Month: September 2009

Trade agreement

Reviewing Lynn Chang, Wu Man, and A Far Cry.
Boston Globe, September 28, 2009. (Yes, I forgot when it was going to run.)

Fun item that didn’t fit #1: Lynn Chang announced that the concert was originally supposed to be called “East Meets West Meets East,” to which, he admitted, Wu Man said “no way.”

Fun item that didn’t fit #2: While I couldn’t find any confirmation of it on deadline, I’m assuming that when Lou Harrison titled the slow movement of his pipa concerto “Threnody for Richard Locke,” he was referring to Richard Locke the gay activist and porn actor, who died the year before the concerto’s premiere. (L.A. Tool & Die has to be one of the best porn titles ever.)

Long since disrelished

The usage of Instrumental Musick in our Public Worship of GOD, hath been long since disrelished among His Faithful People. Justin Martyr long ago exploded it. Yea, Aquinas himself, as late as less than Five hundred Years ago, decried it. Indeed it was one of the Last Things which the Man of Sin introduced, in the Worship of our SAVIOUR, which he had already fill’d with a Multitude of Superstitions. We will then for the present look on the Jewish Trumpets, and Organs too, as a part of the Abrogated Pedagogy.

—Cotton Mather, India Christiana (1621)

That’s it: from now on, every prelude and postlude gets listed in the church bulletin as “Abrogated Pedagogy.”

The propitiatory intent

Years afterward, when the open-grazing days were over, and the red grass had been ploughed under and under until it had almost disappeared from the prairie; when all the fields were under fence, and the roads no longer ran about like wild things, but followed the surveyed section-lines, Mr. Shimerda’s grave was still there, with a sagging wire fence around it, and an unpainted wooden cross. As grandfather had predicted, Mrs. Shimerda never saw the roads going over his head. The road from the north curved a little to the east just there, and the road from the west swung out a little to the south; so that the grave, with its tall red grass that was never mowed, was like a little island; and at twilight, under a new moon or the clear evening star, the dusty roads used to look like soft gray rivers flowing past it. I never came upon the place without emotion, and in all that country it was the spot most dear to me. I loved the dim superstition, the propitiatory intent, that had put the grave there; and still more I loved the spirit that could not carry out the sentence — the error from the surveyed lines, the clemency of the soft earth roads along which the home-coming wagons rattled after sunset. Never a tired driver passed the wooden cross, I am sure, without wishing well to the sleeper.

—Willa Cather, My Ántonia

A fry cook on Venus

In honor of the American day off of Labor Day, a bit of far-out ambience gracing one of the more famous days off in the cinematic canon. In John Hughes’ 1986 Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, the title character memorably hijacks a parade float to lip-synch “Danke Schoen” and “Twist and Shout.” You remember:

But what’s that banner, over on the left, behind Berwyn’s own Vlasta the Polka Queen?

Why, that’s a banner marking the 20th anniversary of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians! Ferris Bueller, avant-garde jazz fan.

Here’s some of the AACM’s most well-known progeny, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, performing in Finland in 1987. The bassist is Malachi Favors, who I’m reasonably certain (but not at all positive) is the one on the 20th-anniversary banner.

Logical conclusions

Delving into Beethoven, I’ve been spending a lot of time navigating the transition from the Enlightenment to the Romantic era, since Beethoven’s career straddles that boundary like an artistic Cal Neva Casino. Beethoven did well by the Romantics, who basically ensured his indelible fame: he was the greatest composer of an age that suddenly decided that composers should be considered great. But Beethoven was intellectually brought up on Enlightenment zwieback, and while his curiosity kept him current with the likes of Schiller and Schlegel and Fichte and Herder, he always kept Immanuel Kant, the defender of rationalism as a particular light. (In the Tagebuch Beethoven kept in later life, quotes from Kant show up prominently.)

So I’ve been parsing Kant’s aesthetics. The main source of it is the Critique of Judgement, the third section of Kant’s massive critical project (the first two parts being the more well-known Critiques of pure reason and practical reason, that is, ethics). To put it plainly, the half of the Critique of Judgement dealing with aesthetics is not exactly the watertight freighter you might expect from the author of the Critique of Pure Reason. Kant spends a lot of ink distinguishing between “free beauty,” that is, beauty that is perceived without any intermediary concepts, and “dependent beauty,” considering something beautiful (or having aesthetic merit) based on comparison with some pre-existing concept in the subject’s mind. Only a perception of free beauty qualifies as a true aesthetic judgement; if there’s an intervening concept, then the subject is merely judging what is agreeable or functionally good. But, of course, only the perceiving subject knows whether their judgement is concept-free and therefore aesthetically valid, and Kant admits that the perceiving subject is an unreliable witness, often unaware that a perception of beauty is based on a concept. Which, of course, makes it tricky to tell whether an aesthetic judgement can be universally valid, which is Kant’s ultimate goal. How can an aesthetic judgement be universal if a) only the individual knows for sure whether it’s a true aesthetic judgement in the first place, and b) not even then? Nonetheless, Kant goes on to assert that aesthetic judgements can, in fact, be universally valid, basically by engaging in a little rhetorical second-dealing and hoping his sleight-of-hand is good enough that you don’t really notice.

This is, of course, a bare-bones summary. But throughout the Critique of Aesthetic Judgement, one gets a definite sense that Kant’s heart really isn’t in this one to the extent it was in the first two Critiques. Part of this is quite possibly due to Kant’s own aesthetic preferences—he wasn’t a painting/sculpture/music guy, he was a literature/poetry guy, which gets him in a bit of a pickle regarding that difference between free and dependent beauty. (Music without words, he notes on more than one occasion, is a prime example of something perceived as free beauty, meaning it’s happy hunting ground for true aesthetic judgements, yet he ranks it far below poetry, in spite of poetry’s necessarily dependent status, reliant on the intervening concept of language. Hmmmm.) Kant is far too good a philosopher to traffic in the usual 18th-century aesthetic concept of “rummaging among the details of individual subjectivity for the grounds of the aesthetic,” as James Kirwan puts it, but he doesn’t really come up with anything solid in its place, even as Enlightenment habit causes him to maintain the possibility of a universally valid judgement.

If Kant’s purpose in the Critiques was to uphold Enlightenment rationality, then it’s hard not to think that he might have been better off quitting after the first two. It’s remarkable how much of the Critique of Judgement reads like a man walking up to the edge of Romanticism but not crossing the line—not because that’s what Kant was doing, but because, like a blanket laid out for a picnic, the fuzzy portions of his argument are so inviting. Aesthetics was a primary front across which the Romantics would assault the Enlightenment. It’s as if Kant built his formidable fortress of pure and practical reason, and then, with aesthetics, inadvertently told everyone where the spare key was hidden.

Mary Mothershill, writing in A Companion to Aesthetics, speculates why Kant felt the need to delve into the aesthetic wilderness:

… Kant’s motive in the third Critique is not to bridge gaps and achieve unity; the distinctions insisted on in the first two Critiques are a priori and necessary, not to be overridden. His wish is, rather, to make the whole system less austere and more congenial. That, one might argue, is a retrograde step: it is not the philosopher’s job, any more than it is the scientist’s, to come up with results that are attractive and inspiring.

But there could be another reason—as a good Enlightenment philosopher, Kant may have been driven to come up with some account of aesthetics simply to complete his system. The rationalist in Kant was impelled to finish the house he had framed even though he didn’t have much interest in interior decoration.

The thing is, Kant’s basic aesthetic insight points down a really interesting path. As Kirwan explains (clearer than Kant does), in Kant’s aesthetics, an aesthetic judgement is not something you do, it’s something that happens to you, and the philosophical circle to be squared is in knowing that such a judgement is, in fact, happening. Aesthetics doesn’t originate with the subject, but it isn’t anything intrinsic in the object perceived, either—it is, instead, the mind’s reaction to an influx of sense-data that’s too much to think about all at once. Therein lies the difference between the Enlightenment and the Romantics: Kant pools that excess into the concept-stocked pond of dependent beauty, but the Romantics let it overflow all the way to the mind’s horizon, where, if you look hard enough, you might catch a glimpse of the Divine.