Music and the mind

Music is a complete representation of a state of mind.

We know the heart of our civilization through music in a way we cannot easily know through anything else. We communicate not just with other people, but with other generations. Like Bach’s St Matthew Passion. The fact that such things exist makes available to us a vision of the world that is not only superior to ours, but has an awful lot to teach us about what we could be.

Two quotes from texts by the British philosopher and aesthetician and musicologist Roger Scruton, that have to be read metaphorically, he does not want us to become like 18C Leipzigers. Classical music as an inspirational, aspirational and transcendent vision requires from both musicians and audiences a serious state of mind and receptiveness which is harder to acquire in our technologically-saturated times than in a time, when life was much slower, calmer and quieter. In comparison with the bordering-on-the-insane ‘celebration of modern life’ of Elliott Carter, the bland, obsessive mindlessness of Philip Glass or the puerile fake sixties-rebelliousness of Louis Andriessen, it is the seriousness of the music of David Matthews or Nicolas Bacri on which any hope for a future of classical music rests.

Other passages by Scruton:

We have the obligation to preserve what we value. Of course, after the Roman Empire collapsed things started again. But it took Western society 600 years to recover what was lost.

A chilling reminder of what could, in these times, be at stake.

Interesting here is the case of George Rochberg, the American composer who joined the post-war cult of serialism and made his own highly competent contributions to the genre, before admitting to himself, following the tragic death of his teenage son, that serialism is empty of expressive content, and could not be a vehicle for his grief. It took courage for Rochberg then to do what his artistic conscience told him to do, and to return to the classical tradition. “There is no greater provincialism,” he wrote in 1969, “than that special form of sophistication and arrogance which denies the past.” Thereafter Rochberg allowed his music to be guided by his ear, not by fashionable theories, and produced three or four of the most beautiful string quartets of the 20th century. The third quartet was dismissed by Andrew Porter as ‘almost irrelevant’ and became the target of relentless abuse and scorn from the academic critics, the more so in that it was openly popular. And in due course it had a real influence on such composers as David Del Tredici and John Corigliano. Despite being dismissed as pastiche, Rochberg’s quartets are, it seems to me, genuinely original – and their originality consists in their studious respect for the principles of voice leading and romantic harmony, even while expressing the composers very real desolation at his loss.

Pure sound can be interesting, but it cannot engage us in the way music does, in the way we relate to the work with our whole being and not merely with our aesthetic sense of materialistic surface phenomenae. Although it makes use of sound, music is not a materialistic art form.

Art and music shine a light of meaning on ordinary life, and through them we are able to confront the things that trouble us and to find consolation and peace in their presence.

Music as an ordering principle. Music can grasp emotional states and turn them into aesthetic, meaningful experiences that transcend the causes from which they were born.

Something of the child’s pure delight in creation survives in every true work of art.

A fundamental quality which has never been spotted by modernism and postmodernism.

The art establishment has turned away from the old curriculum which puts beauty and craft at the top of the agenda.

Because modernism strove after disconnecting the mind from the life experiences from which music sprang.

Art once made a cult of beauty. Now we have a cult of ugliness instead. This has made art into an elaborate joke, one which by now has ceased to be funny.

Ugliness is so much more easy than beauty, ugliness has no pitfalls. But what is ugly? There is ugliness that has beauty like Stravinsky´s ´Sacre´. And there is beauty that is ugly like Strauss´´Also sprach Zarathrustra´. But that does not mean that beauty is in the ear of the listener, it is an aesthetic and psychological quality that lies at the heart of the work in question, otherwise we could not detect it there. Millions of years of evolution have organized our senses in such a way, that they connect us to our environment: the greenness of grass is not our projection, but our perception of a quality outside ourselves (in contrast to the tortured conclusions of some philosophers who think the world is our projection). So, beauty – as a perceived quality – is not merely a subjective reaction, it is a subjective reaction to something objectively out-there.

Creativity is not enough… the skill of the true artist is to show the real in the light of the ideal and so transfigure it.

That is why expression in music is something on a higher plane than the emotion in itself, without the music. This distinction within something whole is the cause of so much ink-letting over the question whether music can express things or not, and if so, whether the thing expressed is part of the music.

-on Giovanni Battista Pergolesi…
The music takes over the words and makes them speak to me in another language.

This proces of transformation of the meaning of words into the meaning of music, explains the miracle of Debussy´s ´Pelléas et Mélisande´, where the rather bland text is infused with profound meaning, creating a new whole. Debussy completed Maeterlinck´s text. Any successful song in classical music is doing the same. Hence composers´ inclination to select texts that can be plumbed for meaning, and their avoidance of poetry which is already complete in its meaning. A complete text can only be duplicated, not transcended, by music. Hence the other Debussy miracle: his entirely successful setting of texts by Verlaine and Mallarmé, poems complete in themselves, which is an extraordinary and rare achievement, due to his ultra sensitivity towards poetry and psychological understanding, or maybe rather: emotional understanding. His personal contacts with the best poets of his time will have developed his sense of poetic qualities to a degree, seldom found in composers.

Art has the ability to redeem life by finding beauty even in the worst aspect of things.

Think of Schönberg´s ´Five Orchestral Pieces´ and ´Pierrot Lunaire´.

Ours is a “non-judgmental” culture, and its hostility to judgment arises from the democratic belief in human equality. To criticize another’s taste, whether in music, entertainment or lifestyle, assumes that some tastes are superior to others. And this, for many people, is offensive. Who are you, they respond, to judge another’s taste?

As a given, humans are not ´equal´ but they have, in the context of society, equal rights. But artistic quality is something hierarchical, there are things that are better than other things and upon this notion the entire endeavor of art was based in the past. Observing qualitative differences in art has nothing to do with democratic principles. From this one can conclude that one is entitled to judge other people´s taste, as one should judge and improve one´s own taste all the time. It is important to have a good taste in all things and especially in artistic matters, because in art, taste is the framework within which all important decisions are made. Taste is the intuitive understanding of aesthetic and artistic quality.


© John Borstlap / 2015

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