Monday, March 30, 2009

Quote of the Day

"I'm not a child and don't need Art to treat me like one."

Friday, March 20, 2009

John Hospers: How Does Music Mean?

The latest issue of Liberty magazine features a book review, by Rand-associate John Hospers of The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century by Alex Ross. I've just finished this book myself a few months ago, and while interesting as history, didn't find anything to motivate me to blog about it. Hospers, apparently, found something. His review is available online here at I found it a rather strange review, but the review is not so interesting as the reason for the review:
What then of music? Do works of music have a subject — are they about anything? Vocal music, such as songs and operas, has a subject because it contains words. But what of purely instrumental music — can it also have a subject?
Hosper's "quick" answer:
Well, a musical composition, as well as a performance, could be inspired by practically anything. This does not cause the music to be "about" canyons or give it a high degree of aesthetic value. In aesthetic experience we enjoy sounds, words, and colors for their own sake, not for what they might be alleged to be about, nor what the experience leads to in later life, or where it comes from, or in whose mind it had its origin.
This view raises interesting questions in light of the Objectivist approach (and dismissal) of "abstract art." If we enjoy music "for it's own sake," as opposed to "what it's about," it's tempting to take the argument to mean appreciation of tones for their own sake. So why not appreciate colors and shapes for their own sake, without being "representational" or anything other than that color or shape? I don't think Objectivists would have a problem with that, if it's treated as simply decorative effect (see Rand's comments in The Romantic Manifesto regarding decorative arts being cheapened by figures of people.) It's the equation of "abstract decorations" with things from reality, though, that set Objectivists off. (Well, actually, it's the attempt of some so-called "anti-artists" to bring "disintegration" of the senses that really set Rand off.)

That's all well and good; a few smears of blue paint over a red circle is not "representative" of a church, an airplane, or a person. But the dismissal of such a comparison in music becomes harder because of the auditory nature of representation. If I play a flute to imitate the up-and-down motion of a bird, the shape of the sound can represent the shape of the wings through flight, in an auditory manner. And yet, if one is not told that the shape is meant to mimic bird flight, it is up to the listener to make that association through "projection." But that shape could come in several different forms, so the "meaning" of that piece, unaided by visual or literary aids, takes on a broader "abstraction."

"Projection" is the magic word here, and will be the basis of my own theory of musical response. When I get the chance, which is hopefully soon, and overdue.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Adam Buker: "I Am A Capitalist"

Adam Buker, in his Objectivist-oriented Music and Philosophy podcasts, takes a break from the music this week to focus on the philosophy to proclaim, in these uncertain economic times, that he is, indeed, a capitalist:

Kudos to Adam for putting it out there! I'd like to hear Adam, who is a classically-trained composer, expound on the academic approach to capitalism and music, and how leftists like Theodor Adorno have taught that tonal music is a product of hierarchal capitalist-pig tendencies, while advocating "egalitarian" solutions such as the 12-tone row, etc.. Or, it would have been interesting to hear his reaction as to how such music gets funded; like most unlistenable music or "anti-art," through taxpayer money. (Maybe in future podcasts?)

But I do appreciate, A LOT, what Adam DOES say, especially this bit:
It may sound funny coming from somebody who wants to make a living through music, as one doesn't normally associate artists and musicians with the idea of capitalism.
Now, Adam comes from a classical background, while I'm a rock guy at heart. What he says hits especially hard for a rock musician; classical music has its association with the bourgeouise, but "rock" is the "voice of the people," of rebellion, etc. (Nevermind the dirty little fact of record companies and platinum records; you ain't a real rocker if you ain't a "street fighting man!"). And yet, I'm a capitalist, and proud of it. But it's funny that what he speaks of crosses genres, styles, and periods. Art has, for too long, been "monopolized" by the left. (As they say, the devil has all the best tunes.) Ayn Rand tried to correct this, by making art the fifth branch of her philosophy, but it still, for the most part, is marginalized in the Objectivist world (as least up until recently; it didn't even rate in the The Philosophic Thought of Ayn Rand.) I suspect that this is due to the "conservative" faction of Objectivist fans, who seem to focus more on politics, economics, or the "scientific" faction of Objectivism, which focuses on technology. I see here a parallel between the politics of the sixties, and the music of its day. The "establishment" had its "safe as milk" tunes, while the hippies had "rock"; born of "rock and roll," whose "rebels without a cause" went from "Rockin' Robin" to the "The Times, They Are a Changin'." The Left took on the radical and subversive opportunities of art, while the Right went to jingoism and propaganda.

Of the Left: to paraphrase Kira in
We The Living, "I loathe their goals, I admire their methods."

As a result, the Right took to the religious country music, while the left took to Jim Morrison, Dionysus, and the gift of wine. (Interesting parallel there, as Jesus and Dionysus have their parallels.) But the appropriation of "creativity" by the Left in the sixties exists to this day, so that the idea of a Capitalist artist is, indeed, a funny thing. (This has broader historical roots, to be sure, with the "patron" system of the past, being a sticky widget in the development of the idea of artistic freedom in the Enlightment.) Rand herself was an exception, what with her novel-writing and Hollywood work, but there have been too few artists of note to come from the Objectivist world, at least not enough to have enough impact to reclaim the arts from the monopoly of the Left. There is the case of the band Rush and Spiderman co-creator Steve Ditko. I wish I could name more off of the top of my head (and those are hardly household names in the grand scheme of things.)

So, to Adam, from one musician to another, thanks for speaking up. Shine on.

Thursday, March 12, 2009


When music and Ayn Rand are mentioned together, the first place many go is to AtIas Shrugged and hero-composer Richard HaIIey. Then Rand versus Beethoven...then Rush and 2112 and "Anthem." Then, after some more examples, we finaIIy get to We the Living.

We the Living? Yes, We the Living. Don't look at me funny like that. Actually, Michael Berliner has a whole chapter dedicated to this, "The Music of We the Living," in Robert Mayhew's book Essays on We the Living. (Ok, I'm getting tired of saying We the Living, so I'm using WTL from this point.) Anyway, WTL is chock full of musical goodness. WTL was written on the heels of Rand's days in Hollywood as a screenwriter, and is said to be "cinema-ready." (Many say the Italian movie was superior to The Fountainhead movie.) It seems Rand had the soundtrack in mind when writing the most novel-esque of her novels.

Unfortunately, I don't own this book, a bit pricey for me right now, and on my wishing-makes-it-so list. But there are previews of it online here (with some pages missing, on purpose, to tantalize a purchase, and tease us poor-folk). And Berliner's essay is tantalizing, as he states that WTL contains about 70 musical references, most of them real-life pieces. That's a lot of references. But beyond the story itself, Berliner, drawing on the personal papers of Ayn Rand, references how and where Rand developed these references. Apparently, Rand kept a musical biography that she called "My Musical Biography," a list of 17 songs from 1911 to 1959. Of course, most of this was "Tiddlywink" music, which included what they called "military band music" that she would hear as a youth in Russia. Berliner traces the music she heard, including the stuff she probably didn't like, in order to present just how Rand incorporated it to create the "musical aura" of "Mother Russia."

Berliner goes through the list of songs in the novel, but two particular songs stand out in Rand's "musical aura," the Russian International and "The Song of Broken Glass." These two are important, I say, because I said so. But also because they capture the polarity of Rand's approach to music; the former is proud and glorious, and the latter captures the gaiety and lightheartedness that Rand valued above all else in her "tiddlywink" selections.

The International, of course, is the piece that Kira hears at the student rally. Berliner points out that the Russian anthem, in the context of the story, is played as "the Communist student's answer to the singing by non-communist students of "Days of Our Lives" a student council election meeting." Here we see Rand's description of the melody:
[I]n the magnificent goblet of the music, the words were not intoxicating as wine; they were not terrifying as blood, they were gray as dishwater.
But the music was like the marching of thousands of feet, measured and steady, like drums beaten by unvarying, unhurried hands. The music was like the feet of soldiers marching into the dawn that is to see their battle and their victory; as if the song rose from under the soldier's feet, with the dust of the road, as if the soldier's feet played it upon the earth.

The tune sand a promise, calmly, with the calm of an immeasurable strength, and then, tense with a restrained, but uncontrollable ecstasy, the notes rose, trembling, repeating themselves, too rapt to be held still, like arms raised and waving in the sweep of banners.

It was a hymn with the force of a march, a march with the majesty of a hymn. It was the song of soldiers bearing sacred banners and of priests carrying swords. It was an anthem to the sanctity of strength."
The experience, for Kira, is "the first beautiful thing" she's noticed about the Revolution. This was in reaction to a real-world piece of music that affected Rand. (Incidentally, it is this example that many people, myself included, hold up in the endless debates about music and morality in relation to rock music. When a critic of rock points to the lyrics as proof of rock's no-goodness, the naysayer is reminded of the horrible, vile, evil, twisted words of the International set to a powerful tune.) But to really appreciate this, it should be compared to the next example, "The Song of Broken Glass." Why? Again, because I said so. But also, because, as Berliner points out, "[t]his is a particularly intriguing inclusion because it is the only fictional piece of music in the novel and-as a consequence-has elicited considerable curiosity in its origins." Being a fictional piece of music, it represents, like the "Unfinished Symphony" of Atlas Shrugged, Rand's vision of art, not as an imitation of life as it is, but a selective re-creation. Rand mentions it several times. Berliner points out that "it is clear that it represents an ideal: promise, benevolence, an image of life as it ought to be," and that, for Kira, "it evoked the West-the spirit of a free, productive society, which stood in contrast to the grayness and horror of life in Soviet Russia."
Rand describes this song thusly:
It had been a favorite beauty of Vienna. There had been a balustrade on the stage, overlooking a drop with the twinkling lights of a big city, and a row of crystal goblets lined along the balustrade. The beauty sand the number and one by one, lightly, hardly touching them, kicked the crystal goblets and sent them flying in tingling, glittering splinters-around the tight, sheer stockings on the most beautiful legs in Europe.
There were sharp little blows in the music, and waves of quick, fine notes that burst and rolled like the thin, clear ringing of broken glass. There were slow notes, as if the cords of the violins trembled in hesitation, tense with the fullness of sound, taking a few measured steps before the leap into the explosion of laughter.
Kira hears this song several more times throughout the novel; it is, in fact, the last song she ever hears, as she lay dying in the snow in the attempt to escape Russia for the promise of "abroad":
She heard a song, a tune now loud enough to be a human sound, a song as a last battle-march. It was not a funeral dirge, it was not a hymn, it was not a prayer. It was a tune from an old operetta, the "Song of Broken Glass."

Little notes of music trembled in hesitation, and burst, and rolled in quick, fine waves, like the thin, clear ringing of glass. Little notes leaped and exploded and laughed, laughed with a full, unconditional, consummate joy.

She did not know whether she was singing. Perhaps she was only hearing the music somewhere. But the music had been a promise; a promise at the dawn of her life. That which had been promised then, could not be denied to her now.
These two songs epitomize the polarity of Rand's philosophy itself, the hard, disciplined, strong, defiantly proud defense for all that's right, and the idea that this is a benevolent universe, where happiness and joy are possible to man. Indeed, Rand's tough-as-nails approach is never for its own sake, but always in the service to pave the way for that joy. Rand was not a hedonist, so a purely decadent music could never do; the joy in her music comes after the work is done. But it also comes from an unbroken spirit, one that never questions its own right to exist, and that is why Kira hears this song in the end.

The two choices also represent where Rand was and where she was going. The Internationale was the "best" of her real-life world, "Broken Glass" represented the "best" of where she was going, the mythical "abroad" of America. Rand is said to be a "Russian" writer; beyond stating the obvious, the style of Atlas owes a lot to the Russian style of writing. The Internationale is probably a testament to that. But Rand is, more importantly, a consciously American writer, and this is reflected in the idealization of "The Song of Broken Glass." One could say there is a dynamic tension between the heavy "Russian-ness" and the light-hearted "American-ness." When she did arrive, she did attempt to write stories that reflected that light-heartedness, as witnessed in The Early Ayn Rand. Stories such as "Good Copy," "Escort," and "Her Second Career" were written as light-hearted fun, in the vein of O. Henry. But as she saw her adopted homeland seeing "red," so did she in turn, and her theme went from "tiddlywink" back to the defiance of "The International." After the publication of Atlas, and the resultant depression of seeing what the world had become, Rand found herself trying to return to that good-time feeling, with the attempted novel To Lorne Dieterling, which was abandoned. What could have been, however, would have had its roots in the musical aura already laid out in We The Living. As Berliner puts it, in that story, "music would once again achieve a dominant role, one well beyond that in We the Living." For Rand, the To Lorne Dieterling WAS music: "the universe of my 'tiddlywink' music...of my sense of life."
Berliner mentions more songs, including "The Days of Our Life" (aka "Swift as the Waves"), "God Save the Czar," "John Gray," and "Destiny Waltz." He also points out the influence of classical music, namely the work of Verdi and Chopin, which appear in the novel. Berliner points out something interesting here, that while Rand did not come to appreciate classical music until after she arrived in America, classical music plays an important part in Kira's background. Rand has Uncle Vasili proclaim that "Yes, old classics are still the best. In those days, they had culture, and moral values, and...and integrity."

This is interesting for two reasons: one, because it reflects on Rand's "bourgeouise" background, and this proclamation, within the context of the story, would be used to show the class warfare of Soviet Russia. It's also interesting because it's tempting to think that this is Rand's own attitude. But Rand's "tiddlywink" music was held by her in higher regard to her classical favorites, so any attempt to take this statement as Rand's "objective declaration to the superiority" of one musical form over another has to be weighed against her personal preferences. Rand may have been of "bourgeuoise" background (and detested rock music), but it should be pointed out that the "lost novel" was to center around the "La Traviata Overture" by Verdi, but also featured the song "Will O' the Wisp," a "tiddlywink" piece that was to be used for a dance in a dive bar. Actually, Rand, in her journals, had written that these were "the two basic 'sense of life' music numbers," that "Will O' the Wisp" was to be "the triumph, the achieved sense of life" and that "La Traviata Overture" was "the way there." Her description of "Will O' the Wisp" is "the triumph-the tap dance and ballet combined-my total sense of life. (Probably, danced in a low-grade dive...).

This, I submit, would have been a symmetrical parallel to the two featured songs in WTL, again concretizing the "way there" and the "triumph." The odd thing, though, is that the "low-grade dive" IS the achievement, not the "classical" piece. This is only odd, though, if, like Uncle Vasili, one sees the work of the masters as unsurpassable. Rand, the slayer of false dichotomies, however, listened with ears that heard beyond class boundaries. It is why Howard Roark can be so tense and strong, yet open the The Fountainhead with a laugh. It is one more example of how Rand the Russian became Rand the American.

That could be a song in itself...

Will O' the Wisp

In Letters of Ayn Rand, there is a letter from Rand to rock-n-roller Duane Eddy thanking him for a recording of a song called "WiII O' the Wisp." Many people wondered about this song; was it an Eddy song? Did Rand reaIIy Iike rock music? Was she rockin' her robin and doin' the twist?
June 1, 1967

Dear Mr. Eddy,

Thank you -- enormously -- for the record of "Will O' the Wisp" which you
sent me.

The record is wonderful. The "noise" you mention is so slight that I am
not aware of it when I listen to the music. I must te
II you that no present
can give me a thri
II today, only my kind of music can and does. You have
given me a powerfu
I source of my personal "benevolent universe." No, it is
not a "sma
II thing," it means a great deaI to me -- and I appreciate it

Well, it's not a rock song by the "rebel rouser." Nor is it the version by Leon Russell. It's one of Rand's "tiddlywink songs." The composer was Herbert Kuster, and the original title was "Irrlichter." It does appear, incidentally, in the closing credits in the documentary Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life.

Now, with that chord resolved, I wonder how those two knew each other? There is actually another, hidden, arcane reference to Eddy and "Will O' The Wisp" in the annals of Rand-om...In Peter Mayhew's Essays on Ayn Rand's We the Living lies an essay by Michael Berliner on the use of music in said novel. In speculating on the inspiration for the fictional "Song of Broken Glass," Berliner reports that Duane Eddy reported that Miss Rand reported that "Will O' the Wisp" was the song. But Berliner claims that "that would have to have been a later realization, since [that song] wasn't copyrighted (as "Irrlicht") until 1934, after We The Living was written."
(He also reports that Rand later answered in a future Q&A that the song wasn't based on any one example.)

Betcha didn't know all that. Now you're ready for a night of Quizzo.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Objectivist Music? Galt Aureus

Now, I've stated over and over (and over) by this point that Ayn Rand said there is no such thing as "Objectivist" music, or art for that matter. So, how do we treat the issue of "Objectivist" inspired artists and musicians?

Why, we listen, of course.

Well, ok, maybe we do more than that, but that's where it starts, right? I have no problem with the idea of "Objectivist" inspired music (or shouId that be Objectivist "inspired" music?), but the one thing I insist on insisting upon is that we distinguish between "Objectivist" Iyrics and "Objectivist" music. It is MUCH easier to achieve the former; just add ego, individuaIity, seIfishness, and reason to your Iyrics and PRESTO!. But how is music itseIf said to be "Objectivist?" That's one reason I have not (yet) broached the subject of Rush, the progressive rock band with a core of Midas MuIIigan's gold.

The attempts I've seen so far, however, present the answer as being to Iatch on to the "Romantic" brand name. (But as I've pointed out previously, THAT has yet to be definitiveIy defined as weII.)

Here is one of those attempts: GaIt Aureus. If people railed against the immorality of a "Concerto of Deliverance," surely the gates of Atlantis are locked against this! ;) But what is GaIt Aureus, musically speaking? "The rock/cIassicaI fusion band that plays Objectivism infIuenced music. We sing of Iove, war, death and phiIosophical revolution - aII backed by eIectric guitar, fuII orchestra and choir. According to the info on the website, they are muse-seekers who "have become one - an irrepressible force - and in our union, reborn, the grace of romantic era classicaI music against the fury of alternative rock: GaIt Aureus."

I have to wonder when that was written, given that "alternative rock" has not been the force it was for severaI years now. That's aIways the dangers of defining yourself by what you raiI against; you date yourseIf. (And I LIKE some alternative rock. It's such a useless tag, anyway, one that does not address the MUSIC, only the culture.That said, there is enough in much of the alternative rock lyrics to rail against, no argument there.) But what's offensive is the appropriation of "Romantic-era classical music" as the OFFICIAL HOUSE BRAND OF OBJECTIVISM. TM Does anyone actually READ what the woman wrote?

Ok, rant aside, what about the music? Their music is avaiIable on iTunes as weII as available on the website. What I hear is music of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra variety, rock guitars mixed with orchestraI instruments, with a bit of a theatrical sound (the vocals are mixed in the style of "Broadway" rock). It's not quite Dream Theater, not quite Evanascence, not quite original. The lyrics may or not be Objectivist; I don't have them available to analyze, but that's not my concern here. My concern is with the music. Verdict? They play well enough, it's "pleasantly" dramatic, but it it's meant to counter the "alternative" rock scene, well...they'd be better content to settle for niche status. Even if one is not offended by the "appropriation" of Rand's philosophy as a marketing tool, it's offensive to claim that all Objectivists are drawn to the same music. "We" are "individuals, after all. And there's just something off-putting about the insinuation that if you don't listen to "such and such" or like "that" instead, you must be a "moron" for not "getting it." (Yeah, this is directed at He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, but also a warning for GaIt Aureus: your music is an "irrepressible force?" Prove it, or leave the bragging to the rappers...).

This brings me to another issue; all these "attempts" at "Objectivist" music are something out of The Fountainhead: appropriating the style of "the masters" (i.e., the Romantics) because nothing can surpass "the classics." (It's not even a new "twist"; the aforementioned bands, such as Trans-Siberian Orchestra, have been mixing rock and the classics for years.).

I am not putting down the band for doing what they like. One does not put down a performer for performing the classics only. But since this is an attempt to present something new that will "save the world," well, their boasts are fair game.

(Am I overstating this? I don't think so; look at the album cover. The sun rising above the ruins, the title is "Herald of the Sun"...It's the idea of the "rebirth of reason," a Randian phrase that spawned a website of the same name devoted to a "second Renaissance". Here, I should offer a confession: it's not that I disapprove of the spirit of a "second Renaissance," but maybe I'm just getting jaded in today's political scene. There is a battle to be fought, but contrary to what you may have heard, it won't be won by putting on the robes of the past while dancing to "Renaissance" music. Let's not be superficial about this.)

What I am putting down is the musical attitude I find far too often among "Objectivists" that says that the "masters" cannot or should not be surpassed, and presenting a certain "sound" as the ONLY "moral" choice. (It's also embarrassing when the attempt is pitted against an "opponent," in this case, "alternative rock.") If THIS is one of those attempts, a self-identified "Objectivist," I feel no shame in saying "I don't like this." (If it's not such an attempt, it would be better if this did not bear the "Objectivist tag"; it makes it that much harder to judge on its own merits.) This was not the spirit of Howard Roark; that was the spirit of Guy Francon. Francon was not a straight-out villain, but he was an antagonist. He was not at the vanguard of innovation, more like a second-hander "keeper of the flame." That's the best thing that someone could say of attempts like GaIt Aureus. What makes the "sound" Objectivist? This is why Rush was honest enough NOT to call themselves an "Objectivist" band. That's not to say that we can't learn from the "masters" or even build on their work. But work like this feels like nothing but "costume drama."
With THAT said, I'd like to offer a reminder for the band from Rand herself regarding Romanticism. This is offered as constructive criticism; if I think there needs to be some "clarification" of vision, there is talent there. So remember, Rand did not say that "romantic" music is "Objectively superior." But even more important, Rand never said all Romantic literature was superior. In "What is Romanticism?" she wrote of the flaws of the early Romantics, who were more "Byronic" than "Aristotelian." But she also noted that there were degrees of talent and skill within the Romantic movement, breaking down the movement into first and second ranks, and down further still. She even goes as far to claim that "a third-rate Naturalist may still have some perceptive observations to offer; a third-rate Romanticist has nothing." (This is because the standards of Romanticism, according to Rand, are that much more demanding.)

Don't be a "third-rate Romanticist." Be a first rate GaIt Aureus.