Music’s Quasi-Objectivity

Just before writing the Essays Before a Sonata, Ives had read a 1902 article by an Oxford tutor named Henry Sturt, called “Art and Personality.” It’s not a great article, and it’s odd that Ives’s imagination was caught by it, but he quotes it in the Essays more often than he acknowledges. (For instance, the line about the “Byronic fallacy” is Sturt’s, but Ives doesn’t attribute it.) Sturt seems to be building up to some kind of objective criterion to judge art by, but at the end (which is by far the most interesting part) he does a kind of about-face and comes to the disappointing but hardly surprising conclusion that although we feel that our artistic judgments have an objective basis, we can’t reach a basis on which they will be true for all subjectivities. “The popular demand for an objective criterion is strong,” writes Sturt,

but it is not at all clear, and has led to the formulation of some impossible theories… And yet it is easy to see how the belief in an objective criterion has arisen. One source of it is the feeling… that good art has a superhuman backing. It is easy to step from this to the doctrine that you can determine by religion what good art is. This step is unwarrantable… Another source is the practical disciplinary need of having a recognized standard wherewith to put down offenders against artistic good sense… But this practical need must not make us forget that the recognized standard is but a systematisation of personal affirmations. We must not confuse it with the chimera of an objective criterion.

Ives doesn’t quote this part of the essay, but I think he must have had it in mind in writing the end of the Prologue, where the composer calls his inspiration the voice of God and the “man in the front row” calls it “the voice of the Devil.” Ives was clearly wrestling with the fact that he thought his music was really good, and no one else seemed to. It’s something to wrestle with.

The other day I was composing a piece, and used a rhythm quite common in my music, where the quarter-note beat is interrupted by a couple of dotted-quarter beats:

(This is a microtonal piece, so the G and E# are actually 13th and 11th harmonics of B.) I left it there for a few days, but every time I listened, that third note increasingly seemed too long. I finally changed the meter to 5/8:

and it sounded perfect. I haven’t had a doubt about it since, even though the first version was more aligned to my concept of the piece. It felt as firm as though I had had a math problem with an incorrect answer, and I recalculated and got the right one. It “clicked.” Every composer knows this click, or should. It doesn’t feel as though I simply “liked it better.” Even though there is no objective criterion against which I can measure a phrase in a piece I’m writing, right and wrong answers come up. Because such judgments are made in the right brain, I suspect, there are no words to justify them. When I’m about done with a piece, I put the MIDI version on a CD and play it over and over in my car as I’m driving and – this is the crucial part – try not to listen to it. What happens, as I have my mind on other things, is that every wrong note in the piece jumps out at me and attracts my attention. This works, I think, because when I’m focusing on the piece (with my left brain), I can justify to myself anything I put in it, but with my peripheral (right-brain) listening, things that are wrong become impossible to ignore. My peripheral listening catches the mistakes. My conscious, analytical brain puts these oh-so-clever ideas in, and my intuitive, holistic brain tells me the ones that don’t work.

For me, this is the hardest part about teaching composition. I hear things in my students’ pieces that don’t work, and often I can’t tell the student why they don’t work. The student is looking for reasons and guides and criteria, and all I have is my intuition, which I can’t (as Sturt affirms) transfer into the student’s brain. Often I just have to fix the things that are clearly ambiguous or impractical, and let the student make his mistakes of intuition, hoping that when he hears the piece they will similarly jump out at him some day. We feel that there’s some objective ground here, but we can never prove it. To me it is simply a fact that Mahler’s Ninth is a significantly better piece than Strauss’s Alpine Symphony. If I could be forced to doubt that, then I would have to doubt practically everything. It’s as firm as the periodic table. But we can never establish that as the irrefutable case – which, I guess, is what makes a life in music so frustratingly interesting.




  1. says

    I would even agree with the converse of your last statement. If I could justify my ideas of good and bad musical choices, if I could find a theory that explained it all, music would cease to be interesting to me. I’m drawn to it because it is intuitive and unexplainable. And I have a feeling that, if there were such an all-encompassing theory, one would find that music written in opposition to it would turn out, well, to be interesting, if just for that reason alone.

    KG replies: Exactly. As Adorno writes in his Aesthetic Theory, “Are there invariables in aesthetics? Yes, undoubtedly. But as soon as they have been isolated they become irrelevant.”

  2. says

    Thanks for this wonderful post. I’m a total amateur when it comes to composing, but found this post very validating, and yet again am struck by your wonderful gift of being able to write so clearly about so many aspects of music. Reading the post brought into focus , especially the bit about non-focussed listening, things I sort of knew but wasn’t really conscious of knowing until you laid it out so clearly.