Music has been a powerful and often misunderstood force throughout history. Named after the Greek Muses of creativity, it was thought to be a gift of the gods. Philosophers and scientists looked for the "music of the spheres." Plato believed that some scales were so powerful that they should be restricted by the State. Perhaps the most iconic and tragic image is that of Orpheus, whose musical gift was said to move even the gods themselves. Upon the loss of his love Eurydice, his musical gift was given to songs of loss and melancholy, for which he was torn apart by the Maenids. But even after his dismemberment, it is said his head still sang...Orpheus may have been torn to pieces, but his power is still remembered...
There is a saying, "Insult someone's politics, and you're considered a fool. Insult someone's music, and you're an enemy." At the heart of the Orphic tragedy is a tale of reason versus emotion, heart versus mind, as represented by the dual of the gods Apollo and Dionysus. This dual was presented in Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music, and picked up and challenged by Ayn Rand, who rejected Nietzsche's claim that the heart and mind are forever at odds, that they could be integrated. And yet, the dual lives, and is especially true within the so-called Objectivist community. The usual debates between rock versus classical, for example, become battlefields on which the listener is forced to prove not only the validity of his choice, but his own morality (and sometimes humanity!). Why is this so?
Well, in Rand's treatise on esthetics, The Romantic Manifesto, Rand issued many statements and challenges. Rand was no shrinking violet in the realm of making moral judgements, including artistic ones, but in the area of music, she claimed a temporary draw:
Until a conceptual vocabulary is discovered and defined, no objectively valid criterion of esthetic judgement is possible in the field of music....Until it is brought to the stage of conceptualization, we have to treat musical tastes or preferences as a subjective matter...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.
Rand goes on to state the criterion she believes is necessary to define an objective means of judging music beyond the technical realm. She asks:
Why does music make us experience emotions?...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 by-pass his intellect? What does a certain combination of sounds do to man's consciousness to make him identify it as gay or sad."
Rand claims that no one had yet discovered the answers, herself included, but that the answers would require "a translation of the musical experience, the inner experience, into conceptual terms; an explanation of why certain sounds strike us in a certain way; a definition of the axioms of musical perceptions, from which the appropriate esthetic principles could be derived, which would serve as a base for the objective validation of esthetic judgments."
Now Rand has made many statements on music for which she has been both praised and attacked. But perhaps the most intense debate is over Rand's insistence that music, at this time, is a "subjective" matter. Some take this to mean that there is no possible way to assert claims of musical superiority in order to justify anything as music, for example. Another take is that Rand is wrong, that there is no need to define a "conceptual vocabulary, "that musical judgement is axiomatic and "self-evident" (and all-too-often used as an excuse to "bash" those whose musical tastes are not theirs.) I believe, personally, in the third way, that there is a need for objectivity in defining musical matters, but that the reasons of the need to proclaim one's tastes superior to others needs to be questioned as well.
As a practicing musician, I take the matter very personally, and although I don't believe that music is a mystical "gift from the gods", it sometimes feels that way! I can't say, as Nietzsche did, that, without music, "life would be a mistake," even if it sometimes feels that way! So I present this forum not as the answer, but as a gathering place of material on the subject. I will presenting ideas of the past combined with recent work from Objectivist and non-Objectivist philosophers and modern scientific and psychological research, though I will present a few essays and ideas of my own. I am not here to make claims of superiority. Orpheus Remembered is one musician's attempt to understand the challenges presented by Ayn Rand regarding music in her book THE ROMANTIC MANIFESTO, while simultaneously trying to understand the divisive nature of music among the Objectivist-minded (and the rest of the world, as well!). And what better symbol for such a blog than a dismembered musical son of the gods? I stand by the spirit of Objectivism, independent thought without arguments from intimidation. Unlike some Objectivist forums, I will not provide a forum for bashing other's taste in music. I invite thoughtful contributions on the matter, and respectful comments are always welcome.
(Site header image based on the cover of Hemispheres, designed by Hugh Syme for the group Rush, which was based on the concept of the Birth of Tragedy by Nietzsche.)