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 elsewhere...so 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.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Musical Innovation: Devotion or Deviance?

  In order for music to be understandable by the human mind, it's been argued that the mind needs melody as the most important aspect of music. But at the same time, for innovation to exist in any field, there needs to be some form of deviation from the tried-and-true. The idea of "thinking outside the box" has been explored extensively, from religious rebels whose suffering is rewarded with sainthood to books such as The Deviant's Advantage: How Fringe Ideas Create Mass Markets. Ayn Rand herself created Trickster-like heroes who constantly redefine the world's standards and values.

  The field of music, known for its ethereal nature, is probably the most fertile area for creative deviation. Without a common agreement of what music even represents, it is perhaps the human endeavor, along with philosophy, most resistant to boundaries and limitations. Appeals to the nature of the mind are only helpful up to a point, since the mind, another ill-defined concept, is not static, but also open to growth and change. It's been said that good science fiction is not about the future, because if it were, there would only be one book: the right one. So Platonic notions of "the music of the spheres," and dreams of "metamusic" will always be unattainable fantasies. (This is why I fear a film version of Atlas Shrugged; the description of the "Concerto of Deliverance" defies any actual realization.) And although music can be said to be a recreation of the tension and release manifested through the physical world, it ultimately creates an emotional response, which requires the unique experiences of the listener, creating not a universal experience but myriad possibilities of reactions.

  Melody is said to be the most important aspect of music, and many have tried to define what makes a good melody. We know that the integral component of melody is the scale and intervals employed, and have identified common archetypal emotional reactions for each. ( Whether they are cultural or biological is another matter.) Robert Jourdain lists 8 main principles of a successful melody in Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy: How Music Captures Our Imaginations:

-Nearly all the notes in the melody are to be chosen from the seven-note scale upon which the melody is based. When any of the remaining five chromatic notes are used, they generally should appear in positions that are unaccented and unemphasized so as not to undermine the prevailing harmony. (Suggests the need for hierarchy.)

-Most of a melody's notes should be adjacent scale notes. Jumps should be few; and large jumps rare.

-To avoid monotony, individual notes should not be repeated too much, particularly at emphasized positions in a melody.

-Harmonic resolutions...should occur at points of rhythmic stress in a melody.

-Similarly, rhythmic accentuations should highlight the melody's contour. Changes in melodic direction should generally fall at rhythmically important junctures.

-A melody should have only one instance of its highest tone, and preferable also of its lowest tone. The highest tone should never be a tone that naturally tends toward a higher one (such as the seventh note of a melody's scale.)

-Jumps should always land on one of the seven scale tones, not on one of the five chromatic tones. The ear always hears a jump as emphasized (that is, the brain is more attentive to jumps, since they define the boundaries of submelodies), so jumping to a chromatic tone violates the rule about never emphasizing these tones.

-Conversely, a melody should never leap from a chromatic tone. The dissonance of a chromatic tone creates tension in need of release. Yet jumps increase tension, and so contradict this need.

  This would seem like a recipe for "the perfect melody," but it is not so. Jourdain recognizes that many memorable melodies do employ these rules, and that many awkward, ugly melodies break them. (The reader is invited to test this on their own favorites.) But he points out that "while rules can point out bad melodies, they can't predict good ones. Many a drab melody observes every rule. Others break an important rule and somehow gain by it.

  Jourdain uses the highly recognizable "Pink Panther" theme as an example. The theme is meant to invoke the stalking motions of a predator (in this case, a comical one) and contains many starts and stops presented by clustered rhythms and a disjointed sliding scale. The piece observes most of the rules but deviates by emphasizing non-scale chromatic tones. 




  Jourdain says that "'The Pink Panther' represents the need for deviation in music to fulfill a need. There are surely better melodies in the world that are more beautiful or inspiring, but they could not have conveyed what this particular piece does." If one believes that emotions are not moral or immoral in themselves, then we need a musical vocabulary that expresses a wide range of emotions. One could probably find reasons to break the rules many times. Large, frequent jumps may not be suitable for wedding music, or requiems, but could make a perfect soundtrack for a gymnastic sense of life. ( Immediately I think of the leaps and bounds of West Side Story). A person's sense of life and philosophy is probably MORE important in determining a succesful melody than adherence to the "rules", anyway. Considering that much of the rules of Western music come from a religious mentality, we shouldn't be surprised that many notions of "ideal music" are a picture of a non-corporal afterlife that shuns earthy rhythms. ( And just compare the solemn singing of the Protestant hymns to the "joyful noise" of the African American churches... a prime example of deviance in action based on a sense of life! And not unlike the ground-hugging, this-life affirming temple designed by Howard Roark, a deviation from the sky-reaching churches of tradition.) A one-size-fits-all approach does not do justice to the possibilities of the human imagination. 

 Without falling into the post-modern trap of relativism and denying that some melodies are better than others, the rules, once known, are begging to be broken. If one wants to see innovation in music, one needs to engage in the dialectic of devotion and deviation. 

Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Rise and Fall of Melody in 5.1 Surround Sound

 IAtlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand describes a scene in which the music of Richard Halley is heard on the radio in an altered form, where it has been cut and rearranged into a distortion of the original. The melody had been hacked, and the carefully constructed form had been disintegrated. Rand wrote this decades ago, and I am not familiar with the examples that would be typical of that time; however, she anticipated a very real trend in today's musical landscape, the art of the "remix," which is a result of the decline of melody alongside the rise of technology.

 There is a little joke at the expense of technology in music:

"Q: What is the difference between army food and stereo?
A: One is canned spam, and the other is panned scam."

 The claim is that while hi-fi stereos added realism to recorded music, stereo only added aural "tricks," but less realism. Music is heard binaurally, but the sound source is usually monophonic. Stereophonics refers to the source of the sound, which is really just a doubling of the sound source. Sounds can be panned around the spectrum; envelope filters increase the width and pitch of a tone; tones can now slide from one pitch to another without a break; but melodies cannot be built this way.

The argument is that—with the ever increasing technology of stereo and now surround sound—what's suffered is the music, and more specifically, melody. Keyboardist Keith Emerson confirms this claim. Emerson is known for his piano chops as well as his experiments with the Moog synthesizer, and his experiments led him to claim that while certain sounds produced by synths can be interesting, they are not up to the task of being useful in melodic structure, so he found himself using the recreation of acoustic instruments to perform melodies.

Bill Martin, in his book 
Listening to the Future, refers to the current trend in contemporary use of electronic instruments of "layering," or "verticality:"

 
In postmodern music, the key is not linearity or the counterpoint of temporal development, but instead a principle known best in terms of ... verticality ... the key is vertical stacking. As with postmodern architecture, the idea in this stacking is just that, in principle, any sound can go with any other sound. Just as, however, even the most eclectic pastiche of a building must all the same have some sort of foundation that anchors it to the ground, vertically stacked music often depends on an insistent beat.

Martin sums this up as "Cage with a beat."

Martin remarks that this detemporalization of music is not innovative, because the verticality approach "accepts the idea the music ... is now simply a matter of trying out the combinations, filling out the grid." These are not composers or musicians, but "people who are clever with technology, who paste together the material generated by the 'content providers' [read: real composers]." 

This idea of verticality is an example of Rand's description of art that brings the mind down from the conceptual level to the perceptual level. In this case, melody is broken down to its elements, and the emphasis changes from the integration of tones into melodies to the tones themselves.This would seem to justify accusations of "pomo" wankerism!

(Another example of "grid composing" occurs when a composer juxtaposes one musical style with another, creating a hybrid. This can lead to interesting possibilities, but must be a vision behind it if it is not to be mindless juxtaposition for the sake of exoticism?)

 Is it right to condemn these techno tricks at the expense of melody? Or is it an argument of Luddites afraid of change? And if one accepts their criticisms, is it possible to reconcile the Objectivist celebration of technology with the appeal to traditional forms of melodic structure in music?

Objectivism is not against employing new technologies. Prime examples are Roark's unconventional buildings, which caused the old school of architecture to make baseless claims that they were unsound, or that they didn't meet the classical standards. "Rearden Steel" in 
Atlas Shrugged faced the same reception. But the key fact to remember is that form and function are intertwined. The new material enabled the construction of new forms, and the new forms required new materials (for example, a skyscraper could not be built of wood). In the case of music, synthesized sounds can go beyond the mere imitation of existing acoustic instruments, so it's possible that they will lead to new forms. The non-melodic tones can be considered more akin to percussive non-melodic instruments like cymbals, drums, and such. Yet there are more than that as well, so it may be that those sounds can have a role to play, if only a limited one.

If the form and function of music requires the organization of sound to invoke contemplation and emotions, the new sounds will have to follow the same basic laws of physical perception and cognition. This may mean that the younger generation, like Roark and Rearden, may be able to perceive their benefits more readily than the older generation raised on acoustic instruments. As Rand (and Robert Jourdain, incidentally) point out, it is not the ear, but the mind, which needs to be conditioned; so it may be that the traditionalists are too set in their mindsets to see the possibilities. But let it be said that Howard Roark was not expelled from school for refusing to study the principles; nature still has to be obeyed to be commanded. And the warning to the postmodern advocates of technology, who stand on the shoulders of Cage and Varese, those "liberators of sound from the clutches of the Western white male heirarchy of form," is not to abandon the principles of what defines music. (A very urgent warning at a time where technology has enabled anyone with a computer to engage in the musical equivalent of "paint-by-numbers.")

Let the next generation play with the new toys, but all this begs the question: Does music require melody, harmony and rhythm? Are all three required, or can we muse with only one?

Friday, December 26, 2008

Music with an Ayn Rand Connection

 If you've ever been curious as to what kind of music Ayn Rand liked, or what "tiddlywink" music sounds like: dismuke.org: Music with an Ayn Rand Connection. While it doesn't really contribute towards answering those pesky music questions from The Romantic Manifesto, it's interesting in its own right. And I like the spirit in which this site was created:

When I discovered that Rand enjoyed music from the same era that I do, I became very curious as to what specific tunes she liked and classified as Tiddlywink music.  Unfortunately, only a few examples have been cited in books and lectures about her. Because I find it fascinating when different interests of mine meet,  I always try to keep an eye open for recordings with an Ayn Rand connection.

Dismuke (?) also makes an important point regarding "Tiddlywink" music:
Of course, there is no such formally recognized musical genre.  "Tiddlywink" seems to have been the name that Ayn Rand gave to music that she responded to in a certain way.  The music does not seem to come from from any one particular genre: Canadian Capers is an example of ragtime; El Choclo is a tango. 
 
 This site is of interest to the discussions here, beyond hearing Rand's "tiddlywink," though, because of this: 
As someone with extremely strong musical opinions, I think it is important for me to mention that, just because someone likes a particular song, it does not mean that they will like every rendition of it.  For example, every so often I will be hear one of my favorite songs resurrected and played in a dreadful "easy listening" style.  Whenever this happens, my usual reaction is revulsion over what I consider to be aesthetic vandalism.  When I listen to music, how something is played is often more important than what is being played.  I think it is reasonable to assume the same was true for Ayn Rand as well.  Please keep this in mind when listening. 
THIS is an important point that I'll address in the future, the idea that "it's not what you say, but the way that you say it." Of course, the musical content IS important, but the tone is just as crucial. This takes us back to Rand's question of "why does music make us feel emotion?". She primarily focused on melody, but really didn't mention much about tone. I personally wonder how it would have affected her theory had she done so. I suspect this has something to do with the claim made by Roger Bissell in his essay “Music and Perceptual Cognition” that Rand took Helmholtz's mistake in confusing "tones" as "sensations." I think that's it, anyway...but there will be more on that in future blogs, and I hope to have a link to the essay once it's posted again online.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Music: "Pure" or lyrical?

 One of the problems with past discussions of music on Objectivist forums (of which I was also guilty, and I'm sure it's not limited to Objectivist forums!) was the equating of music with song lyrics and appealing to a song's meaning in contrast to the meaning of the actual music. But one such area where the role of lyrics and word meanings can shed light on musical meaning is the comprehensibility of the words and whether or not it matters in music's power to move the listener. Some people listen to rock songs where the words are indecipherable ('xuse me while I kiss this guy?). Other people listen to Italian operas and are moved to tears, even though they don't speak the language. 

Why do some people cry listening to an opera sung in a language they don't speak? What about wordless syllables where the emphasis is on the voice as instrument (
melisma)? Obviously, it's the style and the melody, the emotion in the performance, and lyric meaning can be married to the musical meaning, but some would argue (in the case of opera, especially) that music with words merely detracts from the music, putting it in a supporting role. A mortal sin if one is of the mindset that music is what the other arts aspire to. 

Rand's writing on graphic design (the decorative arts) versus pictorial painting can shed light on this:

 
The task of the decorative arts is to ornament utilitarian objects, such as rugs, textiles, lighting fixtures, etc. This is a valuable task..but it is not an art in the esthetic-philosophical meaning of the term. The psycho-epistemological base of the decorative arts is not conceptual, but purely sensory: their standard of value is appeal to the senses of sight and/or touch.

She adds that if a work of art has to be representational, "if it does not present an intelligible subject, it ceases to be art. On the other hand, a representational element is a detriment in the decorative arts: it is an irrelevant distraction, a clash of intentions. And although designs of little human figures or landscapes or flowers are often used to decorate textiles or wallpaper, they are artistically inferior to the nonrepresentational designs. When recognizable objects are subordinated to and treated as a m
ere pattern of colors and shapes, they become incongruous."

Is the above true for music and lyrics as well? The answer depends on whether or not music is to be considered representational or not. It's a debate that's raged for a long time, and probably saw it's most dramatic battle in the field of opera. Disney's
Fantasia was another battlefield where music not only competes with a libretto but with animation (continuing Wagner's quest for the "gesamtkunstwerk." (In the case of Fantasia, the battle between Disney and abstract animator Oskar Fischinger, the battle was  between abstract and representational art, but the question still comes down to the same as the one between lyrical versus "pure" music.)




Saturday, December 20, 2008

On an Island: The Solitary Listener

 Legendary Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour released his first solo album in 20 years, fittingly titled On an Island. In a recent Q&A in Billboard magazine, a quote is highlighted that sounded very "Roarkian":

I don't owe people anything. If people would like to come to my concerts I'd love them to come. And if they like the music that I make, I love that too. But I do not make music for other people. I make it to please myself.


I've wondered in the past about my own musical future and how much it did or didn't hinge on an audience. In the rock music field, success is measured by units sold and seats filled. But when I quit the live scene for recording, my music became a personal exploration, virtually therapeutic. And paradoxically, the solo musician is not that uncommon. But what about the solitary listener?

 In his book Music and the Mind, Anthony Storr writes that the solitary listener is a relatively recent phenomenon. Like the idea that civilization is the advancement towards privacy, music has gone from a tool of organizing emotions in unison (the "universal language") to a intense personal experience. 

A large part of rise of the solitary listener is the advent of recording technology. From the Victroloa to the iPod, one can control the selection and tone of the music independent of the world around him. Storr asks the question, “Has music’s function changed because it is no longer necessarily shared? Or does the possibility of experiencing music in solitude simply clarify and underline its effects upon the individual listener?”

Some social theorists have argued against the solitary listener, with claims that Walkmans, iPods, etc. have alienated us, contributing to an atomistic society and breaking the so-called "social contract." But this suggests a false dichotomy, long debunked by now, that technology will tear us apart as a society.It is amusing, then, to see mp3 player commercials such as one for Sony where a group of teens solve a beach's "no noise" after dusk policy by syncing up their portable music players, uniting the party by choice through the power of headphones.

But although it may be true that "no man is an island," group unity is not required to justify the portable music device. The greatest benefits of solitary listening are on the individual level. “Music began as a way of enhancing and coordinating group feelings. Today, it is often a means of recovering personal feelings from which we have become alienated.” Solitary listening gives one the privacy to experience a range of emotions without holding back, to experience his true self in it's fullest, at a chosen pace and time. It gives one a personal soundtrack to the drama of life. It's no coincidence, then, that theocratic dictatorships and other enemies of freedom, dating back to Plato, have forbidden unauthorized music, and that religions have attempted to control musical expression and forbidden dances. This makes devices such as the iPod not merely a technological marvel, but a symbol of freedom. 

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Myth of Orpheus and the Future of Music, Pt. II


(Continued from Pt. 1

What is the root of this appeal to the past in musical appreciation? British Poet W. J. Turner suggests in his theory of music, entitled ORPHEUS, OR THE FUTURE OF MUSIC, that the idea of progress in music hinged on the relation between form and imagination. Music, unlike the other arts, does not produce a tangible, concrete object, but works aurally through time. Turner makes the comparison between the changing contour of a melody to the atomic energy that underlies all matter, invoking the metaphor that all is rhythm. The insistence on a perfect, universal musical form is an appeal to "the increasing complexity of organization and a multiplication of lovely deaths." But art, like any endeavor, must not remain static, but adapt to an ever-expanding consciousness. Just as an infant leaves the nursery rhyme behind, so to will mankind's musical abilities change, and with the ever increasing harmonic vocabulary combined with the technological innovations in sound generation and reproduction, mankind will be called on to innovate even in the face of hostility to preserve traditional forms.


 The call for tradition can be seen as a betrayal of a lack of imagination in the conservative view. But the conservative view can claim that there is a "universal" value in the traditional views, for music is more than mere patterns of sound, which can be imitated. Innovation is not mere imitation, but the integration of vision with craft. New technologies cannot be a substitute for creative vision, merely tools in the pursuit of giving form to thought. Ayn Rand wrote "a word of warning" regarding the "innovations" of modern composers:
  
They spout a great deal about the necessity of "conditioning" your ear to an appreciation of their "music." Their notion of conditioning is unlimited by reality and the law of identity; man, in their view, is infinitely conditionable. But, in fact, you can condition a human ear to different types of music (it is not the ear, but the mind that you have to condition in such cases); you cannot condition it to hear noise as if it were music, it is not personal training or social conventions that make it impossible, but the physiological nature, the identity, of the human ear and brain.

  Rand makes a crucial argument here for the existence of absolute values in music. Most arguments against a universal language of music have been dismissed in our age due to postmodern arguments of the equality of all cultures and the dismissal of absolutes.  Rand is much closer to the view of religious theories that claim a spiritual basis for music.  But the distinction is that although Rand and the "spiritualists" have identified the same quality, their interpretations rest on the rejection or acceptance of the mind/body dichotomy. As Rand explains, "Hence all the mystic clamor about the 'spiritual' or supernatural character of music. Mysticism…here appropriates a phenomenon which is a product of the union, not the dichotomy, of man's body and mind: it is part physiological, part intellectual."

 Turner, who could be described as one of Rand's 'mystics,' (believing that music defined is "the imagination of love in sound") and having written ORPHEUS in 1926, exemplifies the similarity and difference of Rand's claim when he writes that "Apparently each of us carries within him a fundamental note struck upon us by nature and mankind and ranges them in a series. And it is this which gives to each one his values…The fundamental note which any individual carries may not be the fundamental note of mankind, or of the Universe, but it must have a more or less simple relation with them. Thus the values are true for all others, within their limits."  Turner, like many of the classical composers he champions, makes such appeals in the name of religion. But we can see a similar notion in the above to Rand's claim that one's musical tastes are a reflection of one's sense of life. The patterns of sound are not arbitrary; combined they somehow resound with a particular set of emotions and like water will take the shape of the emotional vessel of the listener. In the Orpheus myth, we saw the change in the sense of life of Orpheus, which, changing the music accordingly, caused him to fall out with the more joyous aspects of life and resulting in dismemberment.
 On that note, Turner makes the case for Beethoven as the greatest composer because of the flood of emotions captured in his work. His was a range of great emotional capacity, as if we were under control of every muse imaginable. It is also said that Beethoven's music made possible the rise of psychotherapy. It was this contribution of Beethoven's, not simply new forms or patterns, but his phrasing and emotional expansiveness, that stands as the last great achievement in music, one which yet to be surpassed. This is not surprising given the modern attitude towards "spirituality". One either embraces spirituality in a religious sense, and foregoes musical advancement in favor of a heavenly, "Platonic" form that can never be achieved until death (since composers rarely hear angels anymore), or abandons spirituality altogether for a behaviorist model of man where music is merely a collection of patterns. (It is this latter view that leads to the pantonality of the 12 tone row, where all tones are considered equal, (leaving musical hierarchy abandoned in the name of "freedom"), and the atonality that eventually followed, random noises and such, the basis for true "cauterwauling.")
 Turner concludes his book with the promise that "Music will not end with Beethoven." But he offers a different outlook than the one that states that ideas of the future only present more of the same. He claims that "life without change is inconceivable among us and music that is alive must be changing."
 Ayn Rand has left us the clue to finding the path of the music of the future, but she put her idea, oddly enough, in the words of her architects. Her ideas on the integration of form and function point the way to a future theory of music, one that will unite the new scientific advancements of music production with an understanding of the psychology of not only emotions (as Richard Halley remarked, "emotions be damned!"), but of imagination and vision in relation to man's physiology and relation to reality. Only then will Orpheus be remembered.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Myth of Orpheus and the Future of Music, Pt. I


 It has been said of science fiction that any attempts to define the future will only result  in "more of the same," a projection of the current period, only dressed up in space age splendor. It is also believed that any attempt to predict the future will rest on the identification of absolute values, or universal truths. Speculations on the future of music are not immune to these criticisms. The word "universe" traces its etymology back to joining of the words "unus" (one) and "verse" (meaning "to turn", which was used as a metaphor for the turning effect from one line to another in poetry.). Knowing this, it is not surprising that music has been the subject of many Platonic myths and quests "in search of the lost chord" to harness "the music of the spheres."
  In light of this, is worth asking what is expected of future musicians: To seek "brave new worlds" of sonic possibilities or a refinement of existing aural expectations? The clue to the answer may lie in the myth of Orpheus.
  Orpheus, the son of a muse and in some accounts, the son of Apollo,was said to be the greatest musician and poet in Greek mythology, and his songs could charm wild beasts and coax even rocks and trees into movement. It was his music that was powerful enough to keep the Argonauts from being lured by the Sirens. But it is his descent into the underworld and his tragic end that have the most significance.
 Orpheus, saddened by the loss of his wife Eurydice on their wedding day, ventures into the realm of Hades to bring her back. Moved by the power of Orpheus's song, Hades agrees to release Eurydice, on the condition that he must not look back until they've reached the surface. Of course, he does, and Eurydice fades back into Hades, with no chance of a reprise.
 Orpheus is left an empty shell, withdraws his once beautiful songs which turn to songs of grief. Legend has it that the Maenads, female devotees of Dionysus, came upon him in the forest. Refusing their drunken revelry, they tore him to pieces and threw his dismembered head, which was still singing, down the river, where it floated to the Isle of Lesbos.
 The myth of Orpheus  is an archetypal myth that symbolizes our questions of musical progress to this day. On the one hand, we look to the great composers as the epitome of musical advancement, and point to them as the model of where the next breakthrough will begin. On the other hand, we have an example of an attachment to the past leading to a loss of vision of the future. The morose Orpheus is dismembered for his refusal to let go of his love for Eurydice. And yet, Orpheus introduces a new style to his music as a result. The irony is that the Maeneds want Orpheus to play the songs he was known for, while Orpheus's new style was based on a desire to hold to the past. The same happens every day on some scale, with appeals to tradition and "the good old days" bringing the past into conflict with the future. This was a central theme of Ayn Rand's fiction; when her heroes invent a new musical form, or a new metal alloy, or a new architectural design, they are met with the hostile response "we don't do that here." Tradition is invoked, the work of the masters cannot be surpassed. And those who dare to break with the past often meet the same metaphorical fate of Orpheus.

Go to PT. 2

Rand's Request

Ayn Rand made this public request during a Q&A session, as presented in AYN RAND ANSWERS:

"Speaking of one’s ability to know another’s sense of life, now might be a good time to make a request: Please don’t send me records or recommend music. You have no way of knowing my sense of life, although you have a better way of knowing mine than I have of knowing yours, since you’ve read my books, and my sense of life is on every page. You would have some grasp of it-but I hate to think how little. I hate the painful embarrassment I feel when somebody sends me music they know I’d love-and my reaction is the opposite: It’s impossible music. I feel completely misunderstood, yet the person’s intentions were good. Nobody but my husband can give me works of art and know infallibly, as he does, that I’ll like them. So please don’t try it. It’s no reflection on you or on me. It’s simply that sense of life is very private."

 This is interesting in light of the many debates I've seen on Objectivist forums about music. A pattern that emerges is that when someone wants to defend or convince another about the greatness of a certain song or performer, they post a video or mp3 file.  It's almost as if this is done in a "Roarkian" manner, i.e. , throw some pictures on the table and say "the defense rests." But this rarely seems to lead to that "Eureka!" moment, which often leads to disappointment and confusion (and, on occasion, a moral denunciation of those who "don't get it." The irony is that Rand and Objectivism are evoked as justification for this "superiority," yet here we have Rand asking people NOT to do this to her! 

 Food for thought.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

"Objectivist" Music? NO SUCH THING.

 After spending so much time on my rebuttal to "Music of the Gods" by Lindsay Perigo, I want to now move on to Rand's own words. When people use Rand as a weapon to justify their own musical passions, it is necessary to quote Rand herself on the matter.
 In a "Q&A" session from AYN RAND ANSWERS:

So many combinations of premises are possible that you can't make a rule applicable to everyone who claims to like all kinds of art. You can say the same about people who claim they only like "romantic" art or-be careful here-"Objectivist" art (if there ever were such a thing, which there isn't.) You cannot always be sure what a person's premises are; most people are inconsistent.


Monday, December 15, 2008

What is "Orpheus Remembered?"

 Welcome to Orpheus Remembered, a blog dedicated to the treatment of music within the philosophic world of Ayn Rand's Objectivist philosophy. 

 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. 

Shine on!
Joe Maurone

(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.)

"Music of the Gods?" A Rebuttal: Part I



Part One of Four: Introduction
I would like to address a certain essay entitled "Music of the Gods" by Lindsay Perigo, who runs an Objectivist website called SOLO: Sense of Life Objectivists. I said I'd like to address it, but really, it is out of necessity, as an example of how NOT to address the challenge posed by Ayn Rand regarding music (or any challenge in general!).

The essay, on its own, deserves no serious attention, academically or morally, as Mr. Perigo is on record as saying
Objectivists must affirm the superiority of Romantic Music. Those who don't get it - most Objectivists, it would seem - should simply shut the fuck up, while they enlighten themselves, and stop pretending to be at the vanguard of some cultural revolution when they are musically clueless and part of what should be revolted against.

I would be content to let this piece slip into oblivion. But I, like Ayn Rand believed that " When one pronounces moral judgment, whether in praise or in blame, one must be prepared to answer “Why?” and to prove one’s case—to oneself and to any rational inquirer." When one sets himself up as a "leader," as Mr. Perigo has, and backs up his claims with intimidation, we should all stand up and ask "why." "Music of the Gods" is Mr. Perigo's claim that music of the Romantic composers is superior to other styles of music, particularly what he calls "headbanging caterwauling." He goes on to claim the moral superiority as well. He is not the first to make this claim, nor, I doubt, the last. And I am not one, personally, to shy away from making judgments, when necessary; and as composers, the Romantics were truly accomplished; technically, there is a very strong case that they were “the greatest” up to now. But in the case of morality? Well, we know that Rand wrote, "Judge, and prepare to be judged." However, she also wrote that " to pronounce moral judgment is an enormous responsibility," and that "The opposite of moral neutrality is not a blind, arbitrary, self-righteous condemnation of any idea, action or person that does not fit one’s mood, one’s memorized slogans or one’s snap judgment of the moment." That said, I offer my rebuttal as a "charitable refutation," since I believe that Perigo has not, despite his protests, proved his case, nor earned the right to issue statements of his kind without escaping scrutiny for his claims.
MUSIC OF THE GODS
Perigo starts this essay with a quote from Rand, who he elsewhere calls a "musical ignoramus." So why even bother with the woman's views on music, then? Well, the crux of the argument is this: Rand personally indulged in musical judgments, while in her essay "Art and Cognition," she claims that "No one...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." Ignoring her call to responsibility in making judgments, he considers Rand an "ignoramus" because she REFUSES to go beyond her personal opinion to bash others without more proof, something Perigo is not so shy about doing. Rather, he states from the start that he does not intend a formal study:
I should say that the reason this essay has taken a while is that it was becoming an academic-style treatise on Romanticism in music. Well, the Internet is replete with such treatises, by people better qualified than I. All I ever intended was an informed layman’s polemic against The Age of Crap as manifest in music, and against the idea that music is somehow exempt from the standard, healthy Objectivist strictures against cultural relativism. Realising I had departed from my brief, I had to start over to get back on course.
So Perigo admits that he has no intention to for an in-depth look at Romanticism in music, that others are better qualified. Fair enough. He says all he really intended was to popularize the idea that Romanticism is better than the music he calls caterwauling. One has to ask, then, which, or whose, ideas are he popularizing? To which academic works does he refer? Since none are listed, I have to limit the scope of his article to his references to The Romantic Manifesto.
So from there, to get “back on course,” Perigo promises to “cut to the chase.”

"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."
CUTTING THE GORDION 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.