9/14/10

Post hoc ergo propter hoc - Great Music Edition, Part I

I apologize in advance for the mess that follows. It is, first, very long. After many times reading this article, I felt it necessary to include all of his words. So as a result, I have also decided to split this particular Detrital breakdown into two parts. And it is, second, absolutely crazy.

That music, starting in the 20th century, would cease to try and appeal to the average Johnny-Concert-Goer has been a consistent bee in the bonnets of music lovers everywhere. However, most of these objections always require someone else to adapt their musical tastes, and surprisingly, always to the tastes of person making the objection.

It's been my contention on this blog many times that this problem primarily arises from a phenomenon in adults that they just don't want to learn anything new. Remember the whole flap over Pluto losing its status as a planet? How dare "scientists" refine definitions and introduce blasphemous ideas like dwarf planets and Kuiper Belt objects. There were 9 planets when I was born, and there will be 9 when I die. Harrumph.

Well, once again, I have stumbled across a gentlemen who just happens to find fault with looking at music for reasons other than to determine whether we "just like" a given a piece of music. Under the guise of asking the actually interesting question of whether film music is great music, he seeks to undermine, through a series of logical fallacies (each one more fun than the last), the academic establishment.

Now, academia is certainly not above reproach, but it is above the inane arguments made in the following editorial. Enjoy.

Guest Editorial: Is Film Music Great?
John Graham, Film Music Magazine, September 8, 2010

An excellent question. I've had this debate many a times, and needless to say, it's a question complicated by the fact that concert music and film music serve two entirely different functions. But I look forward to your thoughts on the subject.

Where Does Great Music Come From?

An interesting place to start. Where does great music come from? I'm guessing from the top of a very tall mountain.

I bet on music written for an audience, paid for by someone else.

Didn't I already cover this before? But fine, I'll bite. Why would you bet that way?

Arm’s length transactions, I believe, have generated the best results historically.

The best! Well, I'm a fan of the best. So surely you and I are certain to agree on this point.

Oh, how did you determine which art was the best? Nevermind, you have the floor.

Art-for-money has brought us Shakespeare, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Bach, Fielding, Raphael, Rembrandt, Dickens. All worked for money, whether for single patrons or a broader, paying audience.

I got it. So, Beethoven was a composer because the pay was good?

But you're right, money can be exchanged for goods and services. One might even point out that everyone does something for money. But I'm sure that would be missing your point entirely.

Shakespeare wrote plays for money, which made him write better plays than he would have normally written. Right? Because, without the promise of money the creative spirit is stifled.

All suffered through the petty vexations of commerce:

One of the most important aspects of great art.

whims of patrons; popular enthusiasms; losing a coveted job to charming or “connected,” but less-able rivals; and the scramble for good players and nice venues at a reasonable cost.

The "debtors" movement of Brahms' Fourth Symphony gets me every time.

But I'm a bit confused...does a composer simply have to produce his art under the promise of money, or does he need to be poor as well, desperately needing the money to survive?

A few great creators were rich, or at least were born into enough money that their financial worries were eased for some part of their lives – Richard Strauss, Alban Berg, Tolstoy. But not too many.

So you can be rich, but it doesn't help. Got it.

As the Bible says, it's easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to write a good piece of music.

So, while allowing for important exceptions, for the most part, the artists of the past whose work has lasted beyond their lifetimes worked for money.

Well spoken, sir. There aren't holes in that logic. As they say, post hoc ergo propter hoc.

This definition of money-for-music captures Beethoven, Mozart & co., but also includes Gershwin, John Williams, Waxman, Zimmer et alia, Rogers and Hart, The Beatles, Eminem, Lady Gaga, Snoop – whatever.

Whatever? It's your list, why get snippy?

Also, did you know that the rooster's crow makes the sun rise?

I think there’s a reason why each of them has been called “a genius” by various composers at various times.

You think there's a reason? Would you like to venture a guess?

Sure, there’s plenty of popular rubbish out there that will not Stand The Test Of Time,...

Whoa...slow down a minute. Where did this "Stand the Test of [by the way, we don't capitalize prepositions here at the Detritus] Time" standard come from? I thought you said all great art was the result of pay-for-service.

So, how do you determine which pay-for-service music has (or will) Stand the Test of Time, and isn't just popular rubbish? Clearly, there is a now a third criterion needed to separate out those pieces of music that were written for money, but won't stand the test of time.

...but I will be very surprised if the art that does meet that test fails an essential measure:

Excellent, some carefully refined definitions and qualified remarks will bring clarity to this discussion on where great art comes from.

So, music that was written for money, but won't stand the test of time is missing what?

That many people simply want to hear it (or to view it, or to read it) without being motivated by something beyond seeking diversion, curiosity about the thing itself, or “just liking” it.

Wow, couldn't have put it better myself. Great music (and art) should be nothing more than a popular diversion that I "just lik[e]".

When you say "I", is that the universal I?

In other words, people take an interest not primarily because they have to write a paper on it or need a dissertation topic, and certainly not because its greatness only becomes apparent in the pages of an analytical explication, but because it gives pleasure.

Exactly. No analytical explications. Music is either just good or bad, it either gives pleasure or it doesn't. And there is no explicating this...at all.

And most importantly, don't try to understand. Because if you tried to understand a piece of music, you would sap it of all it's mystical pleasure-giving powers.

The details of how great art is actually generated – how the artist zeroes in on the set of ideas, craft elements, and feelings that actually produce something personal and unique and fresh and “forward” – I think that varies but, however it comes about, I think nothing lasts in the long run without the ability to provoke the reaction, “I like it” in an intelligent but unindoctrinated audience.

Didn't the Word paperclip dude warn you about run-on sentences?

And, where did this "intelligent but unindoctrinated audience" criterion come from? What about us stupid people? Do our opinions not count?

That seems unfair, because I'm pretty good about not liking a piece the first time I hear it, and I've always figured it was because the piece sucks (and that it was obviously composed for analytical explications in dissertations -- i.e. Debbie Gibson's "Shake Your Love").

But you said something about these intelligent people not being indoctrinated? Wait a minute...who writes dissertations, explicates things analytical, and is brainwashed...?

You're talking about academics, aren't you?! Fucking academics. Socialists, that's what they are.

Do Motivations Matter?

Huh? What happened to the socialists?

Despite the fact that some might consider the motivations and goals of the artists as an important measure of whether a work of art could be considered great, I am sceptical about including the artist’s motivation as an important measure.

Oh yeah, what makes a piece of music great art? Any specific reason you're dismissing a composer's motivation, or are you just proving your status as anti-academic?

It doesn’t matter to me (except out of idle curiosity) what the purpose of the writing is, whether it’s a lofty goal or, by contrast, a desire to impress a girlfriend / boyfriend, trying to make money,...

Wait? So it doesn't matter whether someone is "trying to make money" so long as they composed the piece for money? Interesting.

...escaping a soul-destroying job alternative,...

[To compose or teach high school marching band? Hmmm...]

...rivalry with other composers / band-mates, seeking everlasting greatness, or sheer vanity.

But they have to have composed the piece for someone else who paid them, right?

And that’s because it’s hard to discern motivation, even if one sifts through letters and other documents from an artist’s life produced contemporaneously with the work.

What if the composer is alive and tells you his motivation?

Motivations slip easily away from view, even from the artist himself.

Good point. All that context would just get in the way of "just liking" the piece.

Although seeking money almost certainly stimulated a large part of the past’s artistic output, most of the time, for most composers, the impulse to sit down and write something is hard to capture in words.

I think saying they did it for money is a pretty clear.

On the other side of the transaction, I don’t think it matters what the motivations are of those paying (up to a point). Teenagers wanting to dance, trying to seduce or impress someone, an impresario / producer trying to make money, or just fun. Each of these has produced great art, and each has produced a good bit of forgettable work.

Teenagers wanting to dance have commissioned great art? Is that accurate? Or would it more accurate to say that a composer/songwriter wanting to create music for teenagers to dance to led to some great art (and also piles and piles of shitty music)?

So I argue that, whatever the specific notion in the artist’s or consumer’s mind at the time – the motives of the buyer and seller are so hard to pinpoint and may be so various and contradictory, that I believe focus on them obscures rather than illuminates the work itself.

But the exchange of money isn't hard to pinpoint, and isn't contradictory. Therefore, the motives are pure. Just like paying a prostitute, or buying subprime mortgage-backed securities.

While it’s certainly interesting to the curious, we don’t really need to know the motivation in order to love the work, because we have the work itself, which, when it’s as dazzlingly attractive as Beethoven or Shakespeare, speaks for itself.

Does it matter who paid for the music? I mean, what if a bunch of teenagers looking to dance commissioned Beethoven and he gave them the Grosse Fuge? I doubt the teenagers would have been pleased. So Beethoven, while having been paid for the music, failed miserably at creating effective music for teenage dance.

Also, should we concern ourselves with how much they got paid?

Where Doesn’t Great Art Come From?

Good question. I say France. Although, what does this question have to do with "just liking" a piece of music?

These days, many papers and books are being written in academe about popular music.

I know. Socialist assholes. Wait, we hate these papers and books, right?

And from time to time in the past, music departments have included composers in residence – Schoenberg being a conspicuous example.

A conspicuous example of an academic book written about popular music?

Do your first two sentences have anything to do with each other?

But even allowing for exceptions, and perhaps a growing change in mood that may eventually alter the situation, over time, in effect if not by intention, the academic world has been content to navigate almost completely unmoored from engaging the majority of paid, living composers and their work.

Fuck. You're starting to lose me. Money makes music good, I get that. But academia doesn't engage most living composers? I guess that's true in the technical sense. Do they engage the majority of paid, dead composers?

Do you have any idea how many composers there are? And just how many shitty composers are out there? You work in the film industry, so you surely you must.

And what does this have to do with where great art comes or doesn't come from?

Some of the reasons for that are of course understandable. A large proportion of media music is artistically unambitious, for a start.

I thought your point was that we shouldn't care about whether a piece is ambitious, but just whether we like the piece.

In addition, the academic hot-house has always given shelter to those whose creations are interesting, if not widely understood or popular. That’s fine and that’s part of the role, as I see it, of universities.

I'm glad you approve. I was afraid you were going to accuse them of validating music that, by your measures, only exists to be analytically explicated in dissertations to be read by other academics, and that no one actually "just likes" it.

On the other hand, if all of that work, or nearly all, requires shelter from the storm, is it because it’s all great but misunderstood?

"Storm"? Does it logically follow that if universities like interesting, if not widely understood music, then those universities must surely be sheltering it from criticism? Are you just a bit anxious to hate on this music?

Or is it the Emperor’s new clothes, with some of those composers seeking academic harbors because they shun any risk of having their music validated or rejected by the outside world, by shepherding into channels that will expose their work only to those who are going to accept it?

That's exactly it. It's an elaborate plan hatched by terrible composers who spend their entire lives becoming experts in music, who unfortunately write music that no one likes. Then, in conjunction with other terrible composers, pretend together under the guise of academia that their music is good, which they keep hidden away in a self-insulated society.

I'm sure that they'll be upset that you've uncovered their evil plot to fill the world with music that should never have existed in the first place.

Fucking academics always lying about "great" music. I fucking hate those guys!

Part of the relentless history of condescension (or at least neglect) of music-for-hire...

Are you suggesting that academics don't study Beethoven? Or Mozart? Who both, previously established, wrote music-for-hire.

...by the insular elite stems, I believe, from a conflation of, on the one hand, money and popularity with, on the other hand, the low-brow and bourgeois.

That sentence had 6 commas (not used as part of a series). On the one hand, it's impressive, but on the other hand, it's very confusing.

Put differently,...

With fewer commas...

...this line adopts the supposition that anything written for money and served to a mass audience automatically is disqualified from a “serious” musician’s consideration.

Except the examples you gave at the beginning of your editorial, of course.

And it’s of course fair to ask whether anything that’s popular among the masses could be considered “great.”

That is a fair question. But I swear you already answer this, again, when you pointed out that great composers like Mozart and Beethoven wrote music for money. And I think most of us, including those piece-of-shit academics, would agree that they wrote some very popular music, much of which is widely considered great.

But enough of this insinuation...let's get to the question you're dying to ask.

What Do We Get from the Experts?

What? No scare quotes around "experts"?

Whether or not, however, mass art can produce or is producing art worthy of the name, as I look around, I don’t see the world festooned with Great Art jetting forth from the academic world, or from the cartloads of art paid for by well-meaning organizations that are supporting arts that can’t support themselves (in other words, government-grant art / music / literature).

So many things wrong with this (very long) sentence. But let's wait and see where you're going with this.

Not that there couldn’t be some great, or potentially great composers in academe; undoubtedly there are.

Why back down? You're right, academia is only a place of shitty music protected from the unindoctrinated masses just waiting for a chance to shout it down.

But what audience are they getting?

That sounds like it might take facts and some unbiased research. Fuck that. Let's just say none. Cool?

How many players do they get?

Only the students forced to play on these concerts with no audiences.

A handful of soloists and recorded or electronic sound sources can produce some intriguing music, but it’s born amid departmental academic expectations and, often, constrained further by budget to minimal resources.

I don't know what this means, but yeah?

In those straits, I am not sure how the natural impulse to compose can escape being mangled, or how, even if it fights through, we will ever hear of the work.

So budgetary constraints of the university system mangle compositional impulses, but those budgetary constraints that require one to sell their music to the highest bidder encourage creativity?

While there is certainly a lot of energy in the academic world directed at topics that formerly would have been off-limits, study of, criticism of, and research into music remains burdened by the legacy of a clutch of false premises still echoed in know-it-all circles generally:

Wow, you really are an expert on the academic music world. Elucidate us to the many failings of the academic world.

1. That only professors or “those qualified” are able authoritatively to identify, dissect, and specify genius;

Ah, there are the scare quotes. Fucking people who like to read and shit. Fuck those guys and their "qualifications". Yep, it's nothing but the "Dr." Laura's of the world for me.

And really, you're right, why would one rely on "experts" to help us determine hard to qualify matters? I think any shitkicker with a degree from Arizona State can identify, dissect and specify musical genius. And that's what really matters anyway.

2. The popularity of a work renders it automatically suspect and reveals it to be dangerously lacking in requisite musical rigour;

You so know academics. They all hate Beethoven. Hate him. And musicologists hate studying popular and indigenous musics.

And what do they love? Stockhausen. That's why there are just so many books about Darmstadt, and only a handful of movies and documentaries about Beethoven. If only they could hide their biases better.

3. Academics and the otherwise-degree’d are not susceptible to vogues, fads, and trendiness;

Seriously, why can't academics be more fickle in their tastes? Wishy-washy is how I like all my experts.

I must say, this is a pretty good list so far.

4. That great composers in the olden days – Bach etc. – were higher-minded, devoted purely to the Pursuit of Art, possessed only well-justified (if sometimes large) egos, were exempt from petty rivalries and fame-seeking, and generated Great Works unsullied by pursuit of girls, free drinks, a cushy place to work, and so on;

Again, you sooooo know academics. They absolutely hate knowing anything about a composer's life or those pesky primary sources. Hell, we used to burn letters and original documents in class on a weekly basis. They were taking up too much room in the school's library.

5. That the analyse-able elements of music – form and symmetry, or scale systems or other mathematical elements, or sociological significance – offer insight into why the pieces are enjoyable or interesting to us or, at least, make the piece “valid;” and

And of course, they don't. Music is something you feel, not something that gets written down on paper in a manner that must be construed and understood by another person for the purpose of performance. Nor is it to be understood within the context of the culture from which it arises. Culture-smulture.

6. That merely emotional music / art / literature, however powerfully loved (Dickens, Tchaikovsky being two examples), while it must be tolerated, is in actual fact beneath the notice of serious academics.

Based on the completely reasonable nature of all of your conclusions, I can only assume that you've done a diligent study of the opinions of a healthy representation of serious academics. No need to include any data or quotes to support your thesis. We trust you.

Plus, I'm sure that Dickens and Tchaikovsky appreciate your appraisal that there's nothing else to their literature/music other than emotion. No wit, no skill, no form, just emotion.

And I base my case against the legacy of critics, academe and their impact on the arts not just on these arguments, but on their results, which in my opinion have been totally disastrous.

Okay, I lied. I need an example.

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Be sure to tune in next time for another exciting adventure of me, Gustav and my stalwart manservant Argyle.

6 comments:

Sator Arepo said...

Wow. What a piece-of-crap article.

I don't even know where to begin.

Perhaps Mr. Graham's fine, exquisite sense of great music should be made the basis of required university classes! That'd fix those damn seekers of knowledge--fix them but good! [sic].

Of course, we'd have to find something else for them to study for the remaining 3.985 semesters of their four-year degrees.

Gustav said...

What I keep trying to figure out is, what's his point?

Sarah said...

Speaking as a musician, I say...Huh?

Speaking as a music historian and program annotator, I say...he doesn't know much about music history.

Speaking as a professional writer and busy editor, I say that Film Music Magazine must be short on editorial staff. That article is in dire need of some re-writing and editorial clean-up. If he were my client, I would say to him, "You're rambling. What's your point? Back up your sweeping generalizations with some examples from real life, historical and/or contemporary. Tighten the writing. The article is twice as long as it needs to be. And...what's your point?"

Sheesh!! What a mess.

Danny Liss said...

Maybe he walked in on his wife sleeping with the chair of a music department?

Empiricus said...

Are lobotomies contagious?

AnthonyS said...

That's a hot mess of something.

I'm not even sure what one says to this; engaging with it is sort of like arguing with a petulant toddler in the middle of K-Mart.

Forget studying music; the author needs English 101-- something, something logical clarity, supporting arguments, etc.

What I find particularly interesting is the strong implication (from the line "this line adopts the supposition that anything written for money and served to a mass audience automatically is disqualified from a 'serious' musician’s consideration.") that composers who teach have some sort of non-competition clause in their contracts that renders them legally unable to write music for money... 'casue, you know... I'm pretty sure John Corigliano, Bill Bolcom, Stephen Hartke, Steven Stucky, Joan Tower, Steve Mackey, Michael Daugherty (all composers with teaching gigs), etc., etc., etc., have never been commissioned. Nope, never.

The implication that all who teach do so *not* from a love of teaching, but only to hole up in the Ivory Tower and game the system by getting a paycheck to write music that no one likes is just... well, bluntly stated, pretty fucking stupid, and pretty insulting as well.