Friday, September 10, 2010

Meta Comment

This is my comment on Pete's post about meta-experience, which has grown too big to actually fit sensibly into a comment.

* * * * *

So, to de-Peterize the questions here a little bit, I read them as:
  1. Does the experience of listening to Boulez, at least for me [Pete], become too much about the experience of knowing I'm listening to Boulez?
  2. Do people who listen to less complicated music than Boulez listen in a more focused way, without thinking in a second-level way about the fact that they are listening?

For #1, I think the short answer is you shouldn't worry about it. Conscious experience of our own mental states -- thinking about what we're thinking about -- is a natural operation for the human brain (these are the loops that Douglas Hofstadter is so enamored of) and therefore I don't think doing so puts any distance between a listener and some supposedly lower-level, more real experience of a musical performance, or of any other experience. My guess is that you're bogging down more in a third-order concern, the worry that your thinking about what you're listening to is compromising your ability to listen. In that case, as yoga instructors tell you when they want you to "quiet your thinking mind", I think if you have an intrusive thought about your listening experience you should briefly acknowledge the thought and try to allow it to pass.

#2's got some unhelpful assumptions baked into it. I'll basically skip over the hating on John Adams' music, other than to suggest that you loosen your aesthetic death grip and just feel free to dislike his work, without justifying your dislike (or, worse, building it up as some grandiose cultural imperative) by claiming a supposed moral failure or cynicism on his part. I also think it's incorrect to think of Boulez's music as more complicated -- I've generally found in it some striking, genuinely new-to-me soundscapes but not much discernible momentum or structure, such that it may as well last for five minutes as forty-five. Claiming any twelve-tone or serial technique as an organizing structure has never struck me as valid, since it's buried well below the observable surface of the music -- insisting that such work has a deep, faux-mathematical structure just comes off as a bullying appeal to academic authority. Kyle Gann, who's actually professionally qualified on such matters and shows his work to boot, posted a good meditation along related lines earlier this summer on what twelve-tone music is good for -- he likes much serial music and likes analyzing it, but still makes the point, as I read it, that serial technique doesn't really bear on the ultimate experience of the music ("What I can't see is why this method of generating pitches has any significant advantage over Cage's chance processes, which Boulez so vehemently rejected"). For my own part, given that Boulez comes off as something of a sonic wash, music like John Adams or Mahler's 7th or anything else in the traditional, diatonic vein is actually more complicated, since it actually cultivates and develops its momentum and direction into a sort of abstract narrative.

That being said, one of the things I like about such "narrative" music, when it's good and I'm into it, is that it channels my awareness of myself (or at least part of it) along its own path; I think at its best that's a cathartic experience, and one that feels very revelatory in the moment because you're being pulled into a mental space that you wouldn't have pushed yourself into on your own. Maybe that kind of (almost literally) losing yourself in the music helps keep your mind away from the meta-experience. But I can think of times that I've been utterly transported by a musical performance -- Jenny Lin closing a show with Shostakovich's 24th opus-87 prelude and fugue is the most recent example -- and still thought about what I thought about it, or what I would say about it later.

To take an older example that's possibly more attractive to non-classical fans: A few years ago I went with some subset of the immediate family (Dad and Jack, at least) and our high school friend Nick to a beer garden in Astoria, Queens that was having a festival (beer festival? wine festival?), featuring a Bohemian brass band. For the most part they played traditional, central-European village band fare, but at some point they launched into a Beatles medley. It was completely charming! But besides the basic musical pleasure (and I can get way, way into stuff like Beatles music being played by a central European brass band) a lot of the joy of the moment came from an acknowledgment along the lines of, "It's so great that I'm here listening to an oom-pah band play Octopus's Garden." That and the beer buzz and the pig roast and the fact that Nick, in his usual serious way, was interviewed by a good-looking young (I think) Czech woman taping some kind of video story on the event. But really, I think your own extramusical thoughts just blend in with the rest of the context of the show.

All that to say, learn to stop worrying and love your awareness of your own listener reactions, but if you do find them overly distracting, again, acknowledge the thought, let it pass.


Post a Comment

<< Home