with communicative acts that speech alone does with superb clarity and efficiency, music does in fact have capacities to communicate aspects of experience, and our experience of space and time in particular, that plain speech does terribly, if at all. What an astonishing continuum music occupies! On one end, nothing says I love you better than breaking out into song, while on the other end, nothing allows one to pass time better than making noises that joyfully articulate the experience of time passed.

Debate that and risk getting outed.

Risk welcomed.

There. I've said it. Music doesn't create world peace or make a better sandwich.

Here. I'll say it: One does not ask music to interact with the rest of the world in a simple causal relationship. But music can be sign and symptom of a world at peace or even well-fed. The state of music in a culture can be sign and symptom of how peace is valued in that culture, and taste in music is often usefully parallel to taste in food (among other things): certainly in the West, the coexistence of fast and slow food cultures is precisely mirrored by the diversity in quality, substance, and function of the various musical cultures. (See my post on Slow Listening, here).

But if music and the world around it are not in a simple causal relationship, I believe that valuing music and, in turn, the values one finds in music may well be a necessary precondition for a world in which peace, or yes, even just a better sandwich, is valued.


Anonymous said...

"...say it again, louder! it can't stop the wars, can't make the old younger or lower the price of bread, can't erase solitude or dull the tread outside the door, we can only nod, yes, it's true, but no need to remind, to point, for it is all with us, always, except, perhaps at certain moments, here among these rows of balconies, in a crowd or out of it, perhaps waiting to enter, watching. And tomorrow we'll read that ................ [mentions composer and title of a work included in the same program] made tulips grow in my garden and altered the flow of the ocean currents. We must believe it's true."

from Sinfonia (Berio)

Civic Center said...

Bravo to your beautiful essay. You're almost at your best as a contrarian (so am I).

Unknown said...

As usual, I am a month behind in reading your comments.

I hope folks read my full post from that day, which explains better than my summary opening.

In any case, music remains easy. The reason it is easy is because it is supremely arbitrary. As I pointed out in the Henck analysis of Klavierstuck X, any aspect can find its justification. I follow physics; I reject physics. I follow history (expectation, theory, etc.); I reject history (expectation, theory, etc.). I incorporate my culture; I incorporate other cultures. It may or may not take detailed training to make it; it may or may not take education or information to experience it; it may or may not be anything one chooses to call it. You call it plural, which to me is synonymous with easy because of its deeply arbitrary nature.

If you parse each word, you remove its connectedness to the rest, so I won't parse back.

The paragraph you don't understand is how music is sold as a subject, especially in America, and has been for close to two centuries: as an acuity tool for something non-musical.

The fear of the word "progress" is understandable. It is a longstanding fear. I read "The Progress of Music" specifically to find out where the roads diverged.

And when you say, "One does not ask music to interact with the rest of the world in a simple causal relationship," I can only ask if this is some truth you know, or if it is merely the almost native state of artistic defensiveness?

Maybe it's worth continuing on my own blog again ... I like this topic, because it requires me to be in a constant state of self-evaluation. Why do I even engage in the act of composition if it is so absent of communicative clarity?


Daniel Wolf said...

Dennis --

Sorry, but it isn't arbitrary. We had the real life experiment, in the fifties and sixties, of a thousand monkeys at typewri..., no, strike that, a thousand young wanna-be serial composers in front of row charts, serialing away, without any of them being able to replicate a piece as good as Klavierstuck X. The abundance of the Henck analysis is not evidence that anything possible could be good, but rather evidence about how poorly we understand how quality is selected from the mass of possibilities. It's massive evidence of our ignorance, an altgether healthy state of affairs AFAIC.