Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Rand & Aesthetics 17

Rand on "modern music." Ayn Rand's most extended published take on "modern music" appears in her "Art and Cognition" essay. It features all the usual Randian intellectual vices: tendency toward over-generalization, vagueness, lack of specific examples, and condemnation via implicit suggestion and innuendo:

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 variations (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 "innovation" 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. But, 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 physiological nature, the identity, of the human ear and brain. [RM, 64]

Rand here suggests (without explicitly saying so) that one of the distinctive characteristics of "modern music" is that it lacks "nonperiodic variations" (e.g., sounds of traffic, coughing, etc.). Now the phrase "modern music," in common parlance, covers a wide range of styles, from "impressionists" such as Ravel and Debussy all the way to hard-core serialists like Boulez and Elliot Carter. Since Rand mentions no names, it's not clear whose music she is referring to as "modern." While it is true that, in the sixties and seventies, there existed a brief vogue to introduce taped noises into what were otherwise musical compositions, outside of John Cage, I don't know of any composer of any notoriety who attempted to put forward a musical composition that was made up entirely of "nonperiodic variations" (i.e., noise). This leads to another potential confusion. Is Rand suggesting that the introduction of any noise into a musical composition renders the whole composition, music and all, as "non-art"? Orchestras sometimes accompany the closing bars of Tchiakovsky's 1812 Overture with sounds of canon fire. Do these non-periodic vibrations render the 1812 Overture as non-art? Or how about a musical work that includes a narrator? Is Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf non-art? What about compositions which use "non-pitched" percussion instruments, such as bass drum, castenets, cymbals, whips and snare drums? At least half (and probably more) of the orchestral repertoire uses such percussion. Is half the orchestral repertoire made up of works which must automatically be eliminated "from the realm of art and of consideration" because of the use of instruments that produce non-periodic vibrations?

In her haste to find a pretext for calling "modern" music non-art, Rand, in her carelessness, has once again presented a hollow argument. It may be annoying and even aesthetically viscious for avant-garde composers to introduce taped sounds of machine and street noises into their musical compositions. But that, in itself, doesn't render the musical portions of such compositions any less musical. Before one denounces a given aesthetic style, one at least has to take the trouble to understand that style. Otherwise, one comes off as prejudiced rather than insightful, as an aesthetic ignoramus rather than a knowledgable critic.


Rey said...

Rand's persistent lack of examples is simply maddening and makes me wonder if the bug is not the feature. Such vagueness allows an uncritical reader to swap in their own examples of whatever music they consider to be "non-music," fooling them into thinking they agree with Rand.

Furthermore, when I've talked music with Objectivists, they've hand-waved any counter-examples (of "non-music" simply being music they don't understand) I might provide because Rand didn't specifically condemn this or that composer or musician, so if I point out, say, the influence of Bach or Debussy on Bebop and post-Bebop jazz (by way of demonstrating that it isn't mere pop music, nor is it noise), the response isn't, "Gee, that music still doesn't appeal to me, but I see your point," it's, "Well, you might be right, but Rand never said that Ornette Coleman was non-music."

Besides, where are all the Objectivist composers? Does ARI sponsor and showcase Objectivist musical talent to help usher in a Renaissance of rational music?

Jonathan Smith said...

With Rand's requirement of objective intelligibility in art -- her assertion that art must present representations of identifiable entities, and that if it ceases to do so, then it ceases to be art -- you'd think that she would have been very supportive of composers who re-created objectively identifiable sounds of things (street traffic, machine gears, coughs and sneezes, etc.). By her criteria, and her attempts to make everything in art "objective," the modern noise music that she flipped out over is actually probably the best solution to her wish for the discovery an objective "conceptual language" of music, where the traditional music that she preferred is (and always has been and always will be) subjective and essentially the aural equivalent of abstract visual art.


Anonymous said...

Nice post. As I said in an earlier comment, Rand tries to use her rationalistic verbiage to evade the obvious fact that her cultural tastes are conventional, unadventurous and narrow.

A glance at music history belies what she says in the Romantic Manifesto: the line between music and noise has been shifting almost every generation, according to what evidence we see in the west. Monteverdi's madrigals were jarring to conservative Italians; bad reviews of Beethoven's Fifth or Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, at the time of their premieres, read like condemnations of modernism.

Here quote here is just armchair speculation: "you can condition a human ear to different types of music...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 physiological nature, the identity, of the human ear and brain." No, the ear and brain are not hardwired to accept only certain sounds as music. Certain sounds become understood as music because of culture, learning, and experience. Why else are musical conventions different the world over? And why do they keep changing?

Reading this stuff really makes me wonder why she felt it necessary to comment on matters she knew so little about. (She'd probably respond the same way she did Branden when he asked how she could pass judgment on psychology, w/o any background in it: "Because I know how to think!!")

- Chris

Tod said...

Respighi's Pines of Rome is a great counterexample to this theory. It's normal souding music; it's not atonal or discordant or anything like that. But! The third movement, The Pines of the Janiculum, ends with a recording of a nightingale. Respighi even specified the record to use.

This shocked people at the time. There was a lot of criticism for "the introduction of nonperiodic variations ... into an allegedly musical composition" which according to both Rand and popular opinion in the 1920s "eliminates it automatically from the realm of art and of consideration." If I remember correctly, the awesome 4th movement made up for the shock of the nightingale and the audience ended up giving a standing ovation.

So often, new music isn't horrible non-music, it's just different. Stodgy, conservative old people have always had a problem with syncopation or ethnic themes or recorded sounds or samples or whatever new thing came along. Rand's beloved ragtime would probably be frowned upon by an earlier generation.

I don't disagree that a lot of music today is terrible. Beyond technical, musical issues, there is a lot of uninspired work that just aims to be commercially successful. But I don't think you can argue that any musical aspect of bad music, like atonalism or discordance or a heavy beat or real-life sounds, is necessarily bad.

It's more complicated than that.

Rey said...

"Rand's beloved ragtime would probably be frowned upon by an earlier generation."

I was unaware that Rand likes ragtime music, but you're right to suppose that ragtime music was frowned upon in certain circles since since it was originally mass market pop music for the vulgar herd.

On the other hand, when I was learning Jazz piano, my teacher had me learn on rag a week from the complete works of Scott Joplin because nothing's better for improving your sightreading (so many notes played so, so very fast)!

Ragtime, of course, was a precursor to jazz, which Rand seems to be critical of in Atlas Shrugged when describing one of Richard Halley's compositions being rearranged as a Swing number, so I'd be curious as to know why ragtime was good but it's child jazz was not.

"It's more complicated than that."

This might as well be the slogan for this blog!

CuriousReader said...

Wait: is this article saying that Ayn Rand didn't like that new fangled rockety-roll music! What a shocker!

Ken said...

Rey: I'd be curious as to know why ragtime was good but it's child jazz was not.

Because with rare exceptions our tastes in music freeze when we're in our early twenties. This is normal and fine, unless we then try to turn our tastes into absolute truth.

Neil Parille said...


Nathaniel Branden once described his speaking style as to "inflamminate and ominsciate."

I think this is true of Rand's writing style. She is so sweeping and confident in her assertions that an innocent reader might think she knows everything there is about the subjects she opines on.

-Neil Parille

Echo Chamber Escapee said...

@Rey: Ragtime, of course, was a precursor to jazz, which Rand seems to be critical of in Atlas Shrugged when describing one of Richard Halley's compositions being rearranged as a Swing number, so I'd be curious as to know why ragtime was good but it's child jazz was not.

I don't recall whether Rand ever pronounced a general aesthetic verdict on jazz or swing. In the specific example you mention where she derided the Halley piece being recast as swing, I don't think she was intending to comment on swing in general. She was trying to portray an incompetent parasitical composer stealing (and mucking up) Halley's brilliant achievement, resulting in a godawful mess. I would guess that she picked swing because Halley's original theme purportedly conveys a titanic struggle, a defiant "No," a desperate cry for deliverance -- none of which seems like a good fit for the bouncy idiom of swing. Maybe a good composer could make the combination work, but Rand's point was that the composer in question wasn't any good. So I'd be reluctant to draw any conclusions about Rand's general opinion of swing or jazz from this example.

Rey said...

ECE, oh, I'm aware of the purpose of the scene narratively and thematically; I admit I'm reading more into it than Rand probably intended.

"Maybe a good composer could make the combination work..."

Duke Ellington could have probably pulled it off (See, "Black, Brown, and Beige"). Charles Mingus as well (listen to "Piethecanthropis Erectus" some time (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ALr37D6y-5c&safety_mode=true&persist_safety_mode=1), a tone poem with describes mankind's rise from hominids to a downfall caused "his own failure to realize the inevitable emancipation of those he sought to enslave, and his greed in attempting to stand on a false security." Those guys were masters of arrangement.

Echo Chamber Escapee said...

@Rey: Thanks for the suggestions. Unlike Rand, I'm always open to new musical experiences. I listened to the Mingus -- well worth the time!

Rey said...

@ECE: Glad you liked it! I just love his "little big band" sound!

CW said...

I'm not sure if he'd count as a "composer of any notoriety", but Lou Reed caused a bit of a stir with his album Metal Machine Music (1975), which was essentially sixty minutes of howling atonal sound with no discernible beat, and only the most abstract suggestions of melody or harmony.

Many assumed it was a joke, or an attempt to get out of his record contract, though Reed has maintained in interviews that he was making the album seriously.

To those that do take the album seriously, it's often regarded as the beginning of a number of experimental or avant-garde musical movements which are more linked to "popular" music (as opposed to, say, Cage or Stockhausen, linked to more classical and/or academic movements). Granted, none of the artists arising from these movements themselves have much notoriety in the mainstream, but Reed himself has long been an important figure in rock music.

Here's a sample.

It doesn't sound like Rand would have been likely to even be aware of the album, let alone comment on its status as music. But reading the original post, I thought I'd point out that there is in fact music that is intentionally made of nothing but noise.