Thursday, September 16, 2010

Busoni, Prophecy and Objectivity

I finished reading Busoni's Sketch of a New Musical Aesthetic. It is, apparently, one of the important early 20th century aesthetic works. Busoni laments the state of music (lamenting not uncharacteristic for Busoni, whose most well-known works are Elegies) and has a few interesting contributions to musical thought. Perhaps I'm understating that a bit--so let me put that into context.

When Busoni was writing his "Sketch," Europe was still enraptured with the late Romantic works of Wagner, Liszt, et al. Tristan und Isolde was not quite half a century old and Richard Strauss' Elektra and Schoenberg's Gurrelieder had yet to reach the world. It was with these two works (particularly Elektra) that the Romantic era came to an end. So, when Busoni was putting to paper his aesthetic musings, composers had not yet come to face the hard problem of music in a post-Wagnerian age.

In this regard, Busoni's writings are ahead of there time.

It might not be coincidental that Schoenberg had started to eschew tonality a few short years after the publication of Busoni's book. Indeed, several passages in Sketch of a New Musical Aesthetic appear to be incredibly anticipatory of Schoenberg's own treatment of harmony.
Strange that one should feel major and minor as opposites. They both present the same face [...] and a mere touch of the brush suffices to turn the one into the other. The passage from either to the other is easy and imperceptible; when it occurs frequently and swiftly, the two being to shimmer and coalesce indistinguishably.--But when we recognize that major and minor form one Whole with a double meaning [...] we arrive unconstrainedly at the perception of the UNITY of our system of keys. The concept of "related" and "foreign keys vanish, and with them the entire intricate theory of degrees and relation. We possess one single key. [emphasis original]
This can only be considered prophetic.

Busoni is also of the Objectivist school of musical though:
[...] [R]epresentation and description are not the nature of music; herewith we declare the invalidity of program music[...].

In reality, program music is precisely as one-sided and limited as that which is called absolute. In place of architectonic and symmetric formulas, instead of the relation of Tonic and Dominant, it has bound itself in the stays of a connecting poetic--sometimes even philosophic--program.

True, there are unequivocal descriptive effects of tone-painting (from these the entire principle took its rise+, but these means of expression are few and trivial, covering but a very small section of musical art. Begin with the most self-evident of all, the debasement of Tone to Noise in imitating the sounds of Nature--the rolling of thunder, the roar of forests, the cries of animals; then those somewhat less evident, symbolic--imitations of visual impressions, like the lightning-flash, springing movement, the flight of birds [...] These are auxiliaries, of which good use can be made upon a broad canvas, but which, taken by themselves, are no more to be called music than wax figures may pass for monuments. [emphasis added]
Busoni goes on to echo man of Hanslick's indictments of music as a means of expressing human emotions--that music cannot represent as object things which are essentially concepts.

This is somewhat puzzling to me as it seems outrightly contradictory to Busoni's thoughts in the very first chapter of his sketch:

Art-forms are the lasting, the more closely they adhere to the nature of their individual species of art, the purer they keep their essential ends.
Sculpture relinquishes the expression of the human pupil, and effects of color; painting degenerates, when it forsakes the flat surfaces in depiction and takes on complexity in theatrical decoration or panoramic portrayal.
Architecture has its fundamental form, growth from below upward, prescribed by static necessity; window and room necessarily provide the immediate and finishing configuration; these are eternal and inviolable requirements of the art.
Poetry commands the abstract thought, which it clothes in words. More independant than the others, it reaches the furthest bounds.
But all arts, resources and forms ever aim at one end, namely, the imitation of nature and the interpretation of human feelings. [emphasis original]
Strange. Not only is this contradictory, but Busoni never resolves this. If the goal of all art is to imitate and interpret human feelings, but music is impotent to do so, how precisely do we arrive at accomplishing this through music?

For this reason, it seems to me that Busoni has some interesting approaches to some of the problems of the aesthetics music--and has some very compelling and admirable prophesies!--but has little to offer the field as a whole. His music is great though!

Friday, August 27, 2010

On Hanslick's "On the Musically Beautiful"

I finished reading Eduard Hanslick's "On the Musically Beautiful" last week. In many ways it is very clearly a product of its time and in one very surprising way it is ahead of its time (this will be addressed later).

Hanslick's critique of musical meaning is elegantly stated (if, at times, belabored and redundant). By contrast his attempt at a scientific analysis of what constitutes "beauty" in music is less than cogent.

He attempts to argue that "imagination" is that which endows a musical work with "beauty." His approach to this is based on a sort-of "it couldn't be this, so it must be this" mode of reasoning. In addition to being a shaky (nay, invalid) approach to philosophical (let along "scientific") argument, it seems to me that it does not necessarily follow, particularly in light of (and possibly in conflict with) his argument regarding "meaning" in music.

In short Hanslick argues (with absolutely success, in my opinion) that music is impotent to
convey emotions. This is a limitation, in some way, of all the arts: a painting cannot convey anything, it can only depict a set of circumstances--the meaning, he maintains, is extra-depictorial. For example, a painting of Prometheus Bound does not itself convey to us anything about the tragedy--it is only a depiction of a man chained to a rock being attacked by an eagle.

So it is with music, in fact music is far more limited in its power to depict. Painting can depict objects through literal representation (albeit, in two dimensions), it can depict actions (albeit as still-life). Music can only depict action as music exists only in time and not as object (although, this is itself a complicated aesthetic question!). So, music can convey events to the listener by imitating them (this is how we know music is depicting a storm, or the wind, or the ocean)--music conveys actions through abstraction. Music cannot convey abstractions, i.e. emotions.

So, this raises the question, what is imagination? How is it that the creative act (composing) endows a musical artifact with beauty? It seems to me that the notion of "imagination" is every bit as abstract as love or longing. If music cannot convey love or longing, how can music convey imagination? If love and longing are extra-musical interpretations, how is imagination any less extra-musical? So, in short, positing that imagination is the substance of beauty seems to me to be classic question-begging.

To be sure, I think there is an answer to this question--but Hanslick fails at answering it.

I will say, one of the things that frustrates me about a large portion of aesthetic writings I've encountered so far is their penchant for prescription. Many philosophers make descriptive statements about music and proceed to make prescriptive statements (Aristotle, for example) that do not follow from the description--you can't say what should be the case from what is the case. It's a fallacy that many otherwise good philosophers fall victim to when dealing in aesthetics and as such, I appreciate Hanslick's assiduous avoidance of the problem (this problem is known as Hume's Guillotine).

What's incredibly forward-thinking about Hanslick's book is his speculation regarding neurology (this struck me as being very similar to Darwin's speculations regarding DNA). At the time biology understood the physiology of the ear and they knew about neurons and the interaction of the body with the brain through the nervous system. What wasn't understood was exactly how the nervous system interacted with the brain--how were the stimulations sent through the tiny fibers transfered into the grey-matter and turned into sensations? Hanslick, in 1854, was already speculating that many of the answers to questions regarding musical perception and sensation are to be found in the study of the brain and the physiological interactions between the ear and the brain.

That, in my opinion, is stunningly brilliant thinking in the neurological dark-ages!

There have been several books published on this topic (books by Patel, Levitin and Huron to name only a few). The technology is still new and the extent of the research is still comparatively tiny--however, this has been one of the most fascinating and insightful areas of research into music to date (obviously, I suppose). There will no doubt be many more insights to be gained from neurology and this will certainly be an important facet to our understanding of aesthetics in the future.

We should, as Hanslick, assiduously avoid prescription, even in light of anything neurology might tell us.