How difficult it is to conceptualize aesthetics

Dr Tsay’s research has run the globe.  Sadly, it doesn’t deliver anything new:  musicians have known her results for years; Charles Rosen writes about it in his Piano Notes (2002).

But Dr Tsay’s research is an interesting case of how good science can be polluted by poor interpretation:  her interpretation appears to be that “we don’t judge musical performance by the music and therefore no independent judgment of music is possible”, while she should have concluded that “any judgment of music is liable to become polluted by visual clues and therefore special care must be taken to exclude that possibility”.  To exclude just this possibility, early Chopin competitions were judged by judges sitting behind a curtain.  (To be entirely fair, competitions aren’t set up to judge music but to judge musical performance, which is why Chopin competition does not do the curtain trick anymore).

A more interesting research would be to try to separate those judges who can judge the music independently of the visual clues and those who cannot and see what other differences exist between them.  The former is a rare skill – normally a hallmark of inborn trait — a mutation, if you like — but is, at least to some extent, trainable.  Judging music, like judging paintings and all art, is like playing the piano:  some measure of talent and lots and lots of work.

Perhaps it is a related note to observe that I usually find myself closing my eyes during piano performances.  I seem to hear better when my visual cortex is not busy.

How success kills the goose

How success kills the goose!

Kto słucha nie błądzi was for many months my favorite program on Polish Radio (the last undumbed-down cultural radio on earth). It was also proof that it is possible to talk intelligently about quality in art – in this case, recordings of classical music.

The format was very good: three musicologists with engaging personalities and pleasant voices discussed six different recordings of a single work of music “blind” — i. e. not knowing who the performers were — and choose the best.  The program was run on a very high level — this was professionals talking to one another, talking like professionals (“talking shop”) and not minding that someone listening might not know some terms.  It’s such a wonderful rarity to hear a program which is not aimed at the 10th grade and below (such programs don’t seem to be produced anymore) — I counted the days between the programs and on occasion cancelled a date in order to hear it.

Unsurprisingly, the speakers’ choices usually coincided with mine. The revelation of the performers at the end of the program also rarely surprised: some performers really are predictably head-and-shoulders above the rest (Gould, Richter, Abbado, Bernstein); but it was pleasant to discover surprising facts, such as that Dudamel actually can conduct (when he’s not conducting a youth orchestra), that Shostakovich played his 2nd Piano Concerto wrong – but better than the score, etc.); and above all it was a lesson in listening: I have been listening to classical music almost “professionally” for forty years now, so it’s no surprise I can hear most of what the musicologists can; but not all – and to learn what they heard and I did not was fascinating.

For an aesthetictist, the program was also a goldmine of observations in the matter of taste: it illustrated that the opinions of those in the business (all participants are musicians and musicologists) are far less divergent than those of the clueless general population (whose preferences being random mean nothing), but that they too face the barrier of personal taste. Yet, at that level of sophistication, the barrier is not a barrier: one cannot help but respects an educated divergent taste.

Like me, the public probably liked to hear what kinds of small details, undetectable to their untrained ears, the musicologists heard in the recordings and why they liked them (or not) — and it grew and grew by the week. But the public liking was the program’s undoing: the organizers – classical radio stations are so happy to have a runaway hit – decided to make it a program with live audience in the studio — and thereby… killed it. The participants began to play to the galleries — unnecessarily showing off their erudition, making pointless jokes and, when they had nothing to say, making things up — lying, to call a spade a spade — as if debates of art and music needed any more lies and fabrication.

(The aestheticist’s lesson here is that taste and perception can be discussed on a very high level but probably not in groups larger than three).

This — the perversion of the author/performer (in this case, the musicologists) is one way in which success kills a good program; the uncalled-for broadening of the audience is another.  A Japanese stand-up comedian whose program I once sponsored on Japanese TV told me he stopped enjoying the work the moment his ratings went over 5%. “Suddenly, he said, I discovered that my audience didn’t get my jokes”. His jokes were intelligent and required both wit and lots of erudition to get — the qualified audience size was naturally limited. But as the show became more popular, it began to struggle to reach its new audience, and after some attempts at educating the audience first and then at dumbing-down the content, the host asked us to take him off the air.

Dear Kto słucha nie błądzi : for your own good, today I won’t be tuning in this Sunday.

A free master’s thesis idea

If you’re working in aesthetics, psychology, or musicology and know a little math and programming you can do this rather easily:

Introduction:  New, previously unheard melodies of Chopin, Mozart, Monteverdi, Schubert and Vivaldi are instantly recognizable to the ear of anyone who has heard a hundred others.  The reason why must be that the melodies of each composer are ruled by a unique algorithm (which is what our brains recognize subconsciously); such an algorithm must be expressible as a polynomial (i.e. ax + bx2 +cx3…).  (Given how easily our brains learn to recognize each composer, it is unlikely to be a multivariable polynomial — ie.  ax + py + bx2 +sy2 +cx3 ty3…).

Method:  plot n Mozart melodies on a graph; then use graph-fitting software to approximate the values of a, b, c etc. Each polynomial thus generated can be said to be a property of the brain of the particular composer — his cognitive “signature”.

Interest:  Think about it: would it not be fascinating to know that Mozart’s melodies all have the structure of, say, 1x + (1/2)x2 +(1/3)x3 ?


A free PhD follow-up idea:

Calculate signature algorithms of the A class composers (Bach, Chopin, Mozart, Monteverdi,Vivaldi) to illustrate the general procedure.  Then show that it is impossible to generate by this method similar signature polynomials for B class composers (Berlioz, Brahms, Janacek, Tchaikovsky etc.) — and conclude that their music can therefore be mathematically demonstrated to be directionless and haphazard.

Bernstein on American music, or misunderstanding the high and the low art

Bernstein’s NBC/ABC series of talks on classical music contains some observations on American music: he praises Jazz and American Comedy Musical because he thinks both are truly American, not just a poor copy European music; and, he adds less convincingly that both are a future art-music in embryonic form.

What is striking about these views is how incongruous they are with the man: by the time he gave these talks Leonard Bernstein was already internationally renowned as a leading interpreter of European classical music. In other words, he was a living example that an American can become an authentic practitioner of an European art – and living disproof of the view, so frequently expressed by American nationalist theoreticians, that Americans practicing European art can only be ridiculous – poor caricatures of European artists because the art is somehow not native to them.

The thorough and complete badness of the idea that an art not only can be, but indeed must be native to a people (Fichte?) is established beyond all doubt by the horrible quality of the output of all the nationalist schools of nineteenth century opera, which were all motivated by the same (American-style) chip on the shoulder: “until we have our own opera, we are not the equals of the Italians!” The idea is profoundly philistine — “Why do we consume Italian opera? We are Czechs!” — as if what mattered in Italian opera was Italian. The truth is opposite: Italian opera is great because it is good opera. Opera lovers love it because it is good opera. Good opera travels, it knows no boundaries, Japanese and Turks listen to it, because it is good opera, not because it is Italian. (By contrast, the totality of nineteenth century nationalist opera not only does not travel — it’s not even appreciated in its own milieu!)

Likewise, Bernstein’s pious prayer that out of the American pop music a great art music might one day evolve is silly: high brow art does not grow out of pop – yes, it can borrow the pop scales, or rhythmic structures, or a pop melody sometimes (Chopin did — twice) but these are NOT the reasons why the high brow art is great. A sine-qua-non condition for a great high brow art to arise is the artist’s decision to make a departure, a break away, a secession from pop art.

Upon analysis, it seems that the reason why Bernstein defended Jazz and the American Musical Comedy (backhand: by declaring them as potential future sources of great art) is that they were – American. He thought them somehow authentically native and therefore, as a good patriot, felt that they needed defending. Somehow, in his eyes, to condemn American pop art would be to condemn America. Ergo, in order to defend America, pop art must be defended.

This attitude – a kind of national cultural insecurity – is the source of the more recent theories of pop and high brow art emanating – again – from America, which insist that there is no difference between the two kinds of art except for the concept of gate-keeping (in brief, the theory is this: a gate-keeper – a figure of authority – a Louis XIV say – says “this is high brow, this is good, everything else is bad” and thereby establishes high brow, like paper currency, by fiat). You can clearly see the thinking: if pop is American, then America must be pop, and therefore it cannot be admitted that pop is bad.

This is all nonsense, and dangerous nonsense, too. The truth is that for people like myself – for us, the practitioners of the high brow – there is only one fatherland, and it is neither America, nor the Czech Republic, but — high brow art itself. Whether it speaks in Italian or twangs in Dixie does not matter a whit. To say that it does, in the name of some local tribalism, is not just false, it is dangerous in the same way in which a misdiagnosis of health and disease is dangerous: keep misdiagnosing the patient, and you will surely kill him.

Godowsky, McPhee and Classical Musics

Godowsky’s Java Suite in a way misses the point. The pianist/ Chopinist/ composer Godowsky travelled in the 1920’s to Java – and his trip proves the adage: travel does not broaden the mind. A new, exotic environment makes it is easy for an artists to be distracted by the surface phenomena — monkeys, banana trees, white beaches, topless women — the stuff of mass tourism — and try to turn that into art; but this is facile exoticism: there is no new language, no new structure, no new sound — at most a handful of textures, which soon become hackneyed, like the sound of the shamisen in a western movie sundtrack whenever a Japanese character enters the stage: the art itself, the idiom remains unchanged.

Indeed, contact with exotic novelty misleads the traveler:  strong impressions help convince him, falsely, that he is actually learning something. It takes more time than most travelers have, and, who knows, perhaps it takes special mental powers, too, to move beyond the surface exoticism and see underneath, deeper: to see the difficult stuff, the the brainy stuff, as a Javanese would say — “the invisible kingdom”: the classical arts of the place. 

When I set out looking for Godowsky’s Java Suite I was hoping for something along the lines of McPhee’s Tabu-tabuhan at least — a truly Indonesian composition, which would have told me that Godowsky heard and understood the method; but, really, secretly — dared I hope it? — for more:  the Holy Grail: a new synthesis:  a new kind of reflection on the nature of classical music as such – now that he has seen it from a new perspective, from a new angle, in a new light. I didn’t find it: the music was essentially the same old Godowsky as always with a few gamelan accents.  As per formula:  enter the Javanese character — clang! go the gamelan.


Are different classical musics – like different religions are sometimes said to be — different routes to the same end?

Yes.  But the end is not a metaphysical entity, only a mental state.  Like relaxation is achieved through massage consisting of a set of manipulative techniques executed in a certain order, the classical rapture is achieved through a set of tricks executed in a certain combination — tricks like sonority, melody and its transformations, modulation of keys, variations, structural complexity, development and resolution.  Certain combinations of tricks have been found to produce the effect; true classical music is therefore a kind of… methodology. It is not clear that by borrowing elements from different methodologies a new one can be produced — either as effective, or — what is always the great white hope — more so. The possibility of successful fusion of different classical musics is yet to be demonstrated.

An analogy comes to mind: a sensible way for cars to get places is for all to drive on the left; or for all to drive on the right; but not for all to compromise (blend, fuse) by… driving in the middle.