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Friday, August 17, 2007 -- 8:21 pm

The basic idea in aesthetics, and in particular what allows things to be perceived as beautiful, sublime, interesting, boring, etc., is that our minds are predisposed to seek out form and pattern in the world. We are capable of looking for and finding form on all levels of liminal and subliminal detail; in addition, there are certain types of expression -- pitches, rhythms, timings, articulations, dynamics, timbres, etc. -- that we want to hear either because they're inherently pleasing, or they're a logical consequence of what we've heard so far, or our cultural experiences predispose us to expect things to develop in a certain way. Of course we derive a certain cognitive satisfaction from making accurate predictions (Huron dwells on this), but after a while, accurate prediction becomes tedious, as anyone who's listened to a car alarm can attest. So accurate prediction can give us some pleasure, but what gives us even more, I think, is the discovery of more form, and indeed the prospect of inexhaustible riches of depth and complexity in a seemingly finite piece. The most sophisticated music compositions play on those predictions, expectations, and subtle surprises in ways that fix the attention precisely because their forms offer us the guarantee of intelligibility (something static can't promise, and car alarms offer too much of, too vapidly), and yet the forms continually surprise us, both with hitherto unexpected connections and structures that are one of the rewards of repeated listening, and also with delivery of pleasing elements that we may have hoped for but not quite been sure were in the offing.

That's it in a nutshell, even if no one will believe it. Ideally, this theory would be spelled out with hundreds of examples from the literature, controlled experiments, and the like. I don't have that kind of time, or those resources, so I'll just try to show what I mean, one piece at a time.

Thursday, August 16, 2007 -- 9:25 pm

I guess there's also a deeper conceptual issue that I need to tackle here, especially to the extent that I distinguish my views from Huron's. I guess one of the things that bothers me is that Huron dwells to an enormous extent on the notion that people enjoy music that they find familiar and predictable. I'm more inclined to side with Schoenberg's remark that art is not about making people comfortable, and beyond Schoenberg, I think it's safe to say that the repetitive quickly becomes boring; but the truth probably lies somewhere between the two extremes. It's easier to relax and enjoy something familiar, and more challenging works often are not enjoyable at first, if at all. But I guess a lot of people really do just prefer to listen to things they already know, and aren't willing to attain anything deeper. How does one go about determining whether the rarified mysteries of some technically profound but rarely-celebrated sonata trigger the same experience (i.e., beauty) as the bombast of a familiar anthem? My instinct, which I'm not sure I'm prepared to defend on rationale grounds, is that our partiality to the familiar anthem stems from sources altogether distinct from the actual form of the thing. Christmas carols are often catchy tunes, but they're also purveyors of nostalgia; the roar of the marching band, national anthems, and all those popular tunes I was supposed to like but never did, each seem to derive their popular esteem from something other than their intrinsic merit.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007 -- 11:07 pm

Huron mentions the phenomenon of hitting a wrong note in the course of musical improvisation, and asserts that there is a universal piece of advice passed from mentors to junior performers: if you hit a wrong note, repeat the passage exactly as before, wrong note and all. Huron seems to take this as proof that repetition is all that's necessary to mellow the harshness of an unexpected and discordant sound; I'm not convinced. To me, the mentor's advice may simply remove the conscious impression among listeners that the botched note was an accident -- it doesn't retroactively make the choice of notes a clever one, or somehow make the note sound good.

I still hesitate to offer a long-winded critique of Huron because I seem to have hit the meat of his thesis, and want to hear him out. But it still troubles me a great deal that he seems to be making no allowance whatsoever for the possibility that some pieces of music are simply better than others, and for reasons only remotely connected to the statistical probability of various events that occur in them. Perhaps this will be his ultimate defense -- that he's interested in answering a different question than I am. But what question is that, exactly? I get the impression that he's more interested in the psychological/neurological mechanics of music perception, while I'm more interested in the question of what makes some pieces good and others bad -- which necessarily involves a consideration of the mechanics.

Monday, August 13, 2007 -- 7:27 pm

The question of how paying attention to the form of an object, as defined in a previous post, accounts for the experience of beauty has a complicated answer. I'll start by enumerating a few of the sub-parts, in no particular order: can a cognitive experience really give rise to such strong and seemingly visceral or spiritual emotions? how would my explanation give rise to (a) practical tips and (b) falsifiable experimental results? are practical tips possible at all? and if they are, doesn't that leave me exposed to accusations that this is just a paint-by-numbers approach that advances yet another parochial aesthetic? if form is really the detailed, interrelated phenomenon I'm making it out to be, how are its nuances even perceivable to the average, untrained listener? how and why does a person's musical tastes evolve over time? having developed my theory primarily with reference to music, how do I extend the discussion to painting, sculpture, literature, film, nature, and the human form? if beauty resides in the form of the object, then how is it possible for people to disagree about the merit of a particular piece? doesn't my theory imply that the art and music of the world can be placed on some kind of definitive, ranked list that settles all questions of artistic merit? does such an implication undermine the theory, and if not, why not? how do I account for the fact that different kinds of art and music inspire different kinds of feelings, and why doesn't that splinter the notion of beauty into numerous irreconcilable fragments? what place do moral considerations have in the assessment of beauty? doesn't a theory like this deprive the world of its magic? if my theory is correct, could it prove to be dangerous if abused?

I guess one place to start is by pointing out that although I know what I like, I have no interest in advancing a particular agenda, or even in promulgating a definitive list of what is or isn't beautiful according to my own tastes. There are a number of reasons for this. One is that I think it would be horribly depressing to think there were no beautiful things in the world left to be discovered that could not be expected or anticipated. Another is that the very nature of my understanding of beauty requires that any exhaustive or definitive listing be impossible. A third reason is that my own tastes will change over time -- I expect and welcome this (within reason! and I don't want to give anything up!), and there are some things that I can't now appreciate that I hope to enjoy as I learn to understand more of the world.

To the contrary, if aesthetics really is a proper field of study -- and I think it is, and there's a lot of rapid progress to be made -- then my suggestions here can and should result in a burgeoning of valuable creative output. I would be delighted as much by a revolution in the quality of music produced in genres I don't much care for, as by the emergence of battalion of new Bachs and Mozarts. Of course, I'd also be intrigued, if disappointed, to be proved wrong. But I'll avoid making any mistakes.

Monday, August 13, 2007 -- 7:01 pm

Day 3 of the Year 8278. The day began, as so often, with nerves. I was due for a contest in the arena, my foe a rank uninitiate. But in my experience those are often the most dangerous, because their naive and unschooled magic sometimes succeeds in unexpected ways, and they are always exasperating. The contest was a draw -- we should win, but this round was inconclusive -- in part because of casting errors by a hired proxy. That will be addressed in due time. Returning to the tower, I was occupied with sundry castings and defensive work -- no real time today for research in the deeper recesses of my art -- only to discover the resurfacing of an old, nameless enemy -- the doppelganger casters. There were two attacks in quick succession, but my defenses were, I think, sufficient. Such attacks are alarming, coming so unexpectedly. And infuriating -- I am not prone to vigilante justice, nor qualified for it, but it is probably just as well that I serve the white arts and am unversed in the black. So home to an evening of contemplation, poring through tomes of the ancients. And while I do not serve the black arts, there is certainly nothing to be lost from plumbing their secrets, at least theoretically. And so to bed.

Sunday, August 12, 2007 -- 8:51 pm

I'll continue to build the edifice of my understanding of aesthetics, brick by brick. Today's brick concerns the notion that beauty resides in the form of the object. Before getting started with that, though, I should note, as I did over a decade ago, that for purposes of these discussions I'm excluding notions of human beauty, as well as sentiments like "that was a beautiful wedding." The two states of mind seem, at least to me, to have little to do with our experience at a concert, or at an art museum, or staring out a spectacular canyon (which I expect are close enough to each other to admit comparison and a unified explanation). I may even, somewhat snobbishly, turn out to be excluding certain remarks about flowers and dinner music being beautiful, depending on who's uttering them and for what purpose. But I realize that this is a dangerous tactic: my own tastes are somewhat idiosyncratic, and although I occasionally will find real aesthetic sophistication in music I hear playing outside my little cocoon, much of the stuff out there isn't very good. I'm reluctant to agree that people out there who enjoy things that I consider derivative crap are actually having the same experience, or quite know what I'm talking about, based on their music of choice, as I have when I listen to Bach. But on to the original topic.

When I say, echoing Kant, that beauty resides in the "form" of an object, what am I talking about, and what am I contrasting "form" with? Defining the term turns out to be rather difficult, because it seems that everyone brings a lot of conceptual baggage to the discussion. By "form" I don't mean shape. It would be absurd to suggest that round objects are necessarily more beautiful that square ones, or that roundness turned out to be the cause of that beauty; there are just too many counterexamples to even get off the ground. In a musical context, "form" here does not refer to notions such as Minuet and Trio, or Sonata Form. As with round objects, there are plenty of sonata form compositions that are simply uninspired, so placement in this genre is neither a prerequisite nor a guarantee of beauty. Instead, what I mean by "form" is intended to refer to the various relationships an object's parts have to one another. The australopithecine interlocutor would doubtless try to cram this into some notion of proportionality, but no, I'm not saying the Golden Mean is a guarantee or prerequisite of beauty, either, although it's entirely possible that, in some pieces, proportionality may have a role to play. The mistake inherent in all of these erroneous interpretations is that they assume by "form" that I'm necessarily referring to an abstraction, from which sundry features have been removed. To the contrary: typically, the slightest details are critical to determining (in a causal sentence, not an epistemic one) the beauty of an object. All the notes, and their placement, matter. So does the orchestration. So, as well, do the dynamics, the manner in which notes are articulated, and so on. But the same piece transposed into a different key, or arranged for different instruments, may be just as beautiful, or indeed more or less so owing to various aspects of the performance or whether the new arrangement makes the structure of the piece more or less discernible. This highlights an aspect of "form" that I do intend to capture: that beauty resides in the form of the object as opposed to being a physical or material property, analogous to how a doorway is a feature of the form of a wall, but not of the wood, paint, or plaster that can otherwise be found there.

This is apparently a controversial proposition. There appear to be legions of people ready to protest that the beauty of, say, a wine or fine meal, resides precisely in that chemical structure. I just don't see it. It sounds odd to me to describe a food's flavor or smell, or indeed our experience of any consumable, as "beautiful". I've long struggled to explain why this has to be so, and doubt I'll manage it in a single blog entry, but the place to start is that beauty isn't the object of an appetite the way consumables such as food are. For one thing, the same bite of food can be delicious, mediocre, or nauseating depending on nothing more than when it occurs in the meal. Music, art, and landscapes don't depend on physical appetites in the same way; we may be too tired, bored, or distracted to enjoy it, and the experience of beauty can certainly be a draining and exhausting experience. But our potential to enjoy beauty is not subject to any physical limitations other than our senses, but is theoretically limited only by our attention span. For another thing, notwithstanding a varied internal chemical composition or a host of side dishes, our experience of food just isn't structured in space or time the same way our experience of music and art is. Each bite is potentially the same as all that precede and follow it, and while such monotony would doom the sonata, it would not doom the gazpacho -- quite the contrary. Finally, our enjoyment of food, olfactory hallucinations aside, depends on the food itself being present, while our admiration of Bryce canyon can be inspired by photographs as well as by the actual sandstone.

This notion that beauty resides in the form of objects is, I think, what Kant was getting at when he adopted the unfortunate definition of beauty as "disinterested satisfaction" in his Critique of Judgment.