I'll be teaching a seminar on the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome, for young people ages 7-15, at the art museum in Worcester, MA. It will include study of mythology, history, visual art and music. It runs on two Sunday afternoons, this coming Sunday, January 29 and Sunday, February 12. We will continue the program on later Sundays if there is further interest from parents. More information in the flyer below. For more information and registration call Rupali Sharma at T.E.C. Schools, (508) 577-3045.
A Facebook discussion about why people who like Rock music don't move toward having better taste concluded with this comment from me, which I wanted to share.
The reason people today do not move toward better taste in music is the mind-body dichotomy, a cultural anti-integration between our animal nature and our higher, human nature. Rock music is not mid-level music in the transition from childhood to adulthood; that implies that it is wholesome and integrated, but just less complex. The entire essence of rock music is the "liberation" of wild animal impulse from the control functions of higher intelligence. So it is not part of the proper and healthy and normal process of development; it is moving in the opposite direction, toward physicalism and animalism, constantly reinforcing a negation of the higher faculties.
The essence of rock music is the boiling loins blowing out the brain. It is not just unsophisticated--in fact it is highly sophisticated in its means of accomplishing its aim which is the destruction of morality and humanity.
(Cue the arguments that rock star X has has "classical training," that rock star Y has "very advanced guitar finger technique," that rock song A has "complex harmonies," etc--all of which are just mechanistic, out-of-context technical factors which lose the overall meaning and message of the music.)
From Chapter 5 on "The Hierarchy of Emotion," the section on "Music & the Hierarchy of Emotion," of Emotion in Life & Music.
“The essence of the symphonic process is the pattern of establishing some incomplete or conflicted emotional theme, breaking it down and taking it apart, considering all the components from various angles and in various permutations and transformations, and then reassembling the elements, bringing it all together into a reorganized summary context, thus resolving the conflict and achieving integrity of the psyche.”
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 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.”
I'm pleased to announce that the Kindle version of my new book "Emotion in Life & Music" is now available.
I've been holding off announcing the publication of my new book "Emotion in Life & Music: A New Science" because the Kindle edition isn't out yet. (The Kindle edition will include links to musical examples.) But in the meantime, the physical book shot up the rankings to become the #12 book in Aesthetics, and the #1 "Hot New Release" in Aesthetics. If you do want to jump on the bandwagon and get the physical book, check it out here.
My book will be published this month! Stay tuned. Here's the blurb/description:
Emotion in Life & Music: A New Science
by M. Zachary Johnson
What does it mean for music to be emotional?
How can these mysterious feelings be understood and validated?
Some modern thinkers, unable to find an answer, have gone so far as to declare that music must be pure form, without emotion. Yet philosophers from Confucius to Plato and Aristotle, religious traditions from Hinduism and Buddhism to Christianity, all regarded music as a profound form of moral-emotional training.
Can we link the ancient spiritual purposes of music to our modern secular and scientific understanding of man?
This book argues we can, presenting a new theory that music produces the psychological signature of emotion—a motion of the mind with a distinctive set of mathematical characteristics. This theory provides a new way of making sense of musical emotion, a rational framework for understanding and validating it. It thus holds the promise of restoring the importance of music as a humanistic art form, and a vehicle for expressing and rewarding the good.
Historian/actor Dave Malinsky has been helping me out as a reader of the manuscript of my book Emotion in Life & Music. He's been a great help, not just for giving me deadlines, but as a sounding board for the text. As a result, my progress accelerated a great deal. The main outgrowth of this is--in addition to the book being nearly finished now!--the book is 1) much more focused, and 2) more broadly humanistic for a general audience rather than in-depth technical for a specialist. Therefore, the book has a new subtitle and table of contents.
Emotion in Life & Music:
A NeoHumanist Manifesto
M. Zachary Johnson
1 - Emotional Life
2 - The Psychological Signature of an Emotion
3 - Objectivity & Emotion
4 - Emotional Integrity
5 - The Hierarchy of Emotion
6 - Love of Intelligence
Stay tuned for publication details!