Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Include the phenomenologico-existential experience of music in our discussion of musical aesthetics

What Makes Music Beautiful? By Cynthia R. Nielsen September 10, 2007
Comparing and contrasting two leading twentieth century composers, Pierre Boulez and John Cage, the former a strict adherent and promoter of “total serialism” (a compositional method that organizes music according to mathematical patterns) and the latter the champion of chance music, where just about anything turns out to be music, Jeremy Begbie makes the following astute observation. Begbie first points out a deficiency in Boulez’s music noted by Boulez himself, viz., that in his music the excess of order tends to produce the perception of disorder when heard. Then Begbie writes, “[a]lthough a piece of music does not have to yield all its meaning in perception, a modicum of perceptual intelligibility would appear to be necessary to apprehend it as music . Total serialism seemed to engender a kind of ‘entropic’ anarchy. Boulez came to describe his Livre pour Quantuor as an ‘accumulation that springs from a very simple principle, to end in a chaotic situation because it is engendered by material that turns in on itself and becomes so complex that it loses its individual shape and becomes part of a vast chaos’. The prescriptive determinacies of notation coincide with sonorous effects which are largely indeterminate” (Theology, Music, and Time, p. 188). The point being that though these composers are more or less on the opposite ends of the spectrum, Boulez representing overly rigid mathematical calculation and Cage representing chance music in the extreme, when one listens to the music of Boulez its unnatural, machine-like mathematical precision ends up sounding as indeterminate as Cage’s random chance music.
Here a number of questions arise when Begbie’s findings are brought to bear on Socrates’ account of music as found in the Republic. First, how is it that something so mathematically precise seems to produce that which sounds like mere chaos? Perhaps Socrates would claim that this in fact proves his point, viz., the senses can lead one astray and thus we must listen only to reason. But Socrates has also conceded that music making is able to shape the soul in a way that simply understanding the mathematico-theoretical intervallic [i.e., proportional] relationships of music cannot. He has also claimed (on what we might call a traditional reading) that the best music is that which most closely imitates the Forms. If this is the case, then we again have to ask how such mathematical precision (the reality “behind” the imitations) can produce that which is indiscernible from something as random as chance music? In other words, shouldn’t that which participates in the Forms reflect those Forms in a clear and evident way? At any rate, Begbie’s findings seem to highlight Socrates’ conflicting account of music—an account which leaves us wondering whether we should embrace or exile the “honeyed muse.” In short, can we really make a rigid distinction between the phenomenological experience of music (the non-rational, but not irrational and mystical) and the mathematical reality “behind the music” (the true and rational aspect of music)? Stated slightly differently, is the beauty of music to be discerned only or primarily in terms of proportional relationships or must we also necessarily include the phenomenologico-existential experience of music in our discussion of musical aesthetics? If the latter, how do we avoid an over-subjectivized understanding of musical aesthetics in which anything can count as beautiful music? Posted by geoff holsclaw in Aesthetic Theology Technorati Tags: , , , Comments

This reminded me of a few quotes I had posted quite a while back.
“We may say that the independent aesthetic value of an artistic artefact is higher and more enduring to the extent that the work does not lend itself to literal interpretation from the standpoint of a generally accepted system of values of some period and some milieu.”- Jan Mukarovsky
Art is as good as it is both engaging and elusive.
On music,
“After playing Chopin, I feel as if I had been weeping over sins that I had not committed, and mourning over tragedies there were not my own. Music always seems to me to produce that effect. It creates for one a past of which one has been ignorant, and fills one with a sense of sorrows that have been hidden from one’s tears. I can fancy a man who has led a perfectly commonplace life, hearing by chance some curious piece of music, and suddenly discovering that his soul, without his being conscious of it, had passed through terrible experiences, and known fearful joys, or wild romantic loves, or great renunciations.” - Oscar Wilde
But before I find someone to wax too eloquently on music I also offer the following,
“Where we try to speak of music, to speak music, language has us, resentfully, by the throat”- George Steiner
Whether intentional or not our "investigations" into beauty tend to be scouting reports for colonization. As George Steiner I think has correctly intimated in Real Presences we can only hope to respond with a contribution that offers an equally high degree of aesthetic integrity. Sorry that probably does not address your question directly. Posted by: IndieFaith September 10, 2007 at 02:09 PM

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