Category Archives: aesthetics

The Limits of Transmission

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Since at least the Romantic period, musicians and theorists have argued that musically expressed emotions cannot be fully or adequately conveyed in words or rational concepts. Instead, music is understood as a mode of communication that bypasses ordinary language and speaks directly to the ineffable realm of the “inner life.” This emotional conveyance is typically regarded as both cultural and highly personal: conventions within a music-culture determine the generalized impressions of musical qualities, such as mode, pitch range, and tempo, but specific interactions between those qualities and the listener are not predetermined. A wide and highly variable range of factors, as unique as the listener herself, fundamentally shapes the experience.

Deryck Cooke’s influential treatise, The Language of Music (1959), proposes a more systematic approach. Through an examination of hundreds of examples of Common Practice tonality (Western tonal music since 1400), Cooke developed a lexicon of musical phrases, patterns, and rhythms linked to specific emotional meanings. In his analysis, recurrent devices are used to effect more or less identical emotional arousals, thus yielding a predictable, idiomatic language.

This theory, while helpful in identifying and organizing norms of Western music, has been criticized for omitting the role of syntax. There might be a standard musical vocabulary, but without rules for arranging constituent elements into “sentences,” there can be no consistent or independent meanings. For even the most over-used idiom, the performance and listening contexts ultimately determine the actual response.

This observation casts doubt on another of Cooke’s central claims. If, as Cooke argued, musical elements comprise a precise emotional vocabulary, then a composer can use those elements to excite his or her own emotions in the listener. This is achievable in emotive writing, such as a heartfelt poem or autobiographical account, which uses the syntactic and semantic structures of language to reference ideas, images, and experiences. However, because music lacks these linguistic features, direct emotional transmission is hardly a sure thing.

Philosopher Malcolm Budd adds an aesthetic argument to this criticism. By locating the value of a musical experience in the reception of the composer’s emotions, the piece loses its own aesthetic interest; it becomes a tool for transmitting information, rather than an opening for individually shaped emotional-aesthetic involvement. According to Budd, Cooke’s thesis, which he dubs “expression-transmission theory,” misrepresents the motivation for listening: “It implies that there is an experience which a musical work produces in the listener but which in principle he could undergo even if he were unfamiliar with the work, just as the composer is supposed to have undergone the experience he wants to communicate before he constructs the musical vehicle which is intended to transmit it to others; and the value of the music, if it is an effective instrument, is determined by the value of this experience. But there is no such experience.”

The enduring appeal of musical language is its multivalence. Idiomatic figures may be commonplace in tonal music, but their appearance and reappearance in different pieces does not carry definite or monolithic information, whether from the composer or the vocabulary employed.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Ignoring Noise

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

As a rule, musical sounds are more clearly distinguished from non-musical sounds (the sounds of “reality”) than visual arts are distinguished from the shapes and colors of the visible world. What makes a photograph, abstract painting, or found object distinct from non-art is more difficult to pinpoint than what makes music sound like music. Satirist Ambrose Bierce addressed this in The Devil’s Dictionary, which defines painting as “The art of protecting flat surfaces from the weather and exposing them to the critic.” The viewing venue, in other words, plays a central role in the creation and perception of visual arts. (Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, a porcelain urinal signed “R. Mutt,” is an extreme example.) Contrastingly, music is invisible, and thus cannot be confused with visible forms; it has no direct analog in the physical world.

Music is a culturally defined sonic phenomenon that, while impossible to define universally, is immediately recognized when heard in its cultural setting. Historically in the West, this has included a division between “pure” tones and “disordered” or “unwanted” sounds, generally called “noise.” Physics seems to support this bifurcation. While the various sound waves produced by music can be isolated into individual frequencies, with some being more dominant than others, noise contains jumbled frequencies of sound without a dominant frequency. However, ambiguity lurks beneath this observation. Despite Western music’s self-perception of “noiselessness,” such sounds do exist within the organized matrix of frequencies.

Performers, scholars, and aficionados have long understood Western music (esp. concert music) as purified of noise. This assumption surfaces in descriptions of non-European musics. As Dena J. Epstein chronicles in her book, The Folk Banjo: A Documentary History, European travelers and missionaries regularly described the timbres of African vocals and instruments as “crude,” “wild,” “peculiar,” strange,” “weird,” or “noise.” Contemporary ethnomusicologists credit “ethnic” musics for retaining noisy elements, and eschewing—or never developing—the Western affinity for “pure” tones. The African mbira, or thumb piano, is a favorite example. Bottle caps and snail shells are attached to the soundboard and resonator, creating a buzz that muddies the otherwise focused timbre of the plucked idiophone. Efforts to reintroduce “noisiness” into Western music, notably with fuzz and overdrive guitar distortion, is sometimes heard as an aspirational return to naturalistic sound, albeit through electronic means.

All of this overlooks the presence of noise in even the most cleaned-up Western musical forms. The scraping of the bow against a violin string; the clacking of the keys on a clarinet; the sliding on the fingerboard of an acoustic guitar. According to filmmaker and composer Michel Chion, author of Sound: An Acoulogical Treatise, the Western listener tends to “scotomize,” or mentally delete, these sounds. Moreover, studio recordings tend to minimize or mute out such idiosyncrasies. “On the other hand,” writes Chion, “recordings of so-called traditional musics are often made by and for people who find something charming about such noises, and such documentations strive to preserve them and even to emphasize them in the recording process.”

Chion’s compositional medium, musique concrète, places all sorts of sounds into a musically organized framework. Compositions consist of multifarious field recordings, which are modified by altering pitch and intensity, extending or cutting off, adding echo effects, playing backwards, and so on. [Listen to Chion’s Requiem]. The finished piece is an artistic unity that challenges standard ideas about music. It can also train us to hear assembled noises as musical, and to listen for noise elements in conventional music.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Autonomous Art

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

A rallying cry was heard in nineteenth-century France: “l’art pour l’art”—“art for art’s sake.” Against a backdrop of scholasticism, scientific thinking, and hostility toward “useless” art, French writers argued that the greatest value of art was not some external aim, but self-sufficiency. Art’s highest goal was to exist in its own formal perfection; its highest purpose was to be contemplated as an end in itself.

This was the basis of aestheticism, or the aesthetic movement—an approach with ideological ties to Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Aesthetic Judgment (1790), which presents the “pure” aesthetic experience as the “disinterested” contemplation of an object that “pleases for its own sake,” without making reference to reality or claims to utility or morality. More directly, French aestheticism was rooted in Théophile Gautier’s witty defense of his assertion that art is useless (in the preface to Mademoiselle de Maupin, 1835).

Aestheticism was developed by poet Charles Baudelaire, who was greatly influenced by Edgar Allan Poe’s claim, made in “The Poetic Principle” (1850), that the supreme work is a “poem per se.” This governing ideal was taken up by many other writers, and spread into Victorian England through Walter Pater, Oscar Wilde, Lionel Johnson, and others. Instrumental music, because of its absence of words, was sometimes held up as the apex of this artistic aspiration. Pater famously remarked, “all art constantly aspires toward the condition of music.”

Meanwhile, German romanticists of the nineteenth century promoted self-sufficiency as a musical ideal. In contrast to programmatic music, which has a specific purpose, story, theme, or sung text, so-called “absolute music” was music for its own sake. Poets such as E. T. A. Hoffman and Ludwig Tieck conceived of instrumental music as the language of a higher realm, and celebrated music’s potential for non-representation non-conceptualization—qualities that led Kant to dismiss music as “more entertainment than culture” in his Critique of Aesthetic Judgment.

“Absolute music” actually began as a pejorative term, coined by Richard Wagner to expose the limitations of instrumental music and support his own view of opera’s superiority. For Wagner, music without signification was not only ludicrous, but had no right to exist. Proponents of “music per se” held the opposite view: music can (and should) express nothing other than music itself.

In practice, a pure listening experience is unobtainable. Exposure to musical sounds, whether or not they carry explicit meanings, invariably comes with a host of influencing factors, including social conditioning, cultural context, momentary disposition, and mental/emotional associations. Our responses to music, in turn, transcend strictly musical considerations.

That being said, we might choose to hear pieces as (more or less) autonomous works, or read into them extra-musical connotations, either stemming from our own backgrounds or the composers’. However, rarely—if ever—are these avenues of perception clearly bifurcated; we may favor hearing music as absolute or programmatic, but conceptual colorations are impossible to avoid. As Mark Evan Bonds writes in his recent book, Absolute Music: The History of an Idea, “[W]e are most likely to hear [musical pieces] as some combination of the two. But that is a choice we make, and not a quality inherent in the works themselves. Neither mode of listening is superior to the other, and the notion that we can hear them in exclusively one way or the other is in any case deeply suspect.”

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Between Past and Present

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

In his little book on modern art, Art and the Question of Meaning, Catholic theologian Hans Küng draws parallels between certain theological and aesthetic positions. Ideological historicism is a theology/artistic preference centered on a specific past, as if God or art had found its one and only true form in some bygone era. This position elevates the old as “a model, something to be imitated, not merely evoked,” and sees subsequent developments as evidence of decline. Ideological futurism, on the other hand, seeks a vision of God/art freed from the shackles of the past. It embraces the latest theological/artistic expressions as the very best, as if every new insight or technique is, by virtue of its newness, a positive advancement. The golden age is perpetually in the future: “every revolt [is] itself a great renewal” and “a new beginning [has] to be made again and again at zero.”

Although Küng focuses on the intersection of theology and visual arts (specifically painting), his comments apply equally to music. There are longstanding ideological debates between musical preservationists and innovationists. We might place the collector who touts the eternal supremacy of ragtime records on the historicism end, and the indie rock connoisseur who constantly looks for undiscovered bands on the futurism end.

Küng finds flaws in both positions. Ideological historicism—whether in theology, visual arts, music, or anything else—betrays not only “creative weakness,” “intellectual impotence,” and “anemic scholasticism,” but also a paralyzing belief in humanity’s downward spiral. Ideological futurism maintains the false notion that a break from the past always results in something better, no matter how ephemeral it proves to be.

Küng locates the solution to both extremes in a realistic grounding in the present. We are, in his words, “finite, defective beings and yet beings of infinite expectation and yearning.” Expectation here is an awareness of what has come before: the theological/artistic conditions set by ages of evolving thought and creative endeavors. Yearning refers to what is yet to be: new creations that are consciously or unconsciously indebted to the past and present. For the theologian, artist, or musician occupying this humble balance, “the momentary impression will be important for his art, but will not become an ideology, will not become impressionism.”

Küng does not use “impressionism” in the sense of the French movement or other “in-the-moment” artistic methods. Rather, it is a belief in an unhistorical “eternal” present that denies any linkage with past or future. The remedy for such faulty ideological impressionism—as well as for ideological historicism and ideological futurism—is finding comfort in a nowness that thoughtfully balances a recognition of heritage with an openness to new possibilities.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Electronic Music and the Separation from Nature

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

In the 1960s, German-American composer Gershon Kingsley shifted his energies to electronic music. He was among the first to experiment with the Moog synthesizer (invented by Bob Moog in 1963), recording two albums with fellow electro-musician Jean-Jacques Perrey (The In Sound from Way Out! 1966 and Kaleidoscopic Variations, 1967) and a solo album, Music to Moog By (1969), featuring the synthpop classic “Popcorn.” Kingsley was drawn to electronic music for two reasons: it promised seemingly infinite sound options, and it gave composers complete creative control. He told Harry Reasoner in a 1970 CBS interview: “Instead of going through the process of first conceiving the idea, then orchestrating it, then having it played on an instrument, now a musical work can be created entirely in the studio environment….[A] composer can now function the same way as a painter or a sculptor.”

Electronic music in those early days was gruelingly hands-on. The Moog comprised a keyboard and a set of speakers connected to a refrigerator-size consul cluttered with dials, knobs, meters, and patch cords. A pressed key sent an electronic signal to the console, which “synthesized” a particular sound. The instrument was monophonic—only one note could be played at a time—meaning that chords, counterpoint, and harmony were achieved through overlaying multiple tracks. It was a tedious, highly skilled, and labor-intensive undertaking.

As technologies advanced, electronic music became further and further removed from the manual interaction of player and instrument. Music was now programmable, automated, and easily rearranged. The performance was unhindered by the limits of human breath, endurance, or dexterity. The sonic palette was endless and undefined, and tonal possibilities—note bending, durations, microtones, pitch range—far exceeded the capacity of organic instruments (those classified in the original Hornbostel–Sachs system as idiophones, membranophones, chordophones, and aerophones). These properties combined to disassociate electronic music from the natural world.

The aesthetic appeal of music divorced from a naturalistic backdrop has parallel in the “imaginative geography” of cities, where clear borders separate ordered human civilization from the untamed wild. Cities exert human dominion: the permission of certain forms of nature to exist in certain places within a human-centered environment. As Colin Jerolmack, author of the paper “How Pigeons Became Rats: The Cultural-Spatial Logic of Problem Animals,” says: “We cut out little squares in the concrete, and that’s where the trees belong. We don’t like it when grass and weeds begin to grow through cracks in the sidewalks, because that’s nature breaking out of those boundaries that we want to keep it in.”

Implicitly or explicitly, a principle of “perfecting” motivates bifurcated cityscapes and nature-eschewing electronic sounds. In the conventional scheme of human progress, there is a movement away from uncontrolled habitats to manicured environs. At first, sounds emanating from animals and the atmosphere were a major source of musical inspiration. Human beings mimicked the noises of insects, the pattering of rain, the calls of birds, and other non-human sounds. Over time, human music developed its own logic, techniques, conventions, and instruments, and became a self-imitative art form. The resulting styles and sonorities increase our distance from music’s evolutionary origins.

An early critic of this separation was French Benedictine monk Antoine Augustin Calmet. In a 1723 treatise, Dissertations sur la poésie et la musique des Anciens en général et des Hébreux en particulier, he called out the “false notion that the world develops toward greater and greater perfection and that our century is much more enlightened and cultured than previous centuries.” As if predicting developments that would lead to electronic music, Camet wrote: “Many believe that the simplicity of ancient music was an imperfection. I think, on the contrary, that it contributed to its perfection. The more one approaches nature, the more one approaches the beautiful and the perfect.”

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Musical Aesthetics

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Aesthetics is classically defined as the study of the beautiful in art. Thomas Henry Huxley, a Victorian biologist best remembered as “Darwin’s bulldog,” set the definition as a list: a beauty in appearance, visual appeal, an experience, an attitude, a property of something, a judgment, and a process. This expanded meaning touches on the original Greek aisthesis, which deals with feelings and sensations. Aesthetics, in this sense, is not limited to the thing itself, but rather is a holistic term encompassing the focal point—the object, performance, atmosphere, etc.—and the experience of and response to that focal point.

However, Huxley’s elucidation, like many others, suffers from an over-emphasis on beauty. While aesthetic engagement often involves perceptions of beauty, this is not the only (or even foremost) criterion of artistic merit. Art can be aesthetically satisfying without necessarily being “beautiful” in the conventional sense of eliciting pleasure.

Applied to music, aesthetics might be conceived as the relationship of music to the human senses. Rather than judging whether or not a composition is beautiful, or why one piece is more beautiful than another, attention shifts to the interplay between musical stimuli and the interior realm of sensations. The onus of appraisal moves from the cold tools of theoretical analysis to the auditor.

For some thinkers, this is the only appropriate location for aesthetic assessment. Nineteenth-century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer argued that music taps into channels of pure emotions: “Music does not express this or that particular and definite joy, this or that sorrow or pain, or horror, or delight, or merriment, or peace of mind; but joy, sorrow, pain, horror, delight, merriment, peace of mind themselves, to a certain extent in the abstract, their essential nature, without accessories, and therefore without their motives.” T. H. Yorke Trotter, founder and principal of the Incorporated London Academy of Music, echoed Schopenhauer in a 1907 lecture, stating that, while other art forms awaken ideas and images that act on the feelings, music directly stirs “dispositions which we translate by the vague terms, joy, sadness, serenity, etc.”

In this revised view, aesthetic value does not depend on the micro or macro features of a piece, per se, but on how one responds to those features. Emotional arousals are instant aesthetic judgments. It is no accident that the perceived qualities of a piece or passage mirror the responses induced: joyful, mournful, serene, and so forth. The intensity of the emotion might separate one piece from another, but the immediacy of the music—as Schopenhauer and Yorke described it—seems to defy such classifications. Among other things, integrating (or equating) aesthetics with emotions underscores the subjectivity of the topic, and highlights the interconnectedness and simultaneity of stimulus, experience, and evaluation.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

To Jargon or Not to Jargon

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Art historian Bernard Berenson described the transformative potential of gazing at visual art, “when the spectator is at one with the work of art he is looking at, or with actuality of any kind that the spectator himself sees in terms of art, as form and colour. He ceases to be his ordinary self, and the picture or building, statue, landscape, or aesthetic actuality is no longer outside himself. The two become one entity; time and space are abolished and the spectator is possessed by one awareness.” Berenson compared this moment to a flash of “mystic vision,” when the workaday mind is muted and perceptive faculties transcend their ordinary functions.

This articulation of experientialism, which values experience as a source of truth, contrasts with intellectualism, where knowledge is derived from reason. The latter is characteristic of Marxist theorist Theodor W. Adorno, whose studies of the arts comprise over half of his oeuvre. Adorno used his considerable intellect to criticize jazz, the “in-the-moment” art par excellence, and popular music, which encourages pre-rational engagement. In fairness, he was less concerned with the substance of “pop” than with its capitalist producers and passive consumers. He viewed popular music as evidence of a devious hegemony rooted in the “industrialization of culture,” which conditions passive listeners to hardly listen at all.

This argument has some validity. Listening habits are standardized through exposure to “hits” and popular styles, such that listeners essentially know what will happen in a song before they hear it. As R. C. Smith, a philosopher of science and defender of Adorno, notes: “In the world of mass produced music, in the very experience itself, standardisation acts as a sort of regularisation of sensational patterns. As a result of the conformity of these patterns there is a sort of lulling effect which, in a manner of speaking, is almost (inter)subjectively stunting.”

What these social critiques overlook is the music’s experiential impact. The transcendence Berenson described can occur with any art form, regardless of its origins, intentions, or predictability. In the subjective, spontaneous, and totalizing moment, all that exists is the experience itself. Analysis is as impossible as it is superfluous.

Experientialism finds its opposite in Adorno’s writings, which have been called “excessively negative,” “excessively ornamented,” and “excessively difficult.” The complexity of his German prose made early English translations unreliable, and his esoteric vocabulary can obscure his insights. Adorno was critical of this tendency in others, as evidenced in his attack on the language of Martin Heidegger (Jargon der Eigentlichkeit). Yet he admitted in a footnote to that work: “Even he who despises jargon is by no means secure from infection by it—consequently all the more reason to be afraid of it.”

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.