Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone



What follows is a guest post by Chris Jenkins, Associate Dean at Oberlin Conservatory

Is classical music racist? Following the events of the summer of 2020 that exposed for many the depth of systemic racism within the justice system, people of color and their allies have raised the issue of racism in countless artistic and academic fields, classical music being no exception. Writing in the New Yorker in regard to classical music’s belated self-criticism, the critic Alex Ross admitted “such an examination is sorely needed in classical music, because of its problematic past.” Many other critics have answered definitively in the affirmative, or at least acknowledged major structural shortcomings in the design of the field. NPR critic Tom Huizenga has lamented “Why is American Classical Music so White?” Author and screenwriter Candace Allen, former wife of the British conductor Simon Rattle, has discussed the racist attitudes to which she has been subject, and declared that Black audience members are often made to feel unwelcome. Philip Ewell’s incendiary and accurate article “Music Theory and the White Racial Frame” begins with a necessary but seemingly self-evident proclamation – “music theory is white” – and explodes much of the entire field of theoretical musical analysis. Brandon Keith Brown, a Black conductor based in Berlin, has argued that “It’s Time to Make Orchestras Great Again – By Making Them Blacker.” Neybal Maysaud, a Lebanese-Druze composer, declares the entire genre as being so problematic that “It’s Time to Let Classical Music Die.”

In this blog post, I argue that the answer to the question of whether classical music is racist ought to be yes; but that casting the answer in terms of aesthetics provides a more coherent framework and points toward possible solutions. Like many fields, classical music’s chosen method of diversifying has not addressed its own values and approaches in order to become more inclusive, but rather has sought to diversify the population in which it inculcates a particular set of aesthetic priorities. Consequently, aesthetics themselves can end up constituting a structural barrier to diversification. Despite a number of commendable diversity initiatives, the aesthetics of the performance and pedagogy of classical music still do not resonate with many members of communities of color in the United States, and this is because the field has approached diversification as a project of assimilation, rather than integration. In addition to substantial change in the compositional diversity of performers, students, and audience, true diversification of the field will ultimately require aesthetic integration, the blending of more than one aesthetic approach to create something new that appeals to a diverse constituency. We might take African-American musical aesthetics as a point of comparison; what would a truly integrative approach that produces a new set of aesthetic priorities look like?

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Childish Gambino, “This Is America”

This year marks the end of the second decade of the 2000s. In honor of this, we thought we’d take a look back at our decade with an end-of-year series.

The internet loves lists, especially year-end ones, and we’ll feed that love a little bit this December. We’ll be hosting seven lists of expert Decade-Best picks. We’ve done movies, games, and writing, and TV so far, and you can look forward to two more: traditional visual arts and one surprise list at the end. Our experts include philosophers and other academics whose work concerns these topics, and people working in the relevant media. Up today: music!

Perusing the below lists, you may find yourself wondering: Where’s the Kendrick Lamar? The Lana Del Rey? The Arcade Fire? If you want that kind of list, go hit up Rolling Stone or Pitchfork. We’re here to give you something a little different. The world of music is huge, and contains a lot beyond the contemporary mainstream. Instead, what we have today is a glimmer of that variety in music, including everything from opera and rap to metal and Christmas music.

Our contributors are:

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What follows is a post in our ongoing collaborative series with the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. This is based on a new article by Daryl Jamieson, “Hollow Sounds: Toward a Zen‐Derived Aesthetics of Contemporary Music” which you can find in the current issue of JAAC.

Losing yourself in the experience of listening to – or playing – is an experience that many (most?) people will have had at some point in their lives. It can be life-changing. For a child just dabbling in music, having a transcendent experience like that can turn her on to a career. Or it could turn someone into a lifelong fan of the musician or genre of music that they were listening to when it occurred.

I can recall several such experiences: the first time I heard an orchestra live in my school auditorium (playing Akasha (Sky) by Glenn Buhr, if I recall correctly), dancing all night at London clubs with particularly good DJs, the full-frontal assault of analogue Japanese noise music, both times I have been present at live performances of Feldman’s more-than-six-hour-long String Quartet N°2, the weirdly-erotic ritualism of Wagner’s Parsifal, and the shock of encountering the 15th-century Matteo da Perugia’s sublimely complex Le greygnour bein. I could go on…

I’ve been composing since before I knew what a composer was, and naturally, having had many of these transcendent experiences with music myself, my own goal as a composer is to write music that has this effect on listeners (and performers). I came to aesthetics as a discipline late in this quest, having stumbled my way (basically self-taught) through political philosophy and queer theory in university, and getting into Buddhist philosophy as a way to understanding Nō theater. From learning about Dōgen and medieval Buddhist thinkers, I naturally got into the spiritual, ethical, and aesthetic philosophy of more modern Japanese philosophers. I was especially intrigued by the Kyoto School, a loose association of thinkers based around Kyoto University whose founding figurehead was Nishida Kitarō (1870-1945). In their writings on art, flowers, and especially poetry, these philosophers greatly influenced my own musical craft. They were writing about art’s transcendental power as an aid to religious experience and sometimes as a substitute path to enlightenment.

But I began to notice something odd: none of these philosophers – or any other major Japanese philosopher – had written anything substantial about music. Continue reading

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Keeping Our Place

What follows is a guest post by Jennifer Judkins. Jennifer is an Adjunct Professor at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music, where she teaches music bibliography for performers and guides graduate research. She spent many years standing in the back of orchestras counting rests, and her musings between timpani rolls have nursed many years of interest and writing in aesthetics, especially in regard to musical performance. Recently, she was a contributor to the Routledge Companion to Philosophy and Music (2011)

(St. Burchardi church, Halberstadt, Germany)

John Cage (who else?) wrote a piece in 1987 titled As Slow As Possible. A performance of one version (ORGAN2/ASLSP) for organ began at St. Burchardi church in Halberstadt, Germany, in 2001. A group of philosophers (who else?) and musicians had decided that this particular performance should last 639 years, since the first organ with a modern keyboard was built there 639 years prior. The piece, written for piano or organ, begins with a long rest, so the first note didn’t actually sound until two years after the piece began.

(Score snippet: ORGAN2/ASLSP)

This piece is still ongoing in that Halberstadt church, on a small, specially built, programmed organ encased in an acrylic cube to protect it and reduce the sound volume. The New York Times covered the chord change that occurred in 2006. For those of you at home, you missed the last chord sounded, in 2013. The next chord will be played on September 5, 2020. (Yes, actually “played,” in that individuals adjust the pedals or pipes to sound the next chordal tones.)

(Walt Disney Hall, Los Angeles)

Lengthy musical works in Western music start appearing as early as the seventeenth century, with some early operas running close to two hours. Bach’s 1729 St. Matthew Passion is nearly three hours long. Wagner’s Die Walküre, premiered in 1870, is four and a half to five hours long — bested in the Guinness Book of World Records for “Longest Opera” only by his own Die Meistersinger von NürnbergDie Walküre, of course, is only part of Wagner’s Ring, which encompasses four operas heard over four days. Even the Ring, however, is no match for Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Licht, a cycle of seven operas, one for each day of the week. This nearly thirty-hour work is usually performed in a huge spaces, and it features countless truly stupefying effects, including a string quartet playing from helicopters above the concert hall, and a camel that presides over the galaxy, dances to a trombone, and defecates planets.

(Birmingham Opera performance of Licht, 2012)

Musical works can certainly seem longer than they actually are. The gorgeous slow movement in Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony is only eight minutes long. Bruckner’s seemingly never-ending Eighth Symphony is (only) about an hour and twenty-two minutes long. And, of course, a bad performance can make almost anything feel interminable.

More typical lengthy musical works that only go hours and not years, like cantatas, operas, and symphonies, require that the workload be spread out in a humane manner, and therefore they usually require large numbers of musicians. The more frail vehicles are rested as needed: the solo singers alternate with the chorus in the cantatas, and the brass players are often tacet in the slow movements. The audience may actually be more physically challenged than those on stage, at least in terms of total elapsed time. When the L.A. Opera performed Das Rheingold in 2009, the Los Angeles Times made much of the fact that there is a lot of water imagery in the opera, and that this made the running time of almost three hours without intermission especially concerning. (“Applause isn’t the only thing you’ll have to hold until the end” — Diane Haithman’s review.)* 

Most musicians performing lengthy works do so with music, with the score or parts in front of them on a music stand, for obvious reasons. Concert pianists, however, are infamous for performing gigantic works from memory. This is particularly staggering when one considers that their repertoire contains the lengthiest works — by far — in the solo classical repertoire (Brahms’ Piano Sonata no. 3 can run almost forty minutes, and Beethoven’s Hammerklavier almost 50 minutes). The relative “thickness” of piano works, which have both melodic and harmonic content, only adds to the feat.

We can imagine that arduous memorization process, at least the mechanics of it, one phrase leading to the next, perhaps a type of entrainment joins it all, lots of muscle memory… yet what about the conception of the work as a whole? The difficulty of producing a musical interpretation in both large and very fine scale? Consistency of style? How is it that these piano soloists keep their place artistically?

Pianists have a peculiar ownership of this skill, where they have to play “in the moment,” and also produce a cohesive interpretation of a lengthy work, from memory, all by themselves. Conductors have the option of using a full score in leading a performance, and therefore “see” the architecture to come, to some degree. They may conduct without a score; however, one might argue that symphony players with written parts do all the heavy lifting for conductors who have “memorized” scores. Instrumentalists have parts on the music stands in front of them: the sheet music, even orchestral parts with many rests, are a strong visual outline of the musical form. 

(Chicago Symphony Orchestra)

For any performer, a memorized solo performance is always considered to be more musical and aesthetically superior to one played using a score (which is an interesting assumption). Most concertos, no matter what the instrument, are performed without music. Concert pianists, however, are the only musicians who attempt this with such extremely lengthy works, and often without orchestral accompaniment.

This insistence on memorization in piano culture is actually a fairly recent tradition, and came out of the rage for virtuosity in the nineteenth century. Clara Schumann was one of the early few playing from memory, although Liszt is often credited. These days pianists rarely use music when they play the standard repertoire, even at a young age. Granted, contemporary or avant-garde works are often exempted from the tradition, and the sheet music and/or a page-turner comes out for those pieces, seemingly in acknowledgement that the less tonal a work is, the more difficult it is to memorize. (There may also be a complicit yet unfortunate agreement that expression can hardly suffer when tonality is not present.) 

Pace some long-standing music theoretical concepts, musicians are actually not able to hold large musical architecture in their immediate consciousness as they perform. (Jerrold Levinson, in Music and the Moment, posits that a similar foreground-centric experience is also true for listeners.) In fact, I would venture that in terms of performing in the moment, and at the same time having the musical form — in detail — before us in our mind (without a score or a part), we’re in trouble with anything much longer than the “Star Spangled Banner” or perhaps a minuet. 

However, the fact is that a good performance, done by memory, can often result in a detailed, keenly evolved, large-structure interpretation, even with very lengthy works. How does this happen if performers feel that they can’t keep the larger structure in mind moment-to-moment? My first suspicions are that this larger interpretation and deeper architectural understanding is first pieced together in the practice room, where performers refer back and forth both to the score and their parts stylistically as well as theoretically. Moments are developed and connected in deference to a carefully developed larger vision. The work as a whole is then crafted into a unified stylistic statement, phrase by phrase, movement by movement, and that sound structure and the motion-memory of playing it stays in the performer’s mind — providing the template against which the specific interpretation of a particular performance is overlaid. This subtle “troping” requires that the nuances of expression that differentiate performances of the same work by the same artist be foregrounded against that earlier, detailed, structural background evolved in the practice room.

What stays with the performer after this theoretical dissection in rehearsal is an overall conception of how it should sound, based on choices she has made in regard to the larger musical issues, such as tempo, historical style, tone color, articulation, bowings/stickings, dynamics, and phrasing. The specific, individual interpretation for this hall, this night, this performance is laid closely over this rich blueprint.

Musicians themselves may have somewhat less explicit formal or structural knowledge of works, and even those operating with more of a musical “outline” than a dissected analysis can often produce thoughtful, appropriate interpretations. Only the most general of structural outlines, though, can remain entirely before any of them in their mind as they perform, without risk to the dynamic nature of creating a performance, without risking the ability to shape an interpretation moment to moment. Like Levinson’s listener, successful performers rely on connecting local movement with that immediately preceding and succeeding, always within a larger vision of the musical style. 

(Berlin Konzerhaus)

For any musician, even those playing with music, embarking on that first phrase of a very lengthy work gives the feeling of both beginning a well-mapped, inexorable journey forward, and free fall. When this engagement takes place via reading a part or a score, we can see the landmarks, which help us keep our place logistically and feelingfully. When solo pianists perform these monstrously difficult works from memory, they embark on this musical path with only a subconscious map (albeit well-prepared), and their musical instincts. From their mental images of the work’s soundscape, they must construct everything from the smallest detail to the grandest architecture, fully inhabiting and deeply living each moment.

I spoke to one of my colleagues, contemporary pianist Gloria Cheng, about the performer’s journey, by memory, through these long solos. She struggled to articulate how the ongoingness keeps, well, ongoing. Interestingly though, she said that even in the most difficult works, pianists look for “pit stops,” places in the score where they can rest mentally even as they continue to play: “It’s like a long road trip. You’re always considering the next pee break.”  

*A percussionist in the LA Opera was once quoted in regard to Die Meistersinger:

“You play the overture and I think the first scene and then it says an hour and 29 minutes rest. We left the pit, went next door to the Curtain Call restaurant, had dinner, and came back. And while you were there, since Die Meistersinger is four and a half to five hours long, so are half the singers.”



What follows is a guest post by Christopher Bartel.

The standard view of the ontology of musical works in the Western classical tradition holds that musical works are some kind of abstract entity and they are intended to be instantiated in live performances. I take it that this is the typical starting point for the debate. Disagreements arise over the kind of abstract entity that a musical work might be, and over how works are to be individuated. I have some skepticism toward these latter ontological projects (Bartel, 2011). But, I am not thereby opposed to other kinds of ontological projects. Actually, I think some do rather helpfully clarify exactly what is going on in our musical practices.

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