Wednesday, December 31, 2008

New Year's Resolutions versus The Infinite Varieties of Music

  "A work of art does not answer questions, it provokes them; and its essential meaning is in the tension between the contradictory answers." 
-Leonard Bernstein
  I've been researching the topic of Romanticism in music and how Ayn Rand's use of the term does or does not apply to her theories on music. A lot of interesting reading, and what I'm finding so far is more argument than consensus. One of the books I'm reading is The Infinite Variety of Music by Leonard Bernstein, which contains a transcript from his television broadcast "Romanticism in Music." But it is the following essay, detailing his "sabbatical" from music, that found an immediate resonance with me on this New Year's Day, as I mull my own resolutions, my motives and goals for Orpheus Remembered.
  In his "Sabbatical Report," Bernstein reveals no greater insight than he had at the beginning of his hiatus, save this:
The one conclusion that I have reached after a year's mulling is simply the ancient cliche that the certainty of one's knowledge decreases in proportion to thought and experience. The moment you have time to intellectualize your perceptions, established certainties will begin to crumble, and the "other side" of any controversy will beckon appealingly. The inevitable result is that one's liberalism becomes stretched to the point of absurdity.

  I've found myself thinking the same thing with this new forum. Most of my postings so far have been articles I've written in past years in other forums that I'm incorporating into the setting here. While I'm proud of that work, I am finding that no "certain" answers, only more questions, and where I offered strident answers before, I am questioning my own conclusions. And even if I tried to stick my head in the sand, I'm confronted with comments that raise even more questions, revealing my ignorance in some cases, (even though I find myself digging my heels in at other times, ha!). It's funny, because I started this blog largely as a place to work on my own answers after objecting to stifling frustration why do I open my blog to people who threaten my "tonal center," who contradict and create even MORE doubt when I think I've found the answers? Well, Bernstein thinks that part of what makes music "romantic" is the willingness to stray from one's "tonal center," the introduction of those chromatic tones to the classical scales that add that touch of color.

Maybe it's why I responded strongly to Bernstein's next statement:
If I may be pardoned for a quasi-existential paradox, I suggest that the answer is in the questioning. By experimenting with the problem, by feeling it out, by living with it, we are answered. All our lives are spent in the attempt to resolve conflicts; and we know that resolutions are impossible except by hindsight. We can make temporary decisions...but it is only after death that it can be finally perceived whether we ever succeeded in resolving our conflicts. This is patent, since as long as we live we continue the attempt to resolve them. That attempt is the very action of living.

  I find this interesting from an Objectivist viewpoint, especially on a day dedicated to keep our resolutions. Part of Ayn Rand's appeal is the promise of absolutes and certainty as possibilities. But people have also been turned off by the claims of her dogmatic personality, especially in music (the reality of which is up for debate.) But Rand also knew that we are not omniscient, and so, Bernstein's words have a ring of truth about them. (The difference between Rand and Bernstein here is that Rand distinguishes between "metaphysical" facts versus "man-made facts," or, matters of objectivity versus subjectivity...).

  (I do find it interesting, btw, that Bernstein uses the word "temporary," as music is a "temporal" form; this suggests a tension between "timeless" music and music "made for the times." Like every "New World Man," "he knows constant change is here to stay....".)

  Anyway, this all got me to thinking about my own experiences so far as a commentator of music. On the one hand, I chafe at any "restrictions" placed on me by "authority," yet, when challenged, my visceral reaction is to "armor" up.  I advocate free thought, which is a redundancy, yet I have a hard time with dissent. But the danger of hubris requires us to open ourselves up, to be "judged" in our own judgements. I think it comes down to that human need for certainty, and the dangers of being "absurdly" liberal in one's approach (which is how I view postmodern atonal music, ha!). I don't like music that claims to break down one's mind. At the other end is a the very human need for exploration, which requires a bit of mystery, and an ability to leave the comfort of one's "hobbit hole." Not coincidentally, this tension of opposites, this dual of certainty versus adventure, devotion and deviance, is the thrust of Romantic music for Leonard Bernstein, who claims that the Romantic composers endure because 
[They] give you what you yearn for secretly, what our bright todays and tomorrows lack. The romantics gave us back our moon, for instance, which science has taken away from us and made into just another airport. Secretly we all want the moon to be what it was before-a mysterious, hypnotic light in the sky. We want love to be mysterious too, as it used to be, and not a set of psychotherapeutic rules for interpersonal relationships. We crave mystery even while we forge ahead toward the solution of one cosmic mystery after the other.

  Which brings us back to the date: isn't this WHY we celebrate New Year's Day? The promise of a better tomorrow, of what might be, for better or for worse? The latter might sound strange; who wants a "worse" year? But that's not to suggest that we are hoping for the worst, but that the possibility of new adventures requires, since we are NOT omniscient, that sense of danger? If it didn't, we would simply be hoping for more of the same in the form of security and comfort. And yet, there is still the appeal of the different, the dangerous, the subversive, even...for Bernstein, the thrill of the "devil in music" remains:

As a conductor I am fascinated by, and wide open to, every new sound-image that comes along; but as composer I am committed to tonality. Here is a conflict, indeed, and my attempt to resolve it is, quite literally, my most profound musical experience. And if this sounds far too existential for an old romantic like me, well and good.  

And with that, I find myself at the same "pass" as Bernstein at the end of his sabbatical. Like Bernstein, I have "two answers to everything and one answer to nothing." Once upon a time, I resolved to find the answer the questions to Rand's musical challenges. While I don't think it's impossible, I don't think that's my primary goal anymore, and it certainly isn't my goal to convince others that I do have the answers for THEM, because ultimately, what matters in any "Romantic" endeavor is the individual choice. And as long as there is a world of choice, there will remain, if not "infinite," an ever-growing world of music. So I'll give Lennie the last word:

There are two solutions...the choice between them lies in the question "Which one is true?," to which there is no single answer.


  1. "Part of Ayn Rand's appeal is the promise of absolutes and certainty as possibilities."

    "There are two solutions...the choice between them lies in the question "Which one is true?," to which there is no single answer."

    So here are two opposite solutions to the question, "is certainty possible?" There are three possible answers: She's right, he's right, or they are both wrong. To the question, "which one is true?", there can only be one single answer.

    Note that Bernstein's statement is itself implicitly offered as the one true single answer to the question "is certainty possible?" Like all such claims against the possibility of certainty, the claim is contradicted by the act of claiming it.

    When you are tempted to conclude that there is no single answer to the question "which one is true", you can expect to find a whole lot of fancy context padding and/or switching and/or dropping in the question. The first step to finding one valid answer is to ask one valid question, and then another, and another ...

    If I have missed some other 'truth' you saw in that closing remark, what problem or kind of problem do you think he had (or you have) in mind to which there was no single answer?


    And what does this mean?

    "But people have also been turned off to the claims of her dogmatic personality"

    Was that supposed to be "turned off by her dogmatic personality"? Or did you mean that those claims have been refuted, and are no longer an issue for people?

    The use of the word "dogmatic" in reference to Ayn Rand is a badge of the uninformed. There is only one requirement to earn this badge: an irrational fear of the mere possibility of justified certainty. It is the fear of the responsibility that possibility adds to the task of answering questions. In 42 years as an Objectivist, I have never encountered a single citation of anything Rand said or did that was dogmatic. Dogma is the antithesis and enemy of the Objectivist epistemology.


    While these questions may seem tangential to your explorations of music, you have already confessed that you are taking here your first steps of a journey up the side of a mountain. I have enjoyed the entries read so far and hope to learn more from future ones. So, I'd hate to see you embark on this climb without a functioning compass. I don't have enough time left to follow along if you are going to wander aimlessly up this hill and down the other.

  2. Hi Michael, thanks for writing, and Happy New Year.

    Regarding Bernstein's own ideas, I'm not going to defend or attack him because that's beyond the scope of my post, his words were merely a springboard that got me thinking. I do think I implied, though, that Rand and he would disagree on things.

    As to the "dogmatic" remark, please note that I am not calling Rand dogmatic, only that some people are turned off to her because of her reputation for being so (and notice that the link there connects to THE PASSION OF AYN RAND'S CRITICS). But since it's come up, let me say NOW that this blog is not focused on the issue of Rand versus "the Brandens" outside of a musical context.

    With all that said, because this is a blog, and not a dissertation, I don't feel the need to "spell" out where I stand on every issue when it conflicts with Objectivism.

    As to your concern about this journey, I understand that your time is valuable. As for MY journey, I enjoy a bit of wandering, so I will determine if that is aimless or not. Regardless, best regards for 2009.

  3. P.S. : "But people have also been turned off to the claims of her dogmatic personality" should have read "turned off BY," and now is corrected in the post. Thanks.

  4. There is an extremely wide divide between objective fact and personal taste. Both exist when you're looking at music, but claims to the extent of "formal music is superior to program music" or "diatonic music is superior to chromatic music" or "pitch centric serialism is superior to atonal serialism" are invariably subjective. There are plenty of people (critics they tend to be called) who make a fine art of combining objective analysis with personal taste, and occasionally their accounts are useful for trying to gain a better understanding of a favorite work, or deciding on which recording to buy, but their critiques are hardly a "gray area" in between; rather, they're a heterogeneous mixture of facts and opinions.

    It's easy, however, especially when making arbitrary categorizations (perhaps "averaging over" the truth-versus-opinion content of a text), to fool yourself into thinking there's a large gray area between fact and opinion. You'll perceive a fine line between the two, and it will move quite erratically. And I think that's ultimately what winds up leading to a quandary about certainty. There are still quite a few opinions and matters of personal taste you're asserting as fact (e.g. that "postmodern atonal music" [which is an absurd categorization, as most of what I see described as "postmodern" is actually tonal and extremely simplistic] is absurdly liberal in is approach, and is destructive to the mind), but if you're serious about trying to seek answers, I think you'll refine your ability to sort the two out and your quandary will fade away, or at least not be quite as overwhelming.

  5. Trlll, I think I made it clear in the post that I am aware of the difference between "the metaphysical" and "the man-made," or fact versus opinion. But I find it odd that you would criticize my categorization of atonal music while saying this:

    "I'd also say that extremely sugary harmonies and melodies also appeal to the lowest instincts. Think Tchaikovsky, who will often trivialize motivic development, polyphony, and the building and release of suspense for random bursts of catchy melodies. A catchy tune and a catchy beat are both equally worthless, and good music is much more than either."

    Think about it.

  6. Aha, you caught me. You're right that my contempt for Tchaikovsky is an opinion rather than a fact. But there are a few facts thrown in there as well, e.g.:

    That sugary/catchy melodies appeal to the "lowest instincts", much like catchy beats. This has been inductively established for me, based on my observations. The same sorts of people will be attracted to a catchy tune as a catchy beat, and being attracted to either takes no level of education or sophistication. This has nothing to do with what makes good v. bad music, but it's something I've observed to be true. It might have something to do with conditioning/expectations, though.

    Tchaikovsky does sacrifice a lot of techniques used regularly by other romantics, e.g. Beethoven, Wagner, Bruckner, Mahler. And for most serious listeners of these composers (inductively established fact), things like motivic development, building and release of suspense, and polyphony are the appeal. That doesn't mean that music without these techniques doesn't have worth to other people.

    As for "a catchy tune and a catchy beat are equally worthless", that's opinion. What in music appeals to a person depends on their preferences, I suppose their "sense of life".

    I will rather arrogantly state my opinions, but I am aware that they're just opinions.