Saturday, August 20, 2011

Puritanical Catholics and Papist Protestants

"Nothing may be read or sung in church unless it is taken from Sacred Scripture, or is at least in accord with it, or not in disagreement with it. It must be serious in tone without exciting laughter, in whatever tongue this is accustomed to be read or sung." (Council of Trent, 8:421).

Saturday, August 13, 2011

In the Looking Glass of Its Art

"Artists and writers are the most important conduit of worldviews. As philosopher William Barrett wrote, an age sees itself 'in the looking glass of its art.' Anyone who wants to "understand the times and know what to do" (1 Chron. 12:32) must learn to interpret the images in that looking glass." Nancy Pearcey, Saving Leonardo

Get Yourself out of the Way

"The first demand any work of any art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way. (There is no good asking first whether the work before you deserves such a surrender, for until you have surrendered you cannot possibly find out.)" C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Dionysian Middle Ages

Schoenberg in Structural Functions of Harmony views music as a swing back and forth between Apollonian and Dionysian epochs. Epochs of standardization and epochs of artistic liberation. That's not surprising, and it is surprising. Not surprising because he steals the idea from Neitzsche, and Schoenberg is just the person to do that. Surprising, because Schoenberg clearly in other places wants to view his atonal breakthrough of the 1920s as the capstone of musical progression since the 18th century. Yet here, in a more honest assessment, he's viewing the Second Viennese School (his school) as akin to the First (Mozart's and Haydn's) - standardization and regularization. Schoenberg, in the end, is sort of a mess. He's really an expressionist, a Wagnerian romantic on steroids, and it seems like he tries to mask it in 12-tone music, but it just comes off angsty, like his early tonal works. (Webern, oddly, doesn't come off as angsty - humorous, perhaps - but maybe that's my subjective opinion.)

But Schoenberg isn't whom this post is about.

Music history courses see the Middle Ages as a vehicle for getting us from monophony to the "tonal system" of music. It strikes me right off the bat as a bad way to approach any field of history - seeing it as another link in the chain that eventually leads to where we are in history. That's chronological snobbery, if anything is.

Modern music history really treats Medieval composers as if they're desperately groping to find the authentic V-I cadence. If only they could, they'd finally be out of the modal system they're in and into the system of chords and harmony that'll give us Bach and all that good stuff.

I was sitting in on a music history class at a big name university just recently, and I saw this happening. The professor showed the class how a typical V-I cadence results from the rules of species counterpoint. And it works perfectly well - imperfect intervals resolve to perfect ones, and we go from the bare-bones Medieval cadence to a tonal cadence you might hear in Bach. And so, naturally, we assume that the Middle Ages experienced just such a shift.

That's silly, though. One needn't listen to much hoquetus to know that these Medievals know exactly what they're doing with harmony. They're not kids at it. Maybe we just ought to consider the possibility that they choose the system they choose not because they can't come up with something better ("better" as defined as "more like the modern system"), but because they want to. They have a reason for doing the things they do, and a reason beyond, "We're having trouble figuring out how to make this sound natural."

What about the clever induction of the V-I cadence from species counterpoint? One has to remember where this comes from. I don't know - I don't have any sort of scholarship on this point, but it can't be from someone much earlier than Johann Fux. What does that mean? It means that this represents an "Apollonian" analysis of a "Dionysian" epoch. Fux is a regularizer. He's looking back on a period of relative freedom and imposing rules on it. That's what those darned Apollonians do.

That's my theory anyway. You all know this blog is me throwing out "theories", most of which are wrong, all of which are unproven. But let me go to college and try to find out if I'm right.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Attention Span in Music

If you listen to a symphony or a polyphonic mass, there are two levels at which you can understand the music:

(1) euphonically, that is, understanding it based on its good-sounding-ness
(2) formally, that is, according to its set-up.

A good symphony and a good mass can be understood on both levels. In fact, it's really not understood until it's understood on both levels. And with especially good symphonies and masses, it will be difficult to understand it as (1) without understanding it as (2). A really good composer is not obscure about the formal beauty of his piece. He draws you into its formal beauty, luring you in with its pleasant sound.

Take Beethoven. His music is engaging at any given moment, but it's difficult not to understand the overall drama of the sonata form present in the work. Beethoven is a Herodotus or a J. K. Rowling. The moment you're listening to is exciting, but he draws you into the bigger picture, the garden, wilderness, and garden-city of a symphonic first movement. Beethoven, good story teller that he is, lengthens your attention span.

Think of it this way—for a three-year-old, as he listens to Lord of the Rings being read to him, chances are he doesn't understand the big picture: the quest to destroy the Ring, Sauron trying to thwart Gondor, Sauraman, Rohan. But that doesn't mean that he can't feel the excitement during Helm's Deep. It doesn't stop him from looking like a stone when Frodo's finger's getting ripped off with teeth.

A twelve-year-old, on the other hand, is likely to understand the big picture. It isn't simply an instantaneous enjoyment of the moment that keeps him going. It's the unresolved tension way back in Book One that holds an inexorable grasp on his attention while he's reading Book Five. If you reflect for a moment, you'll realize it's really quite amazing that something he might have read three months ago is informing how and why he reads right now.

But why does the knowledge that The Ring Must Be Destroyed really matter that much? Couldn't it be that three-fourths of the way through the book, Frodo slips and falls, gashes his head, drowns in a river, and the ring gets forgotten for another thousand years? No. This couldn't happen any more than Sauron dying at the end from food poisoning. It's because the twelve-year-old recognizes form that he knows that none of these things would ever happen. That's why we feel gypped when an author pulls a deus ex machina. That's why everyone hated the last episode of Lost.

People recognize the form of stories. They know certain things are in the realm of possibility, and certain things aren't. Within that realm, what the author does is exciting. The bad guys might just win - that's in the realm - but the piece might also end on a picardy third, so to speak.

Which brings me back to my original point. In most cases (and, I grant, not all), the reason someone gets bored with a symphony is not because the symphony is boring, but because he is a boring person. He does not recognize a form. He's like someone who doesn't appreciate an exciting story when he hears one. But we must have pity on this sort of person and try to educate him to enjoy the tension of a story.

That's why Beethoven lengthens your attention span. If you recognize the form, if you understand what's in the realm of possibility and what isn't, you'll know that the symphony has its natural crescendo, climax, and resolution, just like a story. And if you realize that, you're the twelve-year-old of music, now, no longer the two-year-old. You don't simply have an instantaneous enjoyment of the music. What happened in the first few bars is informing how you see the end of the movement.

Why is that so hard? What I read a month ago at the beginning of War and Peace sticks in my head word for word as I read about characters at the end of the novel. But I have a hard time identifying a simple tune that shows up at the beginning of a piece six minutes later. Why is that?

Sunday, December 26, 2010

10 Reasons Why to Use an iPod (and Earphones)

Not the iPod as it is used, but the iPod as it can be used. The iPod (with earphones)...

1. Destroys the concept of background music. Making music sound good is dangerous. Once our ears hear something pleasant, we can start to think that we understand the music. Music is meant to be pleasant, and the best music, the most pleasant—but when pleasure is extracted from the High music the same way pleasure is extracted from popular music, two things happen. (1) Popular music will always win (as it should, if that is the competition), and (2) High music becomes disappointing.

The iPod and similar technologies change all that. With the iPod's earphones pushed firmly in your ears, the music demands your attention. As C. S. Lewis says about art, "We sit down before the picture in order to have something done to us, not that we may do things with it. The first demand any work of any art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way." Not that I would suggest that a picture is better appreciated by looking at it with your nose touching the canvas. The iPod with earphones is preferable to CD players and computer speakers because it is far closer to the experience of live performance.

2. Is less individualistic and more corporate than music on a CD player. The iPod makes you aware of the performer. Your left speaker plays certain sounds into your left ear, and your right speaker plays certain sounds into your right ear. With this, you get a sense of distance between the players. This is fantastic. It's a constant, conscious or subconscious reminder that music is a communal thing.

3. Replaces music as a science. That teenager, doing the closest thing to lying down that you can in a chair, eyes on vacation and slobber collecting on his lip. Yeah, him. He has earphones in and he understands about popular music what Classical musicians don't understand about their music. We think he's rude when it takes yelling at him to pull him out of his musical seance. He probably is. But what if, instead of our caricatured teenager, we have someone whose profession in life is the study of J. S. Bach. Suddenly, the fact that it takes yelling to get him out of his iPod infatuation is a good sign. Like the college student engrossed in his calculus. Or biology. Or history. Or Latin.

Or music.

4. Teaches you about poetry. I was listening to a 12th century Christmas song on my iPod when I realized the guy was singing in Latin and I recognized the words. The iPod managed to remind me that it was just as sensible to say that I was hearing poetry as to say that I was listening to music. That sound of the saliva from the singers' dentals and labials can be heard much more deliciously when they're spat right onto your eardrums. Again, it's more like live performance.

5. Teaches you about ambience. Just like HD TVs can show you the pores on your favorite news anchor's face, the iPod lets you hear all the gory details of the music without everyone yelling at you to turn down the volume. Why is that an advantage? Yes, you guessed it. It's more like live performance. The iPod teaches you that music isn't on paper.

6. Teaches you about liturgy. Liturgy assaults the senses. It comes from all sides. That's what makes a football game so fun. When you listen to a Bach oratorio on an iPod, it's like a football game. Like I said in #2, you feel distances. You hear the details. You sense the contour. Texture is a thing only the best Bose speakers can emulate for a CD player. For an iPod with earphones, it's the name of the game. Antiphony, cyclicality, and juxtaposition are all heightened with your earphones.

7. Teaches you about polyphony. This was, to me, the most shocking and delightful thing about my iPod. At last I could hear mimesis. Out of my left ear came the soprano doing a motif, and then from my right ear a bass doing the same motif an octave lower. The iPod cheerfully murders the idea that counterpoint is beautiful only on paper. Ahh, I thought. It's almost like I'm there. Now, tell me you can hear the counterpoint on your CD player like that.

8. Teaches you about conversation. Mortimer Adler said Western civilization was engaged in a Great Conversation. Well, he was right, about music, anyway. The iPod imposes canonicity. You can move your thumb a centimeter and flip over centuries. Think of how that can change perception of music. It's the difference between having a Bible made up of separate scrolls for each book and having a Bible in one leather-bound volume. What's that do you to your understanding of theology? A lot.

9. Teaches you criticism. On my iPod, I have six (6) different recordings of Ravel's La Valse. I can put them all on a playlist and listen to them one after the other. Why would I want to? Well, they all just do that climax wrong. Simon Rattle goes slow enough that you lose the waltz. Pierre Boulez just drags. Charles Munich goes too fast. Bernstein is almost right—the trumpet crescendo is brilliant—but, there's just something. Hm.

10. Teaches you humility. My iPod Nano is smaller than a baby's foot and can hold 8 GBs of music. Yahoo answers says that's 2000 songs, which means that it can probably hold about 800 of mine. The "Cover Flow" feature is enough to remind me that there are galaxies of music I haven't visited, and I can flip through them with my thumb. It's a humbling thought. And fun.

(11. There's this cool game on my iPod called Vortex...just kidding. This is all thanks to my cousin Madeleine, who decided I was just awesome enough of a relative to deserve an iPod for Christmas. You can blame my corrupted self on her.)

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Natural Talent and the Real Me

Behind both [Roman Catholic and Protestant] views of baptism is the notion that the "real me," what makes me uniquely me, is some internal ghostly me that remains unaffected by what happens outside and is unchanged by what happens to my body. Neither the Protestant nor Catholic considers a third option, the possibility that baptism, precisely as an external and physical ritual, might actually affect who I am. Both the Protestant and Catholic, in short, seek to locate some eternal, unchangeable, autonomous "me" deep within. Ultimately, this is idolatrous. It is an effort to find some divine me inside the human race. Christians aren't supposed to believe any such thing. (The Baptized Body, Peter J. Leithart, "Starting Before the Beginning".)

When Christians say to a talented person, "You've been given a gift," oftentimes (not always, granted) there is an implicit presupposition there. We're talking about some raw propensity or ability that God simply infused in this person's soul. If Jay Greenberg had been born in the 8th century, he still would have been Jay Greenberg, the Gifted Musician. The more realistic crowd (ostensibly) chalks it all up to genetics, but it's often expected in the religious world to really attribute this to some sort of supernatural activity. God gave me a real gift, and that's a part of Who I Am, no matter what context I'm in. I was born with it.

I think the implicit assumption here is the same as the one Leithart identified in modern Protestant and Roman Catholic views of the sacraments. There's some sort of Inner Me, the part of my soul that's unchangeable and the way it is, regardless of my environment or whether or not I can help. In the end, the notion of "giftings" as we see it today is based on a flawed anthropology. It's-Just-The-Way-I-Am can be the justification for pedophilia or congressmen who have affairs, if you buy the notion, but it shouldn't be the way Christians account for people who are darn good at playing the violin. It certainly wasn't always the way Christians accounted for it. (Nor is it particularly flattering to the violinist, whose gift from God was, more likely, the discipline to practice incessantly.)