March 24, 2004

Another aesthetic dogma

Posted by Curt at 09:45 PM in Art | TrackBack

The usually level-headed “New Yorker” throws out this little paen to Woody Guthrie, and in the course of emphazing the proletarianism and and anti-establishmentarianism of this clearly exceptional musician works itself up to this coda:

“popular music is ripe for something new. Whatever comes will surely be something that challenges the complacency of the mainstream; something from disreputable sources; something critical of the status quo, harsh, simple, seemingly anti-musical, and doable without formal training—that is to say, something much in the vein of what Woody Guthrie did. “

I don’t know if this is really the spirit in which Guthrie composed his music, but it is certainly a fairly dominant dogma in music today, though ironically the “anti-musical” music which seeks to “challenge the complacency of the mainstream,” far from coming from “disreputable sources” generally embodies the establishment itself, as if the Hollywood music industry, indie hipsters and theorists have colluded in an unholy conspiracy to favor anything but tradition-cogniscent, formally structured, beautiful music—in other words, I have little doubt that Herbert von Karajan would be virtually a pariah figure in the musical world today.

An interesting counterpoint to this article is another new article about the increasing legitimacy of film score music as a thriving branch of the classical tradition. The author portrays the film score composers in Hollywood during the 1930’s and ’40s as being almost as much refugees from European conservatories as from the war, because their adherence to tonality and to a certain operatic style of composition had become seen as hopelessly outdated in post-Shönberg Europe. But, the implication is, audiences instinctively responded to this Romantic, tonal music in a way that they did not to the music of Schönberg, Webern, et al., whose actual music is relatively obscure despite their extreme prominence as musical personalities.

My interest in this matter extends beyond music proper, although music is a particularly good art in which to examine the various aesthetic issues and debates in question here. This is because music, as Nietzsche realized, is a particularly pure art form, very little subject to extraneous intellectual considerations or to esoteric analysis. This is to say that while one can possibly explain one’s liking for a book or a painting by various philosophical, sociological, or even religious means, music resists those sorts of explanations. Ultimately, there is nothing articulate about music, nor is it a representative art, so our feelings about it are largely instinctual. For example, try asking even a musicologist why a minor key sounds sadder or more tragic than a major key, and I suspect that the question will prove virtually impossible to answer. It just does. Even tonal relationships themselves are simply founded, ultimately, on the datum that the tones which compose them simply sound harmonious together. But it is indisputable that some sounds evoke certain moods or reactions, and others do not. In that sense, music would seem to be a rather pure aesthetic experience.

I entered a dispute quite recently with the father of a good friend of mine, a Russian expatriate who, I assume, came to jazz fairly late in life but had nonetheless become quite a devotee, particularly of some of the avant-garde luminaries in the last flowering decade before it became fairly obscure, musicians like Thelonious Monk and Cecil Taylor. I contended that while I could very well appreciate, if not understand, the staggering complexity of, say, Taylor’s music, I frankly did not enjoy it, and certainly not the experience of listening to it for an hour. He asked how it was that I could prefer the more “primitive,” almost reactionary music of contemporary jazzmen like Oscar Peterson and Teddy Wilson. Well, what was I to say? The choice, I think, cannot entirely be justified on intellectual grounds alone. Taylor’s playing is certainly more “revolutionary,” if that word means anything anymore, perhaps more “important” than Peterson’s; it sets out to challenge and eradicate all received musical structural relationships, and largely succeeds in this. However, I think the lack of this element counts as a mark in favor of the listenability of Peterson, and its presence makes Taylor’s music extremely difficult to sustain exposure to.

And so I return to my original point. Certain musical structures, just like components of any art, evoke and correspond to certain emotions or moods, to pleasure, or sadness, or happiness. One can call it the tonal science or whatever else, those correspondences between note and feeling that the opera composers particularly labored so to perfect, but the fact is that they exist. Musicians like Taylor or Schönberg who ignore this or construct emotional correspondences so idiosyncratic that no one else can relate to them are unsuccessful, in my opinion, and certainly unenjoyable, even if their intellectual ideas are brilliant.

By no means do I wish to sound the mandarin note like the deplorable critics, the modern-day Mortimer Adlers, who insist that we return to hide-bound traditions, to Renaissance-style representational paintings and Victorian novels. That is useless, the sort of acontextual nostalgia which ironically, in my opinion, largely characterized the supposedly anti-traditional music of the ’60s, especially the folk and blues revivals, with their attendant ideological baggage, to largely catastrophic consequences. Out went the beautiful, innovative and yet popular music of real jazz giants like Nat King Cole and in came hack blues imitators like the Rolling Stones. No, rather my ideal is something like what someone, it might have been Joel Carmichael, said about Tolstoy: “he wrote as if nothing had ever been written before. Or rather, as if he had read everything, but none of it was important.” This is where the greatest art originates: not forcing oneself to adhere to tradition, but not forcing oneself to rebel from it either. One carries out a duel with life, rather than one’s predecessors. Tolstoy had a transcendent simplicity, and it is this simplicity, not complexity, which in my opinion made him such a vast writer. He did not reject the typical and yet exceptional fare of life like love and death, as an avant-gardist might do, but he did not regard it in a clichéd, received manner either. He simply treated it all with simple, fresh eyes, as if there were only four or five important things in the world, endlessly repeating, always present, and so his writing gets right to the very heart of things, without simmering in complex solipsism or battling the anxiety of influence. This is how art is ultimately measured, I imagine, by us all: not by its complexity, or its novelty, or its technical mastery, but by its resonance, which when deep is pure and simple, as complex as necessary but no more so.


"For heights and depths no words can reach, music is the soul's own speech."

Author Unknown

Enjoyed the post Curt.

Posted by: John Venlet at March 25, 2004 07:32 AM

Great post! I have always felt that the people who score films are badly under recognized.
These composers sometimes write gems which are often best heard at the end of the movie when the credits are rolling and everyone is rushing for the theater exits. Most good music is hard to appreciate on first hearing.
This problem is ameliorated if you buy DVDs. My favorite movie composer was Bernard Herrmann. Some of his best scores were for Alfred Hitchcock (Vertigo and Psycho) and also Taxi Driver. More recent films with great music include Mulholland Drive (Angelo Badalamenti) The Rolling Stones weren’t that bad in their time but they are has-beens. Most popular musicians exhaust their creativity but remain famous to the masses as oldies acts. People who really appreciate music move on.

Posted by: Dave at March 26, 2004 10:57 AM

Speaking of good movie scores, last night I watched a film by Louis Malle whose title translates as "Elevator to the Gallows" and which is reputed to be the first film to feature a non-classical score, a compisition which Miles Davis improvised after watching the film.

Posted by: Curt at March 26, 2004 07:07 PM

You are a googlewhack!

Posted by: Bill Coughlan at May 12, 2004 07:38 AM