Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Gordion Knot Coda: Burn the Rope?

  I have addressed the idea of cutting the "Gordian Knot" of Rand's theory of music, using Occam's Razor to offer a simpler explanation than hers. Randall R. Dipert, in his essay "The Puzzle of Music and Emotions in Rand's Aesthetics," goes a step further and claims that "Exactly how music gets associated with emotions, and which musical figures are associated with which emotions, has been the subject of much-and to my mind largely ineffective and beside-the-point-speculation." Given that Rand made this a focal point of her refusal to make a claim about the superiority of one's musical choices, this does not just cut the knot, it burns the rope as well. So why does Dipert say this?

 "These are psychological and anthropological speculations about ultimately empirical matters; what is important for philosophy is whether music is more than accidentally associated with emotions, and exactly what the nature of this 'association' is." Dipert claims that Rand "adopts at one point the surprisingly formalistic notion that it is form or pattern in music that does this, and elsewhere reverts  to the ancient Pythagorean homile (derived through Helmholtz) that it is unconscious counting or measuring of mathematical forms." And then Dipert makes the claim that Rand holds that "music's emotional expressivity is likely an extension of ordinary expressivity in terms of gesture and speech." He adds, "Well, maybe." 

 "Well, Maybe." I certainly think it is the case, but I don't think the associations are "accidental," as Dipert suggests, based on the correlation of emotion and direction shape and motion. But accidental or not, that is not the crux of Dipert's rope-burning. That would be this:

 "I find something valid in the idea that music succeeds in quite different and unique ways, and with a result that it is not merely intellectual 'recognition' of other's emotions. Perhaps the bits and pieces of tonal perceptions, together with their illusions such as movement and similarity, themselves are so much like real emotions-in terms of a 'shape,' like a synthetic molecule can fool our taste buds into sensing sweetness like sugar-that we can, with the slightest nudge of a willingness to accept the artistic emotions, experience them as emotions." Dipert claims that Rand's contribution to the theory of music and emotion in her view that "the genuinely artistic response not as constituted by this banal emotional one-'the music is sad'-but by our response (itself a further emotional response) to this emotional response. Hers is not a theory about emotions and art, but about meta-emotion and art. What matters, Rand claims, is not the feelings that art evokes, one 'feels about these feelings.'" The big claim here by Dipert says that for Rand, the question is not "how does music evoke emotions" but "How does art, if at all, transcend the banality of actual emotions? What does it 'do' with these emotions–for surely merely synthesizing artificial ones is not the goal of art, anymore than synthesizing outer reality is?"

 So, why am I quoting all this? I personally don't think it's wise to "burn the rope"; it's the integration of the cognitive and empathic theories that, I believe, make the most sense. And the Gestalt theory shows what sets apart one melody from another, or, what makes particular melodies "catchier," etc.; I would not discount the importance of this. But I wonder if the issue of HOW music suggests emotions is not so essential (or not SO essential) to Rand's challenge, that it is more of an issue of "THIS IS ME!" or not. (Empathy, or, Rand's theory of the identification with another's "sense of life.") That changes the question from "how does music represent emotions" to "why do some people react to certain music while others don't?" And while I think Rand overcomplicated the issue of how music conveys emotions, I do think the other question is more complicated, precisely because of the personal factors that go into one's musical appreciations. While there are some moral implications in one's reaction to a philosophy or ideology, patterns of sound are not ideology. When one subtracts the lyrics and lifestyles of the composers, all one is left with is patterns of sound that do not tell a story. Cognitive factors may be revealed, but this is not necessarily a moral issue, either. 

  I believe that the "projection" theory enables us to judge music "objectively," with a "conceptual vocabulary." And as a practicing composer myself, I don't feel that anymore "research" is needed on my part to continue to create. I can create music of a range of emotions, and communicate those emotions to others.  The "projection theory" is not complete, but simply the basis, of which the scientific details can be elaborated from. However, the emotional reaction to that music will always  be on the shoulders of the listener, and nothing I do can change that. That is the science of philosophy and psychology, not musicality.  This is not a claim of "subjectivity". I do believe that music can be judged objectively under the "projection" theory. It can be judged whether one composition is better "composed" or structured, or more complex than another. (It should be said that one criteria cannot be the sole criteria; for example: a complex composition, one that involves intricate counterpoint at fast speeds, such as a Bach fugue or concerto, cannot depict a slow sadness, which requires less complexity. So the criteria cannot be "universal," it has to be contextual.) It can be judged "happier" or "sadder." 

 What can't be judged objectively is whether one should like a piece better just because it's better composed. Or, rather, it can be judged objectively, but only by the listener, for himself. Morality implies choice, not duty. So while I think the projection theory answers Rand's question "how does music convey emotions," I don't think it provides, by itself, a means to judge (and clobber) the listener's reaction. One can "objectively prove" a composition's superiority and still say "it's a great work of art, but I don't like it." Rand did not say it was necessary to answer the question in order to judge people, but to judge the music itself on musical grounds. Ellen Stuttle articulates a similar attitude: "First the wording 'unequaled peak'...I did not mean by that the idea there there's any inherent superiority either aesthetically or morally in the music of the romantic period as compared to the music of any other period. I don't agree with Rand in assigning moral superiority to certain art types or genres. I'm not convinced that the idea of 'evil art' even makes sense. Maybe, very narrowly, but I have strong doubts. As to aesthetic superiority, I think there's been great music and not-so-great-music in every musical period and tradition (including non-Western.) If, via Objectivism, one agrees that there is no such thing as a "thought crime," then the same would have to be said about art. One can say, under a projection theory, that "opus 21" is better at conveying happier emotions than "opus 22"...IF the listener is willing. The listener is under no obligation to be "happy" with this happy piece. To paraphrase Rand, "it is every man for himself, and only for himself.

 That is the way it should be. 

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