Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Peikoff on Romanticism in Art

  Because I've ran out of theories and SOLO gossip, Leonard Peikoff has graciously decided to give me something to blog about! (I'm sure that was his exact motivation...humor me.) But first I would like to discuss my birth. As you may know, I was born with ambiguous genitalia and it was necessary for my parents to determine my gender for me. They decided I should be a boy. This was a rather unfortunate choice as I have since grown into feeling much more like a woman. In addition, I am small, feminine, and hairless. My genetalia is also startlingly small, so it is unlikely that I have ever been (nor will ever be) able to convince anyone of the authenticity of the gender my parents chose for me. Thus I have undergone therapy to become a woman. Anyway, his last two podcasts have mentioned the topic of Romanticism and art/music. These two entries make such a cute couple,  I couldn't stand for them to be apart one second longer. 

 Episode 58, 4.20.09:

 Questioner: "There seems to be a desire among Objectivists to pin the status of Romanticism and heroics onto art which is not Romantic and onto people who are not heroes." The questioner asks Peikoff's opinion about people being "too free" to describe certain examples as Romantic.
Peikoff: "I completely agree...People attach the term "Romanticism" much too often to movies that have some element of good...however inessential or however peripheral...and that is a complete mistake. "Romanticism" means a definite kind of work, with a certain kind of plot, a certain kind of characters. You can't say "the hero said something good; therefore, it's a romantic movie; he said something hopeful and optimistic about man." That does not make a movie Romantic." Peikoff then relates some anecdotes about recommendations from friends on this basis, then he'd make a recommendation, only to be horrified when he saw the movie himself. He theorizes that "The problem is that people [those people] don't approach movies from the point of view on an integrated...philosphic...esthetic context. The problem is a lot of people are desperate to find something good, inspiring, benevolent...and they drop the context of the total. They seize on one some one aspect, they focus on it, they love it, and the rest, in their mind, has the status of "oh, that's a side issue...".
 Mary Ann Sures writes in Facets of Ayn Rand that Rand made a similar argument to her in reaction to a movie that she liked (The African Queen) and showed to Rand. Rand didn't like it, but with this argument, understood WHY Sures would:

The first thing she did was turn to me and say that she could see why I liked it. I was shocked. And I asked her why, because she had disliked so much about the movie. And then she began to give me her analysis of my positive response to the movie.First, she asked me ques tions about my reactions to the characters of Bogart and Hepburn, and brought me to understand that I really didn’t consider him a heroic type, that I had overlooked those naturalistic touches (the growl ing stomach, his crudeness, his dirty clothes), and that my positive response was to Hepburn. I admired a woman who didn’t fold up and give up. In the story, she conceives of a plan to sink an enemy ship, and she is determined that they will do it to­gether. And Ayn pointed this out to me: that I was responding to the abstraction of determination and heroism, and overlooking some of the unsavory concretes. It was selective awareness, on my part. I remember very clearly one thing she said: that this is an example of some one seeing past the bad directorial touches in the movie, see ing past the things that undercut the characters of both Hepburn and Bogart. She was sympathetic about my desire to see some thing heroic in human behavior, but she pointed out what I had failed to see in the movie—or, more exactly, the aspects I dismissed or glossed over in my appraisal and, consequently, in my response.

 (Ironically, Peikoff tells a similar story, with different results, where Rand says to him "What is the matter with you??? Are you crazy!" I'd love to know what that movie was!)

 This is all interesting in some of the arguments I've archived here about Romanticism in music, and a good reminder, as well. Rand approaches this topic in her essay "Bootleg Romanticism." I address it elsewhere in a piece called "Heroism in Music: Rock versus Pop=Sacrificial Heroes." Peikoff is right to talk about the "definite features" in Romantic literature, but it's still questionable, if Rand is to be believed, to define those features in music, without a "conceptual music vocabulary." Which leads us to the NEXT podcast:

 Episode 59, 4.27.09:

Questioner: "Is it possible to play and enjoy different pieces of music from different eras based on different senses of life? (i.e., Baroque, to Romantic.)
 Peikoff: "Absolutely, yes! A philosophy cannot deny you the right to enjoy any work of art if it's not one of these modern, non-objective...music, because that is not art, that is nihilism. But there's no reason why, particularly in the case of music... we don't even have an objective vocabulary to say what one piece means as against another and what sense of life it conveys. You can ask yourself do you like each period with the same intensity, with the same personal intimacy. If you like one more than another, then you're showing a direction of your sense of life. But maybe you hear the same thing in both; no one can criticize you for that at our present state of knowledge. It is your prerogative in any art if you interpret it objectively...and of course, music, we can't do that yet...but if you interpret it objectively, to respond to it, what you should be able to do is say why you respond to it. Now, if you respond to it because it represents the destruction of life, then what's wrong is not your response but that that is a motivating premise that you hold, which will have all kinds of manifestions." 
 Peikoff then brings up the example of Anna Karenina, which Rand called, the "most evil novel ever written." Peikoff agrees, yet admired the technical virtue of the writing while not supporting the theme. 

 I think my cutting of the "Gordion knot" (in theory) puts me at odds, technically speaking, with Peikoff re the conceptual vocabulary. But that is, to me, merely technical: Peikoff's views above are a far cry from the supposed Objectivist-esthetic purges of the past, and if some people would like to bring back those purges, they are clearly not coming from the ARI side of things. Always a good sign.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

A Musical Tug of War

This post is a companion piece to my last post on abstraction and concretes in Rand's theory of music. I've discussed, in answer to Ayn Rand, my theory of how music induces an emotional state in the listener via a "projection theory." I offered this theory not as a refutation of Rand's cognitive theory (for which I've offered support with the "Gestalt" theory), but as a "somatic" counterpart or basis. Part of my argument was based on theories of abstract art presented in Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics. I want to present one more theory from his book, to demonstrate the relation and tension between the cognitive and somatic elements of musical perception.

In his book, McCloud presents "the Big Triangle" theory. Basically, it's a pyramid that represents the degree of abstraction that takes place in sequential art via the marriage of images and words. McCloud starts with a demonstration of abstraction:

From here, he presents the pyramid (click on the pic for larger view):

For a more in-depth presentation of this, he has a convenient slideshow on his website. Based on that, I'd place physical motion (emotion) on the lower left-hand corner of the pyramid, words or lyrics on the right, and the combination of notes, the equivalent of the "abstraction," at the top.

So what's the point of all this? Rand suggested that there was a lack of a "conceptual vocabulary of music":
The formulation of a common vocabulary of music . . . 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 . . . .
I think that this "big triangle" could be a tool in that "musical vocabulary." Using McCloud's pyramid, we can translate this phenomenon in musical terms by replacing images with physical motion, and words with the cognitive aspects of melody (the integration of tones into melody, the interplay of melodic counterpoint, the perception of form in large scale compositions, etc.) This can also be compared to intensional versus extensional music. Basically, in my theory of how music induces emotion, I take Rand's "cognitive view" and pair it with the association of musical movement with physical movement, particularly movements that are associated with emotional states (as well as emotional projection via tone.) McCloud's pyramid could be used in this capacity to reveal the degree to which a composition utilizes one method in relation to the other.

The other point is that the pyramid presents another way of looking at the "reason/emotion" dichotomy of Apollo and Dionysus, the dichotomy championed by Nietzsche and challenged by Ayn Rand. But the pyramid makes visible why such a dichotomy is even considered possible: the somatic, kinetic elements of music can compel one to movement, such as an urge to dance, (or even in a reluctant foot tapping against one's will!), and the mental process of integration in complex musical pieces (which requires memory and repeated listening of tonal relations.) One's philosophy and "sense of life" determine how one feels about the "co-mingling" of these two aspects (acceptance or rejection of the dichotomy.) The pyramid makes visible this tension of opposites, this "tug of war."

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Abstractions and Concretes in Music

...if creative fiction writing is a process of translating an abstraction into the concrete, there are three possible grades of such writing: translating an old (known) abstraction (theme or thesis) through the medium of old fiction means (that is, characters, events or situations used before for that same purpose, that same translation)–this is most of the popular trash; translating an old abstraction through new, original fiction means–this is most of the good literature; creating a new, original abstraction and translating it through new, original mean....A fourth possibility–translating a new abstraction through old means–is impossible, by definition: if the abstraction is new, there can be no means used by anybody else before to translate it.-Ayn Rand
Now, Rand was talking specifically about literature here, but I think it could apply to all the arts. But what about music? I was thinking about how the above could be used to judge developments in music. Then I started to think about what it meant to concretize an abstraction in music, or abstract a concrete...Anyway, considering this in light of Rand's theories on music, it brings us back to the difficulties of comparing music to the other arts.

First, let's define out terms:
Abstraction (Process of) : The act of isolation involved [in concept-formation] is a process of abstraction: i.e., a selective mental focus that takes out or separates a certain aspect of reality from all others (e.g., isolates a certain attribute from the entities possessing it, or a certain action from the entities performing it, etc.). -Ayn Rand Lexicon
Now, remember what Rand wrote about abstractions and concretes in music:
Music cannot tell a story, it cannot deal with concretes, it cannot convey a specific existential phenomenon, such as a peaceful countryside or a stormy sea. The theme of a composition entitled “Spring Song” is not spring, but the emotions which spring evoked in the composer. Even concepts which, intellectually, belong to a complex level of abstraction, such as “peace,” “revolution,” “religion,” are too specific, too concrete to be expressed in music. All that music can do with such themes is convey the emotions of serenity, or defiance, or exaltation. Liszt’s “St. Francis Walking on the Waters” was inspired by a specific legend, but what it conveys is a passionately dedicated struggle and triumph—by whom and in the name of what, is for each individual listener to supply.

WHA??? Music cannot deal with concretes? So does that mean it only deals in abstractions? Well, let's see what else Rand says:
Music gives man’s consciousness the same experience as the other arts: a concretization of his sense of life. But the abstraction being concretized is primarily epistemological, rather than metaphysical; the abstraction is man’s consciousness, i.e., his method of cognitive functioning, which he experiences in the concrete form of hearing a specific piece of music. A man’s acceptance or rejection of that music depends on whether it calls upon or clashes with, confirms or contradicts, his mind’s way of working. The metaphysical aspect of the experience is the sense of a world which he is able to grasp, to which his mind’s working is appropriate.
Geez...music cannot deal with concretes, but it concretizes a sense of life? Which is it??? :P Anyway, we can see that this is part of Rand's "cognitive theory" of music. And it's right on, I think, as far as the cognitive part goes. But as I argued before, I think that there's another side to the story, a "projection theory." And after considering the statement at the start of this post, I'm wondering if the projection theory can show that music CAN deal with concretes and abstractions. I theorize that emotions are best understood through the concept of motion. Music depicts, auditorily, the motion of tones through space (up and down) and time. In a nutshell, music concretizes motion, which are based on the abstractions of feelings (eg., happy emotions go up and down in a certain manner, exited emotions are equated with fast, jittery motions, or sad emotions associated with slow, lumbering motions.) In that sense, through the auditory depictions of motions, music CAN tell a story, via association.

So, back to the opening of this post: How would a composition present old or new themes through new means? The "theme" would, musically, have to correspond to movement. What would a new theme be, then? Well, as they say, "there's nothing new under the sun." There are basic, axiomatic "themes" of movement; we can call them the "archetypal" elements. We can compare here to elements and molecules. Any new themes would be complex combinations of the "building blocks" of musical life. Those more complex themes would require new means, via form. Simple themes require simple tunes, more complex themes require juxtaposition of themes (happy versus sad, for starters) and would require say, counterpoint via a fugue or maybe via bitonality. Sonatas and symphonies are perhaps the height of these complex combinations.

Now, that's speaking of the musical combinations as the means. But what about the "subjects" of these themes? Perhaps an architectural example is in order. A shack, a modular house, an church, an office, and a skyscraper are all structures built on the same laws of physics, and same archetypal principals, yet they all convey differerent "themes." A shack is of a primitive variety, a simple, sufficient shelter. A modular house is a more modern variant, built with the same goal in mind, but more sophisticated then a simple shack; and it may have different forms, more rooms, etc. A church has a different purpose, a "house for God," and is meant to inspire an "upward awe"; as a result, it has high walls, large spaces, and spires reaching to the heavens. Offices and skyscrapers are meant for business, but a simple office building may be short and inviting, while a skyscraper is large, like a church, and "religious" in its own way. They all share certain features like walls or ceilings, but their sense of purpose is symbiotic with their sense of life; a church inspires a feeling of "smallness" in God's presence; so does Donald Trump's Trump Tower. The boardroom and the pulpit share an archetypal form, yet they diverge in their style; one is "otherworldly,"the other oriented to earthly success.

So too, in music: religious music may be spacious and upward-oriented, but the theme to The Apprentice ("For the Love of Money" by the O'Jays), while also upward-oriented, is more "boisterous" and "funky" (suggesting "earthiness" via sexuality, connecting the concept of money to status and power and attractiveness to the opposite sex.) With those examples in mind, it becomes easier to see how "new themes" can become new "musical" themes; a song like "For the Love of Money" could not have been written, philosophically, in the Medieval period. The point is, a new "theme" amounts to nothing less than a change or development in philosophical thought. A musical example of this would be the development of "serial music" as a counterpart to the ideas of "equality," or "rock and roll" as a counterpart to teen rebellion and sexuality. (There are even musical depictions of quantum physics, that challenge the notion of linear progression in favor of a "layering" or "simultaneous" perception.)

As for the "grading" aspect of Rand's comment, it becomes easier to see how this applies to music. The creator of a "funky" bassline uses the archetypal elements of human motion to suggest an emotional state, one that other bassplayers can utilize. Because of the "archetypal" element (the reference to reality being human motion), other bassplayers can utilize those funky lines. They can remain "performance artists," playing it as the composer wrote it. (As long as they recognize the authorship, they are not secondhanders, but they are not creators, or innovators, they are more like "employees" distributing the composer's work. Or, as Rand puts it: "In these arts, the medium employed is the person of the artist. His task is not to re-create reality, but to implement the re-creation made by one of the primary arts.) But they can switch up the notes, or syncopate, or modulate, and put their individual spin on it, such as changing the emotional "feel," thus contributing to the creative process (via interpration), this would be akin to Rand's "new means for old themes." Rand again:

This does not mean that the performing arts are secondary in esthetic value or importance, but only that they are an extension of and dependent on the primary arts. Nor does it mean that performers are mere “interpreters”: on the higher levels of his art, a performer contributes a creative element which the primary work could not convey by itself; he becomes a partner, almost a co-creator—if and when he is guided by the principle that he is the means to the end set by the work.

As to finding new themes and new means: well, Rand hoped that it was not a "mistaken conceit," but believed that, as a philosopher-novelist, was, "as far as I know...only me–my kind of fiction writing." Whether or not one agrees with her status, considering all that's come before, in music AND literature, one has to admit that the bar is set pretty high; not simply because of the personalities and talent preceding us, but because if there is, indeed, "nothing new under the sun," and it's all a matter of "ever-increasing" combinations and complexity of basic elements, the bar is set higher and higher exponentially (like compound-interest on a savings rate...or credit card statement...). Or...we can use an evolutionary analogy here. Animals have evolved different physical features over time, teeth, claws, poisons, colors...but man is the first animal to significantly evolve cognitively. But still, in order for those mental abstractions to have significance, they still have to relate somehow to the material side of life on earth (at least, from the Objectivist point of view; a Platonist might argue otherwise.) But that's a matter for the another post, one that will discuss the tug-of-war between the physical and the mental, the cognitive and the somatic...

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Begone, J. Evans Pritchard, Ph.D!

Or, the dangers of "Objectively" grading the "greatness" of music. (Hat tip to Bill Sherk.)

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Food for Thought: "An Aural Fixation"

Rand talked about the arts being determined by the nature of the senses, and claims that in order for a new art to be developed, man would have to develop a new sense. Oddly enough, though, she downplays the contribution of two existing senses: smell and taste (and oddly enough, since she categorizes music as "art," hearing):

The development of human cognition starts with the ability to perceive things, i.e., entities. Of man's five cognitive senses, only two provide hum with a direct awareness of entities: sight and touch. The other three senses-hearing, taste, and smell-give him an awareness of some of an entity's attributes (or of the consequences produced by an entity): they tell him that something makes sounds, or something tastes sweet, or something smells fresh; but in order to perceive [emphasis mine] this something, he needs sight and/or touch.
One has to ask why Rand allows music to be classified as an "art," given that hearing, according to her view, does not enable man to "perceive." To be fair to Rand, she did acknowledge the discrepancy: "Music does not dealt with entities,which is the reason why its psycho-epistemological function is different from that of the other arts...". The short answer would be that music, being a temporal art, requires a process of integration of tones, thus, making it "conceptual" and not merely "decorative." This would be in line with her explanation of why photography is not an art, but film is the "story" bringing it under the umbrella of literature, as opposed to a meaningless juxtaposition of images." But to get to the root of her statement regarding the senses: What does she mean by "perceive?" The etymology of the word is this:

perceive Look up perceive at Dictionary.com
c.1300, via Anglo-Fr. parceif, O.N.Fr. *perceivre, O.Fr. per├žoivre, from L. percipere "obtain, gather," also, metaphorically, "to grasp with the mind," lit. "to take entirely," from per "thoroughly" + capere "to grasp, take" (see capable). Replaced O.E. ongietan. Both the L. senses were in O.Fr., though the primary sense of Mod.Fr. percevoir is literal, "to receive, collect" (rents, taxes, etc.), while Eng. uses the word almost always in the metaphorical sense.


It's beyond the scope of this brief blog post, (which is already longer than I intended!) but I wonder how Rand would explain just HOW sight and/or touch "take in entirely" all aspects of reality, when it could be said that sight does not take in auditory phenomenon, for starters...anyway...

As a result, many Objectivists reject the idea of the culinary arts. I reckon this has to do with the conceptual nature of Rand's theory; if music is already a sticky widget in Rand's theory, can you imagine the rationalization needed to explain haute cuisine and perfume in her cognitive theory? (They might accept it as art in the sense of "craft." ) And yet, I think my discussion of the somatic aspects of art open the door for an art based on those senses. At least one Rand fan, Jennifer Iannolo, has taken the art of cooking seriously enough to explore the connection between food and philosophy; witness The The Culinary Media Network, "home of the Gilded Fork and the World's First All-Food Podcast Network." Iannolo,

A dedicated sensualist...is committed to exploring as much of the planet as possible in her lifetime, with plenty of food, drink and sass to make the ride a smooth one. Food Philosophy is her expression of those pleasures -- call it an aural fixation.
I've enjoyed Jennifer's work since I was first exposed to it on the original SOLO website (trivia for the day: the original theme for her podcast, "New York Cheesecake," was written by Adam Buker), and maintain that even though her work has less to do with Objectivism per se, it makes real the goal of "a philosophy for living on Earth." Whether you find it to be "art" or not, Jennifer's site is "Objectively" certain to make you salivate. (Check out the recently published Gilded Fork Cookbook!).

(On the other hand...now that I think about it, I might not want to make the case for the culinary arts. Someone is bound to make it a moral issue, with people divided over the moral superiority of Toaster Strudel to Pop Tarts, or linguini and clams to Chef Boyardee...or Chef Boyardee to Franco-American...)

Now, for the case for "aural cuisine," consider some of this post by Jonathan on the eternal flamewar at SOLO:

Ellen wrote, about my music/cuisine analogy,
"However, you are the one who is making the claim that the analogy is a good one. So let's turn this questioning the other direction about: Please attempt to justify the claim."

Cooking can be similar to the other arts in that it can use a wide variety of elements to achieve drama and expressiveness through similarities, contrasts and emotional and conceptual associations. Much as a musician chooses a key, or a painter chooses to selectively limit his palette to a specific range of hues and values, a chef can do the same with flavors, temperatures and textures.

A chef might limit her "palette" to a small range of flavors to highlight one contrasting element, and the style of contrast she chooses can be expressive. She might contrast, say, a "hot," spicy meat with a cold vegetable medley, resulting in a course that evokes feelings of lightness, naturalness, freshness and summer, feelings which might be reinforced by the similarities and contrasts of flavors of earlier or later courses. Or she might "cool" the spiciness with a warm, sweet, cream sauce, which might generally evoke feelings of heaviness, tradition, family, calm and winter. Or she might not "cool" the protein at all, but instead choose to modulate the "heat" with an unexpected complementary spice, which might generally evoke the feeling that the dish is very energetic, festive and new.

Courses can be structurally selected to dramatically build to a climax. Then can, say, increase from mild flavors to more intense ones. The courses might offer structural variations on a theme -- different courses using the same wine as an ingredient, for example, or all of the ingredients used might be only those that are found naturally within a given region.

All this suggests that it is possible for the culinary arts to meet Rand's criteria for being an art, in her sense. There is a "recreation of reality," integration of sensory material, and yes, value judgements. Whatever your stance, you gotta admit, it's still a fine day in this fallapart country when a argument like this can be the highlight of one's afternoon.

And now, it's lunchtime.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Another Knot-Slicer

  Man, it seems the blades have been sharpened all around. On the never-ending flame war at SOLO, Ellen Stuttle has weighed in with her own knot-cutting of Rand's insistence on setting the bar too high in musical matters:
Meanwhile, a quick comment... You're misunderstanding what I mean by the musical nitty-grittys. I'm not talking about the neurophysiology. Thinking that one had to know that is a place where Rand made a mistake (resultant from a couple earlier mistakes in her beliefs about how music works).

 So what does Ellen mean?

 What I mean is that Linz doesn't get at the fundamental musical issue, that of tonal drama. He focuses on melody, which is a result (the kind of melody he's talking about), not the primary.

 I'd be interested in hearing a more detailed explanation of this. I'm not quite sure what she means by this. But the first thing that comes to mind is the analogy of music to literature ("tonal drama.") Of course, it was Rand who said that music "cannot tell a story," but it does have an analogy in its temporal aspect (music with a beginning, middle, end, etc.). I'm not bothered by the analogy, but more by the seeming assertion that ALL music has to be "dramatic." I think of music that can be used for relaxation, or simple melodies, that is meant to induce calm and NO drama. She may be using this term in relation to Perigo's discussion of opera and "Romantic" music, so a term like "tonal drama" brings that operatic, dramatic connotation. Of course, Ellen may be speaking more abstractly in her use of the word dramatic. 

 I personally don't wan't to limit her comments; what I find interesting is the argument about melodies being a result, not a cause. I don't know if this is her intent, but what this suggests to me is that it is not so much the particular notes of a melody that work musical magic, but the "tone" of the melody. This is demonstrated in the contrast of different performances of a given passage, the tonal colors chosen, the tonal "attitude" of the performance. (Compare the use of the song "Light My Fire" by the Doors in a tv commercial, which prompted Jim Morrison to throw a tv through a window.) This also reminds me of Robert Jourdain's argument in Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy regarding melodies, how many successful melodies break the rules of melody, defying the "Pritchard" method of judging poetry, or the American Bandstand variant. (More on this in an upcoming post.)

 Anyway, could be an interesting discussion growing. Poster Jonathan already puts forth one objection to her statement:

I think it would be more accurate to say that melody is not the primary ~to you~. It can be the primary to others. And to additional others, rhythm can be primary. Your lack of primary response to melody or rhythm doesn't mean that melody and rhythm are less meaningful, dramatic and expressive, or lacking in "idiosyncratic formal potentials," as you put it earlier.
(Update: It seems Ellen answers my speculation in her response to Jonathan [geez, I wish those two would get along; while I don't agree with everything either one say, I find them to be among the better posters there. Oh well, who is John Galt?] , pointing to a post where she goes into what she means  by "tonal drama":

Briefly, it's a musical method of producing a sense of tension and resolution by first establishing a tonic key, then modulating away from the tonic to a related key, then (optionally) taking variously long and complicated key excursions, then modulating back to the tonic." It seems she is referring to something less "broad" than I though. Fair enough.)

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, but...how 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. 

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Cutting the Gordian Knot of Rand's Theory of Music



  The formulation of a common vocabulary of music . . . 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 . . . .

 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. 

-Ayn Rand, "Art and Cognition"

Rand set forth a mighty challenge musically, positing that to answer the question of how music induces emotions would require the "joint effort of a physiologist, a psychologist, and a philosopher (an esthetician.)" Lindsay Perigo claims that Rand "set the bar too high" and proceeded to "cut the Gordian knot." While I strongly disagree with Perigo's motivations and method, I think it is fair to ask if the knot was tied too tight. Rand believed that the matter was a cognitive one ("was it mathematics?"). Some Objectivists argue between a cognitive and expressive dichotomy. 



 I don't believe there is a dichotomy, but a division of labor. Specifically, I believe the cognitive aspect is the means to the expressive aspect. I've already provided an argument for Rand's theory, "The Gestalt Theory". But where Rand theorized that the "deciphering" of the "puzzle" of sonic patterns was the source of musical emotions, I don't think that is the case. (At least not entirely; not that it COULDN'T be, if someone consciously chooses to make it the case.) While there may be something to her claim that one gets bored with "too simple an integration," I believe we can cut the "Gordian knot" by applying "Occam's Razor." Rand's explanation requires unconscious mathematical ability and "reversals" of epistemology. There's another explanation, a simpler one which is demonstrable, and can be summed up in one word: empathic projection.  



Music communicates emotions, which one grasps, but does not actually feel; what one feels is a suggestion, a kind of distant, dissociated, depersonalized emotion—until and unless it unites with one’s own sense of life. But since the music’s emotional content is not communicated conceptually or evoked existentially, one does feel it in some peculiar, subterranean way. -Ayn Rand, "Art and Cognition" 
 This "way" may be "subterranean," though it's not so peculiar when one considers the phenomenon of empathy. A theory of empathy is a scientific concept, and beyond my scope to completely discuss, but the science, as I understand it, involves what are called "mirror neurons."  The current Wikipedia passage describes it as thus:
The human capacity to recognize the bodily feelings of another is related to one's imitative capacities, and seems to be grounded in the innate capacity to associate the bodily movements and facial expressions one sees in another with the proprioceptive feelings of producing those corresponding movements or expressions oneself.[21] Humans also seem to make the same immediate connection between the tone of voice and other vocal expressions and inner feeling.

 All this, while scientifically complicated,  would provide a much-simplified answer to Rand's challenge. So why did Rand over-complicate this? I believe the clue is in her preference for logic over feelings, as well as her arguments against so-called "abstract art." Rand's arguments against it were about the "disintegration" of the senses from concepts to percepts. (Randall R. Dipert offers a theory that Rand's "Aristotelian, anti-Platonic theory of art consist in emphasizing substance as the main purpose or value in art." I could see Rand rejecting non-representative symbols and such out of a rejection for the "Platonic ideals." But I submit that the projection theory eliminates the need for such.) However, one not need to favor postmodernism to "start from the beginning," so to speak, and reverse the process, to start with integration from simpler premises. Not every can understand advanced mathematics, but that doesn't mean they can't understand music, even complex music. The process of projecting is the means to this. I think at some level, Rand would have agreed; when "abstract art" was considered in the context of "decorative art," Rand wrote that a "representation element" would be a clash. What Rand did not pursue in that brief comment was the issue of the emotional effect of decorative art. And yet, she see music as working against the normal "perception" of art:
The fundamental difference between music and the other arts lies in the fact that music is experienced as if it reversed man’s normal psycho-epistemological process.

 The other arts create a physical object (i.e., an object perceived by man’s senses, be it a book or a painting) and the psycho-epistemological process goes from the perception of the object to the conceptual grasp of its meaning, to an appraisal in terms of one’s basic values, to a consequent emotion. The pattern is: from perception—to conceptual understanding—to appraisal—to emotion.

 The pattern of the process involved in music is: from perception—to emotion—to appraisal—to conceptual understanding.

 Music is experienced as if it had the power to reach man’s emotions directly.
  There are "mathematical" elements in color theory and perception, such as the ration of lightwaves, etc. but knowledge of that is not necessary in order to appreciate color. Rather, color seems to be associated with temperatures through experience and projection. We see blue as "cold" and red as "hot" as a result of experience with cold blue objects and red hot fire. It's not an arbitrary grouping, but based on objective properties filtered through our particular sensory apparatus. 

 So, too, with simple shapes. Consider the following examples from Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics: (click to enlarge) 
















  





 Rand has made disparaging remarks, usually in reference to science fiction and "geometric  towards symbolic symbols, but unlike her reasoning about "abstract art," she does not spell out her beef. But her cavalier dismissal does not take into account the phenomena in McCloud's examples. The examples here are similar to the phenomenon in music. These are non-specific examples of the descriptive words that McCloud's uses, and yet, they seem "right." This is what Rand does when she says that 

Music cannot tell a story, it cannot deal with concretes, it cannot convey a specific existential phenomenon, such as a peaceful countryside or a stormy sea. The theme of a composition entitled “Spring Song” is not spring, but the emotions which spring evoked in the composer. Even concepts which, intellectually, belong to a complex level of abstraction, such as “peace,” “revolution,” “religion,” are too specific, too concrete to be expressed in music. All that music can do with such themes is convey the emotions of serenity, or defiance, or exaltation. Liszt’s “St. Francis Walking on the Waters” was inspired by a specific legend, but what it conveys is a passionately dedicated struggle and triumph—by whom and in the name of what, is for each individual listener to supply.

  Musical patterns and shapes, in the form of chords and scales, as well as the tone and shape of musical effect in speaking, are not unlike these examples. The speaker might be conveying representational information, but the tone and shape of his or her voice convey the emotion. Like color, we don't have to know the wavelengths/mathematical rations of the sounds to get the point. Whether or not we are "born" knowing those emotional nuances or learn them via association, we "project" an emotional tone that is picked up by the listener. 

 Rand talked of a "conceptual language of music" being needed; but by over-complicating it, she muddied the waters to what we already know: The tone and the shape; musical is translated from sound to conceptual language by talk of direction and color temperature. If a scale goes up, we project it as rising; if the tone is harsh or fast, we differentiate it from a joyously slow rise, like the anticipation of a roller coaster ascending. The variations are almost endless. Again, an example from McCloud that visualizes this:


 This can be demonstrated in the idea of dance. Rand called dance the "silent partner of music." I think it's necessary to go the next step, and call dance a demonstration of how music projects emotion. Actually, Rand DOES, indeed, make this argument. She writes that " The dance is the silent partner of music and participates in a division of labor: music presents a stylized version of man’s consciousness in action—the dance presents a stylized version of man’s body in action." She continues to describe the physical connotations of emotion in a manner that is similar to the preceding images from McCloud:
 Every strong emotion has a kinesthetic element, experienced as an impulse to leap or cringe or stamp one’s foot, etc. Just as a man’s sense of life is part of all his emotions, so it is part of all his movements and determines his manner of using his body: his posture, his gestures, his way of walking, etc. We can observe a different sense of life in a man who characteristically stands straight, walks fast, gestures decisively—and in a man who characteristically slumps, shuffles heavily, gestures limply. This particular element—the overall manner of moving—constitutes the material, the special province of the dance. The dance stylizes it into a system of motion expressing a metaphysical view of man.
 Only purely "cerebral" music is meant to be listened to as a cognitive "exercise," that doesn't explain the need to dance, which is tied to the idea of emotion; emotion as "motion." Emotion may not be a "tool of cognition," but it is a powerful motivator. It is meant to MOVE us, mentally and physically. This would fit in with Rand's emphasis of life as progress, action, etc.. But to start from a cognitive level ignores the "baser" levels of human emotion. This is where I wish Rand had more of a biological basis in her philosophy; not that she denied such, but she was simply not a biologist. She knew it was needed, but left that to the sciences. She can be forgiven, given her time period, of not having the knowledge of the brain that we have today. (She did call on neurologists in furthering the understanding of music.) But would she have accepted it? Let's not speculate; let's look at our own knowledge. The brain is structured in three parts: the reptilian, the mammalian, and the neo-cortex. The sub-structures of the brain respond to sound and such on a different level than the melodic and the cortex; memory, namely long-term memory, is needed to appreciate melody. But in order to have melody, motion comes first, and the older parts of the brain have a part to play. The nervous system responds to the same stimuli differently in different people. Some people like it "fast and furious," others don't.  Other parts are "conditioned" to respond to sounds in nature as flight-or-fight mechanisms, hence; loud harsh sounds stimulate certain responses.

 Now, none of this is to say that this is complete, or that Rand is totally wrong; I think her approach works for more "conceptual" arts like literature. But I think she made a mistake in not starting from a simpler base and working her way up. She started to, in her description of the reversal of the cognitive response to music in contrast to the other arts. But I think her emphasis on the cognitive aspects prevented her from going further than her observations on dance might have allowed. This is echoed in the support of Rand's admires who give a "cognitive" definition to emotions, such as this one from a poster named Jeff Perren on the never-ending music thread on Solo:

The analogy overlooks a crucial distinction: emotions are not primitive sensory states, nor are they entirely or even primarily associational. They are, in important part at least, the consequence of evaluations. At bottom, this view denies volition and its importance in human selections and reactions.

 I find this view working from the "top" down, and ignores the structural evolution of the brain, and emotions in general. It's beyond the scope of this piece to develop that, but the work of neuroscientists such as Antonio Damasio points the way to a fuller understanding. For example, Damasio points out that the auditory system is closer to the parts of the brain that regulate the body, and life, and the triggers that control the somatic aspects of music. There are distinctions in emotions, such as cognitive and non-cognitive emotions. At any rate, I do not argue against that claim to make the case for a primarily "sensory state" explanation of music, but an evolution from a more primitive version of emotions to a more advanced, "cognitive"-based emotion. I think my theory provides Rand's "cognitive/gestalt theory" with the explanation for the somatic component. From there, it's for science to figure out. 

  Incidentally, Dipert mentions that a similar theory was put forward by noted philosopher Peter Kivy. While I haven't read Kivy myself (though I now plan to!), I don't claim that my theory is purely of my own working; the Scott McCloud references are indicative of that. That said, I think what makes a "empathic projection" theory so plausible is the simplicity of it, that anyone can potentially have see its effects in their day to day lives, such as in the example of "feeling" the pain when witnessing an injury in progress. 

 This brings me to an end of my speculation on Rand's theory of music. As a musician, it's given me much insight into my craft, and I'm forever indebted to her for that. At the same time, the quest for an answer to her challenge threatens to be a dead end if I cannot take into consideration the "empathic" aspects of emotion that she rejects or downplays. (Ironically, I think that the physiologist and psychologist that she calls for would tell her that those aspects are crucial to answering her challenge.) Her dismissal of those aspects of counter-productive to what musicians, at the core, are capable of; musicians have been achieving these effects for years; to be told that "it's all math" goes against everything we experience. What I am after, as a composer, is not a "cognitive" puzzle for my listeners, or even for myself, but an understanding...in other words, empathy. While the notes and chords are the means, they are not the ends; while the Gestalt theory explains how the mind integrates those notes and patterns, it is not for their own sake. And I have to make a confession: I've never been comfortable with the "emotions be damned!" exclamation of Richard Halley. But to understand that quote, within context, it has to be weighed with his other statement: 
"Feelings? Oh, yes, we do feel, he, you and I-we are, in fact, the only people capable of feeling-and we know where our feelings come from."

 On the surface of it, I have no problem with THAT statement. But the Objectivist explanation of feelings, if it does not include the phenomenon of empathic projection, will forever be inadequate to fully explain the phenomenon of music, no matter how accurate the cognitive theory proves to be. Otherwise, emotions truly ARE damned. But an empathic theory without a cognitive theory will do no better. Together, however, they truly overcome the reason-emotion dichotomy (as poetically described in the "Apollonian/Dionysian" symbolism of Nietzche's Birth of Tragedy in the Spirit of Music, depicted above on this site's banner) that Rand rightly rejected. So from there, I am happy to take that insight and move on from her challenge and devote more time to the actual creation of music.