Posts Tagged ‘musical perspective’

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.