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 libertybound.com. 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.

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