Wednesday, July 26, 2017

The Intersectionality of White, Male, European

I ran across an article about intersectionality recently. This is a fairly recent concept or strategy unfurled in the culture wars. Elizabeth C. Corey provides an overview:
Thus the metaphor of “intersectionality” was born. Black women found themselves at the intersection of two different kinds of prejudice—about race and gender—and could not receive remedy by addressing one or the other alone. Writers since Crenshaw have expanded the term to cover studies that integrate the disadvantages caused by sexual orientation, class, age, body size, gender identification, ability, and more. Personal identity results from the combination of these many aspects of identity, they say, and each one signifies a measure of either oppression or privilege. As a whole, these traits determine an individual’s position in the “matrix of domination.”
You should read the whole piece, but here is another excerpt:
In demonizing non-radical political views, white men, and tradition in general, intersectionality ­theorists make precisely the same mistake they so vehemently abhor: They classify people in terms of names and characteristics that they often have not chosen, and then write them off as enemies. The intersectional project of oppositional, activist scholarship demands it, for nothing brings people together like a common enemy. When that enemy must be eradicated in a quasi-­religious movement of destruction, we are in for a long and bitter fight.
It seems to me that it is the white, European male composer that is the prime candidate for some intersectional analysis. In today's university climate, at least viewed from certain places (Musicology Now, for example), the one group that is experiencing the most bias, prejudice and bigotry is the group of composers that have been the most prominent in Western civilization: Machaut, Josquin, DuFay, Palestrina, Monteverdi, Vivaldi, Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Wagner, Mahler, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Prokofiev.... Well, the list goes on forever. Every one of these people is white, male and European (a couple are Jewish, but that doesn't seem to matter) and for precisely those reasons the new on-campus progressivism demands that their role be demeaned and diminished. Sounds like intersectionality to me!

It is rather painful to have such a successful, even though intellectually vacuous, tactic used against you, isn't it?

Art and Money

I've often puzzled over the different economic directions the visual and performing arts have taken in the last century. At the bottom end of the economic spectrum, both beginning visual artists and composers are struggling in poverty. But at the top end, the visual artists are far ahead. Vincent van Gogh provides an example. During his lifetime he sold only one painting for less than $2000 in today's money. Few of his paintings go to auction these days as they are mostly held in museums, but one sold in 1990 for over $150 million in today's money. A Willem de Kooning sold recently for $300 million. Yes, it is usually, but not always, the case that it is not the artist that benefits, often being dead, but someone does!

Composers are far less well off. The very famous American composer Philip Glass had to work at various menial jobs (driving a cab, moving furniture, plumbing) until he was into his 40s when commissions began to be enough to barely support him.

The situation seems to be that there is a lot of money in visual arts, but a lot of expenses in performing arts!

As I say, I have puzzled over this and never come up with much of an explanation other than rich people like to buy things they can hang on their walls. But Ann Althouse put up a post the other day that offers a suggestion, The Art Donation Tax Evasion. You need to read the whole thing, but the idea is that the New York Times evasively describes a long-standing strategy for avoiding taxes that depends on donating art to museums at inflated values. But the NYT commentators are on to it:
"Ah, the good old-fashioned donation evaluation for taxes. The wealthy have been doing this for a very long time. Museums are there for this very reason. To deposit overly valued art pieces in lieu of a tax deduction. Same goes for property, buildings and other funding to arts, medicine and pet projects. Art is tricky. How is it exactly evaluated? And by whom?"
Could this be part of the reason that prices for visual arts seem a little high?

Monday, July 24, 2017

Aesthetics, part 2

As I said in my post yesterday on aesthetics, we have a desperate need for it! The reason is that as soon as we start to talk about art, aesthetic questions arise. What is truly hilarious about nearly all the articles that are constantly appearing in the mainstream media that are purportedly about music, is that the only thing they actually avoid talking about is, you guessed it, music! So what are they talking about? Most of the time, as the quotes in yesterday's post show, it is psychology, not music. They talk about brain scans, dopamine levels, the answers to questionnaires, surveys and so on. These things, while suitable things for psychologists to talk about, are not music.

There are other typical kinds of articles supposedly about music and they include ones discussing how many records have been sold (that is obviously about economics or marketing, not music), or about the scandalous things a musical celebrity has gotten up to (that is gossip, not music) or articles promoting a new album by someone (that, again, is marketing, not music). Occasionally we do get an article that seems to be talking about the music, but they are virtually always crippled by avoiding any actual musical vocabulary or musical examples. In a media universe where an image like this is perfectly acceptable:

Miley Cyrus, pop singer

One like this is absolutely forbidden:

It would be a great topic for a dissertation to trace how we got here, but my guess is that it is a consequence of a couple of psychological anomalies in our current society. Why is the top image acceptable, but the lower one not? (Oh, and if you think I am exaggerating, try and find a musical score anywhere in the mainstream media where they frequently review classical music.) The top image is ok because sex is ok and promotion is ok and notoriety is ok and, I guess, police nightsticks (the prop) are ok. The lower image is not ok because it makes people who can't read music uncomfortable. Thou shalt not present anything that might make anyone in your readership uncomfortable (though, god knows, the upper image has got to make a lot of folks uncomfortable!)

Another reason is that discrimination of any kind is now classified as evil. Never mind that discrimination is a fundamental mental activity and skill. We do it all the time. Life is impossible without it. When we go to the supermarket we discriminate between the good tomato and the soft, mushy one. When we go to the movies we discriminate between films we like and want to see and ones we don't. When we go to our CD shelf to pick a piece to listen to we discriminate between ones we want to hear at that time and ones we don't. When we are hiring an employee we discriminate between ones that seem to have the necessary skills and ones that don't. But whoa, that starts to get onto dangerous ground, does it not?

Possibly as a result of civil rights legislation running amok and being taken over by post-modernism, discrimination has been redefined as bigotry for most purposes. There are certain kinds of discrimination that are obviously unjust and wrong, so the safest course is to ban all discrimination. Also, as everyone's opinion is equally valid, we don't want to hear any talk about why a particular piece of music is better than any other. Not without scientific evidence at least! Of course there is no scientific evidence in this area. So the fact that some discrimination is perfectly ok has faded away. A big reason for that is that evidence to support someone's opinion about, say, a piece of music, has been largely forbidden. Thou shalt not quote from the musical score or use musical vocabulary. Without that, everything is just metaphor, babbling and psychology.

So I guess it is no wonder that no-one knows how to talk about music from the aesthetic point of view any more. But really, it is the only way! What kinds of music do you like? Why do you like them? Why might you dislike a piece of music? What about it do you find objectionable? What does music express and how does it do it? Why do we enjoy "sad" music? Why is it so hard to describe music in words? And so on. Virtually every kind of ordinary question about music is actually an aesthetic question. But we have, through endless propagandizing, been forbidden to ask these kinds of questions. Like I say, that would make a great dissertation...

Ok, well that was my attempt to describe why aesthetics is more necessary than ever. For our envoi, let's listen to that Bach Concerto for Two Violins. The soloists are Arabella Steinbacher & Akiko Suwanai:

A Shout Out to Musicology Now

If you look at my "popular posts" list on the right hand side, you will see a new entry: How Now, Musicology Now. This is a post I put up just last week and the explanation for why it has suddenly leapt into the popular column is that one of the editors of Musicology Now, the official blog for the American Musicological Society, Robert W. Fink, linked to the post from the AMS FaceBook page. He also, courteously, left a comment:
Bryan - As one of the editors of Musicology Now, let me thank you for your attention to our blog. We could definitely publish more content, but our situation is slightly different than that of a single-authored blog. The editors don't publish their own material, and, as you note, publishing a piece in Musicology Now does not advance one's career like peer-reviewed publication. We're always looking for more material, but since no one really "owns" this blog, we do have a problem getting people to put stuff out there for the no-so-tender consideration of the internet at large.
I'm shamelessly linking to this attack on the blog in my FB feed, on our page, etc. in order to rouse the collective pride of the Society, and perhaps drum up more submissions. I'm not sure the result will be to your intellectual taste (chacun, etc.), but we can all agree that it would be great to have more material to the AMS blog.
Thanks for your help. :)
Let me just say that this is great! Who wouldn't love a big launch from the AMS? As far as I can tell, the post has attracted about 1200 more pageviews than it would have otherwise. Prof. Fink describes my post as an "attack" and it was certainly a thorough bit of criticism of the blog. But after a new, and even more objectionable, post appeared on Musicology Now a few days later, I put up a more extensive critique in this post in which I described a curriculum proposal as a "Maoist re-education plan." I think that that one has attracted some traffic from AMS members as well.

So as of now, perhaps a third of the 3,500 AMS members may have visited this blog, or at least a post or two. Frankly, what I expected was a great deal of critique of my critique, widespread disagreement, spitballs, rancor, opposing arguments and possibly thundershowers. What I got, apart from the comment from Prof. Fink was, wait for it: nothing. Nada, nichts, rien!

What's the deal guys? Do you agree with everything I said? Or are you just afraid to leave a comment? Will we see some changes over at Musicology Now? As of today, the last post on their site is still the one from last Monday about racial and gender diversity.

Here's the thing: there are unending articles about the dire situation of classical music and what we need to do to reverse the trend. A lot of them stress that the "accessibility" of classical music needs to be increased. Frankly, with millions of clips on YouTube of classical music, I don't see how it could be MORE accessible. The solutions described usually involve changing the nature of classical performances so they resemble popular music performances more which might attract more people who usually listen only to popular music. This often doesn't go too well because the one element you can't change too much, or replace for that matter, is classical music itself. The truth is that the portion of society, in North America particularly, that is able to listen to classical music in an appreciative and discerning manner is not large and seems to be decreasing. If we pander to them too much all we will do is throw the baby out with the bathwater.

As I know from spending a month in Europe recently, the situation there is quite different. Concert halls are full and the audience is larded with young people. The reason is that in Europe, the proportion of educated listeners is much greater.

To me the solution is obvious: we in North America have to provide a better introduction to the music through educational outreach. And it has to be real and substantial, not the feeble and diaphanous efforts that usually pass for educational outreach. Who in North America possesses the greatest wealth of knowledge and expertise in this area? The American Musicological Society would seem to be it. How do you reach out? I would think the same way that I do. The purpose of this blog is to talk about music in an entertaining and informative way. Surely the AMS blog should be doing something similar. But you ain't! So give it a go. I think it is important for the future health of music.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Introduction to Aesthetics

What the heck is aesthetics? Is it something that is somehow bestowed in one of those salons you see tucked away in strip malls (but surely the point of this establishment is to reveal, not to hide, beauty?):
"Esthetics" is a common spelling and even though it seems more common in the beauty salon context, is usually defined the same way as "aesthetics." It might be informative to read the Wikipedia article which begins by defining aesthetics as:
Aesthetics (/ɛsˈθɛtɪks/ or /iːsˈθɛtɪks/; also spelled æsthetics and esthetics) is a branch of philosophy that explores the nature of art, beauty, and taste, with the creation and appreciation of beauty.
But I wouldn't take the article too seriously as, with so many philosophical concepts, a brief explanation usually does little more than confuse the reader irreparably! For an example, try reading the article on "ontology."

I'm going to go at this from a different angle and I'm going to start by showing exactly why we have a desperate need for aesthetics. Here is an article I put in this week's miscellanea titled: What's the Best Song, According to Science? We live in such weird times that we expect science, a perfectly respectable field of human endeavor, but one with very clear boundaries, to actually answer all our questions! About everything! Examples from this article show us just why this doesn't work:
Daniel Glaser
Neuroscientist and Director of the Science Gallery at King’s College London
Is there any way to scientifically determine what makes a “good” song? Why or why not?
The best way to test a song is still a human. We can measure how people respond to songs in a bunch of ways including brain scans, measures of chemicals in the the brain, including dopamine (which is associated with the internal reward system reward, perhaps you give yourself a pat on the back for selecting a great playlist). Actually measuring foot tapping or the smile muscles is probably just as good as most more ‘scientific methods.’
I can't imagine a more useless way of evaluating the aesthetic value of a song, though I'm sure this tells us something about whatever people they got inside their brain scan machine. Here is another example:
Amy Belfi
Postdoctoral Associate in the Department of Psychology at New York University, researching the relationship between music and the brain
Why do some of us have viscerally negative reactions to certain songs?
There’s some interesting research that shows that people fall on a spectrum in terms of their “musical hedonism.” A small group have what you’d call musical anhedonia, so these are people that don’t like music at all. It’s not that they get a viscerally negative reaction, it’s just that they don’t really listen to it, they don’t really get music, they don’t really respond in a viscerally positive way to it.
Again, this tells us something about people, but absolutely nothing about songs. Amy Belfi has another very interesting answer:
Are there any qualities that make a song “good”?
The challenge in psychology, but especially when we’re looking at music, is the fact that there’s individual differences. Taste is so varied in terms of music. In several studies about musical chills or really positive responses to music, they have the participants in the study bring in their own music to listen to. So you would have to have a comparison of highly pleasing music versus non-pleasing music. So the highly pleasing music is totally different from one person to another.
My research tends to focus on the response to music rather than the particular qualities of it, since it’s so hard to pick a song that everyone across the board likes, unless you pick a group of participants that have very homogenous taste which is also kind of challenging. If we knew what made the perfect song, someone would be making millions of dollars off it.
My emphasis. Yes, of course psychology will always focus on the people responding to the music, rather than the music itself because all of their tools are designed for that purpose. They have no tools to examine the music! Most hilariously, there are people making millions of dollars off writing and performing songs all the time! Why? Because that is their profession. They are called "musicians" and they know about music in the specific sense of what musical elements are likely to appeal to the largest numbers of people. That's how you make a million dollars in music. Aren't psychologists aware of this?

I could go on quoting this and other articles about music in popular media, but there would just be a lot of repetition. You learn absolutely nothing about music by scanning people's brains or by interrogating random groups of listeners. You can learn an awful lot about music by actually looking at the music. And by "looking at" I mean listening to, playing and studying the score. But when you do that you are examining, not human brains or dopamine levels or answers to questionnaires, which are things susceptible to scientific examination, but rather aesthetic objects, which are emphatically not susceptible to scientific examination.

It seems to be the case that there is no easy and simple definition of what an aesthetic object is, as for every one offered there seem to be exceptions and teams of philosophers standing ready to knock any definition down. But if I could be allowed an ostensive definition, then I would simply say that, for our purposes, a musical aesthetic object is any musical performance that provides the listener with an aesthetic experience. Of course, I broke a fundamental rule by using the word itself in the definition. But I don't think that matters too much as my real definition is just to point to examples. What we go to a concert hall or a dance club to hear is usually "music." What we hear from a wind-chime is not, because it lacks the necessary element of intentionality: in other words, there has to be a human performer involved. So music composed by computers doesn't count, which is fine by me.

That's it for this post. In succeeding ones I will try to summarize the best bits from Monroe C. Beardsley's excellent book on aesthetics. Let's end with a musical aesthetic object. This is Martha Argerich playing the Sonata in D minor, K. 141 by Domenico Scarlatti as an encore at the Verbier Festival in 2009:

Stravinsky: Technique and Theory, part 1

This is where the rubber meets the road: now we have to really come to grips with the structure of Stravinsky's music which is what Taruskin takes up in the next chapter: "Chernomor to Kashchey: Harmonic Sorcery." He pulls no punches here, the chapter is heavily larded with musical examples. Incidentally, this is how you can tell a book intended for musicians from those intended for the general public: any form of musical notation is absolutely prohibited in the latter. Even a book that appears to be for a specialized musical audience, like the Cambridge Handbook on the Rite of Spring, does not have an overabundance of musical examples, though certainly the essential ones. But the Taruskin volume is chock full of extensive musical examples (not to mention footnotes).

He begins the chapter with Rimsky-Korsakov's comment, after an evening in which Stravinsky and Rimsky-Korsakov's wife, Nadezhda, had played through the Schubert late C-major symphony in a piano four-hands arrangement. He said that before Schubert certain "bold and unexpected" modulations simply did not exist. For Rimsky-Korsakov, Schubert was the father of modern music. What kind of modulations was he referring to?

I want to just back up a bit and fill in a bit of background here. Music in the Western world, for a long time, was based on the individual melodic line. Most music in most places is still structured in this way. But in Western music going back eight or nine hundred years, the practice of combining independent melodic lines became the standard practice. In order that they blend in a pleasing way and not clash, certain methods or rules were adopted. This is where the idea of consonance and dissonance came from. Some notes clash, are dissonant, while others blend, are consonant. A good piece of music actually uses both these phenomena so as not to be bland and boring. But there were pretty strict rules for how dissonances were to be handled or resolved.

As we move into the 15th century, harmony begins to develop a life of its own as composers like DuFay developed techniques like fauxbourdon to harmonise melodic lines. (I know I am getting into esoteric knowledge when Blogger starts underlining words in red, even though I know they are spelled correctly!) Roughly from 1600, harmony became more and more structurally prominent and the idea of functionality came to the fore. Functional harmony was the common practice from around 1600 to around 1900, though just how it functioned changed enormously. Taruskin points out in passing that a good book on the use of harmony in the 19th century still has to be written!

The first stage of functional harmony focused on the idea of a tonic and a dominant. Pieces of music basically began in the tonic, the harmony built on the first note of the scale, or tonic. Then the music moved to the dominant harmony, that built on the fifth note of the scale. A couple of other chords or harmonies were used built on the fourth note of the scale, the subdominant (which prepared or led up to the dominant) and the sixth note of the scale (which was used to stand in for the tonic in a deceptive cadence), the submediant. Pop music to this very day rarely uses any harmonies other than these basic ones, though jazz certainly does. Closure is achieved by simply returning to the tonic after the dominant. This harmonic movement, from dominant to tonic, is called a cadence and all tonal music ends with one.

The tonic/dominant relationship was so powerful that it was soon extended in various ways. One was by using secondary dominants, that is, any harmony or chord can be preceded by its dominant. The whole harmonic space can also be organized by the circle of fifths:

As you move up by fifths, each key adds a sharp, while as you move down by fifths, each key adds a flat. This enabled modulation, the movement from one key to another, to be handled in a clear and organized way. A great deal of music, especially in the Baroque and Classical periods, is filled with harmonic sequences, which are passages that move through different harmonies in a specific pattern. The most common are ones that descend or ascend by fifths. Here is a good page on that. Sequences were used as a kind harmonic engine to drive the music forward.

By the time we get to Schubert and the early Romantic period, composers were looking for something different. Rather than driving forward, they wanted to pause, reflect and give the music an inwardness. What Schubert did was to exploit and normalize the use of sequences that moved by thirds rather than fifths: these are called mediant progressions. As Taruskin notes, third relations operate in Schubert on every structural level. Here is a harmonic reduction of a forty-bar passage from the Finale to the C-major symphony that provides an example. The chords marked "x" are flat submediants that have no functional role in harmonic structure up to this point. They alternate brusquely with the tonic and only work because of the common pitch, C, that unites them:

The flat submediant, a major third below the tonic, A flat major in the key of C, was the Romantic harmony par excellence and its use is largely credited to Schubert. That other harmony you see, the F# diminished chord, also has a mediant origin, it is two minor thirds above the tonic. Both these chords contain a C natural, which links them to the tonic.

This might be enough harmonic theory for one post, so let's listen to that Schubert symphony. This is the "Great" Symphony in C major (so-called because there is another, shorter, symphony by Schubert also in C major) with the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by John Eliot Gardiner:

Incidentally, in the first movement Schubert inserts a complete circle of major thirds within a circle of fifths!

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Criticism, as She is Done

Criticism, whether of literature or music or visual arts (though I never know what they are talking about) can be a delightful thing. All the really good criticism I have ever read has been based on personal taste informed by a thorough knowledge of the artwork. In music I take particular delight in the criticism of Charles Rosen. His books on Classical style might seem to be primarily analysis, but to my mind they are simply informed criticism. Richard Taruskin's writings, on the other hand, downplay the element of criticism in favor of historical context and more power to them.

I am writing this post because I just ran across a beautiful example of literary criticism from David Mamet in the Wall Street Journal. The title is Charles Dickens Makes Me Want to Throw Up:
Dickens’s characters are cardboard cutouts, even in their names: Inspector Bucket, the Brothers Cheeryble, Jerry Cruncher. They are mechanicals. His prose is turgid and, less forgivable, tortured. Here’s his rendition, in “Dombey and Son,” of a sea-captain’s dialect: “It’s an almighty element. There’s wonders in the deep, my pretty. Think on it when the winds is roaring and the waves is rowling.”
What a load of bosh. The public devotion to Dickens’s work is sententious and perhaps even self-congratulatory—like that affection of New York theatergoers between the wars for the lugubrious plays of Eugene O’Neill.
I find Dickens’s gloomy view of London stinking of the lamp: that sputtering meager lamp which hardly brightens the overpowering darkness of the cold garret room, where, huddled in the corner, poverty has moored a guiltless ragamuffin, who, et cetera.
Yep! Mamet reserves his particular praise for Anthony Trollope, whom I greatly loved as I read all of his Palliser novels many years ago.
I’ve read Anthony Trollope’s entire work several times, not because I am schooled, educated or right-thinking—I don’t believe I am more afflicted in these than most—but because I like to read. Trollope’s 47 novels, nonfiction and incidental work are a delight. His prose is clear, perfectly rhythmic, concise and, at turns, trenchant and profoundly funny.
His plotting is stunning. How does one write a three-decker novel, which will appear in installments over a year and a half, and have the equation resolve magnificently—although making it up as one goes along? Compound this, if you will, with his work habits: Trollope rose every morning at 5:30 and wrote 2,500 words. If he completed one novel before meeting his daily goal, he began another. All while running various departments of the British General Post Office.
I can hardly wait to make a start on the Barchester novels. Mamet has a delightful denouement to his essay:
I loathed Henry James and counted myself boorish until I read the opinion of his best friend, Edith Wharton, who pronounced him unreadable. As per Marley’s Ghost, we each wear the chains we forged in life; if fortunate, the various spirits come to induce us to shed them. I’m not chutzpadik enough to think I rank among those shades, but if I have relieved one reader of the burden of a factitious and oppressive affection for Chuck Dickens I will rest evermore content.
Amen. And let's raise our glasses in toast to a bit of literary criticism that is delightful, humorous, engaging and inspiring without once exhorting us on the basis of resentful, smug, identity politics!