Thursday, April 8, 2010

Bach, Universality, and the Power of Historical Fiction

The following argument is an I assignment I wrote for a music history class last fall, but it says some interesting things about universality in music that might be worth sharing. So here it is!



In chapter four of his 1989 book The Music of Johann Sebastian Bach: the Sources, the Style, and the Significance, Robert L. Marshall argues that even though the appeal of his works is relatively limited, the musical talent of J. S. Bach is truly universal in scope and is therefore much less confined to the cumulative but backward-looking mastery of Baroque tradition than is commonly thought. A sympathetic point of view can be implicitly discerned within the twelfth chapter of James R. Gaines’s 2005 book Evening in the Palace of Reason: Bach Meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment, and the contrapuntal resonances between the two works are further sustained and subtly amplified by the additional context provided by Morris’s 2005 review of Gaines.

Interestingly, while the conclusion ultimately reached by Marshall has a profound and insightful validity, the strength of his supporting argument suffers somewhat from a misplaced focus and an overall lack of clear direction. Marshall’s attempts to define the universality of Bach wander so unpredictably and for so long in a tangle of competing considerations—is it the music’s popular appeal, its brilliant stylistic construction, or the transcendent power of the mind behind its conceptual approach?—that the resultant loss of clarity obscures much of the impact of an otherwise excellent conclusion, as does its apologetic and scattered presentation.

Marshall begins his exploration of the topic by declaring that he wishes to de-emphasize the aspect of appeal (p. 66), but then he immediately veers into a tangential discussion of the popular accessibility of Bach’s music, both then and now. The appeal of various subsets of Bach’s output—cantatas, masses, and concerti, among others—is evaluated as a combined function of dramatic impact, intended audience (“public” or otherwise?), and effective media popularization. Ultimately, Marshall winds up arguing that while many of these works “provide ample testimony of his genius” (69), and while the Mass in B Minor in particular “occupies a unique place in Bach’s oeuvre…that gives it special significance in any consideration of the composer’s universality” (69), taken collectively these works do not provide sufficient grounds to justify the claim of Bach’s universality on their appeal alone.

Having reached this somewhat confusing conclusion, Marshall now switches musical subsets, suggesting that “the actual source of Bach’s supreme stature at the pinnacle of Western culture…is to be found in…the awesome collections of instrumental music” (69). But rather than actually locating the universality of Bach in this music, as he seems about to do, he uses the idea of performance-oriented study of these works to segue into a loosely intermingled discussion of the philosophy behind the music, which I take to be his real target. While the imprecision of this transition may create the unfortunate impression that Marshall is moving his definitional goalposts, the longer-term goal of illuminating the extraordinary seamless stylistic meld of philosophy, intelligence, talent, and execution that universally informed the production of Bach’s music remains unchanged, if not strongly articulated.

Indeed, the point Marshall is dancing around, but which he never quite trusts his supporting argument enough to make decisively, is that the true magic of Bach’s music is found in the remarkable scope, consistency, economy, and artistry of its internal and external coherence, and that it is precisely this coherence which appeals so greatly to anyone who has dipped far enough beneath the surface, whether through listening, study or performance of Bach, to appreciate the musical uniqueness of its extent. It is as if Bach took the many established musical facets which had been carefully and individually polished by other masters, mentally assembled them according to an entirely unexpected but remarkably elegant new three-dimensional pattern, and then filled in what remained by deriving the simple laws which governed the formation of the entire musical crystal. This effectively allowed him to write at whatever stylistic intersections he wished (including several which had not yet been attempted!) with great economy and unsurpassed artistic clarity.

The significance of this stunning achievement resonates universally for two interrelated reasons. Firstly, as partially indicated by the related writings of Douglas Hofstadter (which are also mentioned in Morris’s review of Gaines below), the deep symmetries and patterns Bach reveals in his music are closely aligned with some of the fundamental workings of human intelligence, and this renders his music both deeply familiar and beautiful to those who are open to Bach’s complex layers of audible and logical symmetry. At the same time, by revealing profoundly simple linkages between apparently diverse musical styles, Bach’s unique musical perspective reinforces the Enlightenment belief in Reason’s ability to discern the fundamental order of the universe; thus, the very scope of his achievement can provide philosophical inspiration to those who seek deeply simple solutions to persistent and intractably complex problems, but also to those who merely search for graspable meaning in daily events.

None of this is ever stated so explicitly and unambiguously by Marshall; whether his seeming inability to do so reflects trouble finding the right words, a personal ambivalence towards the idea of external and verifiable truths, or (more likely, given the bald fact of the chapter’s title) a calculated judgment about the prevailing winds of academic philosophy at the time of publication, it certainly diminishes the effect of the chapter in a way that Bach himself probably would not have countenanced, as will be seen in Gaines’s quasi-historical treatment below. But perhaps more tellingly, scattered throughout the remainder of Marshall’s chapter are several clues that can be assembled in support of both my assessment of his implied position and his ambivalence in presenting it.

Passing mentions of the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment age are found on page 73, but appear too late to provide any important philosophical context to the introduction of the aesthetic principle of “Unity of Affect” (p. 70) and the attendant importance of “logic and consistency in the development of musical ideas.” After a short detour toward aesthetic transcendentalism, “universal validity” briefly re-emerges (71) to be tentatively declared the source of Bach’s universality, but the halting and almost apologetic manner of the declaration robs it of any real weight. The concept does return with more force on the next page: “[These phrases] all document Bach’s conviction that music…is constructed according to God-given, that is, eternally and universally valid, principles, call them “laws”…[and that Bach’s purpose] was to demonstrate these universal musical laws in operation” (72), and is almost definitively established on page 73, but its effectiveness is sapped once again by a rather timid framing:

…I think it may be fair to say that Bach’s unification of linear counterpoint and tonal harmony represents an accomplishment in the art of music hardly less impressive than that which would be achieved if a physicist someday would realize Albert Einstein’s hope of formulating a theory—a unified field theory—in which the nature of the relationships obtaining among the various forces at work in the cosmos—gravitation, magnetism, electricity, and so on—were precisely defined and established once and for all. But I suspect I may be rushing in where angels properly fear to tread.

The effect of this back-and-forth pattern greatly weakens what should be a much stronger thrust toward a decisive conclusion.

A final piece of evidence for Marshall’s indirectly stated support for coherence comes from his choice to include a neat bit of analysis (76-9), in which he shows how the opening chorus from one of Bach’s cantatas (BWV 78) is an effortless structural synthesis of several stylistic traditions—several of which, moreover, appear at first glance to be mutually exclusive—although again he softens the impact by closing the chapter abruptly with an almost offhand description of how the new, lighter musical lingua franca being developed by the next generation of composers will end up leaving Bach’s magisterial contrapuntal mastery far behind. Nonetheless, it is clear from the above hints that Marshall believes historical circumstances combined in some way with the religion, philosophy, talent, intellect, and industriousness of Bach to produce a unified understanding of music that was qualitatively different from that of his contemporaries, and quite justifiably beyond the vast majority of his successors as well.

But Marshall is not entirely out of line in his equivocation; broad philosophical extrapolations are not really the province of the most rigorous scholarly writings about music, as they are often impossible to nail down with definitive sourcing. Fortunately, alternative venues are available. A judicious loosening of the academic ties that bind logical inferences firmly to hard evidence is not without its disadvantages, but as the excerpted chapter from James R. Gaines’s Evening in the Palace of Reason illustrates, the many advantages conferred by a successful such attempt make various gradations of this form well worth exploring.

While the narrative constraints imposed by a marketable appeal to a less educated audience can at times overwhelm authorial respect for historical and/or scientific accuracy (for an extreme case, see Alexander Dumas’s The Three Musketeers, or virtually any science fiction movie), in careful hands they can also result in enough of an accurate taste that the end product actually creates a renewed desire to experience more of the real thing. The power of this lever is potentially enormous; recall that Marshall touched on Bach’s popular appeal before taking his argument anywhere else. A successful presentation can result in a ground swell of interest which actually has the potential to alter the course of future scholarly work, for it can generate more widespread performance opportunities or even inspire the donation of targeted research funding. In either case, the vitality and relevance of the scholarly community in question are expanded, and so the risks inherent in this type of approach (which include being branded a “popular writer” by your academic peers) are generally trumped by the larger rewards.

Gaines is surely not the first careful author to write for a wider audience about Bach, and he is not even the first to explore the significance of the Musical Offering in this format; as both he and his reviewer Morris point out, Douglas Hofstadter did so brilliantly in 1979 with Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, a justifiably renowned exploration of the links between music, logic, mathematics, and intelligence. Gaines frames his more conventionally centered discussion of the Musical Offering as the dramatic centerpiece of a double biographical format.

The narrative balance required by his chosen approach does not come without some risk of academic distortion—as Morris (who notes the trade-off) tells us, the volume of biographical documentation for J. S. Bach is far surpassed by that concerning Frederick the Great, leading to interesting problems of selection—but it also provides compensating payoffs. The dramatic positioning of the Musical Offering at the confluence of the two biographical accounts makes Gaines’s account quite memorable, and it also allows him to bring to bear the previously presented philosophical, social, and religious backgrounds of the two men as he interprets the significant subtext of the entire exchange.

The nature of Gaines’s interpretation provides a nicely supportive counterpoint to Marshall’s not-quite-stated defense of “universality through coherence” above, as does Morris’s perfectly in-line description of the Musical Offering itself as “a contrapuntal achievement that uniquely allies cerebral and auditory beauty” (review, p. 1). Gaines paints a picture of Bach as an unshakably pious but “hardheaded, hot-tempered man” (241) whose industrious and superbly reasoned approach to the craft of counterpoint is backed by an existential religious faith, a combination that provided him with both the capability and the intransigence to rebuke a sitting monarch (using his own theme!) with an extraordinary gift of compositional genius. This devotional foundation may have prevented Bach from fully embracing the questioning spirit of the Enlightenment, and thus may have aided in cutting him off from the newly evolving musical styles of Berlin, but it also lent his musical reasoning an unmatched depth of certainty as he strove to illuminate the bottomless coherence of his God.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Modes of Beauty

What follows is my belated response to Grim's excellent post "Beauty, Love, and Distance," which he published at the Hall on March 28th, 2009. I found myself too pressed for time to comment just then, but the post stayed in my head, so when I finally developed enough breathing space to assemble a response I emailed him this essay.

Grim has since kindly suggested that it might be worth making available for more general comment. Accordingly, I have chosen to post the entire essay in its original form, albeit slightly trimmed of the email pleasantries. See what you think of it, and please add your thoughts.




From my vantage point down here in the musical trenches, I am convinced that at least two types of beauty exist. The first (and less perilous) might be broadly defined as a moment-appropriate balance between predictability and surprise. Where that balance is at any given moment depends on the expectations of the observer, as well as on the overall energy they have made available to deal with the unpredicted.

For example, my training as an orchestral musician involves using my applied instrumental technique to work very precisely and predictably within the printed page's constraining framework of pitch, rhythm, tempo, articulations, and dynamics, while also using that same technical knowledge to shape the phrases so that they catch the attention of the listener by surprise, either through contrast with what has gone before or contrast with what they are expecting to hear next. Perfect predictability would be tuned out, and total unpredictability cannot be meaningfully processed. The beauty is in the balance, which is in turn dependent on the brain of the beholder–although in this case it is also influenced by the skill of the performer and the craft of the composer, as well as the physical resonances which underpin Western harmonic structure.

This is part of why we see so much individual variation in standards of beauty. An "I've heard better!" dismissal of beauty is driven by pre-existing expectations, which is why amateurs and professionals often react quite differently to the same performance. In contrast, "I don't understand this" is usually a way of saying that something is too unpredictable, which is the reason why most of us avoid listening to the insufficiently graspable but nonetheless highly organized structure of serial twelve-tone music.

Given the desire, either dismissal can usually be overcome by an attitude check, a little learning, and a second look. Of course, when this worthy investigative behavior is taken to extremes, it sometimes results in the formation of encysted tightly-knit art movements that become bizarrely incomprehensible from the outside, although they may also be quite long-lasting if their adherents are sufficiently emotionally invested. This behavior is not limited to art and music.

I believe this predictive balance is also what makes natural beauty so compelling, for the systemic shapes made by landscapes, trees, thunderstorms, and water follow broadly simple and explicable rules of process that allow very short-range prediction as to what will happen next, but the nonlinear variability that permeates their overarching structure means that surprise is always available, if you are willing to take time to smell the roses. Fractals, stock markets, emergent behavior in networks, and strange attractors are also in this category. In some cases the surprise is inescapably evident, and in some it is cunningly hidden. Naturally the same is true (in reverse) of the predictable order in the system.

The overall balance satisfyingly reveals that there is large-scale order yet to be discovered in the world, but that there is also newness.

Call this common beauty.

The other type of beauty which springs to mind is more remote and terrible, and it also involves representations and expectations, albeit in a different way. The mental representations that we use to categorize our experiences often function as archetypes–for example, if I say to you "tree" or "mountain" or "beautiful woman," chances are good it will trigger a stock image, which is then modified ("oak tree," for example, or "beautiful old woman") according to context. This archetypal stock image might be a holdover from a first impression or a childhood experience, or it might be an idealized composite of several different experiences, but it is there, up on a pedestal of sorts, as a idealized reference for everyday experiences to be measured against.

So what happens when you encounter someone or something that matches your archetype? What if you hear a "perfect" performance, or experience an ideal summer morning? What if, as in Ted Sturgeon's superb short story "It's You!," you actually meet The Girl?

I would suggest that the extent of congruence between event and archetype is directly proportional to our perception of the second type of beauty, which is potentially much more dangerous–call it archetypal beauty.

The peril inherent in pursuing the siren song of archetypal beauty comes in several forms. Because nothing in this world truly conforms to idealized forms, and because encountering a strong enough resemblance to an archetype can still lead to idealized responses, it is highly likely that these idealized responses will not fit the real situation. If you get close to The Girl and turn up all the lights, you will find imperfections. After several such events jaded cynicism sets in, coupled with its attendant loss of sensitivity to beauty, as the archetype either loses relevance as a useful reference point or actually becomes contaminated with disappointment.

On the other hand, if you fail to find the significant flaws/mismatches until you are too deeply invested, their revelation can shatter the archetype outright.

A third source of damage that can be taken while pursuing this sort of beauty is the loss of the real world item that was the source of the archetype, such as a favorite backyard tree, a childhood home, or a parent, thus shaking the foundations of the archetype itself. This stripping away of stable reference points (which peg both beauty and identity, and therefore emotion by my lights) leads to disoriented and aimless wandering through life, which can only be eased through the establishment of appropriate new archetypes.

When dealing with archetypal beauty, distance is protection. It is close proximity that is dangerous, so impassioned pursuit at a safe distance is quite tenable. This is fortunate, for many surpassingly noble deeds and glorious works of art have been inspired by just such a pursuit. The trick is to gauge the distance correctly so that inspiration and well-being are optimally balanced...

All of this assumes that the centrally important archetypes are well calibrated in the first place, or have at least evolved in that direction, for otherwise happiness and beauty become very difficult to find. It's also worth pointing out that if your own reference points for archetypal beauty are abstract enough that they cannot be fully encompassed by physical happenings, then they tend to form a more durable compass in the face of everyday events. This (even if nothing else, which is far from certain) is an essential systemic role of religion and philosophy, and it is largely independent of the fine details, which matter of course in other important ways.

This framework is far from perfect, and certainly could be more elegantly expressed in places, but I think it offers a decent starting point.