Thursday, December 20, 2007

Hoisted from Comments:Rand's Contradictory Aesthetics

In the "Concepts In a Hat" thread, commenter Jonathan notes that Rand is talking through her hat in some of her pronouncements on aesthetic issues too:

Objectivist aesthetic concepts "in a hat":

Concept #1:
Rand:"As a re-creation of reality, a work of art has to be representational; its freedom of stylization is limited by the requirement of intelligibility; if it does not present an intelligible subject, it ceases to be art."

Concept #2:
Rand:"Music is art even though it "cannot tell a story, it cannot deal with concretes, it cannot convey a specific existential phenomenon, such as a peaceful countryside or a stormy sea...even concepts which, intellectually, belong to a complex level of abstraction, such as 'peace,' 'revolution,' 'religion,' are too specific, too concrete to be expressed in music."


Concept #1:
Rand:" objective evaluation requires that one identify the artist's theme, the abstract meaning of his work (exclusively by identifying the evidence contained in the work and allowing no other, outside considerations), then evaluate the means by which he conveys it—i.e., taking his theme as criterion...until a conceptual vocabulary is discovered and defined, no objectively valid criterion of esthetic judgment is possible in the field of music..."

Concept #2:
Music is a legitimate art form, but abstract visual art is not.


Concept #1:
Rand:"Art is a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist's metaphysical serves no practical, material end, but is an end in itself; it serves no purpose other than contemplation... utilitarian objects cannot be classified as works of art."

Concept #2:
Rand: Architecture is an art form that "combines art with a utilitarian purpose and does not re-create reality."


JayCross said...

I don't have a citation for this, and I'd like to believe it's not true, but I heard that Rand despises the drums for their "return to the music of mysticism" or some such. It might explain why she never acknowledged Rush's breakthrough album 2112 which credited "the genius of Ayn Rand" in the liner notes, even though she was still alive.

Ellen Stuttle said...


In saying "the drums," are you meaning as featured in particular genres, such as tribal music and rock bands, etc? She disliked that sort of stuff, yes, though "return to the music of primitivism" would have been how she described it. She didn't despise the use of drums per se. They are used in the works of those (not many) classical composers she liked, also in some of her "TiddlyWink" music.

(I'm not compendious in my knowledge of her views on music, but I know a fair amount about it via Allan Blumenthal. Amongst numerous subjects I discussed with him, that of her musical tastes and opinions came up many times. Also, when Allan gave his music course, I sat in the row in front of Ayn at all but one of the sessions. She didn't say anything objecting to the presence of drums in compositions he played which included drum parts.)

What year was Rush's 2112 issued? She was paying little attention to goings-on in the world during her last years, so she might not have known about the reference to her...although, this is ringing a dim bell: wasn't there some kind of threatened suit pertaining to Rush? At any rate. I'd just about swear that even if she did hear Rush's music, she'd have disliked it.


JayCross said...

2112 was released in 1976. Someone on this site once mentioned a lawsuit like that but I could find no details on the Internet.

You are right: return to the music of primitivism were the words I was looking for.

Neil Parille said...

She had a thing agains Jazz, didn't she?

I have never been able to appreciate Jazz.

Anonymous said...


This is one of those rare instances where I completely agree with her aesthetic judgement...

Unknown said...

Jazz is a tough one for many people, especially because it's such a diverse genre at this point.

I recall her referring to the "irrational music of the Beatniks" in one of her essays (not sure which one), which I took as a reference to jazz (specifically the sub-genre called Bebop) but one can't be sure because she wasn't specific.

Bebop is fast, polyphonous, and cacaphonous. As Miles Davis said, it takes "big ears" to listen to it. To her, it probably sounded like a lot of noodling, and the improvisational nature probably could be dismissed as "whim worshiping."

In reality, it's a very complex and difficult musical style, requiring a performer to also be a composer, to understand musical theory intuitively, and to have flawless technique.

They took Swing music, which relied mostly on the usual major, minor, and 7th chords, and introduced diminished fifths (aka augmented fourths, aka flat-fives), major 7ths, 9th chords, 13th chords, etc. etc. Performer/composers like Charlie "Bird" Parker and "Dizzy" Gillespie listened to a lot of classical music (Debussy was particularly influential) to expand their musical vocabulary beyond what they learned playing in the big bands.

For jazz buffs at the time, because they were already steeped in Dixieland and Swing, the musical innovations were fresh and exciting, but mostly understandable.

For someone unfamiliar with jazz, or someone with a preexisting antipathy toward it, it sounds like random scales played too fast.

Anyway - if you're interested in learning how to appreciate "America's classical music" (as we jazz buffs call it), I'd recommend getting the Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz.

It's a five-disk set that starts with Ragtime in the 1900's and goes up to the Free Jazz of the 1960's. Start with disk one and listen to it till you get it ... and then move on to the next one. It's how I stretched my ears.

Anonymous said...

I wasn't talking about jazz (I even play some jazz piano music myself sometimes), but about rock music, pop music or whatever that horrible noise is called... I think that's also what Rand primarily had in mind.

Ellen Stuttle said...


I'm relieved. With your "Boom-boom-boom-boom-boom..." comment following next in queue after Neil's question about jazz, I, too, thought you were referring to jazz and was amazed by the remark, given your musicality. I'm not a jazz aficionado by any means, but I recognize and appreciate the skill in good jazz.

As to what AR thought specifically of jazz, would you believe... I don't recall that I ever specifically discussed that with Allan. It was her views on classical (generically, not just the Classical Era) composers I was always so curious to hear about.

I'm not recalling the wording ""irrational music of the Beatniks" (quoted by Dave) from one of her essays, which doesn't mean it's not there (maybe it's in "Art and Cognition," where she discusses music; I haven't re-read that complete essay in awhile, though I've recently re-read the complete text of "The Goal of My Writing" and "The Psycho-Epistemology of Art," which latter has the beginnings of her formal theory. I'll check out the "Art and Cognition" essay in awhile.

She hated music which seemed beat-dominated, I guess is the best sort of generic way to describe it. I myself don't know the intricacies of differences between some of the genres and am sure she knew far less. (With her it was mostly "heard it once, didn't like it, mind made up, verdit pronounced.")

One case where I know she at least found the music acceptable was Scott Joplin. Allan's music course was during a stretch when Joplin music was all the rage and was played more or less ubiquitously in New York City -- seemed you couldn't get into a taxicab without its being amongst the stream on the cab's radio. Allan played a few selections toward the end and said something like he didn't see how anyone could fail to find it joyous. (I by that point was REALLY tired of hearing it, to the extent to which I still don't want to hear it, though I wouldn't say I "dislike" it, just it's so damned intrusive with its catchiness and I have to start deliberately trying to change the internal channel once Joplin starts playing there.)

Allan wouldn't have included the Joplin selections and made the remark without knowing they'd be acceptable to her. (He so carefully walked the fence between his own views and hers in that course, he had to know the exact line where the fence was.) I think she also liked Gershwin, but I won't swear to that.


Ellen Stuttle said...

One thing leads to another.

"Art and Cognition" is long and I haven't time to read the whole thing right now. But here are some pertinent quotes from the concluding section. These are copied from the May 1971 The Objectivist. The essay was included in a revised re-issue of The Romantic Manifesto, but I only have the first edition of that volume, so I can't give the page numbers to the current edition.

I might be pushing the boundaries of "fair use" in quoting the following extensive excerpt. Daniel, please inform if you think this is too long and I'll try to pare it down.

A composition may demand the active alertness needed to resolve complex mathematical relationships -- or it may deaden the brain by means of monotonous simplicity. It may demand a process of building an integrated sum -- or it may break up the process of integration into an arbitrary series of random bits -- or it may obliterate the process by a jumble of sounds mathematically-physiologically impossible to integrate, and thus turn into noise.


The deadly monotony of primitive music -- the endless repetition of a few notes and of a rhythmic pattern that beats against the brain with the regularity of the ancient torture of water drops falling on a man's skull -- paralyzes cognitive processes, obliterates awareness and disintegrates the mind. Such music produces a state of
sensory deprivation, which -- as modern scientists are beginning to discover -- is caused by the absence or the monotony of sense stimuli.

There is no evidence to support the contention that the differences in the music of various cultures are caused by innate pshysiological differences among various races. There is a great deal of evidence to support the hypothesis that the cause of the musical differences is psycho-epistemological (and, therefore, ultimately philosophical).

A man's psycho-epistemological method of functioning is developed and automatized in his early childhood; it is influenced by the dominant philosophy of the culture in which he grows up. If, explicitly and implicity (through the general emotional attitude), a child grasps that the pursuit of knowledge, i.e., the independent work of his cognitive faculty, is important and required of him by his nature, he is likely to develop an active, independent mind. If he is taught passivity, blind obedience, fear and the futility of questioning or knowing, he is likely to grow up as a mentally helpless savage, whether in the jungle or in New York City. But -- since one cannot destroy a human mind totally, so long as its possessor remains alive -- his brain's frustrated needs become a restless, incoherent, unintelligible groping that frightens him. Primitive music becomes his narcotic: it wipes out the groping, it reassures him and reinforces his lethargy, it offers him temporarily the sense of a reality to which his stagnant stupor is appropriate.

[skipping paragraph, though my fingers itch to include it, about the supposed motivation for the development of the diatonic scale and the connection to the Renaissance]

Today, when the influence of Western civilization [is breaking up tradition-bound Japanese culture, Japanese composers are writing good Western-syle music].

The products of America's anti-rational, anti-cognitive "Progressive" education, the hippies, are reverting to the noise and the drumbeat of the jungle.

Integration is the key to more than music; it is the key to man's consciousness, to his conceptual faculty, to his basic premises, to his life. And lack of integration will lead to the same existential results in anyone born with a potentially human mind, in any century, in any place on earth.

A brief word about so-called modern music: no further research or scientific discoveries are required to know with full, objective certainty that it is
not music. The proof lies in the fact that music is the product of periodic vibrations -- and, therefore, the introduction of nonperiodic vibrations (such as the sounds of street traffic or of machine gears or of coughs and sneezes), i.e., of noise, into an allegedly musical composition eliminates it automatically from the realm of art and of consideration. But a word of warning in regard to the vocabulary of the perpetrators of such "innovations" is in order: they spout a great deal about the necessity of "conditioning" your ear to an appreciation of their "music." Their notion of conditioning is unlimited by reality and by the law of identity; man, in their view, is infinitely conditionable. Buit, in fact, you can condition a human ear to different types of music (it is not the ear, but the mind that you have to condition in such cases); you cannot condition it to hear noise as if it were music; it is not personal training or social conventions that make it impossible, but the physiological nature, the identity, of the human ear and brain.


Ellen Stuttle said...

A comment about the above excerpt. It's so illustrative of Rand's methods of "arguing." She isn't saying much of substance, and most of that is assertions. But the whole way she goes about it has a dramatic force that can leave a reader already "turned onto" Rand afraid of liking the "wrong" music (even though what that is isn't clearly specified).


Anonymous said...

Well, I guess Rand wouldn't like "Force Ten", which begins with machine gears and wrenches cranking.

Daniel Barnes said...

>I might be pushing the boundaries of "fair use" in quoting the following extensive excerpt. Daniel, please inform if you think this is too long and I'll try to pare it down.

No I think it's fine, plus this is not exactly a for-profit site...;-)

In fact I'll boost it up to post status, for further discussion.

gregnyquist said...

dragonfly: "Boom-boom-boom-boom-boom...
This is one of those rare instances where I completely agree with her aesthetic judgement..."

While I share Rand's distaste for the popular music of the sixties (and beyond), the moral implications of her criticism are troubling and unfair. Sure, popular music that emphasizes rhythm at the expense of melody and is so unsophisticated that it must signal the beat of the music with a whack on a drum can seem rather childish compared to art music. But it would be a mistake to equate a taste for so-called "childish" or unsophisticated music with childishness or unsophistication in general. A person's ability to appreciate sophisticated music—their musical IQ, if you will—is in no significant way related to either their maturity or their intelligence or even their moral worth as people. We can find plenty examples of very intelligent, sophisticated people whose musical tastes were very rudimentary. Henry James is a striking example. You will be hard pressed to find anyone with more sophisticated moral and intellectual sensibilities, but James' cared little for music, and had no ear at all for anything more sophisticated than band music.

Rand appears to have had about an average (maybe slightly below average) musical IQ. Yet this did not prevent her from judging people on the basis of their musical tastes, and making nasty illusions about people who like unsophisticated popular music. Yet criticisms of this same sort could easily be thrown back at her, since her penchant for "tiddlywink" music was hardly as sophisticated as the musical tastes of those who like Bach and Bartok, or Debussy and Messiaen.

Anonymous said...

Well I suppose condescension is preferable to contempt, and my blood has boiled enough for one day. I'm curious to know what 'tiddlywink music' might be - anyone care to enlighten me?

Daniel Barnes said...

At this point I'll supply an alternative theory that might explain some of the apparent "primitivism" in modern music.

This was put forward by Brian Eno some years ago. The idea is that the change has been driven largely by changes in recording and instrument technology. Classical music was primarily about melody, mainly because this was what the technology of the day was capable of recording - that is, ink and paper in the form of a score. Additionally, the composer, let alone the audience, might only ever hear any large scale work performed a handful of times in their lives, so immense efforts were expended to make sure this all went according to the composer's pre-arranged plan, with spontaneity being kept to the minimum. Finally, the orchestral palette was rather narrow; winds, strings, percussion, and the instruments expensive and comparatively rare.

Now with the advent of modern recording and electronic instruments all this changed. Large scale orchestral works could suddenly be heard anytime you liked, at a cheap price, so their premium fell. Additionally, recording technology allowed the actual event to be retained, not just the score for it. This meant that spontaneous events became values to be sought, rather than nuisances to be expunged. The technology also meant that sound could be amplified, and one did not have to be an opera singer to be heard in an auditorium. Individual vocal personality, rather than reproducible vocal technique, began to be sought-after. Unique combinations of instruments, one-nite jazz collaborations, singers with unconventional styles or smokey, quiet voices could all be captured now by recording trickery; hence they became more valuable due to this uniqueness (the trend is similar in movies, where one no longer needed to project vocally or visually using greasepaint due to the "close up" - hence the personality of the actor came to dominate, rather than just their acting ability). Thus the premium came to be placed on the individual character or timbre of the music, rather than the melodic invention.

As well as modern recording capturing unique timbral elements impossible to retain before, electronic instrumentation multiplied the timbral possibilities like never before. From the electric piano to the electric guitar to the electronic synthesiser, the narrow timbral palette of classical music was expanded to infinity. Melodic input consequently became less important; rock tunes became about the unique style one approached some simple chords and melodies, rather than complex chords and melodies from a simple palette. So if you're brought up to with one approach as the standard for "music" you're bound to find the other wanting.

This is why "orchestral rock" has never really worked; too much melody plus too much timbre makes the whole thing overegged, and accounts for the cheesiness of the classical/rock experiments.

Of course, there are many other factors at play here, such as the back-to-nature movements that resulted from the rise of the nuclear age and the military-industrial complex in the '50s that did celebrate a certain primitivism, and also economic factors like the astonishing prosperity following WW2 that allowed teenage children to actually have an income, both of which coincided with these technological trends. But I think Eno's suggestion is nonetheless a useful one that helps us understand why modern music isn't unsophisticated at all.

Daniel Barnes said...

Eno's 1979 lecture The Studio As Compositional Tool discusses some of this change, like the increasing interest in spontaneity, and also the 'detachability' of recorded sound.

Anonymous said...

"This is why "orchestral rock" has never really worked; too much melody plus too much timbre makes the whole thing overegged, and accounts for the cheesiness of the classical/rock experiments."

Actually I think that Caravan's collaboration with the New Symphonia in 1973 is a rare successful example of its kind, although I suspect that the success is due to Caravan rejecting any attempts to create some kind of rock/classical hybrid in favour of embellishing their jazz-rock with orchestral flourishes.

Ellen Stuttle said...

Greg wrote:

"Rand appears to have had about an average (maybe slightly below average) musical IQ."

I'd rank her as well below average in "musical IQ." She had what I call "a tin ear"; she mostly just didn't get it. I mean, even with the handful of classical composers much of whose work she liked, she didn't get what they were doing: "The Butterfly Etude," e.g. -- she had no idea of why that's technically brilliant; it was just the light, airy quality of the melody which appealed. And Allan could never manage to get through to her that, no, melody was not the crucial feature in the development of the sort of music she liked; tonality was. The soaring romantic melody wouldn't have been possible without Papa Bach, whom she considered hardly music, if even that. (She called Mozart "pre-music.")

Moony wrote:

"I'm curious to know what 'tiddlywink music' might be".

Marching band and such like stuff, with that old grammophone sound quality. George M. Cohan, "It's a Long Way to Tipperary," etc.

I can't abide it, makes sensations go down my backbone like result from hearing fingernails scratching on a blackboard. Shudder.

She would march around her apartment (or, earlier, her house) to the rhythm, "conducting" with a little baton.


gregnyquist said...

Daniel: "This is why 'orchestral rock' has never really worked; too much melody plus too much timbre makes the whole thing overegged, and accounts for the cheesiness of the classical/rock experiments."

I don't think the problem is too much melody or too much timbre, but the wrong kind of melody and the wrong kind of timbre. Classical and rock arise out of too very different sources, each seeking an entirely different esthetic effect. Classical music has its roots in religion and aristocracy. It therefore sought sublime and noble emotions, appropriate for the subjects it was attempting to accompany and illustrate. Rock music has a different origin: it's an expression of adolescent emotions of twentieth century teenagers growing up in a wealthy society where life, compared to past generations, is pretty easy. The tunes themselves are often written by musicians with little if any training in composition, so there's little complexity or striving after deeper emotions. You dress up such tunes in orchestral guise and compare the results to the symphonies of the great classical masters, they are going to sound cheesy.

I would note that trying to go in the opposite direction by putting classical melodies into rock music would be equally disastrous. The songs would be unsingable, they would utterly lose their buoyancy and catchiness; even worse, they would not express emotions that their audience could identify with.

Daniel Barnes said...

>She would march around her apartment (or, earlier, her house) to the rhythm, "conducting" with a little baton.

Yo, Jonathan, remind you of anyone?...;-)

Daniel Barnes said...

>Classical and rock arise out of too very different sources, each seeking an entirely different esthetic effect.

Well this is another element too. Classical music originally sought to be either praise to the Lord or lullabies to a king, with the odd dance tune thrown in there. Rock basically comes out of country and blues; they say it is simply these forms on speed, as after WW2 much of the military amphetamines hit the black market, with country singers like Johnny Cash often getting paid with the drug. This hopped up folk music got further juiced on electricity and teenage sexual tensions, and suddenly a new form was born. And with mass distribution, it unexpectedly became an informal communications network for personal and political expression, like folk music had always been, plus new ideas in art and fashion...So it's a complex melange, not simply the return of the primitive that Rand thinks it is. Eno said modern music was really about creating new worlds, which I think puts it quite nicely.

gregnyquist said...

Ellen: "I'd rank her as well below average in 'musical IQ.' She had what I call "a tin ear"; she mostly just didn't get it."

Well, perhaps so. I was trying not to be unfair. Although, merely because someone doesn't understand the harmonic underpinnings of art music doesn't mean they have a low musical IQ. Most people don't understand the harmony or structure, the tonal development, of art music. That's why they don't care for it that much. Harmonic and structural understanding of art music is evidence of a high, not just an average, musical IQ.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Ellen! I now know what tiddlywink music is and I can't stand it either!