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Questions on Music for Five Experts – Part One

Questions on Music for Five Experts – Part One

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[ks. suomenkielinen versio]


Andy Hamilton
Professor of Philosophy
Durham University
Author of Aesthetics and Music (2007) & Lee Konitz: The Art of the Improvisor (2007)


What is music? What does it mean?

I’ve defined music as “an art with a small ‘a’, that is, a practice involving skill or craft whose ends are essentially aesthetic, which particularly rewards aesthetic attention, and whose material is sounds regarded as tones”. That’s not saying a lot – it all depends how one defines “art” with a small “a”, which is a broader notion than “Art” with a capital “A”, high or fine art, which is what most people commonly understand by art today. But it is saying something. It stresses that music aims at producing aesthetic experience – so I would need to add something here about the most banal commodified pop music, and muzak, which is really anaesthetic. And it does set certain limits between music and what I call sound art, as I discussed in my book Aesthetics and Music.

As for the meaning of music – well, it doesn’t have propositional meaning, that’s clear. This doesn’t mean that music is – as that philistine Steven Pinker commented – just “auditory cheesecake”, something that offers a purely sensual stimulus, lacking in meaning. I guess he’s puzzled that something can lack an evolutionary explanation, which doesn't seem to me puzzling at all – evolution can't explain everything. While – as Bernard Williams stressed – it might explain the human development of culture, it cannot explain particular cultural developments like, for instance, music. Music is one of the forms of thinking that doesn’t involve language – you could describe it as thinking in sound. Even the most commodified pop music involves some minimal level of thought – often, amazingly minimal! I guess saying that makes me an elitist... but that's a complex issue.(I gather that linguistic accounts are increasingly questioned in research on evolution of human and primate cognition, in favour of accounts that stress ecological psychology. But Pinker’s views have achieved some prominence, that's why I mention them.)

Why do we keep listening to it?

Clearly, performing and listening to music contributes to human well-being.  It nourishes us spiritually; it has always seemed an appropriate way of marking significant occasions. For instance, Benjamin Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” was played at the funeral of President Kennedy, and as a result is now widely known as funeral music – though it was originally a movement from a string quartet that had nothing explicitly to do with that function. Playing it at that funeral marked the solemnity of the occasion, and seemed to provide some comfort for the mourners.

I well remember the funeral of a close friend, a jazz-lover, where the music at the end of the service, as we left the church, was Louis Armstrong's “Potato Head Blues” – that was incredibly moving, and I remember it more vividly than almost anything else that day. (Of course, the hedonistic “auditory cheesecake” account can make no sense of this.)

So that is something that music does very well. Other kinds of music are particularly appropriate to festivities, or military displays – I’m not saying I greatly enjoy such events, but they have an important social function in many societies. However, I think we listen to music too much today – or at least, hear it too much. Music is debased by the fact that it's everywhere in our urban environment.

What has not been comprehended about music? What is the most deplorable misunderstanding concerning music? What is the most important goal for musicology or philosophy of music?

Let me run these together. The single most important failure of understanding, I think, is the failure to realise that music, like all the arts, requires – or at lease should require, or invite – attentive listening. This ought not to be a demanding requirement, but for many people it seems to be. I don’t mean informed listening – the kind that a musician or academic expert would have. I mean just attending to the music without looking at one’s mobile phone, or talking to one's companion, or reading a newspaper, or... For many people, this seems to be almost impossible.

I was at Ronnie Scott’s jazz club in London recently, to hear Lee Konitz. This was an audience of fans of a musician who’s not a crowd-pleaser, and appeals to the more reflective end of the jazz spectrum. The audience was mostly attentive, unlike the noisy crowd that Ronnie Scott's used to have. But even so, there were people who were seemingly incapable of giving the music their undivided attention. The trumpeter Dave Douglas, who led the group, told me he wears shades even in a jazz club, so he's less distracted by the little lights going on and off. Why not put the mobile away for an hour and try listening, I thought.

Apparently it was only in Paris in the early 19th century that concert audiences began to listen in silence – though I am sure that had long been the case with chamber music. What a different world that was. Hearing art music was a special occasion – now it’s everywhere, and indeed inescapable. That's our problem. Before the era of mass communication, music was everywhere in that it was part of human life – the cries of traders, the town crier, church bells – but now it expresses the individual isolation of the iPod listener.

For many people with their iPods, daily activities are accompanied by a continuous musical soundtrack. When I had an urgent reviewing deadline once, I tried walking down the street while listening on headphones, and found it totally weird, like being in a film. But even non-iPod-users such as myself – in fact I’m a non-user of all “i” products – are confronted with muzak in public places, and I absolutely don’t want to hear music all the time. It totally devalues the experience. The paradox is, that with music within almost constant hearing-distance, people can no longer listen to it. How bizarre is that! I also wonder about the way that audio quality is sacrificed to convenience.

But I don’t want to be a cultural doom-monger. The picture is always mixed. For instance, a lot more jazz is being listened to today, because it is so popular as muzak. Bill Evans, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk – such demanding artists, and they all figure in muzak.

You ask about the goal of musicology and philosophy of music – well, I wouldn’t like to specify an overarching goal. If you read this interview, you'll get some idea of the questions I think these disciplines ought to address, concerning music as an art, with both a small and capital “A”. Philosophy of music, I think, should be about both art and philosophy, both together. That's very hard, as Adorno acknowledged.

Why do we still need to listen to Mozart? Why would it be advisable to try to fathom Stockhausen’s pieces? 

I’m not sure we need to listen to Mozart, but anyone who – on a casual acquaintance with his work – declares “I’m not interested in that”, is missing a huge source of pleasure for one thing. Mozart is a key figure in a great tradition of Western music, a very humane tradition whose legacy enriches the life of anyone who comes into contact with it, and pursues it. Listening to great music such as Mozart contributes to human well-being.

Stockhausen is also a great composer, of our era or the one just gone. His music provides a challenge to that Western classical tradition I just mentioned, and so enables us to understand it better – that is a case that should appeal to conservative listeners. But one shouldn’t be artistically conservative! The greatest pleasure and well-being results from listening to all kinds of music from all eras, traditions and locations. The more – and harder – you listen, the more you understand.

Why are there so few women composers?

That is a very difficult question! First of all, the question should be, why historically there have been so few women composers. That is not true today – though I do recall a lecture-event at a major music festival not too long ago, where the audience was strikingly male, showing the nature of the contemporary classical music establishment.

The answer, I guess, lies in the almost insuperable social barriers confronting those women who wanted to be composers. In the era of patronage, when a composer such as Haydn had an aristocratic or church employer, women would not be considered for such posts – it was just not conceivable in that patriarchal society. Women who wanted to write as opposed to performing music, had no public outlets for their work – and that makes it almost impossible for a composer. Clara Schumann, wife of Robert, and Ruth Crawford Seeger – mother of the recently deceased Pete Seeger – both ceased, or almost ceased, composing when they had families.

If you think of Thea Musgrave, Judith Weir, Gloria Coates, Rebecca Saunders... these are hardly household names – though what living composer is? – but they are important creative figures.

How could we correct our conception of music, essentially cooked up from 18th to 20th-century western ingredients, with something originating from other times and places?

Let me develop what I said earlier – that the greatest pleasure and well-being results from listening to all kinds of music from all eras, traditions and locations. Where the tradition isn’t familiar – consider a Western listener to Chinese or Japanese music – then immersion will help create familiarity. I’ve recently been listening to a lot of South Asian classical music, and I’m finding connections with jazz – in terms of rhythm, timbre, and improvisation – and also just a greater familiarity. You hear more of what is going on, the more you listen.

Is the distinction between absolute or autonomous music on the one hand, and non-absolute or non-autonomous music on the other, a serviceable tool in making sense of the topic?

Well, I think that Adorno, who perhaps originated and certainly gave the greatest thought to that distinction, is the most important aesthetician of the 20th century. So it is well worthwhile trying to understand what he meant by it. Actually he didn't equate absolute and autonomous music – he had a category of “museum-art”, clichéd performances of classics that could be regarded as absolute music, but which had now become commodified or non-autonomous. Adorno is important for his recognition that aesthetics itself has both sociological and “art for art” dimensions. No music, or art, is truly autonomous – in the era of capitalism, everything is commodified to an extent; it is a question of how far (if at all) it attempts to escape its commodity status. I'm not an Adorno scholar, but I’ve tried to develop his ideas in ways that seem fruitful for philosophical aesthetics.

What are you studying currently?

I am working on the aesthetics of rhythm, editing a book with Max Paddison on the topic. It is rather neglected, certainly in Philosophy, and raises very difficult questions. I am rather stuck at the moment, having written one article, and finding it hard to develop thoughts that follow on from it. And I am working on a book of conversations with UK improvising pianist Steve Beresford.

What are you listening to right now?

As I am writing a book with Steve Beresford, I am listening to a lot of his music. But I am always returning to the classics I have loved from my youth onwards. I recently found a forgotten CD, in the wrong box in my car, by Salvatore Bonafede, a really great Italian jazz pianist, a superb set of original compositions. This is a pianist clearly influenced by Bill Evans, who is the jazz pianist of the second half of the 20th century, I’d say.

Evans offers a clear illustration of the need to really listen, because when I first purchased LPs by him, I was disappointed to find that his work sounded like “cocktail jazz”. How stupid was that. A total misunderstanding. Often, music is not what it appears. And with the deepest music, you discover more about it each time you listen.


[cf. the other four staccato interviews: Part TwoPart ThreePart FourPart Five]


Asiasanat: in English, music, an interview, musiikki, haastattelut, [HTML]
Teema/osio: Musiikki
Henkilöviitteet: Hamilton, Andy

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