What is wrong, and why we can’t seem to fix it

Throughout most of my life I have been living under conservative governments, and the nicest way I can find to describe political conservatism is to say that it embodies the popular phrase ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. However, as we all know there are many things wrong at present, and they need fixing. No amount of ignoring them will make them go away. This blog is about those awkward facts of world that won’t go away and which political conservatism won’t make go away either.

What I’m going to aim to do is post a blog once a week, on a Friday, so you can digest it over the weekend. The next week’s blog will either be the next in my series, or a discussion of issues that have arisen from the comments.

I’m going to have a very strict comments policy, comment will only be accepted if they are intelligent and polite contributions to discussion around the topic of the post. Everything else will be moderated.

If you find a blog here sympathetic, you might consider reading the blogs from the beginning, as they are supposed to be a more or less continuous argument.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Grumble 7: Lack of good literature

I have already dealt with this theme, here and, briefly here.

Previously I have been arguing that literature was largely an excuse for modernity, buying in to its truths. There is no shortage of literature telling us to be ‘good people’ in the sense of Christian-virtuous, or secular humanist-virtuous, but very little showing us how to be virtuous in the sense I have been using it here (Grumble 6), that is using the Daoist de to move closer to the Way.

Here I’m going to talk about how people who are wanting to be authors encounter the publishing ‘industry’ (which like anything else with the suffix -industry, isn’t very good, think coal-industry, nuclear-ditto, sex-ditto, gambling-ditto, education-ditto, health-ditto &c).

A few years ago I was speaking to a local luminary, a novelist and poet, who said ‘everyone wants to write, no-one wants to read’; I thought instantly this is because the published work people are likely to encounter is not much good, including his own; the literary gatekeepers are not much good. Like the situation in many areas it’s partly a generational thing. Literary types, like this author, who are now in their 60s, grew up in an age of increasing government expenditure on the arts, benefitted from it, and now control it, being naturally reluctant to relinquish the shrinking pile of public funds (never large to begin with), to others.

The classic case of this is the Australia Council for the Arts. I don’t know what good this organisation does in other areas the other arts, but I do know that its main purpose in ‘literature’ seems to be to make sure that that the literature it patronises is of low quality. I was particularly amused to see recently that they were offering mentorship schemes to young poets, where the younger poet is guided by an older poet. The problem with this is that the older generation of poets in Australia are not very good, and it is difficult to see how younger poets’ work could be improved by their mentoring.

All this is not to indulge in the Romantic deification of the artist, writers aren’t necessarily good because they’re new or young, however, amongst younger writers and poets there may be better writers and poets than those we currently have and the advice and guidance of those older writers and poets is unlikely to lead to the younger ones improving. It is very rare to come across a truly ‘virtuous’ (in the sense used above) writer or poet and the chances that such a writer or poet could meet a similarly virtuous younger writer or poet and advise them fruitfully are just about nil in this day and age. Similarly with editors, I imagine that good editors are as rare as good poets and writers and to imagine that such editor might meet such writers and poets to produce high-quality work by their collaboration is quite fanciful. The sad truth is that writers are unlikely to meet great editors to improve their work, and great editors are unlikely to meet great writers to collaborate with.

Writers and poets of real integrity and virtue have to slog on alone, not because this is the lot of all artists and their ‘suffering’ will improve their art, but because there is precious little virtue (de) in the world at present, and if you have it, you’re likely to be alone, and this would apply to any area of life, not just writing.

You note in the above I have been assuming that valuable writing will be published mainly at public expense via subsidised publication (or in other niche publishing such as university presses). This is because mainstream publishing is quite valueless in the present (the ‘publishing’ industry is to publishing, you might say, as the ‘food industry’ is to food, or the ‘sex industry’ to sex). It is simply yet another exercise in modernistic over-production of poor quality products. Twenty years ago I read that over 100,000 books were published each year in English, this is obviously far too many and it’s difficult to think that more than a handful have any value whatsoever.

Perhaps the answer to dearth of literature lies in clever use of online collaborations, sharing of e-texts &c &c, by writers’ groups, though there is always a danger of any worthy group falling victim in our society to middle-class amateurish enthusiasm and capture by elderly and opinionated gatekeepers. Perhaps again once again citizens’ panels, as I have argued for elsewhere, are the answer. Such randomly-chosen panels could provide the necessary objective input to decisions about how to apportion public funds for publishing subsidies.

However, here as elsewhere, what we really need is a ‘virtuous’ populace. The potential audience for a volume of official verse by well-known official poet at present would be about 1000, the potential audience for a volume of poetry by good poet would be about 1000. It is important to note, however, that the two audiences would be mutually exclusive, the audience for the former volume would be official people of all kinds (the sort of people who like to listen to Bizet on Classic FM, for example), and the audience for the latter might include people of virtue.

If we had a virtuous society, then people would read and judge books by virtuous criteria, the over-production of crap books would cease, and the state would no longer need to subsidise publication of literature. However, of course, we cannot attain that state until our whole way of life reverts to sustainability in all areas. To imagine that we can have a society that is dysfunctional in most areas, but produces deathless literature, is ridiculous, as I noted before.

Next Week: 100 Great Books


Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Grumble 6: Lack of Virtue

Last week I ended my tirade against ABC Classic FM by intimating that I found their championing of bad music was part of a wider pattern in our society in shutting ourselves off to real living.

Another symptom of this is the lack of virtue in our society. Virtue, in the sense I am using it here, must not be confused with the Christian concept of virtue, which is adherence to Christian moral principles. The problem with these that the way they are usually framed means that virtue in the Christian sense is often seen as simply avoidance of certain things (‘staying away from strong drink and bad women’ as they used to say in non-conformist circles), and this easily transfers into Christian-based campaigns to stop other people (most of whom are not Christian) doing things that Christians find ‘offensive’. There is also a lack of active virtues in Christianity, because, as I have argued already Christianity is focussed on the next world, not this, and so it can’t be very interested in the immediate ecological concerns that people have at the moment, and it fails to condemn, even in its own terms, the enormous immoralities going on at the moment in the world of finance and government.

However, most non-Christian societies have had a useful concept of akin to the sense of virtue that I am talking about. For example mana (Polynesia), de (China, as in the Dao De Ching), baraka (Arabic), ‘divine possession’ (Homeric Greek, Iron-age Irish, classical Hindu), and ‘medicine’ (Native North American). And of course this concept is related to the well-known phenomenon of shamanism in the traditional cultures of the many of the world’s peoples.

All these concepts are united in the idea of there being a kind of order of existence into which the person exercising virtue taps in order to complete their tasks. This is most clearly seen in the Dao De Ching, where, a section on ‘the Way’ is followed by a section on the practical application of knowledge of the Way, De or ‘Virtue’.

Virtue is the capacity to carry out extraordinary actions. Its characteristics are:
  • sure capacity
  • knowledge (but not conventional knowledge, one of the most marked features of virtue is its ability to discard conventional knowledge and embrace new, but requisite knowledge)
  • influence and suasion, so that its capacity can be seen as extraordinary, even by people who do not have virtue
Examples of extraordinary actions permitted by virtue are: feats of physical prowess, acts of heroism, or extreme persistence in some noble end, artistic creativity, handicrafts and artisanship, inspired political leadership or statecraft, and so forth.

Virtue is not a state that can be continuously inhabited, but it sheds a lustre over the life of the person who is, at times, virtuous, and those around them.

Modern life fatally erodes virtue by erecting rigid career paths and organised and well-defined bodies of knowledge which govern all aspects of life, and which do not allow unorthodox or unauthorised exercise of independent action. Modern life is also cut off from the fount of all useful knowledge, namely the daily life of the natural world, and simple, natural lives lead close to nature.

What disappears in modernity is not the occasional act of heroism or prowess, but the quieter aspects of virtue, the calm activity of creativity, the wise channels of inspired leadership, which are supplanted by authorised official arts and literature and a democratically elected rogues’ gallery, respectively.

The other difficult that virtue has in modernity is that when it does occur it often cannot be seen as virtue, because the capacity to recognise it in others is eroded by modern life—instead it is usually seen as eccentricity.

The really vital function of virtue in previous ages was to maintain personal health, mental and physical. In the antiseptic world of modernity too many people are kept artificially alive without virtue, but their existence is suboptimal at best, and is not virtuous health.

Next week: Lack of good literature

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Grumble 5: Classic FM and the promotion of Bad Music

In last week’s piece I outlined my theory of musical quality. For music (that is pieces of music of any length) to be pleasurable, the music must embody ‘effect’, musical momentum produced by harmonic, rhythmic and melodic means. This effect is distinct from emotion or mood, or beauty, which I call the ‘affect’ of the music. The affect of the music can in fact hinder the effect.

As an example of this let me relate how recently I listen to a recording of Dvořák’s Cello Concerto (I wanted to do this because I knew that it had been an influence on several subsequent cello concertos I like, such as Finzi’s). Now Dvořák is a composer whose name elicits a sympathetic reaction because he was a Romantic, based his music on Bohemian folk-music, wrote the New World Symphony &c. However I found listening to the Cello Concerto quite a strange experience, it seemed to me to be bewildering and alienating with passages in different rhythms and with different material following each other in no apparent order and with no progression from the beginning of the work onwards. There was no musical ‘effect’ there.

By contrast I find works such as the symphonies of Swedish C20 century composer Allan Pettersson easy to follow and enjoyable to listen to, because they have musical movement. (I highly recommend, for example, Pettersson’s Symphony No.9, an extraordinary 67 minute single movement which sounds like a Mahler scherzo updated by 50 years).

In Australia at present we have a classical music radio channel run by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation called Classic FM. It is my contention that this channel ignores most good music (‘effective’ music) in favour of music which does not have this, such as Dvořák’s Cello Concerto.

Now, as I said, most folk music and art music in the west has this effect, the only period which it was in abeyance was during the C19. Once serious classical music recovered in the C20, the only music that preserved this maladaption was popular classical music (plus some C20 music by composers who refused to learn from the early C20 composers who had rediscovered musical movement, such as Sibelius).

About a decade ago I was speaking to a musically-knowledgeable person who opined that ‘Classic FM concentrates largely on C19 orchestral and vocal schmalz’. At the time I agreed with him on this, but now would probably modify his view and say that Classic FM these days mainly concentrates on C19 orchestral and vocal schmalz, but also seeks out musical schmalz of all ages. So, for example, Classic FM now plays a lot of baroque operatic arias and ‘world music’ (which to me sounds like music that isn’t good enough to be folk music).

The channel also takes to easy option in that when it does play music by reputable composers it concentrates on their easier and less effective works: Bruckner’s Symphony No.4, but rarely the Symphony No.8; Mahler’s Symphony No.4, but not his Symphony No.6.

This to my mind is a tragedy: Classic FM is a government-funded broadcasting service, yet is plays mainly bad music; there is an opportunity to have a government-funded broadcasting service that plays good music, but this has been missed. If it played good music it could attract many more people to classical music and could make people’s lives happier. As it is it seems its only function is to cement in the minds of its listeners a particular type of sentimentality that goes hand-in-hand with political conservatism.

Classic FM maintains that in broadcasting the music that it does it is merely reflecting the wishes of its listeners. We can check on this because every two or three years Classic FM holds a competition where people can vote for their favourite pieces in different genres (symphonies, chamber, concertos) and for their favourite pieces in whatever genre. Looking at the results for these competitions we can see that of the pieces selected only 20-30% can be regarded as effective music, the rest being largely Romantic, or sub-Romantic, pap.

However, even this figure is higher than the average daily quota of effective music dished up by Classic FM, so I would argue that there exists a demand for such music in larger quantities than is currently provided by our friends at Classic FM. I would also maintain that Classic FM is in fact vitiating the tastes of its listeners, and acts to form, or deform them, rather than simply reflecting them. I can’t believe that any rational soul can actually like Bizet without much brainwashing first. I could discuss Nietzsche here, but I think the mention of him is enough...

What on earth is the origin of this strange fascination for bad music? I can think of two. Somewhere in Corporateland some lost soul came up with the idea for a ‘popular’ classical music channel and franchised the idea and this was bought by the ABC and deployed in Australia (the UK has a ‘Classic FM’ channel which apparently is similarly sub-par and the two may embody the same bad idea).

The other is this: in Australia after WW2 there arose the idea of the ‘cultural cringe’, that Australia deferred too much to Britain in arts and culture and didn’t have its own artistic culture. It may have been that in Australian conservatories and Departments of Music there arose a determination to react against British musical culture (Elgar, Vaughan Williams &c) and so musical education turned to other musical cultures, this being reflected, eventually, in Classic FM and its tastes. If this is the case then you would have to say that even though the intention was understandable enough the results were unfortunate: to listen to the commentary on Classic FM some days you’d think that Fauré was the last word in musical sophistication (instead of the last word in musical vulgarity).

I have conducted a campaign over some years to try to change the musical culture of Classic FM, with no success (not that I anticipated any). Naturally the management reject my suggestions, even when I have sent them useful information, such as lists of composers and compositions they should be playing and lists of composers and compositions they should not be playing. I have also written to the Minister in charge of the ABC, Stephen Conroy, who, apparently, doesn’t feel he has any power to influence the content of one of the ABC radio channels he is responsible for, despite that fact they are in breach of the ABC Charter by not providing ‘broadcasting services of a high standard’ (the same could be said for many parts of the ABC, of course). He was also unmoved by my argument that it is impossible to find out how many people actually do listen to Classic FM as the ABC does not report listener figures for individual channels, but just the aggregate listener figures for all ABC radio channels.

I am not conducting this campaign out of a sense of pique because the programmers at Classic FM do not share my musical tastes, but because the staff of Classic FM can insult great music indirectly by ignoring it, or directly, by saying in correspondence with me that the music of Robert Simpson would have ‘no appeal’ for Classic FM listeners. By way of correcting this mistaken view just go to this page and browse the uniformly complimentary Gramophone reviews of Simpson’s works by hovering the mouse over each album cover. If the various different critics from the Gramophone magazine have such positive things to say about it do you suppose that this music would have ‘no appeal’ for Classic FM listeners?

This lack of wholesome music on Classic FM is also part of a wider picture of our society shutting itself off from ‘nature’— to facts about the world, to real life and real living—in favour of the ideological, the convenient and the false. ‘What is not the Way will come to an early end’.

Next Week: grumbling about lack of virtue

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Interlude to the Grumbles: Musical Aesthetics

This is an interlude to the grumbles, an argument for a certain sort of musical aesthetics, however, it does lead to another grumble for next week.

I said last week that as I was growing up I found that most things in society were not very good. I also said that one of things I did to try to remedy this disappointment was to listen to music. When I did this I found after some time that I was finding that some music was very good, and some was very bad.

I began reading to understand why this was and I read the Essays in Musical Analysis by Donald Tovey, written in the early part of the C20. These are highly idiosyncratic programme notes, but they gave some clues. At the time I was also listening to programmes on the BBC Radio 3 where musical critics were giving talks on music. The most helpful critic was Robert Simpson, particularly his talks on the symphonies of Carl Nielsen (at this time few of Simpson’s own remarkable compositions had been recorded). After this I read his books on Nielsen and Bruckner.

What these influences showed me was that in any musical composition of more than a few minutes in length, the most important feature is flow, one section of the music leading to the next, leading to the next and so forth. This flow can be achieved by various means, by thematic or rhythmic vitality, or by harmonic logic, how the tonal scheme of the work ensures a sense of progression through the work. Ideally all these three means should be operating simultaneously.

This idea of music flowing can be assimilated to Daoist aesthetics, in Daosim flow (in music, in poetry, calligraphy and painting) is approbated because it mimics the flows of the natural world and perhaps of the Way itself. In Daoist medicine securing a flow of Qi (natural energy) through the body is a necessity for good health, so experiencing artistic productions which have flow in them can be seen as assisting in this health-giving process.

Simpson makes an important point about what he sees as good music: that in it great musical knowledge is not required. He notes in one of his essays that a certain tonal process is going on in a certain musical work, but adds that you can still hear this happening ‘even if you don’t know C major from a rissole.’ All that is required is attentive listening.

Another way of expressing my version of musical aesthetics is to think about affect and effect. The affect of a piece of music is ‘what it sounds like’ and what emotions it conjures up, and the effect is whether the piece has this musical flow, a feature that lies deeper than emotions conjured up. Now for most people Highland Bagpipe music has a bad affect, so that they can’t appreciate that the laments in the traditional repertoire for that instrument are amongst the most musically sophisticated folk-music in the world and certainly have a powerful effect.

On the other hand, I suspect that many people have a soft spot for certain types of music which conjure pleasing emotions for them and are prepared to listen to music that has this sympathetic affect, even though effect is lacking. A composer in this situation with me is Gerald Finzi, I like the ethos conjured up by his music (and his almost unerringly good taste in choosing high-quality poetry to set in songs), and am prepared overlook the fact that some of his larger-scale works are a little on the clunky side.

Now it would be my contention that listening to music with the qualities of ‘effect’ that I described above really does have a positive influence on people. I don’t doubt that if you did a large-scale study of a representative sample of people who listened to such music daily over a period of some years compared to those who did not you, would find the good music group would be healthier, physically and mentally, during and after the trial. However I think that this is a trial that no-one would have the time or resources to organise, and it would be difficult to police people’s listening, preventing the good music group from listening to bad music and vice versa.

Perhaps I can ask people to accept the argument without the evidence of the trial, so long as I assure people that this isn’t a ‘listening to Mozart makes babies smart’ sort of argument (the best thing for making babies smart is smart parents who understand that Mozart’s music is a good in itself rather than a means to get their children into medicine).

It is my understanding of music that traditional music of all types generally has the requisite movement and vitality to qualify in my category of good music. This is because such music is usually for public performance (either vocal or dance music) and such music necessarily has to engage its listeners by its vitality, otherwise it will fall from favour and not be performed.

In western art-music Mediaeval, Renaissance and Baroque composers, for the most part, possessed the secret of musical movement and deployed it in their compositions. So too in the Classical period, the two great masters, Mozart and Haydn, certainly had it and so did many of the less well-known composers of the time. The problems really began in the Romantic period. Here for a period of 50 or 60 years after the death of Beethoven composers really lost the art of making music flow in favour of indulging in various vicious harmonic and melodic habits and wallowing in disjointed emotions. Only Bruckner of the Romantic composers consistently wrote music that embodied ‘effect’ as I have described it.

Towards the end of the C19 various composers rediscovered musical effect: Nielsen, Sibelius, Mahler (to some extent) and many of the C20 composers have produced music that, in my terms, embody effect, as Haydn did in his time, and Byrd did in his. For the record in my opinion two of the most interesting composers of the C20 have been Havergal Brian and Robert Simpson himself.

The problem is that although effect was rediscovered in music in the late C19, Romantic music had already infected the genre of popular classical music, and the infection has not yet been stamped out.

The Daode jing has a passage which talks about this issue, how aesthetic experiences can actually disturb the mind and take you take you further away from the Way if they are needlessly confusing, or without some sort of structure (as in my idea of musical effect):
The five colors cause one’s eyes to go blind...
The five flavors confuse one’s palate.
The five tones cause one’s ears to go deaf. (12)
And in the last line of this passage, it is as though that text had foreseen the type of formless and self-indulgent music that is put forward as popular classics in the present.



Next Week: Back to the grumbles—Classic FM and Bad Music