When bankers talk music

The Future Symphony Institute recently republished an astoundingly stupid article by David P. Goldman called “Admit it, you really hate modern art.” Goldman is a vulgar businessman who fancies himself a man of taste, and deliciously unaware of the irony of criticizing the vulgar businessmen who support Damien Hirst. He disparages Wikipedia and then cites Wikipedia for an anecdote that may or may not have happened. He talks a lot about music, though he doesn’t appear to listen to very much of it or understand it. He is, in short, an idiot.

One of Goldman’s bugbears is Kandinsky, who “helped invent” abstract art and “understood that non-figurative art was one facet of an aesthetic movement that also included atonal music.” He likens Kandinsky to Schoenberg, who he calls “the grandfather of abstract music.” Therein lies his basic problem, as Schoenberg is not the grandfather of abstract music. Music has been abstract ever since instrumental music became a serious art form. If Goldman knew his elementary aesthetics, he’d know that it was the example of music, which strictly speaking cannot be realistic or representational, that paved the way for more abstract forms in other arts. There have been debates on the validity of instrumental music as an art form throughout history, but these were all well settled by Beethoven’s time, if not earlier. Goldman is a few centuries slow on the uptake.

The most common misconception about classical music is that it is all about tunes. In fact, quite a lot of classical music is all but tuneless, including most Baroque music and the majority of the symphonic tradition. When a tune does surface, it usually fades into more abstract material in short order and becomes fodder for musical process. Classically speaking, tunes are either presented and then critiqued, or else put together as the result of an extended critique. They come at beginnings and points of culmination and are only rarely the main purpose of an entire composition. The important thing is the process, the fluctuating between abstract and concrete material, and the logic that leads one to the other. We use the term “process music” as a label for the music of Steve Reich and Terry Riley, but it could appropriately be applied to the entire Western classical canon.

Following this line of thinking, it’s not hard to see that playing with the balance of concreteness (tunefulness and singability) versus abstraction (process and logic) is an obvious direction for aesthetic exploration. There is no fundamental conceptual break between the musical thinking of the late nineteenth century and that of Schoenberg; in fact Schoenberg did write in the extended tonality of that period during that period. Eventually his style evolved in the direction music generally was evolving. Some balance between concreteness and abstraction remained, as Schoenberg and his pupils Berg and Webern represent points on a continuum: Berg more concrete, Webern extremely abstract with only flashes of concreteness here and there, and Schoenberg somewhere in the middle depending on the period (the same man wrote all of these: 1, 2, 3, 4).

Goldman goes on to object to the lack of hierarchy in Schoenberg’s music and its visual equivalents:

The hierarchy of importance is the source of meaning. The tonic, or the starting point of the scale and chord of the home key, is the most important note in a musical composition, for all tonal music undertakes a journey towards the tonic.

This manages to be both inaccurate and simplistic. It is not true that all tonal music undertakes a journey toward the tonic. There is plenty of tonal music that does not begin and end in the same key: it journeys from one place to another place. There is also music that begins and ends in the same (enharmonic) key but moves diagonally by thirds and cannot be said to undertake a journey toward anything. Even if they’re the same keys on the keyboard, there is a world of difference between E Major and F-flat Major, tonally speaking.

And anyway, tonal hierarchy is just one of many overlapping structures in music including rhythm, form, text, programmatic associations, motivic structure, and the fluctuation between abstraction and concreteness. Some types of music emphasize some of these structures over others, even occasionally swinging to extremes. Playing around with the location and degree of emphasis is another obvious field of aesthetic exploration.

The supposed “fact”—and music cognition is not yet mature enough as a field that it can do without the scare quotes—that the brain naturally processes music in a certain way does not mean that music that is not easily processed in that way is somehow inferior. Aesthetic arguments are not susceptible to neurological solutions. Nor does the Hindemith-ish argument that tonality is rooted in the structure of acoustical science invalidate atonal music. Working against the grain of the materials can be a deliberate aesthetic choice—see, for example, Leonardo’s The Last Supper.

Next Goldman discusses the economic differences between new music and modern art. While the two arts do indeed differ in monetary terms, these differences occur because music cannot be sold the way a painting can be. A single work of Kandinsky’s might sell at a high price to an interested collector, but for a single work of Schoenberg’s to make an equivalent amount of money there would have to be hundreds of thousands of sales to hundreds of thousands of interested individuals. In any case, I’m not sure where Goldman got the idea that Schoenberg died in poverty and left his family penniless. He was a university professor with a comfortable living at the time of his death, and he left an estate worth millions. His family is not exactly living in Hollywood glamour, but they’re not boiling their shoes, either.

Goldman goes on to argue that “not a single one of the abstract composers can earn a living from his music.” That would be news to Karlheinz Stockhausen, who wrote hundreds of works on commission and taught at universities throughout the world, or Pierre Boulez, who can command a massive fee for a single performance. Goldman cites film composers, Andrew Lloyd Webber, and Aaron Copland as examples of “non-abstract” composers who could “become quite wealthy.” This ignores several inconvenient facts. Film composers often use serialism and other modernist techniques in their music—in the context of a film, audiences are more open-minded about music for a number of complex reasons. Also, few film composers are only film composers; film is just one of the many ways for someone trained in modern methods of composition to make a living. So some film composers are the very “abstract” boogeymen that Goldman rails against.

Andrew Lloyd Webber is a freakish embarrassment and anyone who thinks music in general should be more like his forever forfeits their right to call anyone else a philistine. And Copland actually wrote serial and atonal music in addition to his sunny Americana (though those works are still non-tonal). The fact of his financial success could just as easily be used to show that composers need to put out potboilers if they want to work on their serious music, though in reality there’s a lot of continuity between Copland’s many different styles and it would be more accurate to say that Copland cultivated many different audiences at different times.

From there Goldman makes some dubious economic arguments (does anyone seriously think that the decline of symphony orchestras is in any way tied to the new music that they never widely performed in the first place?) and another dig at “pretentious” collectors of abstract art, Goldman sets out on a pathetic and long-winded theologico-aesthetic argument that is basically a debased version of the same arguments Roger Scruton has been making for years.

But enough of this bullshit. Where I come from, you cannot make up facts and define words to suit your purposes. When you make a claim, you have to give examples, and those examples have to actually be examples of the thing you’re talking about. Goldman simply has not done his homework. At no point in his essay does he cite a single modern composer other than Schoenberg and his pupil Berg—he appears not to have heard of any others.

He has a bizarre idea of what constitutes “making a living” (perhaps acquired during his time at Bear Stearns) and seems to want to simultaneously hold to a highbrow theological aesthetics and a populist aesthetics wherein great art is whatever makes a lot of money and pleases lots of people. With ideas this confused, it’s a wonder Goldman can tie his own shoes, let alone write a mind-bogglingly stupid essay and have it republished by a quasi-academic institute.

When we hear people like Roger Scruton, Leon Krier, or Alexander Stoddart making similar arguments to Goldman’s, it’s a very different story. These men are actual practitioners of the arts they write and speak about, so even when they talk twaddle it’s still informative twaddle. Scruton, for example, is one of the most important musical philosophers of all time and also the composer of several musical works. When he (partially) disagrees with Schoenberg’s music ideas, he is forced to respect Schoenberg the composer. He has the ability to separate what is good from what he likes. Game knows game, as they say.

But Goldman has none of this background. He evidently has no expertise in music or any other art, and he has nothing interesting and very little true to say on the subject as an amateur. He is merely regurgitating partially digested versions of what other, smarter people have said. Like a cargo cultist, he rehearses rituals he does not understand in the hopes they will have the complement of the effect they’ve had on Roger Scruton: converting his financial capital into some degree of intellectual respectability.

The Kobayashi Maru, the trolley problem, and philosophical supervillains

Listen, Meg, God made the angels to show Him splendor, as He made animals for innocence and plants for their simplicity. But Man He made to serve Him wittily, in the tangle of his mind. If He suffers us to come to such a case that there is no escaping, then we may stand to our tackle as best we can, and, yes, Meg, then we can clamor like champions, if we have the spittle for it. But it’s God’s part, not our own, to bring ourselves to such a pass. Our natural business lies in escaping. If I can take the oath, I will.

—Thomas More, A Man For All Seasons

If you want to have any kind of sanity at all, sooner or later you have to stop looking for an ethical system. That’s not to say you must forgo ethics entirely—that would be a different kind of madness—but a systematic ethic that can be mindlessly applied like a mathematical formula to yield the moral answer to a dilemma is too elusive a goal for the average person to pursue. Even if such a thing is possible, it could never be applied in practice because everyone would have to derive it individually. No one but professional ethicists has time for such a thing—there are bolts to be turned, aircraft to be designed, symphonies to be performed.

I’ve made peace with the idea that I will probably never have a moral formula. I am satisfied that murder is wrong and am neither able nor willing to derive that fact from some ultimate moral principle. In grey areas, I am susceptible to arguments, but these arguments must ultimately inform the exercise of my moral judgment. I cannot escape exercising this judgment, and it’s debatable whether such a thing would be desirable.

Needless to say, this makes intro philosophy courses very unpleasant. Continue reading