An Experiment in Criticism: in which I defend Western art music

[NB This post has since been edited for clarity and typos] 

This post is the result of a number of recent confluences, among them my post on Lawrence Kramer’s essay in The Oxford Handbook of New Audiovisual Aesthetics, Twitter conversations (more my lurking than conversing), and side-reading (C.S. Lewis again—when will this infatuation end? Never, I hope).

A few weeks ago, I became aware, via Twitter, of a Slate article by Ethan Hein, who has, I believe, now graduated from NYU with his master’s in music. His article has caused a fair amount of Sturm und Drang in the community of music theoreticians (at least those who are active in the online community). Bryn Hughes and Kris Shaffer have published well-written responses to Hein on their respective blogs, and I know others have as well, but I haven’t taken the time to read them all. Hein has made dubious assertions on his blog like:

Common-practice period classical music theory is fine and good, but in the hands of the music academy, it’s dry, tedious, and worst of all, largely useless. The strict rules of eighteenth-century European art music are distantly removed from the knowledge a person needs to do anything in the present-day music world (except, I guess, to be a professor of common-practice tonal theory.)

I disagree with such statements for a variety of reasons, but I won’t go into all of them here. Many people labor under the assumption that the ivory tower of the academy (and, yes, I admit it is too often an ivory tower) perpetuates outmoded and perhaps arbitrary ideas of what constitutes important (I would go so far as to say vital) musical experience. However, my purpose in this post is not to add yet another response to Hein in an internet already teeming with criticism. I bring up his words only because it is a recent iteration in a long line of “progressive” thought that keeps trying, seemingly, to knock down the columns of our cultural and expressive history so that the real estate can be used to erect a McDonalds or an interstate bypass. I exaggerate, of course. Some of those McDonalds will turn out to be TGI Fridays, and their Jack Daniel’s burger is DELICIOUS!  I’m scraping my metaphor-butter over too much toast, but I hope you can see my point. There is a certain distaste in postmodernity for “canons” and “rules,” believing them to be prescriptive. Saying that something is better than another has its pitfalls, but it can also be the very tool that separates the dross. Just as different metals have different melting points, so different repertories require different standards of evaluation. As democratic as it may sound, one cannot hold that “all [musics] are created equal.”

Therein may lie part of the problem—in many ways, this seems a uniquely American pathology (although I know it’s not exclusive to the New World). Some don’t like Common-Practice music because it’s too European or it’s too old. America wouldn’t know “old” if it toppled over and crushed it under a thousand years of recorded history. As to European-ness, prior to the 20th century, American music seemed to suffer from an inferiority complex with regard to the longer tradition of Europe. Look at what Nicolas Slonimsky wrote to introduce Richard Burbank’s 1984 reference book Twentieth-Century Music:

American music in the 19th century was but a faint reflection of German music. Edward McDowell, regarded as the first American composer of stature, received his musical training in Germany; his harmonies follow the Germanic mold. It was only after the First World War that the German influence on American music began to wane . . ..

Even so, composers still sought their education in Europe, exemplified by Aaron Copland, Walter Piston, Roy Harris, Elliott Carter, et al., who were all (as Slonimsky puts it) “wet-nursed” in Paris by Nadia Boulanger.

It took a long time for America to feel that it was coming out from under the shadow of the “mother continent.” But like adolescents, some Americans can still chafe at times against what they view as hoity-toity European-ness. Watch a recent episode of Downton Abbey and you’ll glimpse this conflict between the Old World and the New, between tradition and innovation, between the past and the future. We Americans (not all of us) love our fast food and our high-rises. New = better; if it’s not new, it’s disposable. 

When I toured Italy with Asbury’s Collegium Musicum, I was amazed at how many people came to our concerts—concerts filled with music too old to even be colloquially called “classical,” i.e., pre-Common Practice. At home in America, we would nearly have to pay our own friends to be part of inattentive audiences of half the size; and then, only if there were free food afterward. That’s not to say that all Europeans love “old” music, or drop whatever they’re doing to hear it performed. What I do mean to say is that I experienced a greater appreciation for the past, for “whence we come,” when I visited Europe—a quality I wouldn’t mind seeing more of in America.

But I doubt any of those reasons will change anyone’s mind who is not already so inclined. They are, in my opinion, some of the unacknowledged underlying factors in a debate that goes beyond any one argument or pundit. I’m actually reminded of a 2011 debate at Cambridge University between Stephen Fry and DJ Kissy Sell Out (I understand videos are available on YouTube, but I’ve only read summaries) on the statement “classical music is irrelevant to today’s youth.” Both decried the elitism of some art music enthusiasts, with which I couldn’t agree more, but they came to very different conclusions. On one hand:

. . . ‘classical music does not represent or embody the racial, ethnic and cultural diversity of our world’ and that ‘pop music is by far the more creative field.’

—Greg Sandow, Juilliard, took the side of  DJ Kissy Sell Out*

On the other hand:

‘You can like two different things at once and not explode or be a hypocrite. Surely if education in a university is about anything it is the fact we can accept and absorb all kinds of ideas and celebrate and love all kinds of human expression.’

—Stephen Fry*

*Quotations excerpted from a write-up in Limelight

But what really sparked my fingers into motion today was reading yet another of C.S. Lewis’s writings, a bit of An Experiment in Criticism, in which he discusses people’s tastes in literature. As so often happens when reading Lewis, he has already eloquently orchestrated the tune echoing in the back of my mind. Although he is writing about literature, much of what he says is reflected in music as well, if we make a rough equation between great literature and Western art music. Admittedly, vivisecting what he said and placing it before you in a few pieces does him a disservice.

. . . the first reading of some literary work is often, to the literary, an experience so momentous that only experiences of love, religion, or bereavement can furnish a standard of comparison. Their whole consciousness is changed. They have become what they were not before.

This has been my experience, most often of art music, almost never of popular music; and that is why it deserves to be studied by students of music theory. Lest you think me a fuddy-duddy, I listen to popular music too, and I enjoy it. Indeed I have found examples worthy of deeper study, and I know other scholars have too. But it rarely has the capacity to move me as art music has.

Though I shall concern myself almost entirely with literature, it is worth noting that the same difference of attitude is displayed about the other arts and about natural beauty. Many people enjoy popular music in a way which is compatible with humming the tune, stamping in time, talking, and eating. And when the popular tune has gone out of fashion they enjoy it no more. Those who enjoy Bach react quite differently. Some buy pictures because the walls ‘look so bare without them’; and after the pictures have been in the house for a week they become practically invisible to them. But there are a few who feed on a great picture for years.

I freely admit there is value to be found in popular musics and non-Western traditions. But let us not forget that we are, for better or worse, in the West. We should remember that there are traditions beyond that sphere of influence, yes, but the Western tradition is our tradition. Yours and mine, even if your ancestors hailed from a non-European continent. We share it because it has influenced the world. Only in the last 100 years has the tide of influence begun to give more weight to the world’s influence on the West, at least in terms of musical influence. As much as Jazz or Rock or Country seem to contrast with art music, they all owe a great deal to that tradition while simultaneously reinventing it.

It is a simple, practical impossibility to find enough time to teach students an entire world’s-worth of music; some things must be chosen to the exclusion of others. Sometimes I wonder at those who rail against the notion of canon. As if some esoteric oligarchy sits in a fusty room somewhere (probably in Europe, by all accounts) sending down judgements from on high. That room’s probably in Rome. First the Caesars, then the Pope—Rome must be a magnet for people who want to tell the world what’s what. The truth, I suspect, runs more like this: the best endures. There were plenty of composers of the Common Practice about whom we never hear. Why? Because their work wasn’t up to snuff. Like it or not, there will be a canon of 20th-century popular music in a hundred years. In fact, we already see it forming. How many popular songs from the early 20th century can you sing? Not nearly so many as were written, I’d wager. I’ve been teaching myself lots of them on the ukelele. They’re loads of fun, but they’re also drivel, and if I have to choose which to teach, I’m going to pick Stravinsky over Irving Berlin every time, even though I’d often rather listen to Berlin. The Beatles have already established a revered precedence in popular music. Is anyone talking about the Monkees? They both gained popularity around the same time, they both named themselves after animals, they both couldn’t spell those animal names properly. The two bands even interacted. So why have the Beatles endured to a greater degree? (No doubt, some would say, because they’re European.)

Canons form and evolve—like language. Some words never go away, some fall out of use, some are revived, some are newly invented. Dictionaries have to be updated to reflect the passage of time; we have dictionaries of British English, American English, urban slang, and on and on. Yet some words persist, and even the newer ones usually have their roots sunk deeply into ancient languages like Latin. People said Latin was dead too, you know; but without Latin, we wouldn’t have the vocabulary to argue how poorly the old vestiges of European culture serve us today.

To say that popular music is worthy of equal or greater attention in the classroom, if it is to be said at all, will require more time. Time sorts out many things, not least of which is the worthiness of a piece of art (be it music, literature, architecture). If it is truly as attention-deserving as one believes, then it will stand the test of time, whether or not one feels the compulsion to beat to quarters or release the dogs of war over it, in favor or against.

But I will let Lewis have the last word, because he, unlike me, is able to stick to the point and remember why we study the arts in the first place.

Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality. There are mass emotions which heal the wound; but they destroy the privilege. In them our separate selves are pooled and we sink into sub-individuality. But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.

Video Game “Immersion”: in which we Contemplate a return to Enjoyment

I am in the midst of reading a recent article in the inaugural issue of the Journal of Games Criticism by Brendan Keogh entitled “Across World and Bodies: Criticism in the Age of Video Games.” This article has made quite stir, apparently, making the rounds (assuming one pays attention to the right circles—Dan Golding, Daniel Joseph, Ian Bogost, Zoya Street, Felan Parker; I imagine there are others too, but hat tip to Dan Golding for this particular list).

One of the things Keogh says in his introduction reminded me of another recent read completely unrelated to game studies. (Although, as a good votary of the liberal arts, I should never say “completely unrelated,” as we shall see.) In an earlier post, I reflected, as I am wont to do, on C. S. Lewis’s essay “Meditation in a Tool Shed,” which was, in turn, much influence by philosopher Samuel Alexander‘s Space, Time, and Deity.

This excerpt is what got me thinking:

The first of these sections observes how the concept of ‘immersion’ obscures critical analysis of video games [sic et cetera] as cultural forms that actually exist, as it leads to the same separation of form and content that Susan Sontag (1964) so completely dismantled half a century ago. The videogame critic, I argue, must avoid immersion to understand how videogame play functions across worlds. . . In my conclusion, I argue why a shift towards close, critical analyses of specific videogames is inevitable and, indeed, is already emerging as a younger generation of theorists with a more everyday relationship to videogames begins presenting and publishing research. These scholars have grown up in a time where playing a videogame is as mundane as watching a film or listening to pop music; they do not require all-encompassing formal methods to understand what videogames are, but critical toolkits to deploy and alter as they build a stronger understanding of videogames as a cultural form.

—Brendan Keogh entitled “Across World and Bodies: Criticism in the Age of Video Games,” Journal of Games Criticism, v. 1, no. 1, 2014

(emphasis added)

Compare that to Lewis:

I was standing today in the dark toolshed. The sun was shining outside and through the crack at the top of the door there came a sunbeam. From where I stood that beam of light, with the specks of dust floating in it, was the most striking thing in the place. Everything else was almost pitch-black. I was seeing the beam, not seeing things by it.

Then I moved, so that the beam fell on my eyes. Instantly the whole previous picture vanished. I saw no toolshed, and (above all) no beam. Instead I saw, framed in the irregular cranny at the top of the door, green leaves moving on the branches of a tree outside and beyond that, ninety-odd million miles away, the sun. Looking along the beam, and looking at the beam are very different experiences.

— C. S. Lewis, ”Meditation in a Toolshed,” from Essay Collection, p. 607

(emphasis added)

Looking along the beam versus looking at the beam. Samuel Alexander referred to theses as Enjoyment and Contemplation, respectively. In some ways, Keogh’s words reminded me of Lewis and Alexander. It seems to me the very nature of formal criticism must be Contemplative, i.e., looking at the beam, studying object of interest from without in order to gain an appreciation for its composition (structure, artistry, fill-in-the-blank). Conversely, Enjoyment, i.e., looking along the beam, would correspond to Keogh’s use of the term immersion, a slippery word commonly used in the gaming community. This strikes me as the same idea, albeit in significant different language. Lewis, as literature professor, took a much more literary tack. Thus, can one say…?

Alexander / Lewis / Keogh
Contemplation = at beam = criticism
Enjoyment = along beam = immersion

I got the impression from Lewis that he did not advocate one of these perspectives at the expense of the other, but preferred to let them inform one another. I suspect that may be at the root of what Keogh says as well when he mentions young scholars who have grown up with video games as a norm. Despite the fuzziness of what age-range constitutes a young scholar, I suspect that those who think of video games as a normal part of their childhood (of which I would consider myself a member), and continue to participate in that culture have an easy enough time looking along the light beam and have, perhaps more recently begun to look at that beam they have long enjoyed. Perhaps they will indeed find it easier to shift between those two experiential paradigms, allowing for a balanced understanding of reciprocal perception. That is not to say, of course, that “older” scholars cannot find such a balance, but I suspect they will have to be willing to lay aside the clinical sterility of Contemplation in order to let themselves Enjoy games, which will, in turn, deepen their critical engagement.

All this from the introduction to an article I have not yet finished. Maybe I should have thought that through before posting this; it may be far off from what the author’s intended destination. Still, there it is.

Same but Sundered: on Mercury, meaning, and metaphor

I’m still reading Planet Narnia, and enjoying every page. Ward begins his chapter on Mercury with these words from C. S. Lewis‘s poem “The Planets”:

Meeting selves, same but sundered.

—Lewis, “The Planets,” lines 17–18

It should come as no surprise that quicksilver (Mercury) is the metal associated with the Roman deity. Mercury is curious in that it can be drawn apart and then rejoined without a trace of that former division. We see this symbolism in the Mercury-associated myth of Castor and Pollux, identical twins who are “same but sundered.”

But what Michael Ward points out that has captured me is the association of Mercury with masterful use of language. Lewis himself noted that Martianus Capella (a name familiar to scholars of the history of music theory) depicts Mercury as the groom of Philologia in De Nuptiis. Philologia, in its original sense broadly meant “love of learning.” But we can’t help but associate it with the more specific derivative, philology, the study of language through the lens of history.

One of the things Lewis does with allusions to Mercury is use him as a metaphor for metaphor—and I doubt you can get much more “meta” than metaphor-izing metaphor. Ward draws on Lewis’s words from The Personal Heresy. Here Lewis is examining a passage from Keat’s poem “Hyperion“:

Tall oaks, branch-charmed by the earnest stars…

John Keats, “Hyperion”

Lewis remarks:

We have all seen the trees with branches stretched up in intense stillness towards the stars. We have imagined or been told of people compelled by magical charms to stand as still as trees. Lay the two side by side and add the word ‘earnest’—which is exactly the point where the sensible image [trees, branches] and the idea of insensible ‘magic’ merge beyond hope of distinction—and the whole, like meeting drops of quicksilver, becomes a single perception.

—Lewis, The Personal Heresy, pp. 20–21, emphasis mine

What Ward points out I find to be so satisfying—that even as Lewis alludes to Mercury via quicksilver, the very form of the sentence reflects (a serendipitously apt word when considering quicksilver) the content of the sentence—”Meeting selves, same but sundered.”

Ward remarks on Lewis’s remark (see how deep the rabbit hole goes?)

This is a deliberately fugal [another word familiar to music theoreticians] sentence, in which the idea of two things becoming one is formally conveyed three times:

1. ‘side…side…add’

2. ‘sensible…insensible…merge’

3. phrastically [sic] in the culmination of (1) and (2) in ‘the whole…like meeting drops…becomes’

Thus, the form and the content of the expression are of the same nature, but of sundered manifestation.

In music, this Mercurial influence might take the form of text painting, in which the words being sung are mirrored in some way by the musical structures that ensconce those words. Or perhaps what Richard Cohn calls “introverted motives” (i.e., musical motives that operate on both a microscopic “surface” level as well as macroscopic “subsurface” level of the music) in his essay “‘This Music Crept by Me upon the Waters’: Introverted Motives in Beethoven’s ‘Tempest’ Sonata” (Engaging Music: Essays in Music Analysis, ed. Deborah Stein, 2005, pp. 226–235). Introverted motives are indeed same but sundered, for they help to unite the piece but operate on different depths of the musical architecture.* It may also be significant that Cohn’s essay analyzes the “Tempest” Sonata, named after Shakespear’s eponymous play. Shakespeare was no stranger to planetary allusions in his works.

This is where metaphor comes in, because Lewis reveled in Spenser and Milton and Dante, writers whose rhetorical mastery of symbols and multiple meanings Lewis seems to have thought unmatched. Lewis saw a threat in reductionists’ attempts to remove what they saw as the superfluous language of metaphor by replacing all those allusions with a single word that could denote the same idea. To borrow, as Ward does, from Owen Barfield, even in trying “to cut away and expose all metaphorical usage,” one does not “escape the curse of Babel.” (The Rediscovery of Meaning and Other Essays, Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1997, p. 64). Ward sums it so well, I will end with a quote from him rather than make the attempt myself:

Metaphor rests on the ‘psycho-physical parallelism…’ that characterises the universe, and therefore to deny or to restrict metaphor (the ‘carrying over’ of meaning
from physical units to metaphysical entities) is a mental move similar to a denial of the relationship between material creation and immaterial Creator. To say ‘There is no such thing as Man, there are only men’ [A line uttered by an antagonist in Lewis’s That Hideous Strength] is to resist the imagination’s power of seeing beyond sensory data; it is to stultify that faculty which operates also in the realm of faith.


*Fractals and the Mandelbrot set also come to mind as structures that could be thought of as Mercurial.

Contemplating My Enjoyment of Contemplation: in which C. S. Lewis blows my mind!

But there is one act, of which every man should be master, the art of reflection. If you are not a thinking man, to what purpose are you a man at all?

—Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Author’s Preface to Aids to Reflection

I’ve begun reading Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia, and so far I love it. This book seeks to explain the seemingly confused amalgam of elements (both intra- and trans-book) in the “Narniad” (a term I learned from Ward) through the lens of medieval/Renaissance cosmology. The very premise makes sense to me, given C. S. Lewis’s area of expertise.

I don’t usually blog about everything I’m reading, but reading this book gave me an
epiphanic moment today. You see, my mind is like a flock of vultures (not a particularly pleasant simile . . . also, do vultures come in flocks? Onward!); it ravenously circles ideas for a long time, waiting for them to group together for safety—then it consumes them all together. If you are still reading, then I can only assume that that crude metaphor worked better than I thought it would, or else you have nothing better to read. If the former: YAY! Read on! If the latter: Have I told you about this book I’m reading called Planet Narnia?

[N.B. I know I planned to write about music in Bioshock Infinite, and I still expect that to happen. I submitted a paper proposal on this very subject to the North American Conference on Video Game Music, so we’ll see if it is accepted. The problem is not in finding something to say about it, but in how to narrow down what could be said. Still waiting for the vultures to strike on this one, but you can read my thoughts on the game’s use of theology and story and on the original Bioshock.]

Pressing forward. In Planet Narnia, Ward points out a Lewis’s affinity for what he called the “Kappa element.” The kappa comes from the character that begins the Greek word kruptos, meaning “hidden,” from which we get the word “cryptic.” It would not suffice to summarize Ward’s treatment of the idea as it pertains to the hidden unity underlying the Narniad. As interesting as it is, I was particularly captivated by a mere digression Ward makes—Lewis’s drawn dichotomy between Enjoyment and Contemplation. You can guess that capitalizing these terms, they are not merely used in the colloquial, humdrum meanings, but are rather nuanced.

The antithesis Lewis embraced was drawn from philosopher Samuel Alexander‘s Space, Time, and Deity. In his “Meditation in a Toolshed,” from Essay CollectionLiterature, Philosophy and Short Stories, with which I am not familiar, Lewis describes the difference between Contemplation and Enjoyment, as with so many abstract ideas, with an analogy:

I was standing today in the dark toolshed. The sun was shining outside and through the crack at the top of the door there came a sunbeam. From where I stood that beam of light, with the specks of dust floating in it, was the most striking thing in the place. Everything else was almost pitch-black. I was seeing the beam, not seeing things by it.

Then I moved, so that the beam fell on my eyes. Instantly the whole previous picture vanished. I saw no toolshed, and (above all) no beam. Instead I saw, framed in the irregular cranny at the top of the door, green leaves moving on the branches of a tree outside and beyond that, ninety-odd million miles away, the sun. Looking along the beam, and looking at the beam are very different experiences.

— C. S. Lewis, “Meditation in a Toolshed,” from Essay Collection, p. 607

C. S. Lewis

Lewis experienced the beam two ways. The first was what Alexander would have called Contemplation—the more abstract, objective, external kind of experience. One might substitute “clinical” or “uninvested” or, perhaps, “meta.” Then Lewis experienced what Alexander termed Enjoyment by “looking along the beam.” This was a more participatory, subjective, internal experience. When he observed the beam from without, he could not perceive the experience from within and vice-versa.

As I often do, I’m applying this revelation to the experience of music. I have, on more than one occasion, encountered musicians (usually performers, some of whom were my doctoral-level colleagues in graduate school) who refuse to see the value of music theory because they perceived it to wipe away the magic of their experience of the music. I’ve never really understood this until today, perhaps. Could it be that they had only ever “looked along the beam”? It’s true that, as a student, I had to shift into an analytical mode to successfully navigate my theory classes. But my undergrad professors modeled an almost effortless shifting back and forth between an Enjoyable and a Contemplative perspective, as easily as Lewis stepped into the path of that beam of light, such I was utterly surprised that other musicians might not share that understanding. I take no credit for that understanding. Were it not for reachers who understood it and silently enacted that understanding before me, I expect my perspective would be quite different.

On the other hand, I’ve observed musicians (usually academics) who can only observe and dissect and postulate about the sunbeam. These musicians Contemplate the music, but do not enter into it in any personal way. There is no passion, no vibrancy, no first cause to justify the Contemplation. Or perhaps there is, but they do not Enjoy their teaching; they merely Contemplate it. Even though there are multiple reasons we could point out that contribute, it is no wonder so many performance-focused musicians have an aversion to music theory. They’ve not been shown that the best musicians can and must both Contemplate and Enjoy music. As Lewis’s anecdote implies, one cannot experience both perspectives simultaneously, but one can move back and forth between them. (This mutual exclusivity reminds me of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, which states that one can know the location of an electron or it’s momentum, but not both at the same time.)

As a side note, Lewis’s description actually reminds me a lot of John Granger’s discussion of J. K. Rowling‘s numerous instances of objects that are “bigger on the inside.” Lewis himself runs this theme through the Narniad, such as the wardrobe’s “containing” Narnia and the ramshackle stable in The Last Battle “containing” Aslan’s Country. Enjoying the sunbeam revealed trees and ninety-odd million miles to the sun, all “contained” within that beam.

Enjoyment is a mysterious, mystical, and wonder-filled experience. And I was Enjoying my experience of (what I must now call) Contemplation. Just basking in my experience of is. But Lewis’s words force me to Contemplate Contemplation, to step outside my perspective and reflect upon the perspective itself. It’s really meta, I know.