Wednesday 14 August 2013

Raspberries, Human Agency and Music

As academics, we have a tendency to think too much. There are pathologies of thought - the main one manifesting itself as a lack of humour, where all the earnestness and seriousness becomes a form of narcissism. The only defense is to pop our own bubble. That moment of revolt is a moment of freedom. It is where we step outside our abstractions (or someone else's abstraction that we got caught up in) and say "this is a load of wank, isn't it?" It is the 'wank' moment (or the 'bollocks' moment if your prefer) that is the real trigger for revolution: when leaders become figures of fun, the emporer is seen to have no clothes (clothes made out of piezoelectric fibre indeed!), and we all look at each other and laugh. Alethia is closely related to catharsis.

There is a reason, I think, that the classical period in music stands out above all others. It is the period that subsumed humour as a structural principle. From Haydn's 'surprises' and jokes to Beethoven's Bagatelles and Mozart's farces, always in this music there is anticipation of the wise fool disrupting the proceedings, and in the process, setting everyone free. Of course, in literature, humour is there from the beginning, but assimilating it into music was a special moment because music is so much more elemental, and easily tempts us into worlds which are beautiful but otherworldly. The classical moment was the moment humans could situate themselves between the sublime beauty of other-worldliness and the decisive moments of comic intervention which would make everyone sit up.

I've been making a lot of "ambient" electronic music recently. I find myself getting caught up in the melifluous fluctuations of sonority which seem to only be possible with electronics. Strangely, once started, these sonic environments are difficult to escape. "What would Beethoven do?" I ask myself. Well, he would want to break the flow; he would want to do something different. Because fundamentally, as human beings, that's what we are really about - doing something different. It is also the principle of intellectual endeavour.

I remind myself of this as I look at the unfolding disaster of the UK Higher Education landscape and particular anxiously at what's happening in science. The dominance of big data cranking in almost every science is seductive in the same way as ambient music: everything becomes process. Who's going to blow the raspberry? Who's going to say the emporer hasn't any clothes? Who's going to say "if we carry on doing this, we'll  forget what science is about"... (actually,  Bill Amos has said that recently:

Maybe it would help if we could refind a way to blow raspberries in ambient music! Most contemporary music is 'process music' - motoric rhythms, subtle changes of texture, clever transformations, inflections, timbres, etc are par for the course.  I've always felt Michael Tippett was ahead of his time because the spikiness of his music doesn't fit this pattern at all. He understood Beethoven better than anyone, and like Beethoven, he breaks movement with out-of-place outbursts. But that is the human moment - and Tippett's music speaks it more clearly than many other 20th century composers (maybe Shostakovich also knew about this). So Tippett may be my model.

It's a model that's more broadly applicable though. When the education system has itself become subsumed into a process that nobody seems to be able to determine or control, and where everyone is in a kind of spaced-out confusion, we need to look for the raspberry blowers. Education needs its human moment quite urgently.

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