…. and there isn’t a music critic around to…
I have been in various series of discussions with various series of people in what is essentially a dead-end, highly subjective and rather useless dialogue with a few different people about… “what is art?”
The ‘tree in the forest’ thought experiment is just kind of what comes to mind when you (‘you’ as in ‘I’) begin to think about defining something based solely on a person’s or people’s perception of it.
I would embed this video in the actual post itself, but it wasn’t what actually started the debate, and it has nothing to do with music. It’s quite entertaining, and the two hosts give quite robust definitions of art.
Rhett says that it has purpose, intent, and should elicit a response or reaction of some kind. Link’s idea is less comprehensive or abstract, and focuses more on communicating and expressing.
Now, based on those two definitions alone (which I feel are quite good at getting to the heart of what art is), we see that putting this concept into a box or confining it to some set of ideas is quite a slippery task.
This post is NOT to try to solve this problem or give some definitive answer (but there are some videos I include below to try to illustrate my idea). It’s entirely subjective, but I think in the big scheme of things, there are two areas to focus on (no matter the medium):
- Communication- Again, no matter the medium, I may have something I want to tell someone else, show how I feel about something, to make someone feel a certain way or to share an experience, a memory, an idea.
- Expression. The difference, here, perhaps (and all of these statements have big mental question marks after them; I’m more just interested to see what others think or how they feel about all this) is that expression doesn’t necessarily have an actual audience. The function of expression, in my opinion, is to get something out of my system. Perhaps I’ll feel better saying it to someone and hearing their response (as above), or it could be the artistic version of stubbing my toe and cursing at the end table (or something less angry).
That perhaps sounds like splitting hairs, but.. maybe it’s just reverse-engineering an excuse for people to create music that you don’t enjoy listening to. Does that make sense?
Also, this article isn’t going to be a long one because it isn’t a full train of thought with a beginning and end; it’s just an idea passing through.
Let’s talk about this more musically. At what point is something no longer
music? Let’s actually just look at a few videos:
The video below is of a piece we did quite a while back
, and it’s one I always forget how much I enjoy listening to. If you don’t know anything about this movement, give it a listen. It may seem chaotic and messy and focus-less to you, but then go find out what it’s ‘saying’ and see if you like it more.
Do you consider that musical? Did you enjoy it more when you knew what it was trying to convey? Impressionist music and all the rest, but I think it’s a fantastic piece. I could, however, see how someone would argue that it’s a sort of… non-musical idea portrayed on the piano, but I find this a bit unreasonable because I think it’s beautiful.
The next one is something I’ve been interested in recently. Again, listen as ignorant of the ‘ideas’ behind the piece as you possibly can and cast your vote in your head of whether you ‘enjoy’ it or not, whether it seems ‘musical’ or not. Then go read up about it.
Musical? Enjoyable? Whether you enjoyed it or not, Messiaen certainly enjoyed preparing them, I assume, and was able to share his passion for something non-musical through another of his passions. This entire catalogue is quite famous, and while I don’t dislike it (nor am I very familiar with it at this point), I find it very interesting, but almost more a ornithological study than a musical one. I don’t mind listening to it at all, though. It certainly has its logic, a very solid idea behind it.
So then for me the question is this: if the logic behind a piece is so complicated, so arcane
that even after repeated listenings, I can’t grasp any semblance of structure, pattern, motif, or logic, does that inherently mean that it is meaningless to me? I don’t mean to spill over into the Who Cares if You Listen
train of thought, and to put it simply, not understanding is more likely the listener’s fault than the composer’s, but let’s have a look at the next piece.
I don’t mean to harp on this one; I use it as an extreme example in a lot of settings, but I’m not picking on it. In fact, it’s been a piece I’ve given multiple listenings to lately. But just give it a listen.
While the previous two pieces had arguably non-musical themes (both involving flying things, actually, the first a fairy creature and the second a bird) that made up the subject matter to be expressed, they were likely more pleasing to the ear than this last example. That being said, I would argue that the concepts, the musical ideas
in this third example are more directly, purely musical, based solely on music
and nothing else, perhaps to a fault. And by music, I don’t mean ‘this should sound pretty.’ I mean the cold, hard mathematical and scientific ideas behind pitches, duration, and rhythm. This is more ‘absolute music
‘ than either of the two easier-listening pieces. That being said, without some serious
hardcore knowledge of music theory, serial techniques and ideas, and almost certainly a copy of the score, you would be quite hard pressed to produce any reasonably accurate theories as to the underlying concepts behind this piece.
Does that mean you can’t enjoy it? For many, yes, but not always.
Can you appreciate or be moved by something you don’t understand?
Are you allowed to have an emotional response different than the composer’s or what the composer intended?
Is that response as valid as anyone else’s?
Those are all peripheral questions that come to mind as directions that this train of thought could go. They’re also not any conversations I’m willing to talk about here lest my statements be misunderstood as an attempt at a definitive answer. It’s the kind of thing that good friends toss around over a table of good food and wine or a lounging around on cozy couches in a living room with zero intention of establishing any kind of result. It’s just interesting to share thoughts and contrast opinions.