Monday, December 15, 2008

"Music of the Gods?" Part II-Cutting to the Chase

Part Two: Cutting to the Chase
Perigo justifies his epitaphs for his despised music based on Rand's arguments. But then, he says Rand was wrong on another matter. Rand claimed that

The formulation of a common vocabulary of music would require these answers. It would require: a translation of the musical experience, the inner experience, into conceptual terms; an explanation of why certain sounds strike us a certain way; a definition of the axioms of musical perception, from which the appropriate esthetic principles could be derived, which would serve as a base for the objective validation of esthetic judgments.

To this, we get from Perigo a "Phew!” Why? "Because she set the bar TOO high":
Did she not say that "until a conceptual vocabulary is discovered and defined, no objectively valid criterion of esthetic judgment is possible in the field of music … No one, therefore, can claim the objective superiority of his choices over the choices of others. Where no objective proof is available, it's every man for himself—and only for himself?"Yes, she did. And, I submit, she was wrong.

I submit that Perigo is confusing Rand’s CULTURAL judgments with her MUSICAL judgments. (I also submit that it is ironic to claim that the bar was “set too high” when one raises the bar in music to the standards Perigo sets…). Rand defined WHY she denounced most things, but musically said that she, nor anyone else, could do so about purely musical matters. She didn’t say it COULDN’T be done, but that if one can’t prove it, they’re on shaky ground. She, unlike Perigo, didn’t treat it as an axiom that certain melodies or harmonies are superior. Rand asks, "Why does a succession of sounds produce an emotional reaction? Why does it involve man’s deepest emotions and his crucial, metaphysical values? How can sounds reach man’s emotions directly, in a manner that seems to bypass his intellect? What does a certain combination of sounds do to man’s consciousness to make him identify it as gay or sad?” Perigo responds: ": “Why need we know these things in order to pass objective judgment? What difference would it make? That she doesn’t tell us."
It’s fair to ask “why we need to know” what she’s asking. But Perigo does something that is actually quite interesting here: he cuts the "Gordian Knot."
Rand makes this claim about music:
In listening to music, a man cannot tell clearly, neither to himself nor to others—and therefore, cannot prove—which aspects of his experience are inherent in the music and which are contributed by his own consciousness. He experiences it as an indivisible whole, he feels as if the magnificent exaltation were there in the music—and he is helplessly bewildered when he discovers that some men do experience it and some do not. In regard to the nature of music, mankind is still on the perceptual level of awareness.
To this, Perigo responds: “Now, it is my contention that Rand has set the bar way too high here—we don’t need to know all that in order to judge…” Like Alexander the Great before him, Perigo has deemed Rand's knot unnecessary and simply slices through it. So then, what does Perigo think IS needed to know in order to judge? Perigo does not answer this right away (if he has answered it at all) but instead goes to his argument that since Rand did INDEED pass her own judgments, without having "the answer," to her own questions, he should be able to as well. He goes on to quote Rand to justify his own comments:
Furthermore, my contention has her imprimatur: “The deadly monotony of primitive music—the endless repetition of a few notes and of a rhythmic pattern that beats against the brain with the regularity of the ancient torture of water drops falling on a man’s skull—paralyses cognitive processes, obliterates awareness and disintegrates the mind. ... Primitive music becomes his narcotic [that of a modern man brought up as a “mentally helpless savage”]: it wipes out the groping, it reassures him and reinforces his lethargy, it offers him temporarily the sense of a reality to which his stagnant torpor is appropriate.” (Note, incidentally, what she is describing as primitive music is still a slight advance on rap, which was embryonic in her time: rap has no notes!

He continues:
"If that’s not passing judgment I don’t know what is! So, is Rand seriously arguing that she would then balk at the final hurdle and decline to pronounce primitive music inferior to Romantic? She already has so pronounced it!"

There is a problem with this, however. It is one thing to have an opinion, and another to claim an opinion with moral certainty in the absence of evidence. In the example cited by Perigo, Rand is talking about a primitive method. But she does not give a specific example (WHICH primitive music? Can we hear what she’s referring to?) Here, I submit that Rand was referring to a stereotype of primitive music to make her argument. Is she right to do so? Within a limited scope, possibly. Rand may have been glib in her example, but she also has the benefit of other writings with which the reader of her essay may be familiar, writings that lay out her theory of cognition. Rand's argument re primitive music is less about the music qua music, and more about music being employed to "deaden" cognition. She is not wrong per se, and there are writings to support her case about primitive cultures using music to induce trance-like states, but I believe her oversimplification here tempts Perigo to drop all context when he uses her example to buttress his criticisms of other music in a blanket condemnation, regardless of context. (Example, not ever song with a backbeat equates with "cognitive paralysis.") But to seriously make her argument, we have to ask her for examples; otherwise, it becomes a floating abstraction or a baseless assertion. And again, we hold her to the same standards she insists upon in making judgments.
(Incidentally, since Perigo says that rap has no notes, I submit he makes the making the same mistake, since there IS rap with notes. If Perigo (or Rand) want to disparage music he doesn't like, he has to contend with the listeners and composers of such music who dispute his claims, and that answer cannot be "because I said so." They may very well be WRONG in their own assessments. But an answer based on personal opinion or dislike is simply not enough, nor honest when claiming moral superiority. Hyperbole is one thing, but employed in an essay of this manner should eliminate this essay from further consideration. But I'll continue.)
But I submit that, without an example, Rand’s personal judgment simply cannot be taken into consideration. As to Perigo's claim that "since Rand did it, I can do it, too!": the folly of Rand's usage can only undercut Mr. Perigo's own claims.
With that matter aside, Perigo finally moves on to back up his cutting of the "Gordian Knot": This is the one area in the essay that attempts to discuss actual musical matters, while claiming to define just what he means by "Romantic" music.
We know that the primary components of music are melody, harmony and rhythm—and the greatest of these is melody, the ordering of tones. Melody is fundamental. As plot is to literature, so melody is to music. Whistle a tune, unaccompanied (no harmonies), each note equal in length (no rhythm)—it’s still music. No melody—no music. “It’s the toon, stoopid!
While some will debate even this, I'm going to work with his assertions, which I'm not entirely at odds with. (However, it can't go without asking: he says that these three are primary, but how do we know that? He's dispensed with the “need to know” when he says: “Why need we know these things in order to pass objective judgment? What difference would it make?”)
Perigo continues:
We know that certain simultaneous combinations of tones (harmony), because of the mathematical relationship of their frequencies, are, as a matter of metaphysical fact, integratable by the human brain (consonant) and others are not (dissonant); that this is true for all human beings apart from the tone-deaf; that the resolution of dissonance into consonance helps give a piece suspense, sophistication and satisfaction, a sense of home-coming; and so we may rightly judge the deliberate refusal to resolve for the sake of refusal to resolve to be an act of sabotage and assassination.
Objectivists know better to fall into the "we" trap. Who’s “we?” But Perigo has done something else naughty here. The claims about tones and frequencies and mental integration may be true, and that is a scientific matter, open to demonstration. But how has he determined that “the deliberate refusal to resolve is an act of sabotage? What kind of blanket moral-condemnation is this? Without context, this is nothing but a baseless claim. He has confused the "metaphysical" with the "man-made." And again, without example. But his use of the word "we" is telling; "we" do not know that the composer's intent is sabotage; we don't even know who the "composer" or "composition" is, let alone the intent, or the context, or the result.


  1. I came across your blog randomly, and felt I should add a few arguments against Perigo, if for no other reason than being bored.

    Melody is hardly necessary for music, let alone good music. There's plenty of music for non-pitched percussion, e.g. much African folk music, where the focuses are things like simultaneous rhythms (polyrhythms), call-and-response structures, improvisation/spontaneity, and the integration of the music into other social activities.

    Besides, if you think of melody in a more strictly defined sense--a fully resolved succession of phrases in a single voice rather than just tones with a definite shape--most classical composers really made little use of the device. In 19th century music, other parts will leave, enter, and pass around motifs before any resolution is felt. The focus is typically the interplay of the voices (i.e. counterpoint) and the development of the motifs rather than a pretty tune anyway.

    What qualifies consonant and dissonant is largely contextual, too. Lack of beats is an obvious criterion, but there's no objective way to draw the line. Is 3/2 consonant but 5/4 dissonant? What about 9/7? etc. And many tuning systems, in many cultures (e.g. 12-tone now, meantone historically, 53-tone in ancient China, 29-tone in ancient Byzantine) only approximate the justly tuned intervals. But these irrational frequency ratios, with plenty of beats, are considered sufficiently consonant for their purpose.

    And in 12-tone music, for instance, every interval is considered consonant except the octave (and compounds of it). Since the focus of the music is the intervals between pitch classes, having no interval class between two pitches creates a sense of tension, of something that doesn't quite belong, and is naturally saved for climactic parts of a 12-tone piece. This wildly contradicts the beats criterion.

    And regarding his bit on sabotage: Richard Wagner deliberately delayed resolutions in many parts of Tristan und Isolde, precisely with the intent of creating extreme tension and putting the audience on edge. I suppose that's sort of like a horror movie. I would hardly call that "sabotage", and I think it's really silly to think that there are emotions (e.g. sadness, anger, fear) that music should not be allowed to convey.

    Hope my comments are useful to you.

  2. Hello, Trill, and thanks for visiting and offering your comments.

    I'd like to briefly address your main point.

    You write:
    "Melody is hardly necessary for music, let alone good music. There's plenty of music for non-pitched percussion, e.g. much African folk music, where the focuses are things like simultaneous rhythms (polyrhythms), call-and-response structures, improvisation/spontaneity, and the integration of the music into other social activities."

    I will be posting an I've written over the years on this forum that will tackle this in more depth ("Rhythm versus Melody"), but here's a comment I posted on another forum years ago to a similar question:

    "... my quick two cent answer is that melody presupposes rhythm (as in the timing, phrasing,meter, not necessarily a beat) and rhythm can have pitch, and a good percussive piece will have some kind of melodic contour, I think...since music exists through time, rhythm is definitely essential. However, I think the interesting thing is to what extent developed rhythm and melody can exist together. Rule of thumb has been that the more developed the melody, the simpler the rhythm, and vice verse, almost like a tug of war.

    Jourdain has a section on this in his book (if you haven't guessed, I highly recommend it to everyone on the music forum as well as those who want to learn more about how music works).

    "Rhythm wars. On one side, devotees of meter protest that art music is missing an entire dimension, robbing the listener of a kind of rhythmic pleasure that has for many become music's mainstay. On the other side, devotees of classical music complain that the obsession with beat trivializes everything it touches, appealing to our lowest instincts, like greasy food. Where one side sees musical opportunity in metrical patterns, the other finds an idiot's metronome...this battle is far from over."

    Thanks again, and keep an eye out for the more in-depth essay response.

  3. There's plenty of music that's both rhythmically and melodically complex. In particular, I'd recommend the music of Charles Wuorinen for that. He's a twelve-tone composer (almost strictly twelve-tone), though not dry and boring like, say, Babbitt. (No offense intended if you like Babbitt, I just find him a bit dry for my tastes.) His music is very rhythmic and (when a percussion section is available, depending on the ensemble) makes heavy use of percussion. It also has interesting melodic contours, and his choices for tone rows lead to very lyrical sounding music (for twelve-tone, anyway). I'd say try Tashi for lyrical melodies/harmonies and interesting meters, and the third piano concerto for percussive drive and heavy use of drums.

    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.

  4. Thanks for sharing that. I have to say I disagree with most of it, but there we are.

  5. Forgot to add, I will have blogs on that particular topic in the future (mostly why I disagree), centered partly around the writings of Theodor Adorno. Stay tuned.