Posts Tagged ‘musical perspective’

Back in undergraduate college, when just starting on my music education degree, I received an assignment where students were asked to formulate a philosophy of education. My thinking then was influenced by a curious textbook I picked up: A Philosophy of Music Education by Bennett Reimer. Of course, it was the wrong time for an undergraduate to perform this exercise, as we had neither maturity nor understanding equal to the task. However, in my naïvté, my answer was all about learning/teaching an aesthetic education — one that focused on appreciating beauty in music and the fine arts. This requires the cultivation of taste, which used to be commonplace among the educated but is now anathema. Money is the preeminent value now. Moreover, anything that smacks of cultural programming and thought control is now repudiated reflexively, though such projects are nonetheless undertaken continuously and surreptitiously through a variety of mechanisms. As a result, the typical American’s sense of what is beautiful and admirable is stunted. Further, knowledge of the historical context in which the fine arts exist is largely absent. (Children are ahistorical in this same way.) Accordingly, many Americans are coarse philistines whose tastes rarely extend beyond those acquired naturally during adolescence (including both biophilia and biophobia), thus the immense popularity of comic book movies, rock and roll music, and all manner of electronica.

When operating with a limited imagination and undeveloped ability to perceive and discern (and disapprove), one is a sitting duck for what ought to be totally unconvincing displays of empty technical prowess. Mere mechanism (spectacle) then possesses the power to transfix and amaze credulous audiences. Thus, the ear-splitting volume of amplified instruments substitutes for true emotional energy produced in exceptional live performance, ubiquitous CGI imagery (vistas and character movements, e.g., fight skills, that simply don’t exist in reality) in cinema produces wonderment, and especially, blinking lights and animated GIFs deliver the equivalent of a sugar hit (cookies, ice cream, soda) when they’re really placebos or toxins. Like hypnosis, the placebo effect is real and pronounced for those unusually susceptible to induction. Sitting ducks.

Having given the fine arts (including their historical contexts) a great deal of my academic attention and acquired an aesthetic education, my response to the video below fell well short of the blasé relativism most exhibit; I actively dislike it. (more…)

For a variety of reasons, I go to see movies in the theater only a handful of times any given year. The reasons are unimportant (and obvious) and I recognize that, by eschewing the theater, I’m giving up the crowd experience. Still, I relented recently and went to see a movie at a new AMC Dolby Cinema, which I didn’t even know exists. The first thing to appreciate was that is was a pretty big room, which used to be standard when cinema was first getting established in the 1920s but gave way sometime in the 1970s to multiplex theaters able to show more than one title at a time in little shoebox compartments with limited seating. Spaciousness was a welcome throwback. The theater also had oversized, powered, leather recliners rather than cloth, fold-down seats with shared armrests. The recliners were quite comfortable but also quite unnecessary (except for now typical Americans unable to fit their fat asses in what used to be a standard seat). These characteristics are shared with AMC Prime theaters that dress up the movie-going experience and charge accordingly. Indeed, AMC now offers several types of premium cinema, including RealD 3D, Imax, Dine-In, and BigD.

Aside I: A friend only just reported on her recent trip to the drive-in theater, a dated cinema experience that is somewhat degraded unenhanced yet retains its nostalgic charm for those of us old enough to remember as kids the shabby chic of bringing one’s own pillows, blankets, popcorn, and drinks to a double feature and sprawling out on the hood and/or roof of the car (e.g., the family station wagon). My friend actually brought her dog to the drive-in and said she remembered and sorta missed the last call on dollar hot dogs at 11 PM that used to find all the kids madly, gleefully rushing the concession stand before food ran out.

What really surprised me, however, was how the Dolby Cinema experience turned into a visual, auditory, and kinesthetic assault. True, I was watching Wonder Woman (sorry, no review), which is set in WWI and features lots of gunfire and munitions explosions in addition to the usual invincible superhero punchfest, so I suppose the point is partly to be immersed in the environment, a cinematic stab at verisimilitude. But the immediacy of all the wham-bam, rock ’em-sock ’em action made me feel more like a participant in a theater of war than a viewer. The term shell shock (a/k/a battle fatigue a/k/a combat neurosis) refers to the traumatized disorientation one experiences in moments of high stress and overwhelming sensory input; it applies here. Even the promo before the trailers and feature, offered to demonstrate the theater’s capabilities themselves, was off-putting because of unnecessary and overweening volume and impact. Unless I’m mistaken, the seats even have built-in subwoofers to rattle theatergoers from below when loud, concussive events occur, which is often because, well, filmmakers love their spectacle as much as audiences do.

Aside II: One real-life lesson to be gleaned from WWI, or the Great War as it was called before WWII, went well beyond the simplistic truism that war is hell. It was that civility (read: civilization) had failed and human progress was a chimera. Technical progress, however, had made WWI uglier in many respects than previous warfare. It was an entirely new sort of horror. Fun fact: there are numerous districts in France, known collectively as Le Zone Rouge, where no one is allowed to live because of all the unexploded ordnance (1oo years later!). Wonder Woman ends up having it both ways: acknowledging the horrific nature of war on the one hand yet valorizing and romanticizing personal sacrifice and eventual victory on the other. Worse, perhaps, it establishes that there’s always another enemy in the wings (otherwise, how could there be sequels?), so keep fighting. And for the average viewer, uniformed German antagonists are easily mistakable for Nazis of the subsequent world war, a historical gloss I’m guessing no one minds … because … Nazis.

So here’s my problem with AMC’s Dolby Cinema: why settle for routine or standard theater experience when it can be amped up to the point of offense? Similarly, why be content with the tame and fleeting though reliable beauty of a sunset when one can enjoy a widescreen, hyperreal view of cinematic worlds that don’t actually exist? Why settle for the subtle, old-timey charm of the carousel (painted horses, dizzying twirling, and calliope music) when instead one can strap in and get knocked sideways by roller coasters so extreme that riders leave wobbly and crying at the end? (Never mind the risk of being stranded on the tracks for hours, injured, or even killed by a malfunction.) Or why bother attending a quaint symphonic band concert in the park or an orchestral performance in the concert hall when instead one can go to Lollapalooza and see/hear/experience six bands in the same cacophonous space grinding it out at ear-splitting volume, along with laser light shows and flash-pot explosions for the sheer sake of goosing one’s senses? Coming soon are VR goggles that trick the wearer’s nervous system into accepting they are actually in the virtual game space, often first-person shooters depicting killing bugs or aliens or criminals without compunction. Our arts and entertainments have truly gotten out of hand.

If those criticisms don’t register, consider my post more than a decade ago on the Paradox of the Sybarite and Catatonic, which argues that our senses are so overwhelmed by modern life that we’re essentially numb from overstimulation. Similarly, let me reuse this Nietzsche quote (used before here) to suggest that on an aesthetic level, we’re not being served well in display and execution of refined taste so much as being whomped over the head and dragged willingly? through ordeals:

… our ears have become increasingly intellectual. Thus we can now endure much greater volume, much greater ‘noise’, because we are much better trained than our forefathers were to listen for the reason in it. All our senses have in fact become somewhat dulled because we always inquire after the reason, what ‘it means’, and no longer for what ‘it is’ … our ear has become coarsened. Furthermore, the ugly side of the world, originally inimical to the senses, has been won over for music … Similarly, some painters have made the eye more intellectual, and have gone far beyond what was previously called a joy in form and colour. Here, too, that side of the world originally considered ugly has been conquered by artistic understanding. What is the consequence of this? The more the eye and ear are capable of thought, the more they reach that boundary line where they become asensual. Joy is transferred to the brain; the sense organs themselves become dull and weak. More and more, the symbolic replaces that which exists … the vast majority, which each year is becoming ever more incapable of understanding meaning, even in the sensual form of ugliness … is therefore learning to reach out with increasing pleasure for that which is intrinsically ugly and repulsive, that is, the basely sensual. [italics not in original]

While I’m on the subject of music, here is an interesting passage by Nietzsche, quoted in The Master and His Emissary by Iain McGilchrist. I’m rereading the final two chapters in preparation for a series of blog posts.

… our ears have become increasingly intellectual. Thus we can now endure much greater volume, much greater ‘noise’, because we are much better trained than our forefathers were to listen for the reason in it. All our senses have in fact become somewhat dulled because we always inquire after the reason, what ‘it means’, and no longer for what ‘it is’ … our ear has become coarsened. Furthermore, the ugly side of the world, originally inimical to the senses, has been won over for music … Similarly, some painters have made the eye more intellectual, and have gone far beyond what was previously called a joy in form and colour. Here, too, that side of the world originally considered ugly has been conquered by artistic understanding. What is the consequence of this? The more the eye and ear are capable of thought, the more they reach that boundary line where they become asensual. Joy is transferred to the brain; the sense organs themselves become dull and weak. More and more, the symbolic replaces that which exists … the vast majority, which each year is becoming ever more incapable of understanding meaning, even in the sensual form of ugliness … is therefore learning to reach out with increasing pleasure for that which is intrinsically ugly and repulsive, that is, the basely sensual. [italics in McGilchrist]

This passage comes from Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits (German: Menschliches, Allzumenschliches: Ein Buch für freie Geister), published in 1878. Hindsight makes this passage especially prophetic. McGilchrist discusses how universal elements of music (e.g., melody, harmony, and tonality) have been systematically undercut and reduced to either their essences or to nonexistence. Consonance and dissonance no longer function as aesthetic anchors. This is especially true in art music, but it’s also visible in popular musics that have captured the hearts and minds of the masses; and nowhere is it more evident than in rap music, which strips away everything but the rhythm and relies on text for explicit meaning.

What all this means is found in the italics above: the symbolic replaces that which exists. We are in the process of replacing actuality (or reality) with our mental images of it, which I call living in our heads. Some readers might recognize the issue more readily from discussions of the map and territory. As just one simple example, I happened to catch part of an episode of The Voice, described by Wikipedia as “an American reality television singing competition.” (I saw picture and captioning only, no sound.) Significantly, use of the word reality is understood by audiences as a TV genre, certainly not as, well, reality. I noticed that contestants (competitors? singers?) had their ears plugged with playback devices, which is what I had criticized in my previous post. Not only was there no natural, unmediated sound reaching their ears, the experience of singing with one’s ears plugged is also altered fundamentally. Singing is no longer what it is.

Update: I can’t resist adding this further example.

“Human beings are ashamed to have been born instead of made.” – Günther Anders

For a fertile mind, nearly everything is a potential metaphor or microcosm for something else. It gets tiresome, really. Still, I couldn’t help but to reflect on this post at On an Overgrown Path as a particularly on-point example of what I’ve been working out over numerous blog posts, namely, that our discontentment over being human, with its inherent limitations, is boiling over. Case in point: music is now routinely given a slick, post-production shove toward hyperreality. That assertion is probably not clear to anyone wandering into The Spiral Staircase without the benefit of prior familiarity with my themes, so let me unpack it a bit.

The essence of the linked blog post above is that media have altered musical perspective (e.g., stage perspective, podium perspective, audience perspective, stereo hifi perspective, and in- or over-ear perspective) to such a degree that acoustics developed intuitively over generations (and hardened into convention) to enhance natural sound must now be supplanted by subtle (or not so subtle) amplification and digital processing to satisfy a generation that may never have stepped inside a concert hall and is instead acculturated to the isolating, degraded sound of earbuds and headphones playing back mp3s. Reorienting concert soundscapes and recordings to model immersive, inside-the-head experience (VR tricks the eye in a similar fashion) is promulgated as inevitable if music presenters wish to attract new generations of concertgoers and thus retain audiences. The blogger follows up later with another post entitled “Technology Reveals Information but Annuls Perception,” which appears to be in conflict with his earlier contentions. (He also dismisses my corrective comment, but no matter.)

I don’t really care much about audience building or the business and marketing aspects of music; others can attend to those concerns. However, the engineering and construction of virtual space, head space, and/or hyperreality, proceeding in slow, incremental steps, is of grave concern to me. We are turning our backs on the world (the body and the sensorium) and fleeing into our heads and ideation. How fully does the gradual disappearance of natural sound in the ear (namely, wearing earbuds 24/7) signify the dire condition of humanity? Impossible to quantify, of course, but considering how omnipresent technology retrains attention and focus away from the environment toward itself in the form of playback devices and handheld screens, I would say that to be part of the modern world means agreeing to be media (and consumer) slaves. Furthermore, the faux reality found there is edited and distorted to achieve maximum impact in minimal time, but the result is overstimulation giving way to catatonia.

When I was a boy, I felt the shut-down reflex in response to the venerable three-ring circus that came to town periodically: too much everything, so ultimately very little or nothing. The same overkill aesthetic is true now of most media, which are saturated with blinkered content to rivet attention — a bubbling, pseudo-glamorous effervescence — but nonetheless fail to register on stripped-out senses. I can think of no better example than events where amplified sound is bone-crushingly loud, i.e., destroying the small, conductive bones in the inner ear leaving unprotected listeners’ ears ringing temporarily, and over time, damaging hearing permanently. The sheer volume has the effect of isolating everyone (alone in a crowd) and reducing them to voiceless, gesticulating grunts. For example, I have attended concerts (indoor and outdoor), dance clubs, wedding receptions, and fundraisers where the sound level was well above the 85 db sufficient to cause hearing loss, yet people just stand there and take it. The disconnect from reality and failure to react to the aural onslaught (by leaving or putting in earplugs) is astonishing. There is no sane reason to believe such conditions are enlivening and inevitable, yet those are in fact fashionable behaviors and recommendations.

Admittedly, destroying one’s ears is not the same as wrecking concert hall acoustics or recording perspective, but they are part and parcel of the same underlying mentality: a discontentment with human limitation. Cinema is going the same direction with gimmicky use of CGI and eye-popping camera effects that deliver views and perspectives that have lost all relation with mundane reality. The desire to transcend the banal is terrific when guided by a wizened aesthetic. When motivated by boredom or shame at our inability to be superhuman, well, that’s something quite different.