Tag Archives: Art

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.

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.

Wild Beauty

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

In his 1894 essay, “A Near View of the High Sierra,” naturalist and environmental philosopher John Muir contrasts his experience of the natural world with that of his artist companions, who are transfixed by idyllic mountain scenery. The artists, adhering to the “picturesque” philosophy, seek out choice vistas resembling the composition and subject matter of works of art. Muir, on the other hand, sees the entirety of the natural world as inherently beautiful beyond his own preferences and associations. As he articulated later, “None of nature’s landscapes are ugly so long as they are wild.” This view, which came to be called “positive aesthetics,” attempts a non-anthropocentric position, wherein conventionally put-upon creatures, like snakes and insects, ignored topographies, like wetlands and barren plains, and frowned-upon events, like floods and earthquakes, are also things of beauty.

Muir’s philosophy avoids the pitfalls of scenery-obsession, subjective judgment, and selective preservation. By virtue of their pristineness, wild habitats are fundamentally beautiful, whereas humanity’s imprint—in whatever form and in whatever environment—invariably decreases beauty.

The starkness of this position invites criticism. To declare that all of nature is beautiful seems as erroneous as saying that all art is beautiful, or that all living things, including the deformed or nonviable, are aesthetically pleasing. However, this implies a thesis of equal beauty, which Muir does not. As Allen Carlson points out, positive aesthetics “holds not that all natural things have equal aesthetic value, but only that all have only positive aesthetic value.”

Soundscape ecology encompasses aspects of the two aesthetic approaches outlined above: positive and picturesque. Concerned with the effects of the acoustic environment on the physical environment, soundscape ecologists are sensitive to the balance and interrelatedness of sound signatures in a given habitat. They offer auditory tools through which to assess the health of an environment, specifically as it relates to the presence or absence of human-made (anthropogenic) noise, which tends to disrupt natural soundscapes and, consequently, threaten biodiversity. Following Muir’s positive aesthetics, the intrusion of human noise (anthrophony) into a wild habitat—whether coherent, incoherent, ordered, or chaotic—is generally considered disruptive.

Soundscape ecologists often appeal to our attraction to the picturesque, or “music-esque.” Bernie Krause, a pioneer in the field, theorizes extensively on ways animal and environmental sounds shaped the development of music and language in humans. Krause’s friend and collaborator Ruth Happel waxes poetically: “[Natural soundscapes] helped shape music, and if we lose the sounds of the wild, then we will also lose an important inspiration and resource for the arts. When you hear a chimp drumming in the woods against a buttress, that is the origins of drums. When you hear the melody of a bird, that is the origin of our own melodies. If they are gone, our own music will wither.” In other words, preservation of what is acoustically valuable for humanity is reason enough to conserve the natural landscapes that support those sounds.

This practical-sentimental approach bypasses complex philosophical discussions in environmental aesthetics. If nothing else, Muir, Krause, Happel, and others remind us that animals and landscapes conventionally seen or heard as beautiful cannot survive in a vacuum. The picturesque and music-esque require the totality of their supportive habitats, whether or not we find it all beautiful.

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

Art is Not Life

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Art is not life. Although woven into life’s intricate tapestry, artistic expression stands apart from the messy details and fluid meanderings of worldly experience. Even the most elaborate artwork—be it a novel, film, symphony, or painting—is simplistic compared to the overwhelming complexities of an average day. Poetry, both calculated and free-flowing, bypasses the vagaries of flatly spoken words, and all the “uhs” and “ums” that come with them. Poets supplant natural speech with measured syllables, crafted imagery, thoughtful word choices, and detours from standard syntax and grammar. Singers follow suit: their words are crafted into clean and fluid phrases; their “speech” is regimented into meter and tonal intervals. The focus is narrowed, the fat is trimmed, the message is tightly conveyed.

This essential quality of art is illustrated by its opposite. In 1951, University of Kansas psychologist Roger Barker and co-author Herbert F. Wright published One Boy’s Day: A Specimen Record of Behavior, chronicling a fourteen-hour span in the life of a mid-western boy. Eight researchers took turns following the boy, recording his minute-by-minute activities at home, school, and play. 7:08 AM: “He came out of the bathroom carrying a bottle of hair oil.” 8:24 AM: “He tossed a stone in the air and swung, but accidentally clipped a flag pole.” No theoretical approach was offered or suggested, just 435 pages of unadorned verbatim notes. Barker expected scientists to enthusiastically examine the raw data, breaking it down and interpreting it in various directions. But the book flopped. Readers—both scientists and laypeople—had little interest in trees without a view of the forest.

Artistic representations avoid life’s tedious details. According to musicologist Curt Sachs, “Art denaturalizes nature in order to raise it to a higher, or at least a different, plane.” This applies well to music. Unlike the ever-ticking clock, musical pieces are set within limited durations (“The Song that Never Ends” perhaps notwithstanding). The self-enclosed architecture of musical form contrasts with the convoluted tangles of the natural world. Musical lines, whether monophonic or hyper-polyphonic, are cherry-picked from infinite sonic possibilities. In both vocal and instrumental music, there is an unnatural clarity of intentions and ideas. Stereotyped modes, phrases, devices, and figurations replace the murkiness and gray areas of real life.

The foregoing discussion is summarized in Picasso’s famous saying: “Art is the elimination of the unnecessary.” Our attraction to art stems from its distinction from natural processes and mundane human affairs. Without this fundamental separation, there can be no art.

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

Ethnomusicologizing (Book Review)

Ethnomisicologizing: Essays on Music in the New Paradigms, by William C. Banfield. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015. 383 pp.

Reviewed by Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

William C. Banfield describes his latest book, Ethnomisicologizing: Essays on Music in the New Paradigms, as a “reader/text” presenting “a choir of voices and perspectives” (p. x). Such a multi-voice assemblage is unusual for a single-author volume. Departing from the staid format of the conventional academic tome, Banfield mixes together interviews, historical surveys, opinion pieces, travel notes, letters, social theory, pedagogical essays, album reviews, and “poem-essays.” The twenty chapters originated as separate pieces, and the impression is more improvisatory jazz than rigid composition: themes are stated and later rephrased; motifs are artfully interjected; poetic riffs spring up seemingly on the spot.

This is fitting given both the author and subject matter. Banfield is professor of African Studies/Music and Society, composition, and graduate history studies at Berklee College of Music, Boston, as well as a jazz guitarist, composer, and public radio host. The book is in some ways a chronicle of his work at Berklee College of Music, an institution founded on popular music rooted in Black music traditions. In the African Studies/Music and Society program, Banfield explores the development of Black music in America, its global reach, and the students’ place in the cultural chain. As he states on his faculty website: “You can’t know where you’re going unless you know where you are, and where you came from. When you put those three things together, you have the best formula for making a successful impact on your craft and on the world of music. When students start to sense all the connections, you can see the ‘aha experience’ in the eyes. It’s in the questions they ask, it’s in their performances. It’s a spirit.”

The book’s composite, “improvised” character has a few drawbacks. Some ideas are too often repeated (in almost identical language), a review of George Lewis’ album Les Exercices Spirituels seems out of place, and the same quotations by Margaret Mead and Jean Cocteau appear more than once. A full speech by Cornell West is included without being identified until the very end—suggesting, until that point, that the words are Banfield’s, not West’s. But these are minor quibbles about an otherwise stimulating collection of reflections on the history and current state of American popular music.

Banfield is a pedagogue and activist in the tradition of his mentor, Cornell West. This gives context to the book’s construction: Repetition is a fundamental teaching tool, and rephrasing a message in different ways helps it resonate with different audiences. That being said, the eclectic approach poses certain challenges for the reader (and the reviewer). There is much to sort through in the nearly 400 pages; it is better sipped than gulped down all at once. The unevenness is accentuated by the sporadic chapter lengths: one is close to fifty pages, another is just three pages, the rest fall somewhere in between.

Yet, despite these idiosyncrasies, the book orbits around a clear and persuasive message—namely, that the “post-album age” of YouTube, downloads, music streaming, and hyper-commoditization has led to a decline in “quality, skills, value of human expression, individuality, creative innovation, and a lack of spirit-soul” (p. xii). Banfield is no enemy of popular music. However, he contends that misguided infatuations are driving contemporary trends—e.g., markets, celebrity-obsession, sexual exploitation, producer-driven albums—and that young talent is being lost to money-obsession and concomitant cookie-cutter sounds. In short, “Popular music has got to mean something again” (p. 263).

This is the essence of the book’s neologistic title, Ethnomusicologizing: the “act of being with the common man, doing music and art in ways that connect” (p. 28). As an artist-activist, Banfield argues that artists and humanitarians must join together in demanding more from the culture we live in, both artistically and politically. More precisely, he urges Black musicians to return to Black music worthy of the name: “music made by Black people connecting with their cultural conditions in and outside Africa in diaspora” (p. 98). Past generations said/sang “‘Let freedom ring’; they were singing about freedom—they didn’t say, ‘Give me the bling, bling’” (p. 86). “Music that matters” carries a “people’s voice” and commits itself to issues and sentiments that are bigger than the artist him/herself.

Banfield summarizes this concept using two types of cultural relevancy. Long-term relevancy encompasses expressive art that grows out of and deeply reflects the human experience. It continues to impact people’s lives long after the moment of creation. Market relevancy, on the other hand, is art manufactured primarily for the here and now. The magic formula, according to Banfield, includes a bit of both long-term and market relevance—that is, human and commercial awareness.

At the heart of these and other discussions is the uneasy relationship between art and commerce. Today, many young musicians are driven by a short-sighted desire for money, fame, and power. But the purpose of art—true art—remains the search for meaning, purpose, inspiration, and spiritual fulfillment. Banfield is hopeful in this regard: “Young people feel they are a more integral part of their success story if they are allowed to bring to a product a piece of who they are, what their story is. I think, despite our capitalistic surges, people always return back to the basic humanistic codes” (pp. 75-76). Such nuanced appraisals make Ethnomusicologizing a provocative and profitable read.

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

Revising the Triangle

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Music-making is sometimes depicted as a triangle consisting of composer, performer, and listener. It is a triangle in constant motion, with each side responding to one another. The interplay might go something like this: The composer interprets herself, the performer interprets the composer, the listener interprets the performer, the composer reinterprets herself, the performer reinterprets the composer, the listener reinterprets the performer, etc. As this clumsy illustration suggests, there is no one type of triangle or order of interaction that works for all scenarios.

It doesn’t take much to warp the triangle’s dimensions. When the composer is dead or was never identified to begin with (as with most folk music), one corner of the shape is inactive. When the music is improvised, the composer and performer are one and the same. Sound recording can freeze a one-time performance, leaving the listener to interpret an inanimate artifact. Electronic music can eliminate the need for a performer’s mediation.

These and other iterations require a revision of the triangle, the conventional version of which survives solely under strict conditions: a living composer writes music that is performed by living players for a live audience. The only side that remains constant in all cases is the listener—so much so that the model should be redrawn to favor the perceiver’s corner. One possibility is a tetrahedron (a three-dimensional triangle) that funnels sounds toward the listener. At one end is a wide opening, which receives music of all sorts: live, recorded, electronic, manual, composed, improvised. At the other end is a narrow opening, through which the music empties into the ear.

The advantage of this revised triangle is threefold. First, it does not discriminate against performance modalities. An orchestra premiering a new work in a concert hall is on equal footing with a turn-of-the-twentieth-century folksong recording. Second, it emphasizes that music is always heard/interpreted in the moment. This is true whether the performance is live, recorded, or a combination of the two (e.g., someone singing along to a karaoke track). Third, it reminds us that music is fundamentally audience-dependent. Painting, sculpture, and other concrete arts are affairs between artist and tangible materials. Once the work is finished, the creative process is complete; whether anyone sees the work is, in absolute terms, irrelevant. Not so with the immaterial art of music. If nobody hears it, it cannot be said to exist.

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