Thursday, January 14, 2016

Does music really need a new philosophy?

I always enjoy Roger Scruton’s writing on music, even when I disagree with him vehemently. That holds true for his piece on the role of philosophy in music. We should ignore the habitual bluster about the melodic and harmonic paucity of popular music, which Scruton seems insistent on analysing in a social vacuum as though it is beholden to the same compositional and aesthetic rules as Mozart; indeed, most of what Scruton writes about music totally ignores the fact that it is a cultural activity with many functions, not just an artifact to appreciate over a glass of fine wine. (I have visions of him challenging the idea that Bowie was a great musical artist because his songs had poor voice-leading.) And Scruton’s perpetual denigration of today’s callow youth, passively consuming processed musical pap under their hoodies, makes you wish he’d get to bloody well know a few young people instead of sneering at them from afar. Most of the kids I know are learning an instrument – not that this is an essential aspect of active engagement with music, but it obviously helps.

I’m not sure that Scruton’s article is really concerned so much with philosophy at all (there is a large body of work on this that he doesn’t touch on, and which is not obsessing about modernist ideas, such as Stephen Davies’ excellent 2005 book Themes in the Philosophy of Music). His emphasis is rather on systems and rules of composition. Still, I agree with him that Schoenberg’s twelve-tone method is pretty arbitrary, that Adorno wrote with priestly dogmatism, and that serialism systematically undermined the accumulated wisdom about making melodies coherent. However, just as Schoenberg didn’t realise why this was so, so Scruton has only the vaguest sense of why Western tonal music does have this property of auditory coherence. It’s depressing to hear yet another appeal to the “naturalness” of the Western diatonic scale (under which system of intonation, one wonders? Have you heard how weird the Pythagorean scale sounds to our ears now?). Not only is there no good evidence that the harmonies it creates are innately consonant (with the exception of the octave and perhaps the fifth), but Scruton’s appeal to the harmonic series ignores the fact that Schoenberg appealed to the very same source of justification – he just wanted to “emancipate” the higher harmonics. If Scruton showed more awareness of musical cultures whose harmonic norms depart widely from Western tonality (say, Croatian ganga or Indonesian gamelan), I think he’d be less inclined to assert its naturalness.

The existence of a tonic and of a hierarchy of note usage is indeed a feature of how much musical melody becomes intelligible and perceptually grouped, and also contributes to its tense of tension and release. The circle of fifths, modulation and voice-leading aren’t by any means essential in rich and complex music, but they can certainly be put to good use for coherence, variation and nuance in Western tonal music, once they become part of the learnt musical language. So if all this is ditched, then Scruton is quite right to assert that other “binding” structures are needed if one wants music that has an easily apprehended cognitive structure. (I have written about this in some detail, with specific focus on serialism and modernism here.)

But there are ways to achieve cognitive coherence within serialism, and Berg in particular was masterful in using rhythm, pitch relationships and other techniques to do so. (I don’t fully understand how he does it, but I suspect it was intuitive.) Without such things, Scruton rightly asserts that no “normal ear” (which is to say, no mind employing the mental grouping mechanisms we acquire for navigating an auditory landscape) can hold the music together. Yet if he showed any interest in the cognition of music, he’d be less sure that the traditional rules of the Western tonal style were the only means of achieving this.

Yet does music have to hold together in that way? We’re back to Scruton’s insistence on listening to all music with an ear attuned to Mozart. True, if we’re not going to do that then we have to learn a new way of listening, which is not easy when you’ve been immersed in the Western tonal tradition from birth (as most Westerners have). But might it not be worth trying? Personally, I’ve found that it is. Ligeti, for example, offers musical experiences based on texture or a kind of pointillist sonic painting. OK, you won’t go away humming the tunes, but I would be sad if that were always held up as the test of fulfilling music.

Beyond all this, the notion that all contemporary classical (whatever that means) music today is in thrall to serialism is of course absurd. These remarks might have been more pertinent 50 years ago, but now the diversity of styles is exhilarating and dizzying. Pierre Boulez is dead, Roger, and we can do what we like! (I don’t mean to knock Pierre, who seemed to loosen up somewhat in old age, but really he was a bit of a serialist snob in his time.)

What is the “philosophy” that Scruton wants to see in place of that of Adorno and the other champions of modernism? One, apparently, in which “true artists are not the antagonists of tradition but their [sic] latest advocates”. There speaks a dyed-in-the-wool conservative, of course, but I have some sympathy with the idea that innovators extend and transform tradition rather than sticking the boot into it. Even the Sex Pistols arguably did that (if the “tradition” includes MC5, Iggy and the Stooges and garage rock generally). But I wouldn’t expect Scruton to approve of that example.

Thanks to Ángel Lamuño for bringing Scruton’s article to my attention.


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