June 3rd 2017


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COVER STORY Left poisons Trump's real achievements

EUTHANASIA It must be war, as truth has been the first casualty

SAME-SEX MARRIAGE Dr David van Gend criticises AMA statement

GENDER POLITICS U.S. Target goes gender neutral; pays the price

GENDER POLITICS Where have all the transgenders gone?

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Graceless new book takes hatchet to Cardinal Pell

CULTURAL HISTORY The prophets of eco-doom: a perfect record of failure

LAW AND SOCIETY Religion in the balance in Australia

MUSIC What's it all about?: when no amount of ado will do

CINEMA Alien: Covenant: Creature seeks Creator

BOOK REVIEW Insights for the euthanasia debate

BOOK REVIEW Assistance is an Australian strength

LETTERS

CANBERRA OBSERVED Abbott strives not to join the forgotten people

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Is Cardinal Pell just the tallest poppy of them all?

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MUSIC
What's it all about?: when no amount of ado will do


by David James

News Weekly, June 3, 2017

Philosophy about the aesthetics of music should be considered one of the more difficult intellectual endeavours.

Given that music is rarely “about” anything – it typically has no specific referent in the way that literature usually does, or the visual arts can – then talking about what it means immediately faces obstacles.

Portrait of Roger Scruton by Alexey Steele.

 

True, musicians often say their music is about something. That is why they choose their title. But this contention is easily refuted. All that is required is to play the music to people without any reference to what it has been named and ask if they can guess. They will fail, unless they have a stroke of extraordinary luck. If you asked them to nominate an emotion, they might get closer, but they will not know what it is “about”.

One of the most impressive exponents of the aesthetics of music is British philosopher Roger Scruton, who is notable for the elegance of his thought and his knowledge of music (he has composed two operas himself). Yet, a consideration (admittedly cursory) of his ideas serves mainly as a reminder that philosophy of music is problematic at best.

Scruton’s argument, very briefly (and superficially characterised), is that music provides an “emotional knowledge” that shows us how to feel and act rightly. It is music conceived as partly an aesthetic experience and partly moral instruction, a means of self-improvement.

This aim is not achieved through reference to something else, as Scruton sees it. He has a notion of what he calls the “acousmatic space”, whereby sounds are taken as pure events. The suggestion is that this creates an analogy with idealism: the philosophical emphasis on ideas in the mind being the primary reality.

The examination of such ideas (known as phenomenology) thus becomes a basis for asking aesthetic questions. He focuses on the musical line and the structure, which are considered as pure in themselves, just as ideas are pure in themselves.

Scruton solves the problem of music not being translatable into words by borrowing Wittgenstein’s idea of facial expressions, which are considered “intransitive”. They express a state of mind, even if the exact precise meaning cannot be determined.

It is very elegant manoeuvring and allows Scruton to find a way to move the self-contained nature of music into philosophical discourse. Music analysis typically talks only about the music itself. Scruton has found a way to take it beyond that hermetic seal, which is no small thing.

But one is left wondering how much is learned by doing it? Consider what is usually happening when a composer or improviser is creating music. There may be emotion, but that is mainly a form of propulsion. That is not the essence of the musicality that is being attempted (the descriptive term “musicality” is perhaps the most compelling, and most elusive, ways of describing what is happening).

When a composer or improviser is aiming at musicality, they are focused on at least two things. First, and most important, is whether or not what is being attempted works. Usually, this comes before anything else (even with the supremely unmusical Schoenberg).

It is impossible to codify exactly what making music “work” is, but its presence or absence is unmistakable. Change a note or two in a melody by Mozart or Ravel and it quickly becomes obvious just how much internal integrity they have, how well they “work”.

Achieving that is the greatest challenge for musicians.

The second, related, focus is on fine details. A feature of great music is its fineness; it is refined in a literal sense. This is even true of music based on African rhythms, such as blues, jazz and some rock, where the rhythmic subtleties are extremely fine.

Neither emphasis can readily be located in Scruton’s philosophy. These aims are probably too pragmatic, not sufficiently idealist. Yet to the extent that such practical and microscopic considerations are what musicians do, they should be considered essential to any aesthetic discussion of the art form.

The suspicion is that Scruton’s approach is more about finding ways of talking about responding to certain kinds of music – especially Romantics such as Wagner and Brahms – than about the music itself. It is hard to see how his notions of “acousmatic space” would apply to non-classical forms, although he does express some half-hearted admiration for The Beatles, Hoagy Carmichael and even Metallica.

In the end, it is not so much philosophy about music as philosophy for those who like to philosophise about music.

David James is a Melbourne writer and musician.




























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