- Catharsis vs anti-catharsis
- Self-understanding and unpacking the meaning of music
- Whether music is “just a sensation”
- How sensationalism in music is like pragmatism in philosophy
- Self-Referential/Self-Conscious Expression
- Stupid-making music
- The honesty of children
- Humor is disarming
- Self-Aware Expression and Parody
- Bootleg Romanticism
- Music as a utility versus a metaphysical statement
- How to deal with bad music that you like
- The effect of noise in music
- Bohemian Rhapsody
- Coen brothers movies
- Crime and Punishment
- “This is Spinal Tap”
- Pictures at an Exhibition
- Ayn Rand and Metaphysics of Man
- Emo vs Screamo
- Metallica “One,” “The Outlaw Torn”
- Metalocolypse & Deathclock
- Cole Porter “Anything Goes”
- Rage Against the Machine
Here's a new video conversation between me and metal fan and math-man James Ellias about Heavy Metal music and "anti-catharsis." Over the summer, in connection with my new book, we had gotten to talking about "what's going on" for people with hardcore taste in music. Because our conversation was so wide-ranging and generated a lot of insights, I thought it would be worth continuing on youtube, so that you could hear it too. James is totally blunt and fearless, but also willing to be challenged and to find new truth, so it was productive. Here are some of the topics we touch on:
In the section on "The Paradox of Blissful Suffering" in Emotion in Life & Music, I wrote that:
"Superficial people make the mistake of dismissing all dark emotion in art on the simplistic thought that “pain is bad and to be avoided; I want to be happy!” A person who thinks that way will only know the most trivial and shallow delight. In fact, he has no true concept of happiness as fulfillment. He has only an associational notion of cheerfulness which refers to smiley faces, cotton candy and jazz hands."
I realized from some reader responses that not everyone knows what "jazz hands" refers to. Here's the report from Wikipedia: "Probably the biggest proponent of jazz hands was Bob Fosse, who incorporated them in nearly all of his Broadway and film musical choreography.... In the basic jazz hands position, the hands are open, the palms face forward, and the fingers are splayed; in addition sometimes the hands are shaken and the fingers are moving... —the motion is rapid and fluttering, as if jingling a tambourine."
According to the Urban Dictionary: Jazz hands is "A cabaret-style dance move, popularized by the musical "Fosse". Now used, usually ironically, to express excitement, glee, razzle dazzle, etc. The move is performed by tilting the head slightly, shimmering the hands with fingers splayed either side of the face and crying "Jazz hands!" with an enthusiastic smile. Think Jack from Will and Grace. As in: 'I'm all for guys getting in touch with their emotions but he's just too jazz hands for me.'
Here are some photos.
In the Philosophy of Music and Emotion group on Facebook, we've been having a discussion of a blog post "Why I didn't create that song I wrote" by Francois-Rene Rideau which deals with his song setting of Invictus by William Ernest Henley.
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
Francois-Rene's blog post questions the possibility of very different settings of the same poem, if one is following the natural stresses and feeling of the poem. So comparing different versions reveals a lot.
Lucas Misael Cuadra shared his new setting as well. (You should also listen to his awesome Gates of Fate)
Like I always say, a composer reveals more in his music than he realizes he is revealing, because the things he takes most deeply for granted are the ones that come across the most strongly. Francois-Rene wrote a tight, jazz-flavored song which makes the words clear and straightforward and has a relaxed and spicy feeling. Lucas wrote a richly romantic, lyric melody which is very continuous and glides through the poem with changes of motion and strength corresponding to the feel of the words. It's much more similar to my own setting--it lives in the same century or the same ethos in some sense.
My setting is broadly epic, moving from dark to bright over a long elaboration, with the words used in interweaving choral voices. I also included contemplative instrumental interludes between the verses of the poem, and more intro and coda instrumentals to round out the song.
I wrote this setting of Invictus on commission for the Ann Arbor-Saline Area High School, back in 1999 or so. I conducted the premiere myself. Unfortunately, the recording skips a second or two when the choir starts singing.
Another 5-star review of "Emotion in Life & Music" appeared on Amazon. Thanks to Molly Johnson (no relation!) for her positive thoughts on the book:
"I'm not yet finished with this book, but it's already brought tremendous clarity to my own likes and dislikes in music, explaining why I find some classical music (stuff I'm "supposed to like" because it's "great art") cold and unapproachable. As a musician myself I know how hard it is to explain music and its impact in an objective way, which this author succeeds at well. I was surprised to find that I am already applying Mr. Johnson's explanation to theater as well as music. It helped me understand why I liked a play I saw recently, because like a good musical work it untangles and integrates a complex set of emotions. (The play happened to be Ibsen's Lady From the Sea). I am looking forward to further insights as I go deeper into the book, and I think this will bear many re-readings. I'm also looking forward to applying his method to the music I play and listen to, and seeing how it applies to other art forms. I enjoyed Mr. Johnson's other work, Dancing with the Muses, as well. It is completely different in subject matter, but also valuable."
We are also having a vigorous discussion of catharsis in music, as well as the issue of generational character and why people tend to think that the music coming out during their teenage years was the one and only true, good music--such that everything else is a fall from that original height. Yet everyone thinks that of their own teenage music. This is on the Facebook discussion group Philosophy of Music and Emotion.
In going through some old papers, I came across notes I had made during a piano Master Class taught by Andras Schiff for students at the Mannes College of Music in New York back in February 2000. Reading over the notes, I was struck by how good the ideas were, and I felt they were definitely worth sharing, even though it’s been a while. That’s how things are when you deal with timeless art and ideas, as Schiff does.
The Master Class focused on Schiff's specialty, the music of JS Bach. He coached student pianists on four major works by Bach: the English Suite in E Minor, the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in D Minor, the Goldberg Variations, and the Partita #6 in E Minor.
Bach’s music is often treated as merely erudite and “cerebral,” as academic and masterful; since it so often serves as the technique-builder for keyboard players (as well as for players of other instruments), it tends to be associated with “playing out of duty for technique” rather than “playing with feeling for enjoyment.” Schiff is remarkable for casting off the impoverished, purely technical approach to Bach, both in his playing and his teaching.
"There is never anything mechanical about Bach,” says Schiff. He insists that the player remember that these pieces are *dances*. Not all the notes and shapes of melody should have uniform shape and articulation. Use variety of color. Think harmonically, and bring out the structure.
Schiff intimately knows the harmony of each piece, and can play the structure of the piece in chords from memory--a condensed version without the complexities of note-motions, just the essentialized progression of sonorities.
Schiff never loses sight of the music’s emotional dimension, its sensuous beauty and rich flow. Singing the melody and conducting in a demonstration, he says the Goldberg Variations express joie de vivre. This is not exactly what we traditionally associate with Bach the heavy moralist, the dour Lutheran, the monolithic German master!
Schiff recommends overholding—sustaining the tones of melody so that they slightly overlap with one another--to make the interval interference real, accentuating the expressive quality of the intervals.
Schiff is opposed to violent, aggressive playing; his own playing is more "buttery" and fluid and sweet. He insists that the player does not need a hard, harsh tone quality. There should be no “wooden” sound or stiffness, but freedom. Feel the pulse, he says, like a dance, a certain quality of movement. "You have to speak clearly if you want to be understood.”
"You have to play for the most intelligent listeners. Don't underestimate them. They know where the downbeat is." You don't have to hammer it. Avoid unmusical accents.
Schiff points out that Bach's manuscript handrwriting uses wavy lines, not straight ones like printed music. This reflects the affect Bach intended: a natural and organic flow, not a mechanistic and technocratic approach.
Compare the rectilinear squareness of the printed score (left) as opposed to the curvy beams connecting the notes in Bach's original manuscript (right).
Schiff is not a worried pianist or a fault-finder. "Mistakes don't matter,” he says.
The capstone of the whole event was the moment Schiff transformed a student’s interpretation with the advice: "play the melody like it's Chopin.”
Good, honest people have an Achilles heel: they tend to assume that other people are motivated by the same straightforward sincerity that motivates them. But not every statement a person makes is a genuine expression of what he thinks. There is an opposite kind of purpose, which gives the statement an opposite kind of status: a manipulative purpose.
In fact, manipulative people will (like a Trojan Horse) utilize a good person's credulity, his tendency to focus on reality and whether the words are true. The truth-orientation is what the good man does in his own mind when thoughts occur to him. But that is not the mindset of a manipulator. The manipulator seeks to use his victim's honesty against him.
A manipulator may wish to distract you. If an accountant who is cooking the books sees your eye moving toward the table of figures which evidences his sleight of hand, and then suddenly points at the model ship on the windowsill, talking about the painstaking work put into constructing it—the exchange is not about the ship. To “take the statement at face value” is something like autism. If you don't grasp this kind of misdirection, you need to study more literature.
A manipulator may simply wish to hurt your feelings. When a vindictive woman says to her ex, “You are terrible in bed,” she is not saying it as a sincere, carefully exact statement of what she thinks is true. She is saying it for an emotional purpose: to hurt the man, to attack his masculinity, to make him doubt his prior confidence and question whether his feeling of success with the woman was a sham. To impartially consider whether the statement is true or not is context-dropping. It should not even be considered in terms of truth analysis. It is not within the field of knowledge statements; it is in the field of manipulative statements.
There are many possible manipulative purposes, many reasons that a person might say something which are not plain assertions of truth: establishing social dominance, self-flattery, controlling you or gaining power over you, hurting your feelings, distracting you, disarming you or getting your guard down, winning you over toward some person or course of action.
Consider this exchange from the movie Star Trek: First Contact.
"BORG QUEEN: We, too, are on a quest to better ourselves, evolving toward a state of perfection.
DATA: Forgive me; the Borg do not evolve. They conquer.
BORG QUEEN: By assimilating other beings into our collective, we are bringing them closer to perfection.
DATA: Somehow, I question your motives."
The same statement (“we are on a quest to better ourselves”)—exactly the same words—have an opposite status depending on whether they are presented as a straightforward communication, or for a manipulative purpose. Here, the Queen does not speak with the purpose of sincerely communicating something she thinks is true. Her words have an opposite status: they are deceptive. She seeks to present herself as a noble idealist, hiding her evil motives; this is for her own self-deception, and by extension for the deception of others in order to control them.
In the case of outright lies, the difference between truth-communication and manipulation becomes apparent even to the credulous. For example, it is obvious from its content that the “Patriot” Act is the opposite of patriotic; it is clear that the title is a plain lie, made for a deceptive and manipulative purpose.
But every effective and cunning liar knows that he can only make his lie convincing by mixing it with some truth, thus giving the idea traction in the mind of the gullible honest man. This is where truth-seekers need to up their game. It is not proper to “take the statement at face value” and test it against reality, as though it is within the sphere of sincere thought, when the statement has nothing to do with what is true or false, and everything to do with steering your emotions and mindset.
How do you know that a statement is made for a manipulative purpose rather than plain, uncomplicated communication of thought?
You ask: “Why is this person making this particular statement at this time?”
Notice that truth-status is timeless and universal. “2+2=4” considered from the point of view of truth, is an eternal fact which holds for everyone. But that doesn't mean that every time someone says “2+2=4” he is expressing the truth; he may be trying to lend credibility to a load of BS, he may be distracting you, or deliberately toying with your perception of reality, etc.
An analysis of the truth of a statement does not itself take into account whether the purpose of the speaker was to communicate truth. But the purpose and intention and motivation of the speaker is part of the context of the statement. Analyzing this—which is particular to this speaker speaking to you at this time in this particular situation—is essential to understanding what is going on.
“Somehow, I question your motives”—that is the proper motto of a thinker who lives not a world of purely abstract, Platonic truths, but in the real world of embodied human communication. It does not mean that there is no such thing as the truth. It means that part of the truth, part of reality, is the speaker's motivation. Nor does this mean that you must be paranoid. You should be realistically skeptical and critical, as a continuous mental setting.
This is not cynicism or expecting evil. It is approaching reality without prior preconception about a speaker's motives, and without projecting your own motivation onto them. And then, the speaker's motives are judged for being whatever they are, whatever they reveal themselves to be.
You often get your first clue about manipulative purposes from your gut. Something feels off—which is an inkling or impression of some elements which don't fit. If you reflect on them later, you can sort out what was going on. But remember that the manipulator knows that in time your logic will sort it out. Therefore he controls the pacing and course of interaction to avoid letting your process of logical analysis operate. He will distract you, make you feel good by flattering you, etc. This is why the skill of analyzing motivation in real-time is crucial to sanity and success in real life.
It is not improper to take into account the speaker's motive, as a fundamental matter of the epistemological status of the statement. This is a process of getting more information, a larger and more comprehensive data set. Motive is not an “illogical” or “irrelevant” consideration. To dismiss motivation in this way is an autistic, fractured, narrow-minded and biased way of thinking. It will make you think that people are unintelligible, when in fact they are quite intelligible, even when they are being irrational and deceptive. Because you can identify their motive. The speaker's motive is the causal explanation of the statement.
Even good people must be cognizant of Machiavellian purposes. Because good people live in a world that is as messy as everyone else. But good people have the capacity to make sense of it.
The Triple Book Party we held on May 14 in NYC was great fun. Here are the videos of the talks.
I'm pleased to announce that the Kindle version of my new book "Emotion in Life & Music" is now available.