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, 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

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