The effort of understanding
By Rob van Gerwen
Abstract of the argument on this page
Music and its causes
Sound and Vision
The only thing visual accompanying the everyday sounds that we hear around us, is their cause as we imagine it to be. Like, in a sense, we see the brush that caused the paint to stick to the canvas--but also very much unlike the resultant pictorial effect of painting that allows us to see something in its image.
Sounds don't make images. But imagination does come up with images, only these are fixed in our personal histories. All they tell is the story of the causes of the sounds.
No music without instruments
Can someone experience music who has no idea at all how its sounds are actually caused?
Imagine someone who has never seen anyone make sounds with trumpets, violins, pianos, etc.--listening to a CD recording of Beethoven's Fifth symphony. What thoughts in his mind would accompany the sounds he would be hearing?
Can we conceive of our listening experience without including the visual counterparts, i.e. musicians playing their instruments? Try it. I am afraid you will fail.
Scruton's ontology of sound
Our failure here has nothing to do with how we happen to think about music's sounds; it is not that we hear "a saxophone" merely because that happens to be the only way we can think of to describe its peculiar pitch--whereas in fact we merely hear certain sounds with peculiar properties, not their causes, like Scruton argues.
It is not like that at all. Rather the reverse. We succeed in recognizing the particular pitch of the saxophone only after we have perceived the instrument being played.
Sound as tertiary qualities
I agree with Scruton that music is in space in ways different from objects. This is, partly, due to the peculiar way in which our hearing divides up space, as opposed to vision, or the other senses. Indeed, sounds are caused by events, and do not belong to their causes.
Yet, that does not mean that we do not hear these causes in them. We do. In fact, hearing them as caused in certain types of processes is part and parcel of how we hear sounds.
The situation is comparable to what Scruton (1983) himself described as tertiary qualities. When we see the upper part of a human body, sitting on the shoulders, we see a face, and in it, we see an expression: tertiary qualities. We cannot not see a face and an expression in it; these are not constructions on our part, they are part of how we perceive them when we perceive them. Etc.
It is like this with music, too. The human causes of the sounds are perceived in them.
Sound takes Place
If sound were not in space, why would one want to shout to a boat slightly out of reach: "We cannot hear you".
To travel through space sound would first of all have to be in space. To be in space means to take up space. That, however, seems awkward. Surely there is no reason to think that where a sound is a table could not be: sounds and tables do not compete for the same space. Are they, then in the same space? How is sound in space?
These questions derive their intelligibility from a conceptual framework that privileges our visual and tactile access to the world: non-transparent objects that compete for their place. This particular competition already assumes the privileging of touch and vision.
Sounds do take the place of other things though, silence. In museums, which are often filled with silence, nowadays, often, they would have video-art on show, accompanied by music and sounds. These tend to leave the room where the video is shown. They are in the space of audible things, and that space simply works in a different manner. Also, two sounds blend into one---possibly a more complex sound, but not necessarily. Lastly, sounds transgress visually or tactilely impermeable objects, such as a room's walls. Their space is simply more extended in one sense, albeit more restricted in another.
Surely, if one hears a loud bang behind one's back, one would turn around to see what happened? Sound is in the space of the embodied perceiver, just like visually extended objects are.
Listening to the guitar being played
Wollheim's notion of individual style relates a work to the artist's material manipulations---and the psychological reality of these manipulations; hence the style's psychological reality. We may be tempted to argue that watching a painting is like watching (part of) its history of creation, and that music being a time-based, hence ephemereal art form, does not allow that. That seems too hasty.
To listen to a jazz guitarist like John Scofield, is like watching the man's expression through his playing. His playing is as transparent as his facial expressions are. In listening to the music we attune to that psychological reality. Expression theory was right, in principle, but not in detail. Works form an expression of the artist, but not primarily of whatever particular propositional events he can be said to be going through. What is expressed and what is realised in the work are not two things, but one: transparent to one another---like facial expression.
Scruton's ``Music is a secondary object''
Scruton, in Aesthetics of Music compares music to rainbows, arguing that neither take up place: they are not in a particular place. Rainbows do however, again according to Scruton, appear only when the viewer is in a particular place (with the sun behind his back, etc.).
That comparison is limited, I think. For music to be heard one must be in the 'same space' where its sounds are.
Rainbows and Shines
A rainbow is like the shine on an armour: its localisation depends on the place of the viewer (and of the light). Moving your face displaces the shines (which accounts for the stiff manner in which it used to be painted). Projecting the view on an armour onto a plane, say in a camera obscura, or by a mirrored reflection, fixes the shines: you can now move about as much as you like, but the shines on the reflected armour will stay in place (Hockney). In fact, the original ``perceiver'' (the lens that is used to produce the reflection) is in a fixed position, and us who view the reflection are no longer the primary perceivers. The lens does not move.
In the case of a reflected viewthere is is a clear causal chain between the light, the armour, the lens, the reflection on the plane, and our perception of the reflection, but the latter is disembodied (does no longer depend on the placement of the body). We egocentrically perceive the reflection and the plane it is on (we can move around it), but our perception of the armour that is reflected is non-egocentric (Currie).
Visual space depends more on the spectator's position relative to the cause of the view (i.e. the object), and its dependency on the source of the light. That is why we can say that objects of vision and touch are necessarily there in the space of the beholder. Yet, in the end, this merely points to a diffferent phenomenology of vision as opposed to sound.
Perceiving a painting someone made of the reflected view is egocentric, too: we relate tot he paint on the canvas, to the canvas on the wall; we observe how the shines of the paint move along with our movements; seeing the depicted in it, however, is as non-egocentric as watching the reflected armour and its fixed shines, but now the connection is intentional: the causal chain is broken by the mind and intentions of the artist. (Scruton)
Scruton, in Aesthetics of Music, calls rainbows secondary objects and compares music to them. But, though shines and rainbows are secondary objects because they are linked to place, i.e. the place of the beholder in respect of the place of the cause of the view, it seems, music isn't, or is it? And there is this other crucial difference: What causes the shines or the rainbow to appear (the source of light) is not visible in them, whereas in music what caused it to sound is audible in the music.
Why is it impossible to listen to music objectively?
Due to its abstract nature, music requires constitutive imaginative acts on behalf of the listener to come to life in his experience. I.e., it needs our associations.
If we listen to music from our past, trying to do away with our past associations in order to listen to the music objectively, we are bound to introduce new associations, which will be acknowledged from hindsight only, i.e. in our next effort to listen objectively.
Hume's 'true judge' who judges without prejudice and as objectively as possible, does not exist with regard to music (he doesn't even seem desirable)---does he exist anywhere?
Does repeated listening to a piece of music necessarily improve one's listening (because you have a better grasp of the innermusical logic)? Or, could it be so that it prevents one from really listening (because ever more associations are added onto one's associations)?
Taste and social identification
Scruton argues that postmodern, democratic pop culture has replaced the judgement of taste with the satisfaction of a desire to belong to a group. Youths, he argues, favour Nirvana's music because they identify with their life-style.
I agree that it would be wrong to judge aesthetically on the mere basis of such social desires. Both Scruton and I defend a broadly Kantian analysis!
But is Scruton's empirical analysis of today's youths' motivation to prefer grunge rock (or whatever type of music) correct as it stands? And is the analysis as easy as Scruton presents it to be? Doubts about this suggest themselves from the following elaboration of the Kantian analysis. "The Beatles were great. But could they perform "Smells like teen spirit"? I don't think so.
Beauty and the appeal to humanity
Scruton agrees with Kant's view that one who utters a judgement of taste claims universal assent, i.e. some notion of correctness, a sensus communis. In practice, such a status of our judgements is hard to obtain. We should appeal to humanity in people not to a sense shared in a particular group of people.
Scruton argues along this line when he disqualifies the liking of Nirvana: people supposedly merely want to belong.
Strictly speaking Kant's argument says that when we judge the beautiful we appeal to a sensus communis, a shared sense. However, merely appealing to that sensus communis can never justify a judgement of taste.
Could it be that (some) people who think Nirvana's "Smells like teen spirit" is a great piece of music, would back up their judgements by referring to Nirvana's powers to express the humanity inherent in this particular group's life-style?
Expression and the musician's body
Expression in music is 'carried by', or: attributed to a persona implicit in the music, a sui generis musical character. (See Levinson). Yet, it is one thing to state that some such psychology-like entity is responsible for keeping the expressive elements in a piece of music together, yet another to allow for its coming to life. I fully realize that the persona that carries the music's expressiveness is not a fulfledged person-like structure (as Stephen Davies and Scruton argue), but however fragmented the episodes hang together, their coherence will be psychology-like or the listener wouldn't be able to identify their nature as expressive in the first place.
A music's persona is brought to life by how the musicians play their instruments, i.e. by how their bodies manipulate their instruments whilst idenitying with the musical persona. (See my "Performer's personae").
Could The Beatles perform "Smells like teen spirit"? I don't think so. And this has nothing at all to do with musical talents!
It has to do with how their bodies enter the music. That argument, however, is not available to Scruton, who, in the very first chapter of his book on the aesthetics of music disqualifies the audibility of a sound's causes.
Sound and structure
Do the sounds of a piece of music function only to present the listener with a tune (or musical structure, more generally), or is it the structure's function to get us to listen to the sounds? One could divide up the history of music (or other arts) along this distinction.
|Pierre Boulez||pop music||John Cage|
|"Hollywood"||Robert Bresson||"European cinema"|
|James Ellroy||Jim Thompson|
|Salvador Dalí, René Magritte||Max Ernst|
|ellipsis as reasoning||Modal ellipsis as intimation|
|ethics of principles||Virtue ethics||psychologized ethics|
Jazz and classical music
→ While listening to John Coltrane, this thought came up:
jazz musicians play on a favourite instrument. And, sometimes, the instrument they pick does not really connect with them. This is not merely due to an accidental preference on behalf of the musician, but, rather, to how their bodies connect with this instrument.
Some notion of 'individual style' is connected with this line of thinking.
→ Discussing Mozart's Concerto for clarinet in class, someone argued that the timelesness of this work has to do with how Mozart, in it, gets the best of the instrument.
It is interesting to realize that Mozart's success is based on a score that instructs an infinite number of musicians to play the work. Thus, he brings out the best of various musicians' playing (on the clarinet) irrespective of the particular musician (assuming that she controls the instrument to sufficient degree).
→ Listening to John Coltrane confronts me with the thought that Coltrane gets the best of the soprano that he is playing on.
However, it is difficult to conceive of any other musician to play an improvized part in exactly the same way--not difficult as in 'hard to master', but difficult as in 'inconceivable': such playing would be a form of 'forgery' instead of 'performing' the relevant music. The improvizations in a piece of jazz are not notated in a score; that would be superfluous, would go against the nature of this music.
→ Would it be too far-fetched to think of jazz as a domain in music-making that has tried to make instrument-playing more dependant on the particular musician's embodiment?
→ Coltrane's improvizing is in "Spiritual", on The Other Village Vanguard Tapes, Impulse!, 1961.
The paradigm of art creation
My model for thinking about the creation of art is this:
the artist sees himself or herself confronted with 'inert' material, i.e. material that 'merely exists' and does not carry any artistic meaning yet. An artist confronts the challenge of making something artistically meaningful with this material.
John Cage's 4' 33' is an example of this. He felt that somehow everyday sounds are as valuable as the sounds an orchestra produces, but felt, too, confronted with the task of expressing this, of producing a work that makes an audience realize the value of everyday sound. It is one thing to say that all sounds are interesting and important, it is quite another to make people believe what you are saying. In 4' 33' Cage used the framework of our musical art form to convey his point.
You may wonder: "Surely, the notes in a Beethoven score are not 'just inert material'?" But, are you sure about this? We can cut up this situation to identify particular moments where the model described above seems to hold nonetheless. "Surely, the notes in a Beethoven score are not 'just material'?
1. A score consists of black marks on sheets of paper. These marks derive their meaning from the conventional system of music notation, but the conventional system of itself did not produce the score, did it? It was the composer who saw himself confronted with a conventional system (his material), having to find his way in it, and bringing its elements into life, getting it to come to life.
2. A performer holds a score in one hand and an instrument in the other. He or she shall have to be able (i) the read notation (bring the marks on the sheets of paper to life in his or her imagination), and 2. to translate them into sounds emanating from the instrument. 3. On top of these technical powers which can be taught and trained, he or she wil have to produce a sound structure, and bring it to life.
In conclusion: let us think for the sake of the argument (if not for its appropriateness) of the above model as the paradigm of artistic creativity.
Cage and content
It is one thing to acknowledge that much present-day art (music included) has John Cage's 4'33'' as its model, or paradigm. Yet, this goes to show the lack of content in art as well: if the artist is merely concerned with bringing his materials to life, and with the question of what stuff can act as material, she may have lost sight of her work's contents.
Art works used to be about things, about the world, or important events.
Thus, recognizing that one cannot (artistically) succesfully tell a story if the material does not come to life, this need not mean that all one has to do is enchant a piece of material.
Ask yourself, What is Cage's 4'33'' about?
I gues, what is missing in 4'33'' for it to count as music, is that its sounds are not caused by the performer.
What makes it count as art is that here is a particularised context that allows an audience to experience meaningfully inherent qualities of what it perceives (its own sounds).
The example of Cage's 4'33'' may further clarify this. I would want to say that this is the greatest work of the last century, but that I don't think it is music. I deem it great because it, like no other work, makes it experientially plain that the hardest challenge for any artist is to ``bring to life'' inert material. The audience hears its own sounds (standardly perceived as unworthy of aesthetic attention), yet is forced to listen to them as if they are musically interesting. 4'33'' is a work of art because next to other things it realises its ``composer's'' intentions. Yet is it is not a piece of music because the sounds it comprises are not traceable to anything the musician is doing to his piano: the sounds do not physically depend on his manipulations. Yet it is the musician who on any view of performance would count as the one performing the score. To treat 4'33'' as music would require us to think of the audience as the musician's instrument, but Ockham's razor would forbid it. 4'33'' is a special case, but it illuminates our thinking about music by deviating from the normal case.
What this tells us ...
What this tells us about the art of music is that, apparently, we need the sounds of music to be regulatedly, intentionally caused by its performers, personally---it is humans that we want to hear in the music.
What this tells us about art generally, is that it allows one to experience intently what the work presents one perceptually.