Meanwhile, Back in the Real World

If the purpose of American grad school, as I’ve long maintained, is to teach young people to write badly, then the function of intellectuals in American life is to paralyze discourse. Take the common and useful words subjective and objective. I used to give a lecture on how to write about music in which I would distribute the various types of journalism along a continuum from most subjective to most objective. And some young Turk who’d been in grad school would inevitably pipe up with, “There’s no such thing as objectivity, ultimately everything is subjective.” Well, OK, that’s true, Decartes Junior, physical reality is not utterly knowable or expressible in words, and ultimately the Encyclopedia Britannica is simply an outpouring of the human imagination, and we might as well all get into lotus position and become One with the Universe. But in everyday life, in which people do things for money and get paid and buy food, there are Grove Dictionary entries to write in which one does one’s best to avoid foregrounding his opinions, and record reviews ending in thumbs up or thumbs down, and objective and subjective are fine words for describing that quotidian difference. At least, if I were to ask an editor how objective she wanted me to be in an article, and she came back with, “There’s really no such thing as objectivity, you know, ultimately your subjective perceptions will reveal themselves in your word choices and emphases blah-de-blah-de-blah,” I would consider her something less than professional.

It’s much the same with musical uses of complex and simple. (I’m incited to write this by Colin Holter’s response at New Music Box to my recent complexity article – not particularly because he says anything I disagree with, but simply because he brings it up and I figured I would have to address this eventually anyway. Such are the obligations of blogging.) We have everyday things we mean when we say a piece of music is simple, or that it’s complex, but ahh, these meanings are never good enough for our musical intellectuals. What rings in my mind is a line from Richard Toop’s 1990 lecture “On Complexity,” published in Perspectives:

People sometimes ask, ingenuously or otherwise, “Why do composers today want to write complex music?” Looking at the broad history of Western music, I would be tempted to reply, equally simplistically yet not inappropriately [what a grad-school-induced useless phrase], “When have the talented ones ever wanted to do anything else?”

You can just see the smirk, can’t you? Well, OK, a Beethoven sonata is a complex thing. Lots and lots o’ nested relationships there, and you can tease them out forever, and people have. But back when I was 16 years old and had a memory, I could play through a Beethoven sonata movement twice from the score, and then play it the third time from memory – because its progression was so clear and logical, so honed down to a single elaborated thought, that my memory could grasp the thing as a whole. By contrast, a shorter Chopin nocturne took twice as much effort. So you can prove to me with Schenker diagrams and motivic derivations that a Beethoven sonata is complex, but boy, when I was 16, I certainly don’t remember experiencing it as complex. If anything, its simplicity was kind of overwhelming. Meanwhile, George Rochberg’s wonderful Sonata-Fantasia, a sprawling 12-tone piece I was also working on – no contrapuntally thicker than much Beethoven – was not something I was ever going to be able to commit to memory. Nor did I ever quite memorize “Thoreau” from the Concord Sonata, a piece I dearly love. Sophistry can make a case that those pieces were no more complex than Beethoven, but they sure seemed more complex to me.

I know, good lord I know from measureless experience, that the moment you describe a piece of music as complex, a raft of the grad-school boys, the Swift Boat Graduates for Obfuscation, rise up and say, “Welllll, nowwwww, ultimately all music is complex, and isn’t a Bach fugue complex, and isn’t the brain processing lots of information as a Debussy tone poem goes by, and so what’s the difference between the Carter Double Concerto and a Satie Gymnopedie, really?” So that cuts off discussion, which is its purpose – to prevent certain obvious issues from being talked about. And so in my blog entry, with great rhetorical deliberateness, I almost never used the word complex in isolation, but fused it into “thorny, complex, difficult-to-understand,” or “complex/opaque.” I was specifically trying to prevent the Swift Boat Graduates from playing Gotcha!, and I was pleased that there wasn’t much of that. (In the interest of refusing to discuss complexity as a monolithic concept, McLaren added a long, revelatory comment about the perceptual constraints on audio complexity that’s well worth reading. He’s a brainy guy, not academic. There’s a difference.)

The denotation I wanted for the word complex in that article was exactly the distinction I experienced at 16 between Beethoven and Rochberg: that some music gets stored in the mind very quickly and in great detail, and other music resists such storing. No value judgment intended – I was just as excited about working on Rochberg at 16, if not more, than I was on Beethoven. Nor – and this seems so bloody obvious that to have to mention it fills one with a certain despair about how pedestrian the level of our musical discourse is – nor is complexity level a monolinear continuum. Satie’s Pieces Froids are far simpler than Beethoven’s Appassionata in form and texture, but they are more complex in being less logical and therefore more difficult to memorize. There are a hundred or more types of musical complexity. I was trying to write about perhaps the most obvious of those types without writing a second article to clarify what I was referring to. Didn’t work.

Of course, the Swift Boat Graduates always have a point: a lot of complex things go on in the brain in response to a Satie Gymnopedie, and ultimately the Encyclopedia Britannica is just a record of billions of subjective impressions upon which doubt could be cast. Those are interesting, important issues to ponder, but they are rather divorced from everyday life, and few of us can afford to leave everyday life for long. Subjective, objective, complex, simple, are all comparative terms whose absolute endpoints lie outside human experience; and if you’re going to swallow up those words into their intellectually derived absolutes, then we still need other words for the everyday meanings those words hold in conversation. What’s wrong with the Swift Boat Graduates is that they sometimes wax fascistic about disallowing naive uses of their pet words, as though once you’ve discovered a more sophisticated concept for the word, what the naive use once referred to disappears. This tendency threatens to bring musical discourse down to a grad-school level. Part of intellectual maturity is knowing when the exalted meaning is appropriate and when the quotidian meaning is just fine.

As a philosophy student I spent years immersed in existentialism and Continental phenomenology, taking courses in Heidegger and Husserl and Merleau-Ponty and ranting about the ding-an-sich and the quasi-for-itself and the at-hand, and terrorizing my friends with this invented terminology everyone had to learn just to talk to me. At the end of grad school I learned about the ordinary language philosophy epitomized by John Wisdom (that’s his name, no kidding). Much like minimalism, it came as a breath of fresh air. One of my former Bucknell colleagues, Richard Fleming, does ordinary language philsophy, and gave a brilliant lecture once on the question, “Can computers think?” His rather Wittgensteinian strategy was to insert the word computer into common phrases using the word think:

Can a computer think again?

Can a computer think better of something?

Can a computer think badly of someone?

Can a computer think it’s right?

And so on, the upshot being that the word think in everday use has a hundred connotations, only a handful of which can be applied to a computer, so, of course, in any reasonable, public sense of the word, a computer can’t think. His argument was more elegant than my cursory reiteration of it, but the point is that I similarly refuse to restrict subjective, objective, complex, simple, to their elevated grad-school uses. It aggravates the Swift Boat Graduates, but if we’re going to connect the music we love with the world we live in, it’s not helpful to get in the habit of justifying ourselves with a special, circumscribed vocabulary. That way dishonesty lies.


  1. says

    I don’t want to defend my fellow grad students when they’re just being annoying, but there’s important reasons to note that the Encyclopedia Britanica is subjective. It was never British and in the old days, when it was owned by the Sears Corporation, it contained some articles portraying the KKK as a fun and harmless fraternal organization. The biases of the book reflects the biases of those who control it. Britanica and New Grove want to advance their own agenda as much as they want to report truth in the world as they see it.
    I’m sorry for stating the obvious, but everybody goes through a phase, when they learn that, say The New York Times has a pro-power bias and it blows their mind and they bring it up in discussions a lot. It’s part of youth.
    Some of the students are trying to look smart by derailing discussion, but others are raising a point that’s something new to them that they don’t know what to do with yet.
    KG replies: Admittedly, there are times and contexts in which these issues become relevant. I don’t think it needs any exalted or counterintuitive definition of “objectivity” to charge Britannica with sometimes failing to achieve it.
    And by the way, I didn’t mean Swift Boat Graduates to refer only to grad students, but to people, of whatever age, who’ve been through grad school and absorbed its mindset. Toop was 45 when he gave that lecture.

  2. mclaren says

    Wow. When you run across the words stratum and undergirds in an article about music, you better make sure your wallet’s still in your pants…and when you hit the phrase das Volk in close proximity, boy, it’s time to check your billfold.
    The Eerie Theory Boys apparently haven’t learned that factual accuracy repels truth, and verbal calisthenics positively blow it up like antimatter.
    Hey! I’m six feet tall — no, wait, that’s meaningless, I’m actually 5 foot 11 and 3/4. No, come to think of it, that’s semantically void because I’m taller in the morning than at night when my spine is compressed. Ooh, hold on, that phrase “I am six feet tall” conveys nothing because the atoms in my body are mere probability clouds and who’s to say where they start and end?
    Gimme a break. It is substantively true that I’m six feet tall. Playing word games won’t change that quantifiable fact.
    Not all aspects of music are wholly subjective. The Carter Double Concerto has a significantly lower pitch and rhythmic redundancy than one of Satie’s Gymnopedie, and that can be measured. It’s quantifiable. It’s not a matter of opinion. If memory serves, Satie’s 2nd Gymnopedie has only 4 rhythmic values up to the last measure: how many rhythmic values does Carter’s Double Concerto have? This is not a matter of purely subjective impression — there is a factual answer which can be quantified in terms of the number of bits of the Shannon entropy in information-theory terms.
    If memory serves, the Satie 2nd Gymnopedie has only 2 harmonies in the bassline throughout the entire piece and only 7 pitches get used in the soprano melody. How many pitches get used in the Carter Double Concerto? Once again, this is not a matter of purely subjective impression — it has a factual answer which can be verified and quantified.
    Kolmogorov Complexity relates inversely to the Shannon information-theoretic redundancy via an equation too obvious to require citation here.
    That stops the conversation.
    At this point, the Eerie Theory Boys are standing around in warm puddles, and they still haven’t figured out a comeback.

  3. Tawnie says

    I’m approaching the end of my grad school experience (Lord willing), and I’d like to say “bravo!” to this post.
    Swift Boat Graduates for Obfuscation, indeed.

  4. peter says

    Great, Kyle! In fact, the subject of complexity and complex systems seems to attract a lot of nonsense, spoken and written, not only by musicologists.
    One of the standard definitions of complexity, pushed by physicist Murray Gell-Mann among others, is that of compressibility: if you can represent or reproduce an object by a computer algorithm, then the simpler the algorithm, the less complex is the object. The standard example given is Kazimir Malevich’s painting, “Black Square” (1915), which can be reproduced by a very simple computer program (“paint every pixel black”). Accordingly, it is claimed, Malevich’s painting is not complex.
    But such a representation in terms of computer programs ignores lots of issues, including all those of importance. There is no reason that Rembrandt, say, or Turner, could not have painted a black square. But they did not, and could not have, and (I believe) could not have imagined doing so. (Perhaps only the 18th century Welsh painter Thomas Jones could have even imagined doing so, given his small paintings of mostly-blank Neapolitan walls.) It is not a coincidence, as Marxists say, that Malevich’s painting appeared in the exact historical moment when it did, rather than anytime before or anyplace else. To imagine that such a painting could be adequately described or represented without reference to any art-historical- or socio-political- or history-of-ideas-context is to confuse the syntax of the painting with its semantics and its pragmatics. It is ignore the status of the painting as an art object, with a specific creator, who acted with specific intentionality.
    I suspect the same is happening in discussions of musical complexity — confusion of surface form for deeper meanings, both those the composer intended and those construed by performers and listeners.

  5. mclaren says

    Yeah, Komogorov Complexity = compressibility, which is why I invoked it above. But your claim that “this ignores all [issues] of importance,” Peter, goes wayyyyyyyyyyy too far in the other direction, the “music is all subjective” direction.
    The hard cold fact remains that some aspects of any musical composition are not wholly subjective.
    If this weren’t true, we would never be able to appreciate music from other cultures unless we grew up in that culture. But, of course, experience shows that we can. Lots ‘o westerenrs love Balinese gamelan music without having grown up in Bali or knowing diddly-squat about Balinese culture.
    The ongoing effort to deny that there exist universal perceptual invariants in any musical composition si remarkable. You have to ask yourself: why do musicians keep doing this in the face of so much evidence to the contrary? I think it’s because of the Western infatuation with the myth of the “blank slate” in psychology and sociology.
    In his book The Blank Slate: Modern Denial Of Human Nature, scinetist Stephen Pinker pointed out that Westerners have enjoyed a love affair with the “blank slate” notion ever since Rousseau, because the blank slate myth conveiently plays into a lot of very popular modern ideologies. This love affair with the blank slate myth found its musical expression in serial atonality and total serialism and the New Complexity and other po-mo variants:
    “With so much seemingly at stake in so many fields, it is no surprise that debates over nature and nurture evoke more rancor than just about any issue in the world of ideas.
    During much of the twentieth century, a common position in this debate was to deny that human nature existed at all — to aver, with Jose Ortega y Gasset that `Man has no nature, what he has is history.’ The doctrine that the mind is a blank slate was not only a cornerstone of behaviorism in psychology and social constructivism in the social sciences, but also extended widely into mainstream intellectual life.”

    Pinker, S., “Why nature and nurture won’t go away.”
    In retrospect we can see that the denial of any sorts of innate limits on musical perception (which formed the basis of the serial atonal movement in modernist music) was just part of the much larger denial of innate limits in society, literature, government, etc. Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” and Pol Pot’s “Year Zero” and Stalin’s “New Soviet Man” which sought to eliminate all traces of religious impulse or family bonding from the ordinary person was part of the same project as the effort to eliminate all traces of tonality, perceptible rhythmic pulse, functional harmony and audible organization from music. All these various social and artistic experiments came a-cropper starting in the 1920s because of innate limits imposed on how human beings think and feel. Soviet collectivism failed because people want to own property and have families; hippy communes failed for the same reason; globalized laissez-faire capitalism is failing because the things people value most in life can’t be bought (children, family, a sense of pride in one’s work, etc.).
    Pinker has aptly pointed out the underlying reason for the enduring appeal of the incorrect “blank slate” hypothesis about the human mind:
    “If nothing in the mind is innate, then differences among races, sexes, and classes can never be innate, making the blank slate the ultimate safeguard against racism, sexism and class prejudice. Also, the doctrine ruled out the possibility that ignoble traits such as greed, prejudice and aggression spring from human nature, and thus held out the hope of unlimited social progress.” [op. cit.]
    We can translate these utopian hopes into musical terms:
    If nothing in music is innate, then diferences among composers can never be innate, making the blank slate in music the ultimate safeguard against musical prejudice and narrowmindedness. Also, the doctrine of the musical blank slate ruled out the possibility that traits such as musical tonality and a need for a regular rhythmic grid spring from human nature, and thus held out the hope of unlimited music progress.
    The fantasy of unlimited musical progress turned out to be a chimera for both cultural and biological reasons. The biological limit kicked in when efforts to climb an ever-steepening ramp of ever-increasing pitch complexity sans tonality and rhythmic complexity sans regular rhythmic pulse and ever-increasing formal organization courtesy of arcane mathematical methods fell apart due to hardwired limits on human perception. That doesn’t invalidate the modernist project — it does remind us of the difference between ambition and hubris.
    The cultural part of the limits on complexity kicked in because, as J. J. Nattiex remarked, “I have said it before and I will say it again: there is no progress and no regress in music, only change.” The notion that you can get to some particular predetermined historical goal by cranking up the complexity of music got shattered by the revelation of ostensibly simpler non-Western musics which proved at least as deep and as fascinating as the complex modernist stuff, and also by the obstinate refusal of all musicians to fall into line and write atonal music. Simply put, music changes because get tired of hearing the same style over and over again. People want to hear something new. That rang the death knell for all composers everywhere converging on the same atonal serial compositional methods forever. Common sense tells us that people were bound to get tired of it, as they get tired of anything that never changes.
    The claim that there is no such thing as perceptual invariants in music that map cross-culturally onto relatively greater “complexity” or relative “simplicity” is another matter. That’s just weird. If you play 10 different symphonies superimposed on one another simultaneously for anyone anywhere in the world in any culture, it will always sound more complex than a guy tapping a regular quarter note pulse on a marimba. Always. That’s just reality. It’s a basic fact of the human nervous system. Denying that isn’t even rational, it’s just bizarre. It contradicts a Himalayan mountain of modern psychoacoustics and cognitive sicence research as well as the whole of Western music history and all of our everyday experience.
    Both the extreme claim that music has no perceptually invariant cross-cultural qualities, and the equally extreme claim that music is entirely determined by the acoustical measurable properties of its waveforms, fail when tested in the real world against real music. In between, though, there’s a realm vast enough for composers to write fresh exciting innovative and compelling music for thousands of years to come, at the very least.

  6. peter says

    Maclaren: —
    Your argument seems to depend on this inference between two propositions:
    A: People of one cultural background can appreciate music arising from another cultural background.
    B: Music has an objective or universal component.
    But proposition B does not follow at all from proposition A. And, moreover, no one (not even Pinker with his generalist claims about human intelligence) has presented any evidence for this inference step.
    Of course, I can appreciate (say) the sounds of Balinese Gamelan music, and I can do so without knowing anything about the music, how it is created or performed, or why, or anything about Balinese society or culture or history or weltanschuang, or even anything about the meanings (if any) which Balinese people would associate to those sounds. But my appreciation of the music does not necessarily mean I am responding to something “objective” in the music. I may not even be responding to the same aspects that other people respond to when they hear it, let alone to the aspects intended by the original composer or the performers of the music.

  7. mclaren says

    Peter claims:
    A: People of one cultural background can appreciate music arising from another cultural background.
    B: Music has an objective or universal component.
    But proposition B does not follow at all from proposition A.
    Sure it does. Across all cultures, you’ll see people reacting similarly to similar patterns in music. Manfred Clynes has written extensively about this and he’s also collected a great of peer-reviewed scientific research about this. You might want to take a look at his book Music, Mind and Brain: The Neuropsychology Of Music
    My “argument” doesn’t depend on that single fact, however. It depends on 130 years of psychoacoustic research. Once you lay out the several hundred peer-reviewed scientific journal articles specifically refuting the peer-reviewed journal articles I’ve cited, your argument will become convincing. Otherwise, like so many other aesthetes, you’re just blowing hot air.
    The logical fallacy you’ve just made here in your failed and inept counterargument is the one identified in Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum of 1620 which Bacon describes as “the idols of the Theater.”
    In general, however, there is taken for the material of philosophy either a great deal out of a few things, or a very little out of many things; so that on both sides philosophy is based on too narrow a foundation of experiment and natural history, and decides on the authority of too few cases.
    You have made the foolish error of trying to discredit all the references I’ve cited by offering one fallacious purely logical argument. This is the kind of fallacy we typically find among grad students enraptured by some abstract philosophical scheme, whether it be modernist musiKKKal theory, or some other convocation of airy twaddle.
    I’ve noticed that people who try to refute these well-documented scientific facts about the human ear/brain system always seem to use the same failed and faulty trick: make a vacuous abstract argument from pure theory.
    Guess what? Vacuous abstract arguments from pure theory can’t refute documented facts.
    The big problem with po-mo theory guys and with the folks who spend their lives in fluorescent-lit cozily-carpeted cubicles in grad school is that out in the real world, a new fact blows all the theories away.
    As William James pointed out, “Truth, law, and language fairly boil away from them at the least touch of novel fact. These things make themselves as we go. Our rights, wrongs, prohibitions, penalties, words, forms, idioms, beliefs, are so many new creations that add themselves as fast as history proceeds. Far from being antecedent principles that animate the process, law, language, truth are but abstract names for its results.” [William James, “Pragmatism and Humanism,” 1907]

  8. says

    How about saying that Beethoven’s musical language has comparatively simple building blocks (which is what your 16-year old mind used to put the music together quickly in your head) but a complex structure, while Rochberg’s building blocks are more complex? There are different components to language, all of which can be either simple or complex, depending on how the language develops.

    The expressiveness of language depends as much on how one uses it as how simple or complex the component parts are. Sort of like your microtonal chord progressions.
    KG replies: I have to disagree. Part of what made the Appassionata the most widely admired sonata of the early 19th century was the clear, obvious way the second theme arises from the first, almost more a continuation, a flowering, than a contrast. And it’s easier to remember how the different parts of a Beethoven sonata movement fit together than it is with most Haydn or Mozart sonata movements, in which second themes could be a little more interchangeable from one piece to another. It’s not just the building blocks, it’s the irresistible sweep of the logic.