Wednesday, March 11, 2015

bad induction and the loss of faith (in music?)

aLfReDo tRifF

i read oliver rudland's article for standpoint entitled "the loss of faith made music mute."

in the good tradition of english criticism, rudland opens contentiously:
It is a mystery to many people why so few contemporary classical composers seem capable of writing "a good tune". Surely, given the number of students who pursue composition in our universities and conservatoires, and the hugely increased access which technologies such as music-notation software give to prospective composers, we should expect to find at least one or two capable of making a popular impact?
he connects "good tune" and "popular impact" as if comparing popular against classical music, while keeping the latter in a slightly higher conceptual plateau(?)

i wonder, 1- what's the connection between the number of students of composition in our universities and being capable of writing a "good tune" ("good" already bracketed by the author, which screams for further clarification) and 2- is a good tune a sufficient condition for popular impact?

this is what rudland is really after:
Why is it that, with more people than ever engaged in the activity of composing, our culture still seems incapable of fostering a contemporary Verdi or Stravinsky, with the celebrity and popular recognition that such great figures once garnered?
well, pharrell williams is as popular as verdi was in his heyday. and daft punk is as célèbre if not more than stravinsky. in fact, the russian composer was not that popular amongst classical music lovers in early and mid 20th century. regardless, rudland wouldn't accept my analogy if he's looking for a "contemporary" verdi, and pharrell williams is no verdi, though he is, ahem, contemporary.

rudland sees himself uncovering an enigma:
To understand the deficit of successful contemporary classical music, what we need to uncover are the feelings which motivated the artistic instincts of the great composers of the past, but which are now absent in the minds of modern composers... 
no small endeavor to uncover mental states of composers of the past, but let's proceed, what is next? nationalism, a definitely a potent cultural glue.

rudland adds christianity to his recipe. he brings examples from opera, a popular genre of 19th century music (though after mid-19th century opera becomes increasingly elite and more popular genres emerge from the social cauldron, such as vaudeville, "variétés," zarzuela, "wiener operette," etc). if "popular" is an important category, i don't understand how rudland doesn't pursue these finer developments.

going off on a tangent, why is it that nowadays, when critics discuss history, they prefer to bring their own cutlery?

next slice? modernism. but first a potage of history, theology and sociology:  
To gain a proper and complete understanding of what we call "classical" music is to appreciate that it was all written within the context of societies which were predominantly Christian in nature, and where celebrations of traditional national attributes were not seen as old-fashioned or backward-looking as they often are today. This all changed, however, in the 1960s, with the old moral authority of Christianity and nationalism brought into question by two World Wars which had slain "half the seed of Europe one by one", and the dawning of the sexual revolution.
the fragment in red above is as nugacious as tap water. yeah, traditions generally subside compared to, "today." the second paragraph (in yellow) takes us for a sky/diver ride. one feels seized by rudland's bombardment of events: two world wars (and, i imagine, all the lots in between), plus the downing of the sexual revolution(?) why not throwing some cool names like marx, freud and elvis into the mix?    
Musical modernism is what was left behind after the feelings which motivated the great classical composers had dissipated.
a poetic sentence (the kind i wished i could come up with if it only was true). the aftertaste betrays a sugary nostalgic ethos.
What you are hearing in the dysfunctional harmony... once natural authority and faith resided. This is what "atonal" music really is: a loss of faith, and this is why anyone who counteracts its dominance is quickly condemned as "naive", in just the same manner as those who continue to hold religious convictions in a scientific age. 
what is "functional" in harmony other than a redundant polyphonic representation within a given music grammar? c'mon, where does western harmony begin? rameau's traité de l'harmonie? the tonary? 

if i listen to webern's 5 geistliche lieder (a sacred song cycle by the most abstract of 12-tone music composers) am i receiving webern's loss of faith?

i find rudland's heavy-handed, reductionist style more entertaining than his actual argument. he tries hard to connect the dots at the expense of killing generalizations like this:
I would be the first to acknowledge the dramatic talents of Alban Berg, the brilliant textural instrumentation of György Ligeti or the accomplished musicianship of Thomas Adès, but what all these composers have in common—despite the stylistic differences and time which separate their work—is that lack of inspiration within the musical material itself which began with Schoenberg and persists to this day.  
i get it. what all the planets in the solar systems have in common (despite their difference in mass, and material composition, etc) is that they rotate around the sun.

the critic doesn't stop:
Things might be about to change, however, and I think I can suggest a few reasons why this might be: popular music has run out of steam. The young know this (several students of mine have testified to its truth); they admit that even the best that is on offer these days—the chilly sounds of Coldplay or the Arctic Monkeys—cannot compete with the energetic exuberance of, say, Abba, and that so much that is pumped out of the radio is now empty commercialism.
can one not say about any time whatsoever that "things might be about to change"?

rudland's inductive rigor: "the young know this." who? "several students of mine."

it's difficult to cogitate as sloppily as this:
This decline, I suspect, relates back to the ongoing liberalisation of societies which began in the 1960s. The overthrowing of Christian chastity and discrediting of nationalism went hand in hand with the rights revolutions, which improved the freedoms of non-white races, homosexuals and women, and these causes were also reflected in popular music: hence, "[It doesn't matter if you're] Black or White" by Michael Jackson, "I want to break free" by Queen, or "Eleanor Rigby" by the Beatles. 
rudland haphazard thesis doesn't make me lose faith in modern --or contemporary-- music. what he makes me lose faith is in people's inductive competence. is this a generalized trend? i don't rule out the possibility that he's a smart lad who just wrote this piece while listening to schoenberg's moses und aron. in fact, i'm curious to listen to his compositions.

(if it's true what they say that what one lacks in one occupation one plentily makes up for in another, rudland should be a decent composer). i'll keep you posted.