Monday, July 18, 2016

on the tiresome canard in Western conservative polemics about how atonality depicts godlessness or a rejection of logos

This piece linked to above dates back to 2001 but it retains ideas that keep cropping up in conservative polemics against atonality in music.  I would say that I've been what I call a moderate actual conservative rather than a neo-con for a while, and that moderate part would essentially apply to my approach on politics and religion as well as the arts.  I love me some Xenakis and Messiaen for listening but not necessarily as stuff I would compose.

I've been incubating a project for a while and might just have to blog some of it here and there.  I've gotten tired of the argument that avant garde techniques in Western music signify this or that.  Not that I can't appreciate why some people would hear string quartets by Xenakis and conclude it's the music of hell, I just disagree. 

Robert R. Reilly's overall polemic was that Western music was based on the Greek philosophical premise of a cosmic harmony that informed all other forms of harmony.  The music of the cosmos informed the music of humans and instrumental music and the music, so to speak, of bodily health and so on.  Pythagoras experimented with divisions of a cord and the sounds those divisions produced and began to record the ratios that led to certain intervallic relationships. And thus, through the millennia, we got the tonal system in Western music that is inevitably the thing that the conservative author wishes to defend.  The idea that the octave could be divided into seven equidistant tones the way it is in traditional Thai classical music just never comes up.  If it ever DID come up in the arguments of a conservative Western author as relevant to a complaint about atonality I haven't come across it yet.

It doesn't just so happen that a recent piece in the Atlantic highlights that as musicological research scours the globe it becomes a bit easier to establish that dissonances are not always defined in the same way in all places (or times, since in ancient Western music fourths could be considered consonant and did not become treated as dissonances until closer to the 18th century).  So ...
But if the Western preference for consonance isn’t rooted in biology, then why do the frequencies of these sounds relate to each other with such clean mathematical precision? “The Greeks were really into ratios,” says McDermott. “All their theories of aesthetics related to ratios. It’s possible they started making music that way and we’ve been stuck with it ever since.”

But that doesn't mean there won't, even now, be those who refer to the usual suspects as the destroyers of the beauty of Western music, Arnold Schoenberg and John Cage.  Now certainly a Christian could appreciate the idea proposed by Clement of Alexandria that Reilly brought up, the proposal that if the Logos was the Greek idea of the cosmic harmony undergirding reality as we know it, the music of the universe, that Christ was the Logos who made all things and by Whom all things persist. That wouldn't be a big leap.  The Gospel of John pulled that off, arguably, from the introduction.

But to assert that Schoenberg's aspiration toward atonality constituted a rejection of this whole approach, that seems ... dicey.  To argue that it signified Schoenberg was irreligious seems even more dicey.  Schoenberg's rejection of what he called "beauty" may have to be taken with a few pounds of salt, what passed for beauty in the post-Romantic era could be described as, well, kitsch.  Even a conservative like Roger Scruton could conceivably grant this.  Dwight Macdonald's remark on the early 20th century avant garde was that they did not necessarily see themselves as the avant garde so much as those who were rebelling against the staid mannerisms of their era.  In other words, plausible cases could be made from folks left and right that the tonal idiom as it had developed throughout the 19th century had exhausted itself and become kitsch; it had become a series of shorthands whose meanings were so readily apprehended there was seemingly little that was interesting left to do with all that.

Even a conservative who doesn't like Schoenberg's music on the whole, by now has to concede Schoenberg's caricature as someone rebelling against traditional tunes and harmony has to, at some point, be squared with his public remarks on the passing of George Gershwin.

Not that there aren't other authors who have fielded the topic of Schoenberg and the occult but Richard Taruskin's comments seem apt enough:

ISBN 0-691-01156-7


The surmounting of the major-minor dichotomy was for Schoenberg no mere technical breakthrough but a spiritual ascent--a provi--to a superhuman condition. "Double gender," he proclaimed, "has given rise to a higher race." No less than Scriabin, then, Schoenberg spoke in the voice of the vatic androgyne, as the text of Die Jakobsleiter and the mesmerizing title page of Promethee (by the Belgian theosophical artist Jean Delville) jointly declare. ("The fire that blazed in his eyes," wrote Balzac of his angelic messenger, "rivalled the rays of the sun; he seemed not to receive but to give out light."

p 358
The cold war rationalization and academization of dodecaophony caused that voice to grow cold and that face to grow dim. "As you read," said one of Balzac's characters of Swedenborg, "you must either lose your wits or become a seer." By now we have long consigned Scriabin to the former estate, that of lost wits, but we have been unwilling to consign Schoenberg to either category. Instead he sulks in positivistic limbo, his methods venerated but his deeds ignored. But it is precisely the academic despiritualization of dodecaphony--more broadly, of atonality--that has led to its widespread, and justified, rejection.

Indeed, it is precisely the rationalization and refinement of dodecaphonic technique to the point where it has become a kind of abstract numerical logic that has brought attack from those who question the cognitive relevance of its logical concepts. Twelve-tone music has come to seem a conceptual game to which listeners can never gain perceptual access. Those who attempt to finesse the problem by placing the blame on the inexperience of listeners (their "incompetence," to speak cognitively), invariably come across as special pleaders.

It is only when the original conception of atonality as a transrational, uncanny discourse is recognized, and its nature as a medium of revealed--which is to say undemonstrable--truth is grasped, that aesthetic apprehension can begin. It bears the aura of the sublime (Seraphita: "Why, if you believe in number, should you deny God?") and the sublime purges and terrifies. It is important, therefore, to refresh our memory of atonality's motivating liminal impulses. Renewed contact with the early atonalists, with Scriabin, and with the sources of their inspiration, can help restore perspective, but only if they are "put together again." At the very least it should be apparent that musicians who dismiss Scriabin's spiritual vision as "cosmic hocus-pocus," and literary investigators who assume it impossible that a spiritual vision could be "communicated musically," are cut off equally from the vision and from the music. It is only the music that can communicate the vision, but only if we have vision enough to receive the communication.

Drawing inspiration from theosophy and deploying a fusion of major and minor modes in music that transcends the conventional distinctions between major and minor tonality could be described as a lot of things, but the idea that it somehow rejected the existence of God is dubious.

If the transcendence of conventional major and minor chords was the aspiration of a spiritual quest then it hardly seems like a stretch to propose that what European composers could admire about blues and jazz was that here we could listen to music in which the blue note permeated musical textures in a way that arrived at that transcendant fusion of major and minor modality in an insoluable whole.  Schoenberg could admire Gershwin's music because however different it sounded from Schoenberg's, the assimilation in blues and jazz of the major/minor sound was a different way of arriving at what Schoenberg was aiming for, a reinvigoration of music from the tepid formulas that 19th century Romanticism had led Western music into.

One of the sad ironies of culturally conservative pundits with a thing for Romantic era music and a distrust of popular music is that it was in popular music the clearest connections can be observed between the harmonic and melodic vocabulary of ragtime, for instance, and the parlor music of earlier 19th century composers.  As a guitarist it's not difficult to set out the themes from sonatas by Diabelli, Sor, Giuliani or Carulli and show how they could be easily transformed into ragtime strains.  So the trouble with the abjection of popular musical styles is that they represent most readily a preservation of the kind of musical idiom that certain musical pundits regret seeing as less normative in art music that, nonetheless, is snubbed as unserious in popular music.  Schoenberg's remarks about Gershwin might be apt here, that there are some people who take themselves too seriously and by dint of that consider themselves serious composers or thinkers about music.

But there is yet another difficulty with a case that the Greek ideals about ratios constitute a music-of-the-spheres foundation for music that was rejected by Schoenberg (or Cage), it's an irony that was noted by the composer Iannis Xenakis:

Copyright 1992 by Pendragon Press

page 242-243
Musical theoreticians did base their theories on Fourier, more or less directly, in order to support the argument about the natural harmony of tonality. Moreover, in defining tonality, the 20th-century depracators of the new musical languages based their arguments on the theory of vibration of elastic bodies and media, that is, in the end, on Fourier analysis. But they were thus creating a paradox., for although they wanted to keep music in the intuitive and instinctive domain, in order to legitimize the tonal universe they made use of physico-mathematical arguments!
It is therefore natural to think that the disruptions in music in the last 60 years tend to prove once again that music and its "rules" are socio-cultural and historical conditionings, and hence modifiable.

That seems pretty self-explanatory there.  The irony of those who have opposed 20th century techniques and alternatives to traditional major/minor tonality has been that in their desire to preserve what they felt was a neglected intuitive aspect of the art of music they leveraged all of their argument ton ... arguments from mathematics and physics! 

It wasn't as though Xenakis couldn't appreciate J. S. Bach, for instance.  Xenakis' music isn't for everyone, certainly, but his music could provide an interesting case study in which formulating music informed by patterns in the natural world and through application of mathematics and engineering approaches could fit Francis Schaeffer's axiom that art should somehow be a reflection of the world.  Xenakis' music could be said to have done this even though Xenakis was an atheist and wrote music that set aside most conventions about the Western tonal idiom. 

But Xenakis, for his part, was pretty critical of John Cage, asserting that Cage's approach amounted to a renunciation of the composer's responsibility to communicate to musicians or audiences in a clear way.  It was, in essence, a cheap way of passing the buck (for Xenakis) that John Cage's music was the way it was.  Richard Taruskin's criticism, for those already familiar with it, was similar, but his assertion was that John Cage paradoxically reflected back to the rest of Western art music the most exaggerated and toxic forms of its own pious bromides.  The problem wasn't really Cage, since in the end Cage was more seriously consistent with the ideals of Romanticism and Western innovation as ideology than the rest, the problem was that when the rest of us didn't quite get what Cage was after we revealed we didn't get the full implications of what we embrace on paper in the sound of music.  In spite of the Zen trappings, John Cage could be described as ideologically being more arch-Romantic than modernist.  So the polemic goes.

And the polemic could be taken further.  Cornelius Cardew and John Tilbury just declared that Cage's music was morally and socially bankrupt because he was nothing more than a shill for late capitalism, which is about what we should expect from a Marxist critique of the Western avant garde in the 20th century. 

Stockhausen Serves Imperialsim
Cornelius Cardew
Originally published in 1974
by Latimer New Dimensions Limited: London
SBN 901539 29 5

Series Editor. Kenneth Goldsmith

page 38
There is a contradiction between the toughness of Cage’s music and the softness of his ideas. ...

from Introduction to John Cage's Music of Changes
John Tilbury
(page 41)

Let us begin with the facts of the piece. The Music of Changes was written in 1951 and is the embodiment, wholly or partially, in musical expression of Cage’s view of the world. By that I mean that before Cage can function as a musician he has to live as a man, and not as abstract man, but historically as a real man in a particular society.[emphasis added] ...

... Technically, the result of Cage’s application of this method is brilliant - the way in which the piano is used as a sound source to be explored rather than an instrument to be played, the extensive use of the third sustaining pedal to achieve a wide range of colours and textures, the subtly changing resonances obtained, the overall pianistic clarity; and artistically, the effect is of stylistic coherence and originality.

But this is not all - in fact it is only half the story. For there is no such thing as an artistic conscience which is not governed by world outlook. [emphasis added] ...

This tone kind of reminds me of someone.

The God Who Is There
copyright (c) 1968 by Francis A. Schaeffer
Published by InterVarsity Press (U.S.A. and Canada)

Escape from Reason
copyright (c) 1968 by Francis A. Schaeffer
Published by InterVarsity Press (U.S.A) and Hodder and Stoughton (Canada)

ISBN 13:978-0-89107-561-5
ISBN 10:0-89107-561-5


page 76
We should love good art. But art as art does not have the right to speak ex cathedra regardless of content. [emphasis added]

There was a very interesting Profile of John Cage (1912 - ) in The New Yorker, part of which we shall quote in considering his music. The Profile says: " .. what he is proposing is, essentially, the complete overthrow of the most basic assumptions of Western art since the Renaissance ." We have already seen that the young person caught in the modern generation is 400 years away from the previous generation. So Cage is seeking to overthrow a total concept stretching right back at least through those 400 years to the Renaissance. ..

page 77-78
Back in the Chinese culture long ago the Chinese had worked out a system of tossing coins or yarrow sticks by means of which the spirits would speak. The complicated method which they developed made sure that the person doing the tossing could not allow his own personality to intervene. Self-expression was eliminated so that the spirits could speak.

Cage picks up this same system and uses it. He too seeks to get rid of any individual expression in his music. But there is a very great difference. As far as Cage is concerned, there is nobody there to speak. There is only an impersonal universe speaking through blind chance.

page 79
... here is a man who is trying to teach the world what the universe intrinsically is and what the real philosophy of life is, and yet he cannot even apply it to picking mushrooms. If he were to go out into the woods and begin picking mushrooms by chance, within a couple of days there would be no Cage!

So, obviously, Marxists believe in worldview, too.  D. G. Hart could have a bit of fun with this juxtaposition of Francis Schaeffer talking about how Cage has worldview issues and Marxists such as Cardew or Tilbury making the same critique from a different direction.  I tend to, perhaps too cynically, view Marxism and postmillenialist/theonomistic thought as different versions of the same basic impulse. 

The chromatic scale as an extrapolation of major and minor diatonic scales from 17th or 18th century Western practice, particularly as connected to equal temperament, could be described being an artificial extrapolation from an artificial extrapolation.  Assuming there is a thing such as an octave across all human perception that could be called musical, you can divide that octave into any number of discreet tones for a variety of reasons.  The Greek legacy, as interpreted in the West, certainly could seem to give us diatonic scales and modes but Xenakis' complaint was the Western Latinized tradition botched all this stuff and that if you wanted to get a clearer sense of what Greek music was really supposed to sound like ... well, of course, you'd go listen to Greek Orthodox chant where the mode was characterized not as a movable scale so much as a set of melodic patterns prevailing within identifiable tetrachords.  Xenakis' complaint about Westerners trying to defend Western music by appealing to Greeks was that they didn't seem to really understand the Greeks. 

My own take is that Christianity does nothing like prescribing a set of pitch organizing principles and that you can make use of any and every musical idiom you want.  If in Christ there is no Jew nor Greek, no slave or free, no male or female; if Christ is the mediator who reconciles us to God then why shouldn't our music be part of that?  In the age to come why would only German Lutheran music or Swedish Lutheran music be heard in Heaven?  Why should we not hear Thai music?  Why should the music of Heaven be explicable only on the basis of twelve-note chromatic mediation of tonal music from roughly just two centuries of the Western world? 

And conservatives sometimes wonder why they get seen as only having a thing for dead white guys.  I adore the music of Haydn ... but I also like music by Messiaen and some of his students.  If we're going to reject atonality we can come up with reasons that don't hinge on presumptions about the viability of a musical idiom that is only a few centuries old.  Christians don't, as a rule, seem to want to do that kind of thing on a worldwide scale, so why do it in a defense of just one brand of music? 


chris e said...

I may comment on some other things later as I get the time; but as an aside, Scriabin's canon is not that far away from Romanticism anyway, maybe a kind of abstracted Romanticism, so I wonder to what extent theosophy is a McGuffin in musicology terms.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

After years of never getting around to his work I've started sampling Scriabin in the last two or three years. Part of what put me off from trying him out was a friend who talked about how much the religious ideas fueled the work. It's possible to appreciate beauty in J. S. Bach's music without necessarily being the kind of Lutheran Bach was, just as it's possible to appreciate things about Xenakis' music without being an atheist. But it's become so popular among a strand of conservative/Christian polemicists to invoke "ideas have consequences" as a "proof" that the music they don't like is bad I sometimes feel like that needs to get addressed from time to time.

Eric Love said...

The 12-tone system works because 2^(7/12) is very close to 1.5 and 2^(1/3) is reasonably close to 1.25. Which is in one sense a coincidence, so one may wonder what music would sound like without it; but in another sense impossible to be false, so imagining otherwise seems silly.

I don't know whether contemporary musicians/composers, with the ability to adjust tuning of individual notes (on a keyboard, or post-recording in studio, or otherwise), have experimented much with this. If so, have any commentators read anything philosophical into it?

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

Well, for microtonality Kyle Gann's blog at ArtsJournal might be a place to start, Eric Love. The possibility of quarter tones got brought up by 19th century musicians like Lizst and Anton Reicha. Bartok called for quarter tones in a number of his works, ditto Ligeti. Ligeti's Hamburg Concerto riffs wonderfully on natural horns tuned to different pitches.

The period-instrument fad, fad though it is, can give us an idea how instruments and instrumental music sounded prior to the consolidation of equal temperament.

The equidistant tones in Thai music's scale don't fit into the parameters of the Western chromatic/diatonic system but it's still pretty explicable when you hear it. Not too surprisingly, composers that began to look for ways to move beyond the shopworn elements of Western Romantic era tonality tended to look eastward, whether to Asia or, as was also the case, vernacular musical idioms from the United States.

What's been interesting reading about the history of American music and Russian music is the prevalence of an ambition to take what Taruskin called "the best of the rest" approach. German music, particularly in a case like J. S. Bach, synthesized a diverse range of available styles. My own impression has been that after a century of stylistic and formal fragmentation the pendulum has been swinging the other way in the last half century. When we look at the musical heroes who get lionized at their passing it seems we're getting a parade of musical chameleons and people who experimented with fusions of previously existing styles and sounds.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

I've written this before but as I've been rereading Francis Schaeffer in the run-up to the 50th anniversary of The God Who is There, I'm struck by how very easily the whole trilogy could be (and likely already is) read as a legend of WASP decline. Schaeffer could see that fragmentation was happening in the arts and had an interesting explanation for what he thought it meant but the kind of polystylistic transnational morass in the arts existed in the Baroque era, only thanks to grand master narratives called history we can look back on that whole era as being more cohesive and unified than it would have seemed to people at the time. The very name "Baroque" tells us that not everyone who lived during that era thought that the innovations in the arts characteristic of that age were good things.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

chris e, as Russian music goes Brilliant Classics has a new box set out, The Russian Guitar 1800-1850. It's a compilation of music from the seven-string guitar tradition of Russian music.

Leonard Meyer's remarks about Western European Romanticism was that they repudiated traditions but that by and large they didn't have any alternatives. I feel like floating this idea that what separated Russian Romanticism and transcendentalism from the Western variety was that since their art music traditions were comparatively more recent and taking shape "late" they could introduce octatonic scales, whole-tone scale work and other symmetrical harmonies that weren't deployed in the same way in the West because of a different set of conceptual restraints.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

Eric, belated additional comment here, Ben Johnston's string quartets are the best example of microtonality I can think of and they're pretty cool sounding works. He's written some theoretical stuff on the how and why we shouldn't be beholden to a 12-tone tempered tuning system but ... for the moment ... that would involve more disposable income than I can throw money at to get that book. :) But the Kepler quartet recordings of the Ben Johnston string quartets are worthy listening if you want to hear microtonal music.

chris e, the more I read about the total-work-of-art as Romantic aspiration the more it seems that theosophy wasn't exactly a McGuffin. The embrace of symmetrical linear and harmonic patterns in octatonic and whole-tone scales as emblematic of a unified classless human race might be absurdly literal-minded but it "could" be read as an attempt to depict in music a kind of post-millennial apocalyptic utopian human state. I might manage to write more about this later in an actual post.