June 12, 2010

Playlist Week of 6-12-10

* Buxtehude: Sonatas, Op.1 (Holloway/Mortensen/ter Linden) (Naxos CD)
* J.S. Bach: Das Wohltemperierte Clavier, Vol.1 (Egarr) (Harmonia Mundi 2CD)
* Vivaldi: Violin Concertos, RV331, etc. (VBO/Marcon/Carmignola) (Archiv Prod. CD)
* Duke Ellington: The Great Paris Concert (Atlantic 2LP)
* Sun Ra: Astro Black (ABC/Impulse! LP>CDR)
* Bobby Hutcherson: Happenings (Blue Note CD)
* Evan Parker Electro-Acoustic Ensemble: Stadtgarten, Köln 5-13-10 (AUD 2CDR)
* Evan Parker Electro-Acoustic Ensemble: WDR, Bismarck-Saal, Köln 5-14-10 (AUD CDR)
* Herbie Hancock: Sextant (Columbia CD)
* Herbie Hancock & Headhunters: Sendsaal, Bremen, W. Germany 11-6-74 (FM CDR)
* Pat Metheny Group: The Road to You (Geffen CD)
* Sly & The Family Stone: A Whole New Thing (Epic/Sundazed LP)
* Bob Dylan: The Times They Are A-Changin’ (mono) (Columbia/Sundazed LP)
* Bob Dylan: Another Side of Bob Dylan (mono) (Columbia/Sundazed LP)
* Bob Dylan: The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (mono) (Columbia/Sundazed LP)
* Jeff Beck: Truth (mono) (Epic/Sundazed LP)
* Jeff Beck: Beck-Ola (Epic/Sundazed LP)
* The Who: Who’s Next? (Decca LP)
* The Who: Who Are You? (Polydor/Classic LP)
* Grateful Dead: Winterland June 1977: The Complete Recordings (6/7/77) (GD/Rhino 9+1CD)
* Jerry Garcia Band: After Midnight: Kean College 2/28/80 (Rhino 3CD)
* Yes: The Yes Album (Atlantic/MSFL CD)
* Yes: Fragile (Atlantic/MFSL CD)
* Genesis: Selling England By the Pound (Charisma LP)
* Can: Unlimited Edition (Spoon SACD)
* Saturday Night Fever (original soundtrack) (RSO/Polydor 2LP)
* Big Star: Radio City (Ardent/Classic LP)
* Boston: Boston (Epic LP)
* The Feelies: The Good Earth (Coyote LP)
* Los Lobos: Kiko (Slash/Warner Bros. CD)
* Guided By Voices: Do the Collapse (TVT CD)
* Robert Pollard: Motel of Fools (Fading Captain EP)
* Robert Pollard: Robert Pollard Is Off to Business (GBV, Inc. CD)
* Robert Pollard: “Weatherman and Skin Goddess” (GBV, Inc. CDEP)
* Circus Devils: Ringworm Interiors (Fading Captain Series LP)
* Radiohead: I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordings (Capitol CD)
* Animal Collective: Merriweather Post Pavilion (Domino CD)
* Animal Collective: Fall Be Kind (Domino CDEP)


* Roger Scruton, The Aesthetics of Music (Oxford University Press, 1997)

After several previous failed attempts, I finally got through Roger Scruton’s monumentally ambitious The Aesthetics of Music. I can’t really say it was worth the effort. While Scruton makes some interesting observations and comes to some plausible conclusions as to why human beings respond to (certain kinds of) music in the way they (sometimes) do, he undermines an otherwise noble enterprise with a not-so-hidden ulterior motive: the needless rescue of “tonality” and so-called “classical” music from the presumed barbarism of a decadent modern culture. Uh-oh.

He gives the game away from outset by defining what we hear as music is the “transformation of sounds into tones” (p.17). This appears at first a useful definition; but by choosing the word “tone” upon which to build his aesthetics, he then embarks on a philosophical jeremiad against “atonality” (with sneering jibes at “post-modernism,” “pop music” and “Heavy Metal” thrown in for good measure). It seems to me that any comprehensive aesthetic of music would have to account for the widest possible range of musical experiences to be at all insightful. For even though I may not personally like a particular genre or style of music, there remain fundamental standards of “good” and “bad” within such genres or styles and the reason this is so should be the true subject of a musical aesthetics.

Elsewhere, Scruton is more useful. He confronts the ineffable immateriality of music by admitting that “the intentional object of musical perception [] can be identified only through metaphors” (p.108) which allude to the essentially “pure abstract quality” of music (p.122). This is suggestive of the reasons why music is so nutritive to the human spirit -- and so very difficult to write about. “Music inspires and consoles us partly because it is unencumbered by the debris that drifts through the world of life” (Id). Scruton thoroughly demonstrates that music is like “language” only in a strictly metaphorical sense since it lacks any representational ability. Music is always only about itself. Not even Scruton's beloved functional harmony can produce a generative syntax understandable as language. Accordingly, tonal harmony is not a strictly prescriptive grammar but a set of crudely-wrought tools, a certain traditional way of putting music together. But Scruton goes further and insists that this is the only way truly meaningful music can be put together and here his aesthetics veers off into sad polemic and unadulterated snobbery.

He graciously honors the importance of Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School and offers a grudging respect for certain quasi-tonal works such as Berg’s Violin Concerto; but he summarily concludes that the “serialism” of Boulez is utterly unintelligible except by “incorporating what we hear into tonal or quasi-tonal categories” (p.294) and “eliciting the ghost of a tonal order” (p.296) while we listen. He goes on to assert: “The possibility remains that tonal music is the only music that will ever really mean anything to us, and that, if atonal music sometimes gains a hearing, it is because we can elicit within it a latent tonal order” (p.308). Hogwash! This is contrary to my own experience and is further evidence of Scruton’s ideological agenda. Any attempt to mentally impose “a tonal order” upon atonal music is an exercise in frustration and will result in the kind of learned revulsion Scruton feels for Boulez, Stockhausen, Babbitt and the like. This is, of course, the desired result. Scruton refuses to accept that anyone can find musical meaning in these composers’ works and triumphantly declares: “[a]tonal music proved unable either to find an audience or to create one” (p.507). The audience for such music might be small, but it persists.

He has nice things to say about jazz but only to the extent that it serves to bolster tonality’s primacy, while conveniently ignoring its African roots and the “atonal” developments of Cecil Taylor and his ilk. And by the time he starts comparing the “ugliness” of Nirvana to the clever harmonies of The Beatles and the “shapeless cries” of REM to the rounded cadences of Cole Porter, well, it just gets silly:

[M]usic is a character-forming force, and the decline of musical taste a decline in morals. The anomie of Nirvana and REM is the anomie of its listeners. To withhold all judgment, as though taste in music were on a par with a taste in ice-cream, is precisely not to understand the power of music (p.502).
Even if we are to grant Scruton’s contention that “taste in music matters and that the search for objective musical values is one part of our search for the right way to live” (p.391), it does not follow that joining in his crusade to rescue classical music from the bogeymen of (post)modernism is “the right way to live.” He concludes the book with an exhortation to embark on “the great task…of recovering tonality as the imagined space of music, and of restoring the spiritual community with which that space was filled…a rediscovery of the tonal language, which will also redeem the time” (pp.507-508). As far as I can tell, tonality needs no such saving. What is needed is an aesthetic of music that can account for the infinity of its instances. Indeed John Cage demonstrated that even unintentional sounds can be heard as music without being “transformed into tones” as Scruton would, for ideological reasons, insist. This profound cognitive ability is what enables us to ascribe meaning to music of all kinds but Scruton’s tome ultimately fails to elucidate what this meaning might be or why we should care. What a waste.

1 comment:

Sam said...

Thanks for the nice review--that's one book I certainly don't need to read.

Hey, how'd you like the Ellington Paris LP? That's got some great stuff on it--a great version of "Tone Parallel to Harlem," and "Theme from the Asphalt Jungle" really rocks. Plus an overly exuberant helping of high notes from the Michael Ray of the Ellington orchestra, Cat Anderson, on "The Eighth Veil."

I finally got to hear the new Hendrix, thanks to my friend Cal. It's pretty strong! Quite enjoyable.

Another thing that blew me away is the Dead at the Harding Theater, SF, 1971. They are "on" from the get-go and really pull out all the stops.

I'm into the Cecil Berlin box now, and man is it strong! Bracing, life-affirming.

Here's my list from last week:

Playlist 2010-06-14

*Peter Brotzmann/Hamid Drake/William Parker: 2003-05-10 Austin, TX (CDR) disc 1
*Charlie Christian: Selected Broadcasts and Jam Sessions, disc 3
*John Coltrane: 1963-11-04 Stuttgart (CDR)
*New Loft: 2010-05-05 "Culture Property" (wav)
*New Loft: 2010-05-12 "Arbitrary Rest Area" (wav)
*Wadada Leo Smith: Lake Biwa
*Sun Ra: Intergalactic Research (The Lost Reel Collection vol. 2)
*Sun Ra: God Is More Than Love Ever Can Be (Trio)
*Cecil Taylor: 1986-11-08 Charlottesville, VA (CDR)
*Cecil Taylor & Gunter Sommer: In East-Berlin
*Cecil Taylor: 1988-06-27 Verona (CDR)
*Cecil Taylor with Tristan Honsinger & Evan Parker: The Hearth
*Cecil Taylor & Paul Lovens: Regalia
*Cecil Taylor: Erzulie Maketh Scent
*Cecil Taylor & Louis Moholo: Remembrance
*Animal Collective: Strawberry Jam
*Beatles Remixers Group: Tuned to a Natural E, vol. VI
*Bollywood compilation, from soundtracks at "Music From the Third Floor" disc 11
*Circulatory System: Circulatory System
*David Crosby: If I Could Only Remember My Name
*Dr. Dog: Shame, Shame
*Bill Fay: compilation CD
*Grateful Dead: 1971-07-31 Yale (CDR)
*Grateful Dead: 1971-11-07 Harding Theater, SF (CDR)
*Jimi Hendrix: Valleys of Neptune
*High Llamas: Buzzle Bee
*Major Organ and the Adding Machine: Major Organ and the Adding Machine
*Tape-Beatles: Music With Sound

Reading log 2010-06-14

*Erikson, Steven: Dust of Dreams (in progress)
*Marias, Javier. Your Face Tomorrow, vol. 1: Fever and Spear (in progress)
*Larson, Gary. The Complete Far Side (in progress)
*Musil, Robert. Man Without Qualities (in progress)
*Palmer, Robert. Blues and Chaos (in progress)