Thursday 19 March 2009

Opera, Intellectuals, and the Emotions, (sic, etc)

The Rhetoric Analyser (pat pending: Lawes Industries 2009). False Dichotomy warning light on, now with added feature specifying a 'standard' or 'binary opposition' form.

Rufus Wainwright's new 'opera' is discussed in the Independent here. I don't have much to say about it really, not my sort of music so on the one hand good luck to him, I hope people like it. On the other hand, at least as per the quotes in the article, he comes out with some rather challenged guff about the state of the art which seems worth commenting on. The issue primarily is the false dichotomy* presented here...
"Opera seems to have been hijacked by intellectual elements," he said. "For a long time I wanted to make it a little less intellectual and have more emotional engagement. You have to remember it was a populous form, like the bandstand of its time."
Let's assume we know what he means by the terms 'intellectual' and 'emotional engagement' and go on to contrast the two (let's also give him the benefit of the doubt and assume the grammatical error, malapropism even, was a product of faulty transcription, of course it should be popular, not 'populous', that would suggest opera was once densely populated, like the Netherlands).

So, apparently, the intellect and the emotions are A: possible to define and separate B: antonymous. The caption underneath a moody looking picture of Wainwright reads.. 'Rufus Wainwright: Opera is for all, not just intellectuals'.

It might as well say 'Opera is for all, intellectuals and emotional people', this reframing highlights the false nature of this dichotomy (* it's not, perhaps, exactly a false dichotomy depending on which definition you use, there is no 'excluded middle' in Wainwright's formulation as he uses the term 'less', it's not an either/or argument specifically either, erm, see a philosopher UPDATE: a philosopher speaks, see comments)

Emotional states are of course, impossible to avoid if one is conscious, that is if we accept the concept at all. Card carrying 'intellectuals' are just as emotional as erm, normal (?) people. 'Intellectual' opera (whatever that is) is just as emotional as erm, emotional opera? (help me out here Rufus.)

I don't want to pick on him too much, he might not have even said the stuff attributed to him in the Independent article (as tends to happen in newspaper interviews, I remember my brother being interviewed by a local newspaper years ago about a BBC drama soundtrack he had composed, at the end of the article it quoted him as saying 'it was a real boon', he never said that, he never says that, the journalist just made it up and it became an mildly amusing catchphrase for a few weeks. I still use variations of the phrase now and then like in this previous post.)

However, this creaky old trope is a bit annoying and worth challenging or at least poking fun at. It gets trotted out every now again when someone trying to preempt criticism from those 'intellectual' meanies wants to justify making some 'nice' music ('emotional' could just be replaced by the terms 'romantic' or 'traditional' in Wainwrights 'world'.)

Nothing wrong with writing melodic romantic opera, not my bag but who cares, go with it, no need for polemics (by protesting it suggests he does think there is something wrong with it.)

Anyway, I don't want to be mean, just to suggest that the dichotomy intellectual/emotional is specious rubbish, and that Wainwright should have more confidence in his work, whatever sort of music it is (the rhetoric of enmity not required.)


tom said...

"For a long time I wanted to make it a little less intellectual and have more emotional engagement."

This statement does not entail a dichotomy (though I don't know about the rest of the article). He does not say that one is exclusive of the other, only that he wants less of one variable and more of another, regardless of whether they can go together or not. Also, it is not obviously wrong that some musical works are less emotionally expressive than others. I suppose if these works are more concerned with exploring structural techniques, they might be described as 'intellectual'. This guy is simply asserting his priorities.

I don't think this trope of popular/emotional v elitist/technical is going to go away any time soon. You told me yourself that most serious composition is not particularly interested in emotional expression. I cannot claim to be embedded in the musical world, but it does seem that the most critically respected composers are divided from the popular ones (glass, einaudi etc.) and the divide does seem to fall along the lines of simple-complex, sentimental-technical.

By the way, when I was in high school I did work experience at the Redditch Advertiser for 3 days. But that was plenty of time to find out that they routinely distort what people say (justified at the time by the particularly brainless editorial assistant as being helpfully clarificatory). I hope that national newspapers, which occasionally face libel suits, are a bit more careful though. You know, I think it used to be common knowledge that newspapers make shit up all the time (I see it referenced in old films for instance) but maybe this idea has lost currency?

Anonymous said...

Specious indeed.

I think the last popular artist I remember trying to "reclaim opera for the masses" was Roger Waters with his piece "Ça Ira", which is (to my ears) relentlessly tedious.

It reminds me of that spoof advert for the Porsche Cayenne with the caption "...because no-one said we have to stick to what we're good at."

E.L. said...

Tom: I did say that the binary opposition intellect/emotion wasn't quite a false dichotomy depending on your defintion (he didn't present it as an either/or.)

However, I think it fair to consider it one as per my use of the term, what else would you call it, a false opposition, false antonym?. I think the false dilemma version is too narrow personally, though ultimately on such matters I have to defer to you with your 'pro' credentials I suppose (I still think it's arguable though.)

He is entitled to assert his priorites, as he is to write the music he likes, however, he isn't free to do by means of what I and others might consider an unnecessary and specious polemic, he should expect criticism for doing so (which he may do of course, we can't say one way or the other.)

Re the idea that most 'serious' composition is not particularily interested in emotional expression, that isn't quite what I said if I recall correctly.

Specific mention of 'Emotion' and/or the emotional reponse expected of the audience by composers talking about their own work is not as much a part of the contemporary discourse as it was during the late romantic era for instance or in popular music for that matter, however in my view to look only at the discourse in aggregate terms would be to miss an important point (i.e. how much do composers talk about emotions in their music vs how much they talked about them in previous eras or in other idioms.)

The relationship is more complex that than, and this issue gets to the heart perhaps of why simple oppositions like emotion/intellect or sentimental/technical miss the point (and serve as forms of self-justification and rhetorical fuel for the fire.)

When Ligeti for instance or Xenakis perhaps, composed these dense, tightly woven structures which in some readings/hearings approach natural gestures or forms =e.g. Ligeti's cloud like masses and Xenakis's 'arborescences' to pick two examples-they may not have mentioned, or not very often, what emotions they were trying to represent or embody but they knew (in my opinion), emotion is inevitable, and subjective, to legislate for it would be to beg the question.

As I have said to you before, does a mountain or a forest or a river need to consciously consider emotion in order for those who observe or experience them to feel emotional?

Obviously not. This in my view is the more structuralist and post-structuralist view of emotions in music, that they are a given., and one's responsibility is merely to consider structure, form and gesture etc and leave the rest up to the audience (anything else might seem somewhat patronising perhaps, not 'democratic' and decentralized enough, arguably)

As I wrote in the post, emotion is not something one can avoid (though given the fact your thesis was on this topic more or less you may not agree, with more authority). It seems (I shall speculate) that in our society we have chosen to label some emotions as being such, and other states (like calm or reflection) as not being so (although some discourse contradicts this somewhat, as one might expect, a cliche like 'still waters run deep', or 'it's always the quiet ones'.

Gushing, effusive emotion seems to take priority, that's what people mean when they talk about 'being emotional', the outward signs of it, its 'presence'.

I don't see why I or anyone else should accept this, it amounts to a sort of popular ideology (a pair of coloured spectacles people are wearing without realising it.)

Same goes for notions of musical 'accesibility' (without clearly defining a function the term is practically meaningless.)

So I agree with some of your reading of the situation (that these divides exist), I am saying they are not justified, too simple and misrepresentative of contemporary music (and of 'intellectuals' if anyone admits to being one.)

Re newspapers, they only have to worry about libel when they are accusing someone of something (more or less), I doubt Wainwright would try and sue the Independent for misquoting him about music (I am only considering the newspaper got it wrong as a possibility of course, I have no evidence either way.)

Stuart: Not heard Waters's piece, re Wainwright doing what he is good at, this 'opera' might be really good in it's own terms, I hope it is, I would gain nothing from it being rubbish or poorly received. I am just moaning about the rhetoric he using to justify the work (I don't think it needs it.) As I said, good luck to him, I am not criticising his music at all.

tom said...

"does a mountain or a forest or a river need to consciously consider emotion in order for those who observe or experience them to feel emotional?. Obviously not"

Bit of a false analogy no? Musical compositions are intentional artefacts, and listeners in general try to track the intentions of the composers (if only that these works are intended to be listened to, and not used to torture prisoners for instance). So if the composers are not interested in emotional expression (and it's by no means certain that it's a given), and the listener is aware of this, then this is likely to guide their listening activity.

Anyway, I guess what this is leading to is a debate about the 'accessibility' of atonal music*. Accessibility will clearly be relative to the listener's background, and the expression of emotions will certainly contribute towards ease of access.

Now, I think we will agree that atonal music does express emotions. But the common reaction is that it expresses pretty fucked up emotions "like some sad-voiced freaky clown". As you know, I think music really does (intersubjectively) resemble feelings. And so I agree that this is what a vast amount of atonal music expresses. This makes it less accessible, and as far as I am aware (you will know better) this was part of Schoenberg's intention.

This is why atonal music will never gain mainstream public acceptance. Or rather, it already has found its popular niche in the pastiche-soundtracks to horror films.

*There's no need to quibble about what counts as atonal here, you know what I'm talking about.

tom said...

By the way, I agree that the divides are not justified, too simple and misrepresentative of contemporary music. And so it is justified to criticise Wainwright for perpetuating them. Still, there is a genuine issue of the accessibility of contemporary music. And I don't see any harm in the community having a debate about it, and potentially endorsing as a group the importance of being relevant to the wider public.

E.L. said...

Bit of a false analogy no? Musical compositions are intentional artefacts, and listeners in general try to track the intentions of the composers (if only that these works are intended to be listened to, and not used to torture prisoners for instance). So if the composers are not interested in emotional expression (and it's by no means certain that it's a given), and the listener is aware of this, then this is likely to guide their listening activity.

I don't think it is a false analogy, worth pointing out the differences yes, but this idea that music approaches an independent, autonomous form, free from the composers grasp so to speak is certainly a common one since at least the turn of 19th/20th century.

I can't of course say that every contemporary composer is interested in emotional expression, I.. A: consider emotion impossible to avoid so any composer claiming not to be 'emotional' is using their own definition of emotion or just wrong B: think that many composers realise this about emotions so they don't choose to emphasise them (that is certainly my position, though not just for that reason.)

Webern for instance is a composer often wrongly associated with 'mathematicaal' concepts, or an 'intellectual' approach in general. If you read 'Webern and the Transformation of Nature' there is plenty in there to suggest that Webern was as moved by nature as let's say, Elgar (and this fondness for the Malvern Hills, amongst other places presumably.)

Incidentaly, you can buy that Webern book from my shop, here..(go on, it's a good'un, it relates to your interest in the 'sublime' honest.)

This appreciation of a mountain for instance-Webern was a keen climber/mountaineer-does not find its way into his music in a programmatic fashion (lookup 'programme music' if you don't know what I mean) the influence is more abstract. The way he talks about not wanting to come back down the mountain again once he reached the summit, about how clear everything is up there, and fragile, pure, etc. Qualities which, arguably, can be found in his mature works (op21 for instance.)

Perhaps he was trying in his music to capture and revisit that pure and calm feeling he experienced at the top of mountains?(it seems a plausible assertion anyway, countering more speculative less informed notions about his cold or analytical approach to art.)

He chose to use formal methods of construction as that is the way he thoughts things were made (he sometimes referenced plant growth for instance.) Beauty has an order, a form, it isn't random or simply the product of emotions, arugably the emotion follows the structure, intellect and emotion are one (that is my view on his approach anyway, it's been a while since I read that book and I don't own it to reference the quotes but I think I am basically on the money.)

Your view that music must be an intentional artefact is of course the standard definiton, in my opinion many 20th century and contemporary composers (if not ones from earlier eras also) were asking the question about whether that is really the case, or what purpose such a distinction serves.

If we look at the grand canyon and marvel at, engage with the spectacle and how it makes us feel in relation to it, how is that funtionally different from listening to a composition?. Ok there is no intersubjective communication, but then some view nature as A: a product of a mind (God) B: a sort of ecological mind or process (see Bateson). What is being communicated is history, glacial movement, human activity, etc etc.

No scene regardless of its intentional status is free from implication, no observer free from a practically involuntary urge to infer or to find pattern.

From a personal point of view I don't see many important differences between a natural scene of beauty and a composition of the same type (my definition of beauty of course, same could apply for anyone.)

That sort of self-evident power is something I search for when composing, why I have been researching and looking for methods for so many years.

Regards 'Atonal' music expressing emotions vs 'Tonal' music doing the same (you didn't specify that but the implication is unavoidable.)

First, the harmony is not perhaps the most important thing, it is the thing that gets discussed the most for various reasons I won't go into here but it could be argued that form and density/timbre is more important, i.e. is the music thematic?, does it involve repetition?, what is it's duration?, how many ideas does it contain?, how many voices?, how dense is it? (etc, etc)

This is an overlooked area in terms of judging a works reception (at least judging by the sorts of arguments people get into about this). Also you should be aware that your views about atonality only being suitable for emotions associated with horror or pain or some sort (etc) are ethnocentric, i.e. not rooted in 'human nature' (or rather we cannot make a convincing argument on this basis).

While there is an acoustic basis for the more consonant intervals and many tuning systems around the world operate by them, many do not, or blur or abstract from them.

This may or may not be done to evoke 'horror' or 'dread' etc, sometimes quite the opposite (listen to Bhuddist chants, or Ainu singing, or African heterophony.)

Also your view of atonality vs tonality is not very nuanced (no offence intended), there is much common ground (like Bartok's centric sort of harmony or Messiaen's modes for instance.) You are referring to a fairly narrow spectrum of atonal or non tonal music.

Re 'mainstream' acceptance, what is that?, Beatles sort of popularity (who made use of post-war 'avant-garde' ideas at times, and the derived technology of tape loops etc.)

Because if use that criterion then most 'fine art' fails, not just music, how many people read poetry or art-literature or own books or prints of fine art?

It isn't mainstream. True that modern art and contemporary music are form sub-categories of art which are not as popular as the more traditional forms -representative visual art, and thematic tonal music-but none of it is really mainstream, and all of it is subject to change and revision, predicting the future is not a wise move nor a convincing platform from which to argue about somethings current value.