Thursday, 7 August 2014

The Limit of Music and "Steel Education"

Silently and slowly walking along the gallery of the Royal Albert Hall the other night during a performance of Elgar's 2nd Symphony last week (what a fantastic way to listen to music - we really should get rid of seats in concert halls!), I was thinking that when we play or listen to music together we become aware of a limit of expression and feeling which, when things are right, we feel with each other. Alfred Schutz, in his paper "Making Music Together" is right on this, I'm sure.

But this is a also a matter of taste and habit. Sharing music is not always 'right' in this way. Imagine that a Dylan-loving musician and a Debussy-loving musician come together - each tries to enthuse the other about their passion. Somehow it doesn't really click...
A: "Wow, Dylan is amazing, man."
B: "its completely tuneless and charmless music!"
A: "You must be joking! This is poetry!"
B: "Peleas et Melisande is poetry! It breathes passion, longing... those most basic of human emotions..."
A: "Bourgeois pretentiousness, if you ask me. Dylan's a man of the people..."
I wonder if there is an element of fear in both positions A and B; there are clearly divergent passions. We read the passion because, when spoken (rather than just written), people use their whole bodies to express what they mean. For example, A's use of the word 'amazing' will be accompanied by vocal tension (raising pitch and volume), probably arm tensing and gesturing, and so on.  B's response appears to be something like "you are caught in some sort of trance which I believe is morally perilous!"- B's reaction is one of fear, as if the emotional content of A's enthusiasm represents an affront to B's pleasure in Debussy. This is a communication which is going nowhere. Yet A and B may yet agree on a more rational level: for example, they both might have sympathies with social justice which they might both believe their respective artistic passions are deeply concerned with - and there may be a rational level at which they speak with one voice. But it is unlikely that it is going to be a musical or aesthetic level. A and B might choose to overlook aesthetics to find agreement at a different level.

Similarly, we might consider B and C, who both love Debussy. C however, has no time for social justice, thinks Michael Gove was poorly served in the recent reshuffle, and believes that Nigel Farage makes excellent sense. C would of course agree with B about Dylan! Yet whilst they understand one another at an aesthetic level, their fundamental values could not be more out of tune.
C: "only the educated can understand this music"
B: "what do you mean by 'understand'?"
C: "This is music of the highest refinement. To appreciate it is to appreciate an order which puts this at the top."
B: "the social order of Eton?"
C: "Well, not just Eton, but perhaps Eton stands for something. It stands for refinement and order... Oxford too..."
B: "But what about everyone else?"
C: "They are part of the social order - but it is not this!"
B's battle between these two extremes interests me - partly because it is where I have found myself: sharing my passion for music with some who I would never wish to be associated with, whilst at the same time having common political cause with those who I struggle to have a meaningful discussion about music. It is at this point that I find the distinction between the "two limits": the limit between the true and the false, and the limit between absence and presence (of which the beautiful and the ugly may be an aspect) most immediate for me.

The distinction between the true and the false is, I think, easier to think about. It is certainly easier to talk about because it is fundamentally borne in discourse. The limit of aesthetics is much more difficult. At a recent conference I attended on music and philosophy, I found much discussion about analytical techniques which were basically aimed at exposing aesthetic questions. Typically, these techniques look at the notes only. Repeatedly, I found myself asking, "How can it be about the notes alone? - how can we ignore the person? How does music communicate?"

The notation of music and the sound of music are material epiphenomena of the aesthetic limits between people. We can study the epiphenomena: internally they display an order between notes, motifs, harmonies, themes, etc. These are the 'figures' that are made apparent through conventional musical analysis. Additionally, the epiphenomena also reveal redundancies - the background: these are present in all music (everything repeats), although they are more apparent in Dylan than Debussy (the beat is the principle repetition which little rock and pop varies, but also there is more melodic and harmonic redundancy).
There may well be a correlation between particular balances between ordering and redundancy and social listening. Music preference algorithms basically work on this basis, with some success at identifying the kinds of musics which individuals prefer. But there is a difference between determining the properties of music to identify preference and actually understanding how music communicates. The problem with preference algorithms is that they abstractly codify the status-quo and fail to establish the conditions for anything new.

Yet the most exciting thing in any new music, in any new art, is when something surprising happens; indeed, not just when something surprising happens, but when something surprising happens and everyone gets it. That's when we look at each other and know that the other person is thinking the same as us: "wow!"

There are indeed limits which restrict our aesthetic sense. We read these in our shared experiences, and adjust our engagements accordingly. But the real point of art and the limit of aesthetics is when we travel across it together. It is what Bataille referred to as the point of eroticism: an "assenting to life, even in death". It is a supreme act of giving: the giving of the artist, the giving up of boundaries by the audience - collectively giving of oneself to something new. Artists are occasionally able to do this because they understand something of the interaction between the aesthetic limit, and the limits between the true and the false. In taking people across an aesthetic limit, they can also cause them to reconfigure their limit of truth. Art really can change the world. Beethoven and Shakespeare teach us how to act.

Education too is all about crossing limits. It is fundamentally about giving and assenting (unlike business, which is all about taking! - God forbid that we should confuse them!). With increasing marketisation, education has become too rational; it has become businesslike; it has forsaken giving for taking. Most seriously, it has lost its aesthetic sense - evidenced by its obsession with 'science, technology, engineering and maths' - which (if politicians ever talked to proper scientists, mathematicians, etc) has just as much to do with art and aesthetics as it does to reason. We have 'steel' education which only people with steel stomachs can negotiate.

The problem is that most of us don't have steel stomachs. Anything but.

No comments: