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Saturday, March 28, 2009 -- 6:30 pm

Someone has just said that "rationality has no place in aesthetic judgments." Well, yes and no, as I'm sure they realize but didn't bother to say. "Rationality" isn't the right notion, but there's still room for aesthetic judgment, and there are objective features in a piece that form the basis for assessments of taste, even if they are found only at a reasonably high level of abstraction. Some people are squeamish about looking under the hood of their favorite music, but if you compare apples to apples, such as Pachelbel's "Canon" (really a passacaglia) to Bach's Passacaglia & Fugue in c minor, there's a lot to be learned from Bach's decision-making process. Part of the measure of Bach's sophistication is simply that he thought to make certain decisions where lesser composers didn't realize they had a choice -- until he'd done it. The deeper mystery for the amateur composer is grasping the connection between those technical insights, which you can sometimes mimic, and the spine-tingling effects Bach managed to pull off but don't follow for the rest of us quite as easily.

Saturday, March 28, 2009 -- 10:35 am

I recently read an article about the connection between intelligence and working memory; I gather that an essential element of intelligence is our ability to hold numerous distinct concepts in our mind simultaneously so that we can perform operations on them. This is unsurprising to anyone who's tried to multiply slightly too large a number in their head and realized that one or more digits unaccountably slipped through their fingers when they were supposed to carry the two or whatever. The article went on to suggest that we could easily improve our working memory with practice, and therefore our intelligence, but did not elaborate on any specific ways of doing so. (In general terms, one test of working memory is to present an individual with a sequence of items and ask them with each new presentation whether it's the same or different from the nth prior item. The higher you push n, the greater the challenge, and the higher you can successfully push n, the better your working memory. But this is rather clumsy as a form of solitaire.) So I got to thinking.

For me, one of the most impressive things about Bach's musical ability is the stories about his improvisation of counterpoint -- in particular, canons and fugues -- and it seems to me that the ability not only to recall the precise notes of a theme you've made up on the spot, but to overlap the theme with transposed, modulated, inverted, augmented, diminished, and retrograde versions of itself, staggered in time in multi-voice counterpoint, is exactly what working memory supplies. And so I propose a game, which I'll describe first in its solitary form.

The player chooses a number, n, and starts by playing n (interestingly varied) notes on the piano with either the left or right hand. At note n+1, the player repeats the first note played in a different register with the other hand, while continuing to improvise with the first hand. At note n+2, the player repeats the second note in the other hand, and so on, in strict imitation. The player should alternate which hand takes the lead, and with time it would be nice to observe the ordinary rules for voiceleading in the course of improvisation. Added layers of difficulty can be introduced by having the imitation take place at intervals other than the octave, using more than two voices, and performing various operations on the theme as noted above, including inversion.

The same game is easily converted into a collaborative project simply by having the imitation being done by one or more people, and, to make the process less-one sided, make it double imitation: each player plays two notes simultaneously, one of their own invention and one a repetition of what the other played n turns ago.

So much for theory. I'll have to try it sometime.

Friday, March 27, 2009 -- 8:15 pm

I find it to be a good and appropriate rule of conduct, borrowed from some now-forgotten book of Eastern wisdom, not to mock what others deem holy or "transcendent". But what if holiness is ascribed, not in a religious context, but in an aesthetic one, as to a work of art, a poem, a piece of music? It doesn't seem right to foreswear any and all discussion or criticism of the matter. Tastes do tend to differ, and reasonable minds can certainly disagree on some points even if they can't on all. Further, articles of taste tend to differ more easily, even more casually, than articles of faith. It is true that in our society there appear to be certain aesthetic orthodoxies; they may not be taken quite so seriously (at least not by everyone) as religious ones, but you do encounter the occasional look of disdain (or even outrage) when you confess to not liking certain works that conventional wisdom has deemed a "masterpiece."

So what to make of the chorus of commentors, on another site, praising Schubert's C Major Quintet? The first rule, of course, is to hold my tongue among that crowd. Nothing I say will change anyone's mind. The second rule is to approach the work with an open mind. Tastes change, and pieces can grow on you with repeated exposure, for interesting reasons I've discussed previously. I decided to give the piece another listen.

Even so, I found the work disappointing. Oh, there were interesting passages, that I'd be inclined to look up in the score to see if there was anything special to learn from them. But transcendent, no. There was a passage or two that might have come close, but they were awfully short, and there were many more passages that I found tuneful but not terribly moving, and a few I just considered trite. I wouldn't call it a bad piece, but I'm far from willing to say it's one of the best works in the literature, as others have done. I could comfortably say that it was very much a piece of its time, and subscribed to certain musical and aesthetic conventions of its time that I don't get particularly excited about. I've had a lot of occasions of late where my judgment (aesthetic, philosophical, or otherwise) has been called into question (with some justification, I'd concede), so it's natural to wonder whether I have missed something, or just plain gotten it wrong. And there are plenty of works that I do consider transcendent, and I've actively searched for more, in a variety of musical traditions and challenging genres, so to the extent I'm somehow aesthetically defective, it's not due to an inability to discern transcendent qualities in a piece of music per se (as opposed to, say, poetry, where I'm persuaded that I am defective).

I suppose part of the impediment is my contrarian nature. I hate being told that I'm supposed to like a piece of music, and I refuse to accept that something has quality just because others say so. But I ordinarily don't have trouble admitting I'm wrong about something, or changing my mind later to adopt a position I consider more accurate. I also suppose it's possible that I just lack the "education" at this point, meaning general life experience, familiarity with the idiom, conceptual apparatus, or something else of the sort, that I would need to truly appreciate what Schubert has done here. Again, this is theoretically possible -- after all, I don't listen to Schubert very much because I simply don't like it as much as my more usual tastes -- but again I doubt that this is a substantial or prohibitive factor. I listen to, and enjoy, plenty of classical music from earlier and later time periods, and Schubert can't be completely inaccessible, or else no one would come to appreciate him in the first place. It is true that I haven't listened to the piece very many times, and that repeated exposure is often necessary to glimpse music's more rewarding aspects, so that's something I can and should try.

But even that is unlikely to erase the fact that there are aspects to the piece that I find I dislike -- like the Scherzo. Just can't stand it. For example, I find the strident open fifths of the opening measures of that movement distinctly unappealing, as well as their homophony. The melody is unappetizing, the rhythm clunky, the harmony and counterpoint non-existent. I realize he tries to develop things later, but this is such an unpromising start that it just never gets off the ground. What profundity can there be in a plain melody? I realize that's too bold a statement, and I reserve the right to revisit this issue, and even change my mind after further listening, but I consider the scherzo a disfiguring blemish on an otherwise generally passable piece. After all, lately I've been trying to explore other musical traditions, such as Arab music, whose quarter-tones are said to pretty much prohibit meaningful harmony. If harmony and counterpoint were essential elements of musical quality, or even just for my idiosyncratic musical enjoyment, that whole enterprise would be futile, which is a point I'm not yet prepared to subscribe to.

This line of thought, of course, reveals my extreme prejudice in favor of contrapuntal compositional techniques. Bach would never have written such opening lines as Schubert has to this movement, and Bach is my standard of comfort in music. But as Schoenberg, an intelligent writer on musical questions, pointed out somewhere in his Theory of Harmony, art is not about making people comfortable. The mere fact that I don't approve of the opening of the scherzo, and consider it a jarring, distasteful musical wart, does not certify it as a bad artistic decision -- though it may be. And I suppose this is part of what makes criticism so difficult; in order to evaluate the opening of the scherzo as an artistic decision, I have to evaluate it in the context of the piece as a whole -- something that will require repeated listening and prolonged analysis, and something that may bring me, in spite of myself, to actually like the piece through no other mechanism than prolonged exposure.

One final point: Why do I care? I imagine that a lot of people would simply say that I should listen to what I like, and the rest be damned. The problem there is two-fold. One, it can't be healthy to listen only to what you're comfortable with. That seems like a guarantee of a closing and ultimately debilitated mind. Second, lots of people seem to think this music is "transcendent", which is as close to a religious pronouncement as you'll ever hear them make. I'm not so smug or confident in my own lot to turn up my nose at any prospect of salvation, aesthetic or otherwise.