What Art Can Do

by Christopher Horner

Grasmere (Photo by author)

Why do we value art? I am going to suggest that a large part of the answer is to do with its unique power to disclose and convey areas of our lives unavailable to us though other means. Art, on this account, is a kind of communication, and kind of act: something performative – a communication that makes something happen, in a way that eludes ordinary discourse. 

By ‘ordinary’ here I mean the kind of communication delivered by language when it is used to convey concepts: ranging from the most banal everyday speech to the most rarefied theory. Of course, ordinary speech acts themselves have a performative quality too – we don’t just communicate information through language, but make things happen, make requests, (‘shut the door’, ‘the meeting is over’ ‘help me!’). Moreover we use our bodies, tone of voice, emphasis and more: and the conceptual content may not even be what matters, especially when something isn’t banal, but matters greatly: moments of grief or joy, for instance. A gesture, a tear, or just silence may be more eloquent than words. It is this ‘beyond’ in our imperfect communications, that hint at what art can do. Art aspires to a more perfect communication: one that takes us beyond the confines of the lonely self.  Read more »

Patience With What is Strange: In Praise of Slow Art

by Chris Horner

Less disappointing than life, great works of art do not begin by giving us all their best. —Proust

…for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life. —

Everything demands our attention. A ceaseless stream of electronic information and entertainment flows through and around us. Attention spans shrink, and we struggle to focus on anything for more than a few minutes. Entertainment waits on every click, as does ennui. Paradoxically,  we may come to want the things that we cannot have in an instant, that demand our time and patience before they will reveal all they have to offer: the art that demands that we slow down. To really appreciate those productions of culture that can refresh us, make us think, immerse us in beauty, even strike us with terror, takes time. Art that is challenging often requires this of us. This can be true of more ‘popular’ art forms too, if they have the kinds of layers that take time to be appreciated. Their advantage over what I’m calling ‘slow art’ is they give us an immediate sugar rush that keeps our attention on them (exciting narrative, easy to recall musical  ‘hook’ etc) and which encourage us to return to them again and again. There’s nothing wrong with that. But not all art will do that, or not as often and as easily. Slow art, if it is great art, demands our time and patience before it will reveal all it has and can be to us. We should welcome this, for not only does this art often reward us most for our patience, but the practice of paying attention is itself, understood rightly, a kind of joy. There is an art that can offer us a world if we will but attend. Read more »

Music for Pleasure

by Chris Horner

No man is a hypocrite in his pleasures —Dr Johnson

Without music life would be a mistake —Nietzsche

Music started for me with whatever was blaring out of the radio, and later those 45 rpm ‘single’ records that were the main vehicles of listening pleasure for teenagers in the late twentieth century. I heard a lot of that rather than listened to it. Listening really started with the ‘long player’ or album: 40 minutes or so over two sides of a black disc with a cover that, if you were lucky, didn’t look too bad when you gazed at it.

The first album I owned was a birthday present: Abbey Road, the final Beatles recording. Having nothing else to play, this got a lot of spins, first through the big speakers of my parents ‘Rigonda Stereo Radiogram’, then with the earphones plugged into the back with the lights off. In a private darkness the music and the lyrics were undisturbed by the banality of our front room, and the thing became something I knew by heart, images and melodies imprinted like a recurring, waking dream. Only the pleasure principle mattered: I has no idea whether I was supposed to like this stuff, I just did.  Read more »

Physicists and Fugues: A Well-Tempered Pairing

by Ashutosh Jogalekar

Sergei Rachmaninoff and John Wheeler were both masters of their art, equally at home with details and wild speculation, both seeing their disciplines as holistic ones encompassing all of human experience and the universe

As someone who has been interested in both classical music and the history of physics for a long time, I have been intrigued by comparison of the styles between the two art forms. I use the term “art form” for physics styles deliberately since most of the best physics that has been done represents high art.

Just like with classical music, physics has been populated by architects and dreamers, careful workmen and inspired explorers, bursts of geniuses and sustained acts of creativity. It is worth spending some time discussing what the word “style” might even mean in a supposedly objective, quantitative field like physics where truth is divined through precise measurements and austere theories. The word style simply means a way of thinking, calculation and experiment, an idiosyncratic method that lends itself individually or collectively to figuring out the facts of nature. The fact is that there is no one style of doing physics, just like there is no one style of doing classical music. Physics has blossomed when it has benefited from an unpredictable diversity of styles; it has stagnated when a particular style hardened into the status quo. And just like classical music goes through periods of convention and experimentation, deaths and rebirths, so has physics.

If we take the three great eras of classical music – baroque, classical and romantic – and the leading composers pioneering these styles, it’s instructive to find parallels with the styles of some great physicists of yore. Johann Sebastian Bach who is my favorite classical musician was known for his precise, almost mathematical fugues, variations and concertos. Read more »

Roll over Beethoven: Where’d classical music go?

by Bill Benzon

About a month ago Tyler Cowen posed the following question at Marginal Revolution, a blog he runs with along with his collegue Alex Tabarrok: Why has classical music declined? If you do a general web-search on that question you’ll see that it’s a popular topic. The ensuing discussion has had 210 remarks so far. That’s a lot, especially when you consider that Marginal Revolution centers on economics and closed allied social sciences, though Cowen does comment on the arts as well. Some responses are longish, somewhat detailed, and knowledgeable. Most are relatively brief. On the whole the quality of the discussion is high, but scattered, which is to be expected on the web.

Cowen posed the question in response to a request from one of his readers, Rahul, who had asked:

In general perception, why are there no achievements in classical music that rival a Mozart, Bach, Beethoven etc. that were created in say the last 50 years?

Cowen offered several observations of his own. Here’s the first:

The advent of musical recording favored musical forms that allow for the direct communication of personality. Mozart is mediated by sheet music, but the Rolling Stones are on record and the radio and now streaming. You actually get “Mick Jagger,” and most listeners prefer this to a bunch of quarter notes. So a lot of energy left the forms of music that are communicated through more abstract means, such as musical notation, and leapt into personality-specific musics.

Yikes! From Mozart to the Rolling Stones, that’s quite a lot of musical territory – one reason, perhaps, that the discussion was scattered.

In this piece I treat the discussion as a collection of dots. I draw lines between some of them and color in some of the shapes that emerge. Read more »

How to Pair Music with Wine

by Dwight Furrow

Wine and music pairing is becoming increasingly popular, and the effectiveness of using music to enhance a wine tasting experience has received substantial empirical confirmation. (I summarized this data and the aesthetic significance of wine and music pairing last month on this site.) But to my knowledge there is no guide to how one should go about wine and music pairing. Are there pairing rules similar to the rules for pairing food and wine? Is there expertise involved that requires practice and experience?

In fact, there are no rules for pairing food and wine. Every so-called rule is subject to so many exceptions, it is misleading to think of these guidelines as rules. Yes, white wine often goes well with seafood but not always, and there are some red wines that are enjoyable with seafood. The same is true when pairing music with wine. There are general guidelines with many exceptions. Thus, like food and wine pairing, experience is important, and some expertise can be helpful. Below I describe my own process for generating wine and music pairings and the generalizations that can be drawn from it. Read more »

Born to Groove: Up from Mud and Back to Our Roots

by Bill Benzon

I don’t remember exactly what I was saying – this conversation took place over a half century ago – but perhaps I was explaining why I choose to become a scholar rather than a musician. What I remember is Gren’s reply: You ARE a musician. After awhile he convinced me.

That is, we had to talk about it. I thought of a musician as someone who made a living performing music. I didn’t do that. To be sure, I made some money playing around town in a rock band and I’d spent years learning the trumpet. I’d marched in parades and at football games; I’d played concerts with various groups. But I wasn’t a full-time, you know, a professional musician, a real musician. Gren insisted that I was a musician because I played music, a lot, and was committed to it. That’s all that’s necessary.

He was right of course. I was a musician then and I’m one know. Three decades after that conversation I published a book, Beethoven’s Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture, in which I argued that music is what transformed groups of very clever apes into human beings. In THAT sense we’re all musicians. It’s our heritage.

Alas, too many of us have been robbed of that heritage and have been bamboozled into thinking that only special talented people should be making music. Nope. It’s time to flip the script. We’re born to groove. Read more »

Sukiyaki and beyond: Hiromi Uehara, music, war and peace, Chick Corea, and others

by Bill Benzon

You may or may not know that sukiyaki is a beef-based Japanese hot-pot dish. But I’m not talking about food. I’m talking about music, specifically, a Japanese pop song entitled “Ue o Muite Arukō” (“I Look Up as I Walk”) which was a hit by Kyu Sakamoto in 1961 in Japan, 18 years before Hiromi Uehara was born. It became one of the world’s best selling singles of all time (13 million copies) and has been recorded countless times by singers all over the world. [Various versions on YouTube.] It was issued in the United States in 1963 as “Sukiyaki”, where it went to the top of the Billboard Hot 100.

Why “Sukiyaki”? Perhaps, you’re thinking, it’s a novelty song about the dish? No, it’s not. It has nothing to do with food. According to Wikipedia:

The lyrics tell the story of a man who looks up and whistles while he is walking so that his tears will not fall, with the verses describing his memories and feelings. [Lyricist Rokusuke] Ei wrote the lyrics while walking home from a Japanese student protest against the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security Between the United States and Japan, expressing his frustration and dejection at the failed efforts. However, the lyrics were purposefully generic so that they might refer to any lost love.

The melody is wistful and haunting. I would imagine that is what propelled the song to international fame. Many of the cover versions use different lyrics. As for the renaming in America, it’s about marketing. “Sukiyaki” is a Japanese word that Americans would recognize as Japanese.

Here’s the original version:

Notice the whistled sections – appropriate to the origin story, which I remember from my childhood. Read more »

Jacob Collier, a 21st Century Mozart?

by Bill Benzon

A little over a week ago Jacob Collier’s version of Mel Torme’s “The Christmas Song” (“Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire”) came up on YouTube. I know the song well, and love it. As I’d seen a video or three by this Collier fellow, I decided to give it a listen.

Wow! What?

I was stunned, but also a bit skeptical. Collier was obviously a talented musician, with mad skills. But to what end? This struck me as being musical comfort food. Skillfully made – oh yes! the man has chops! – but comfortable. But then, what’s wrong with comfort? As a steady aesthetic diet, it’s inadequate. But don’t we sometimes turn to music for comfort and solace? Do we not need comfort and solace in this time of Covid, not to mention the post-election tantrums of He Who Must Not Be Named?

What else has Collier got? If it’s all like this, then Collier’s a one trick pony. But maybe he’s got more tricks up his sleeve. I decided to investigate.

Caveat: I’m going to insert a bunch of videos into this piece; one of them is very long – over three hours. Feel free to skip over material. Read more »

Kitsch In The Eye Of The Beholder

by Thomas O’Dwyer

You Are Not Forgotten, painting by John McNaughton.
You Are Not Forgotten, 2017, painting by John McNaughton.

A statue of Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John MacDonald, has become the latest lump of kitsch concrete to hit the ground after protesters pulled it from a plinth in Montreal and cheered as the head broke off and bounced across the pavement. (MacDonald was linked to vicious policies that killed and displaced thousands of indigenous people in the late 19th century. His system forcibly removed at least 150,000 children from their homes and sent them to often abusive state boarding schools). That’s as good a reason as any to add this to the list of monuments being dethroned around the world.

Another good reason is that phrase “lump of kitsch.” Jonathan Jones recently lamented in The Guardian that the falling statues were being followed by a sterile conversation about who does and doesn’t “deserve” a statue. “This is because all statues are dumb. They cannot represent big or complex themes. All they can do is function as crude symbols. They reduce history to celebrity culture. So many Victorian statues survive in our cities because 19th-century historians believed ‘great men’ and their leadership created history,” Johnson wrote, adding that every dumbass general who ever won an obscure skirmish had a statue somewhere across the British empire. No heroic soldier ever did.

So, what a lineup of dumb statues one could craft from that display of Trump royalty at the recent Republican National Convention. The “great man” being honoured this time was “the bodyguard of Western civilization,” as Charlie Kirk, founder of the anti-liberal Turning Point USA, described the president. This, wrote The Washington Post, was “an image in keeping with painter John McNaughton’s kitsch paintings of Trump.” Read more »

Cool summer ambience (or winter, for those down under)

by Dave Maier

Perhaps imprudently, your humble blogger continues to toil in the philosophy mines for blogging material, even in this stressful time. And there will be such postage eventually, of that you can be sure! However, prudence enough remains to prevent him from posting half-baked nonsense; so in the interim, let us return once again to the podcast, and enjoy some fine music while we wait.

Thanks to everyone who rose to the occasion and contributed to Jon Hassell’s gofundme appeal, as promoted here in my last two posts (here and here; the mixes are here and here). If you haven’t contributed yet, now’s your chance!

As the notes below indicate, this mix as well includes an appeal, of a different sort. If you have been following the developing situation in Belarus and would like to help, TXT Recordings is offering a name-your-price option to pick up a release by Belarus artist Alexander Ananyev, the proceeds to be donated to Support for Belarus. (Also, the record is pretty good, and naturally we’ll be hearing a track from it here.)

Widget and link below. Enjoy! Read more »

Jon Hassell Tribute, Part 2: Jon’s Influence

by Dave Maier

Last time I posted a mix of Jon Hassell’s music, a little under his own name and a lot of collaborations. This time we’ll look at (my take on) Jon’s influence on others; but we’ll hear a bit more from Jon himself as well. 

Before we start, let me remind you (one reason) why we’re doing this: Jon is ill and needs your help. Here is the gofundme link; as you can see, there’s quite a ways to go: https://www.gofundme.com/f/jon-hassell-fund

Also, some good news: Jon has a new album for us! It’s available for pre-order now and will drop on July 24.

At that link, interestingly, we find stated flat out what I’ve taken for granted in making this second mix:

“The impact of Jon Hassell on today’s generation of electronic and ambient artists is immeasurable” – Paste Magazine

How exactly Jon has influenced his devotees naturally varies but we can identify a few main features of his music which people picked up on. First, perhaps most obviously, is his use of pitch shifters or “harmonizers,” especially Eventide’s high-end rack-mount effects unit of that name, which allows even a monophonic instrument such as a trumpet to play multiple parallel melodies simultaneously. Read more »

Jon Hassell tribute, part 1: Jon and his collaborators

by Dave Maier

Jon Hassell is one of America’s musical treasures, and I’ve been listening to his music for forty years, so when I heard he needed help for his medical care, I decided to make a mix of his music. This mix actually grew into two mixes, so look for another one next month. This one features Jon playing with other musicians, and part two will feature other musicians whom Jon has influenced (and a bit more from Jon himself).

Here’s the link to his gofundme page (https://www.gofundme.com/f/jon-hassell-fund). As of 5/24/20, 1100+ people have donated ~$75,000, but the listed goal is $200,000, and we all know how expensive medical care can be. Please do what you can.

Here’s the mix (direct link: https://www.mixcloud.com/duckrabbit/jon-hassell-tribute-pt-1-jon-and-his-collaborators/):

Read more »

An Improviser is Born

by Bill Benzon

I was improvising before I’d learned the word, but I wasn’t systematic about it until years later. I suppose for a time the word had a bit of a mystique about it, as it does for many. After all, the norm in Western musical practice has been to read music that someone else, the composer, had written. The composer is the authority; you are a mere conduit; and improvising, where you (shudder) make it up yourself, that’s VERY mysterious.

* * * * *

You mean, no notes in front of you. Just make it up?


And it comes out OK?

Sometimes, sometimes not. It depends.

Isn’t that very brave and dangerous?

No. Do you speak from a script?


Well then, there you have it. Don’t need a script for music either.

* * * * *      

I started taking music lessons when I was ten years old. My earliest teachers taught me to read music, and only to read music. So that’s what I did. But at some point, I forget just when, I decided I wanted to play simple tunes that weren’t in lessons. I decided, well, I’ll just have to figure out how to do it. I do remember that, when I was in sixth grade, I was particularly taken with the theme song to a series that played on Walt Disney’s Sunday night TV show. I forget the name of the series, but it was about mountain men and the song had wistful lyrics about living in the mountains. Read more »

Wines of Anger and Joy (Part 2)

by Dwight Furrow

Wine-bottle-supplier-300x273Wine language often suggests that wines express emotion or exhibit personality characteristics despite the fact that wine is not a psychological agent and could not literally possess these characteristics. There is a history, although somewhat in recession today, to refer to wines as aggressive, sensual, fierce, grand, angry, dignified, brooding, joyful, bombastic, tense or calm, etc. Is there a foundation to such talk or is it just arbitrary flights of fancy?

Last month I argued that it's perfectly intelligible to conceive of wine as expressive. Wine expresses the geography and climate of a region or vineyard, the vintage characteristics, and the winemaker's idea of those. More importantly, wine can sometimes express the winemaker's feelings about wine, especially the inspirational experiences that explain their love of wine that they wish to communicate to their patrons. But the aforementioned wine language suggests a broader notion of expression, one in which wine, perhaps like art, can express fundamental features of human experience.

In aesthetics, this question of how art can express feelings has typically been pursued using music as the prime example, because there is a broad consensus that music is deeply connected to human emotion. In trying to answer this question about wine, it makes sense to use these resources developed in the debate about music. So bear with me as I go on about music and the emotions for a bit; wine will get its due towards the end of the essay.

Read more »

Music Lessons: On Social Actors, Voices and Aesthetics in the Subcontinent

by Gautam Pemmaraju

I. Deviations Images

Last December, while at a common friend’s house in North London, Steve Savale or Chandrasonic of the British band Asian Dub Foundation played us a video clip of a recent concert of theirs in St Petersburg. Prior to their performance, a local production person had approached the band with a message – there was a man who needed to see them urgently. A Tajik, who had earlier that week been brutally beaten up by Russian police, pleaded with the band to put him on stage for just the one song. In his plea, heartfelt as it was, there appeared to be the promise of the undoing of some wrong, an anodyne correction of injustice and brutality. He went on stage to sing a medley1 of two Bollywood songs, both from the 1982 hit film Disco Dancer – Goron Ki Na Kaalon Ki and Jimmy, Jimmy. Keeping rhythm on a aluminum bucket while providing instrumental phrasing, solos and bridges alike, the impassioned singer incorporated a famous desi trick, well known to and enthusiastically advertised in low-brow entertainment of small town India, as well as in filmi shows that travel to perform for diasporic communities across the world: ‘special item – man singing in ladies voice’. The first song, with its popular humanist message, declares that the world belongs neither to whites nor to blacks, but to those with hearts (or lovers to be less literal), while the second one, well known to many South Asians for its kitschy appeal (and the nostalgia it evokes), was covered by M.I.A a few years ago. A version by the Russian pop singer Angel-A has also made its appearance recently.

This collision of different identities sets up the stage for many a discussion – the insidious and wide influence of Bollywood, shared culture amongst the political allies of the Cold War era, the efficacy and appeal of humanist and polemical messages, dynamic appropriations of fringe elements in pop-culture, and issues of ‘authenticity’ and ‘false-consciousness’ in fetishism and bricolage. Amidst all the elements that may find themselves in the mix, so to speak, the twin processes of creation and mediation and the actors involved, provide fascinating insights into what seems a duplicitous web of irresolvable complexity.

Having been associated with music, musicians, music television and music production for a significant part of my professional life (and continue to be), I am resigned to many unanswered questions and contentious issues– there are no hit formulae, there only appear to be some at certain times; finding ‘voice’ is unpredictable and imprecise; what people like is highly complex and yet seems, oftentimes, really quite simple; resonance is both a physical and psychological phenomenon. What I can though say with absolute certainty is that I still remain profoundly enamoured by music and its diverse gratifications.

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