All is fair in art and context

HCH-12-MAIMONIDES HCH 12 / Septiembre 2016

All is fair in art and context, by Tussah Heera

7:00 am. Having woken up rather too early for a Saturday morning, I sit in my living room and drowsily attempt to theoretically analyze Three Movements from Petrushka, while sipping my morning coffee and watching the beautiful sun rise from behind the Coloane Alto…

 

 

If only I were able to rise as quickly. The coffee, though strong, is not helping yet – much at the expense of Stravinsky. For a short while, I try to fight the weariness and trudge onwards with my task, indicating the various chords, scales, and observations on the score in uncharacteristically poor handwriting, but the moment I suddenly realize that I had read the wrong clef for an entire page is the final straw on the camel’s back. Shit. I close my book in frustration and inexorably turn to the clandestine realm of both the sleepless and the sleep-deprived: the internetz.

 

Tired but not wishing to be entirely unproductive, I decide to watch the Petrushka ballet on YouTube for yet another time, in order to gain a more clear understanding of the narrative. As I see the Bolshoi Ballet Company’s poignant choreography – evocatively portraying the main character’s delirious irrationality, his creator’s callousness, and society’s obliviousness – I start to reflect more deeply on the process of performing pieces based on stories, and my role as a pianist (and subsequently, as a narrator) to weave the story convincingly for my audiences. How should the score be interpreted to reflect the beautiful narrative? Also, how different an approach is required for such a work than that of a non-narrative piece, like a Beethoven sonata?

 

A little contemplation reveals that theimparting of meaning plays a crucial role in these aspects of music interpretation, or in any other instance in the world for that matter. What notes, elements, and phrases I choose to make meaningful will shape my entire approach, and ultimately either make or break the piece. Meaning is what brings music to life, allowing it to soar through the skies and inspire our most fanciful dreams or drag us through the depths of our darkest fears. Meaning is what moves us to tears when reading a book or watching a movie. In the human world, imparting the wrong amount of meaning or imparting meaning on the wrong things are causes for much delusion. The quest for meaning motivates people to fall in love, fall in hate, and cling like tendrils to ideology. In fact, it was this very quest that drove poor Petrushka into passionately loving the Ballerina despite her obvious shortsightedness and superficiality. But how exactly does one functionally define meaning? Abstract verbiage disgusts me. “Meaning”, for most intents and purposes, refers to the implicit or explicit significance of any entity – be it a note, word, painting, etc. This significance can only be understood if the intentions of the entity are understood. Asking questions is important. What is the purpose for this piece of art? Why was it created?

 

Keeping all this in mind, I can confidently pin down two fundamental truths about meaning in all art forms: 1. The decision of how much meaning to impart depends on the literalism or subjectivity with which the work is perceived, and 2. Literal or subjective perception depends on the amount of context a particular piece of art contains.

 

Yes I know, this discourse has the potential to turn into a labyrinthine mindfuck. Please bear with me and I’ll try my best not to let that happen.

 

Now, I have previously written about how the subjective nature of music paradoxically generates dogmatic opinions. When it comes to classical music, the years-old scores hold such little concrete information that trying to establish an absolute, “correct” interpretation is entirely baseless and delusional. However, we find contextual details from more sources than just the score – including history, verified literature, and the composer’s own notes and interviews. Overall, the more context there is, the more literally the music should be perceived, and the less context there is, the more subjectively it should be perceived. Both a Beethoven Sonata and Petrushka call for an equal attention to meaning, but in diverse ways: Beethoven requires the pianist to explore emotions in a deeper, wider, and more general sense, whereas Stravinsky requires the pianist to identify which specific instances in the piece he or she finds most emotional, as the story lays out an additional contextual pathway to walk on.

 

As a blogger second to a concert pianist, I’ve seen that the problem of context and perception is evident in words and literature as well as music, and it’s equally frustrating. Our world is rife with misunderstanding, outrage, bewilderment, and plain stupidity, all stemming from the fact that most people have a skewed perception of words and language, and much like in the music world, jump to conclusions and insist that their personal interpretation is superior to all others. If we take a walk into history, this similarity is hardly surprising, as words and music are kissing cousins that evolved from a common ancestor: sound. When our caveman ancestors wanted to express their ideas and emotions, they used sound to create a coded linguistic system which over the years grew larger and more complex. When they wanted to express their artistry, they isolated pure tones from the sounds they heard in nature and arranged them in ways that sounded pleasant to the ear – also making these arrangements more and more complex and codifying the world of music theory up till today. The wider these fields became, the more perspectives were added into the mix, so while some heads turned up to the sky, others went straight in the sand. Both words and music were used to express radical ideas to liberate humanity (for example, Martin Luther King’s speeches, or John Lennon’s music) as well as to control people through dogma and facilitate oppression (such as religious texts, and, in music, the brigade of puritanical assholes that was the Council of Trent).

 

A good way to understand humankind’s perception and use of art is the Platonic Theory of Forms. Plato posited that our idea about something is more powerful than the thing itself – an assertion that could go both ways. Through some contemplation, I have found that though our ideas are very powerful, they are not always accurate. For example, if I saw an apple tree, and tried to explain to a friend what that apple tree looked like, I would never be able to succeed, as her imagination of the apple tree (constructed from my words) would never truly resemble the actual apple tree. This goes for all natural, non-manmade entities – our perception of that entity would never align fully with the entity itself, and the entity will always remain the most powerful. However, when it comes to that which is man-created, like all art forms including words and music, the initial conception of the creator of that art is most accurate. However,  its power rests not in itself, but in how people perceive it. The effectiveness of a composition or speech depends on who’s listening, as every person is moved by art in different ways.

 

For these reasons, one could say all is fair in art. This is correct, as art is a product of our very complex human minds, but none of it would be perceived with fairness without understanding context. Context is rooted firmly in evidence, and bolts the subjective parts of art firmly to the ground. To simplify this understanding, I have formulated what I call my Artistic Hierarchy of Context, in which I will compare the contextual content of both language and music side by side from the most basic unit (a single note and a single letter) to the most complex (a whole piece of music and a piece of prose or poetry). Each level indicates increased context. Note that this only serves as a basic guide, as art rests on a vast spectrum – not a series of carefully curated boxes, and ultimately should be understood on a case by-case basis:

Level 1 – One note = One letter 
Music: The middle C
Literature: The letter A

 

At this point, we don’t have much information at all. The only context we have is position and quality. We know what the note C sounds like, and its position on the keyboard. In accordance, we know how to pronounce the letter A, and its position as the first letter of the alphabet. That’s it. Both are simply building blocks of larger entities, and have no meaning in and of themselves. Therefore, there are no “good” or “bad” notes or letters. An ‘A’ could belong to any word or sentence, and a ‘C’ could belong to any phrase of music. Is the A part of the word “apple”? Does the C imply C minor? Millions of possibilities exist.

 

Since these basic units have the minimum amount of context, they can be perceived in a multitude of ways – hence their subjectivity. Even though it’s impossible for words and notes to be inherently good, bad, or ugly, people feel very differently about them due to their mindsets, abilities, and experiences. For instance, my non-musician father knows where a C is on a keyboard but feels nothing when a C is played in front of him, whereas I start to see pure white and get an oddly secure feeling when I hear one because I have both perfect pitch and color synesthesia. Someone else could be emotionally triggered by the note C in either a positive or negative way, depending on how their experiences conditioned them. I’m sure the same applies to letters as well, as Vladimir Nabokov might tell you.

 

However, these are all individual perceptions, and don’t change the fact that a C is a C, and an A is an A, and both hold no more contextual information than their sound and placement.
Moving on…

 

Level 2 – One musical motif = One word 

Music: These four notes:
Literature: The word “cat”

 

Alright, things just got a little bit more complex. At this point, we are given definitions. Everyone knows what a cat is, and musicians would immediately associate the very well-known group of notes above with the key of C minor and subsequently, Beethoven’s 5th. But at a deeper level, these definitions are still contextually bankrupt. What kind of cat is implied here? A house cat or a cheetah? And even though this particular group of notes fits directly into our mental sets as Beethoven’s 5th, they could be harmonized in pretty much any progression! I didn’t show you the rest of the music around this motif. Ives’ Concord Sonata quotes the same notes. What tells you that these notes aren’t part of E flat major, or G minor, or even a modulation from a distant key? The human mind is naturally reliant on patterns and association and that’s a great advantage to us, but sometimes we need to get past that in order to see things for what they are, and in this case, this motif is just four notes and nothing more.

 

At this point, it’s still contextually impossible for a word or motif to be inherently good or bad. The late great George Carlin describes this excellently in his Seven Dirty Words monologue. There are no bad words, he says, only bad intentions. Yet somehow, there are some special words which are frowned upon in society and get bleeped into oblivion on TV and most public media (thankfully not the Internet!), regardless of the context in which they are used. Furthermore, people are trying to censor other words in the name of being “politically correct”, such as the word “retard”. These people call for banning use of the word in media, and referring to it as “the R-word” to avoid offending the mentally challenged. What they don’t understand is that the word doesn’t really mean much on its own, but it’s the intention behind it that brings it to life. Moreover, the definition of the word has completely changed over the years, and in today’s world, “retard” is used to decry unfathomable stupidity – not to disparage the disabled. A driver might yell “Retard!” at someone who rudely cuts in front of him, but that doesn’t make him ableist. In fact, the people rallying against the word are being ablest themselves, as they still equate the word with disability despite the modern-day definition. If they really wish to inculpate words on grounds of etymology, they would also have to protest “idiot”, “moron”, and “imbecile”, as these words have discriminatory origins as well, but let’s not give them any ideas. Wait, they already have those ideas? Dracula’s toilet just called, it wants its batshit back.

 

So even though the Political Correctness Army thinks they’re making the world a more pluralistic, compassionate place by boycotting words, all they’re accomplishing is flagrantly disregarding the truths of context. And being fucking retarded.

 

Level 3 – A musical phrase = a sentence
Music: This opening of Chopin’s 3rd ballade:
Literature: The cat sat on the mat.

 

Now we have a full string of individual units creating a small but coherent whole. A musical or linguistic sentence can be inherently good, bad, or neutral (like “The cat sat on the mat”). Good phrases in music would be effective, meaningful, and structurally consistent – whatever structure they may follow. Bad phrases would leave a bad impression on the ears, as they would lack in both pattern and coherence. Aleatoric (chance) music or stream-of-consciousness writing lack in overt patterns, but they fall into the neutral category, as the pattern is not having a pattern.

 

Poor constructed linguistic sentences may severely lack in both effectiveness and veracity. People often say that “words hurt”, but what they really mean is that sentences hurt. For instance, the sentence “Black people are dumb” is obviously bad, because it stinks of horrible racial bias and contains not one iota of truth. However, with this added information comes a caveat. What if this sentence was being said sarcastically? Then it would suddenly not be “bad” anymore. More importantly, if this sentence is so bad, what’s it doing on my blog? Someone who hates me could practically lift the words “Black people are dumb” from this post, quote me out of context, label me a racist, and try to destroy my career. Similarly, one can extract any transitional phrase from a brilliant piece of music and pan it as ridiculous and nonsensical without accounting for the other phrases as a reference.

 

Just like “bad” sentences can become good in this manner,  “good” sentences could also become bad, and lead to bad actions. Woody Allen describes the dangers of quote-worshiping in his film, Irrational Man. Abe Lucas, the washed-up protagonist, accepts an offer to teach at a university after years of a successful writing career. The whole school is abuzz due to his exciting reputation, with both professors and students awaiting his arrival. One of the professors wryly remarks that Abe will “add some Viagra into the philosophy department”.

 

But little did they know that Mr. Lucas himself needed truckloads of the stuff. Here was a professor who, armed with a way with words and a wealth of knowledge, had documented his observations about the findings of major philosophers in bestselling books. However, he also had a penchant for playing the role of a “tortured artist” (or histrionic manwhore, take your pick), and mostly drank his way through life. But as with most people who use such things as coping mechanisms, life eventually drank its way through him, and when that point came he realized how all the philosophical theories he had so painstakingly studied and enthusiastically extolled were nothing more than superficial paraphernalia in the context of his own life, having no practical applications whatsoever. Still, this doesn’t stop his awestruck admirers (especially wide-eyed Jill) from fawning over his supposed wisdom and dismissing the extent of their intelligence in his presence. In essence, Abe Lucas turns out to be little more than a metaphysical charlatan who’s a master at dishing out pseudo-profundities to elicit awe and approval, and those who gullibly idolize him are so dumb they should go fuck a doorknob.

 

In the wake of his existential crisis, Abe overhears the plight of a divorced mother who could lose custody of her children because of a corrupt family court judge. The woman tearfully wishes that the judge would get cancer and die, so that she could have justice. Abe suddenly finds his life’s purpose to murder the judge, in order to improve the condition of the world by removing the suffering of that woman. He rationalizes his hilarious delusions with some excellent (but context-less) quotes of philosophers, including Sartre’s “Hell is other people” and Kierkegaard’s “Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom”. While these sentences are true, they don’t reveal which situations they are applicable in when standing alone. While asserting that people should pursue freedom in action, Kierkegaardian ethics also specify that freedom is meaningless without responsibility. But Abe doesn’t understand anything beyond the sentences that affirm his actions (classic confirmation bias), and as a result, refuses to be held accountable. He basks in the carnal excitement of his cold-blooded killing, but is willing to let someone else go to prison for his crime. When Jill confronts him to come clean and turn himself in, he plots to murder her as well – a plot that quite karmically leads to his own demise.

 

At the end, we are left with two pointless deaths, all because a psychopath took a few good quotes completely out of context. Case in point: a sentence is still meaningless on its own without knowledge of the other sentences that frame it. So to all the people who rely on soundbites to justify their arguments and actions instead of actual evidence, I think I just saw that doorknob over there wink at you. Maybe you should go introduce yourself. Thank me later.

 

Level 4 – Non-narrative pieces = poetry 
Music: Beethoven’s Sonata op. 109
Literature: Allen Ginsberg’s Howl 

 

Now that the basic components of both music and language have been covered, we finally have full pieces containing ideas that begin and end. Non-narrative pieces like Mozart’s sonatas or Chopin’s concertos do not follow a continuous storyline, but rather are based on moods and feelings of the composer. Beethoven composed his Appassionata sonata under the anguish of going deaf, but interpretations vary greatly and either emphasize his sadness, anger, or despondency. Similarly, most poetry (except maybe for ballads) doesn’t have a continuous story line, but rather consists of the author’s observations about a particular instance, such as love or death – like Allen Ginsberg’s beat poem, Howl. These works of art are the most subjective, as their creators have purposely structured them to be interpreted in multiple ways and speak to listeners and readers differently based on their own experiences. It was this aim to “trick” people that actually led to Ginsberg’s laughable obscenity trial, in which a bunch of obnoxious professors stepped up to the podium in court to argue over whether Howl could be considered a valid work of literature or not.

 

Within both non-narrative and narrative music, the specificity of score markings varies greatly. For instance, Beethoven’s scores are extremely detailed, and he intended every marking and Italian indication to be taken seriously. Brahms didn’t much care for markings, and chose to leave many of these technicalities for the performer to figure out. It’s important to keep in mind that the amount of markings don’t exactly have a bearing on context, as they depend on the style and conventions of the composer. They only offer easy means to structure and convey ideas, but do not precisely link to perception. I remember when I was working on Beethoven’s op.109 a few years ago, and came upon these sixteenth notes in the second variation of the third movement, marked leggieramente (as lightly as possible):

 

Now, I knew that op.109 is one of Beethoven’s last sonatas, and expresses both gravitas and reflectiveness. This particular section is among the happier, deliciously scintillating moments in the piece, so I decided to emphasize the rests and play the notes on the shorter side to showcase its lightness. My teacher at the time advocated a different approach: lengthening the notes, but playing them more softly to convey the same lightness I was striving for, which made for a very interesting sound quality. Fast forward a year later, I watched Richard Goode teach the piece in a masterclass. Mr. Goode posited that sustaining the notes even the slightest would sound cumbersome and heavy, and that an approach similar to what I had initially conceived would give much-needed liveliness to the excerpt. Both views are in accordance with the composer’s wishes, and this is how Beethoven the Genius had intended us to interpret his musical poetry: to feel his emotions deeply and follow his scores diligently, but never bottle his music up in a jar of semantics.

 

Level 5 – Narrative pieces – Fictional prose
Music: Stravinsky’s Three Movements from Petrushka 
Literature: Punch and Judy (which the story of Petrushka originated from)

 

Narrative works require a somewhat different approach to reading the score and attempting to conceive an interpretation. When a composer depicts a continuous story through the music, there is no emotional “trick” anymore, as the musical elements represent instances of the story, but an extra need for attention to the individual elements of the piece. Therefore the context of the work is quite clearly expressed at all times by default and more literalism is required. This degree of specificity does make life a bit easier, as there are less decisions to be made by the performer, but it also sparks new questions about originality and creating a “signature” interpretation. For instance, how exactly would I put a “Tussah” stamp on Petrushka, if the imaginative part has already been stamped for me?

 

The answer lies somewhere in the fact that, even though Stravinsky already made the theoretical decisions for me, the practical decisions are still my responsibility. The story was not created as a definitive rulebook, but rather as a helpful guideline, and a musician’s personal feelings, opinions, and perceptions have a great impact on the resulting interpretation. To put it simply, it’s very clear what is supposed to be communicated at all times during the music, but how it’s communicated is up to me. “How” refers to in what manner I choose to depict an instance in the music, and the amount of meaning I choose to impart into each note, element, and phrase. This differs among all interpretations. For instance, I find the scene in the music when Petrushka knocks his head on the wall in desperation, begging the Ballerina to come back poignantly striking, and emphasize it more either with exaggerated dynamic, special articulation, change in timing, etc., whereas another pianist may find the moment when Petrushka passionately throws his hands in the air lamenting the Ballerina’s departure more musically important.

 

Thus, this is where subjectivity lies in narrative pieces. Once the story is both understood and internalized, it’s never wrong – scratch that – it’s absolutely necessary to emphasize (or de-emphasize) various scenes of the piece in order to make it unique. The only great sin of interpretation – and this applies to all music regardless of its contextual content – would be to markedly emphasize every single note, element, or phrase in effort to make them all meaningful. A piano professor I know once quipped to a student during a masterclass, “You must play with your heart on fire, but your mind on ice. If you make every single note so cloyingly sentimental, you would sound like a conductor who has an orgasm every time his hand moves!”

 

Well, it would be pretty awesome to be that conductor. But the fact remains that such an ability would soon grow repetitive and exhausting, and be absolutely no fun for anyone else. Similarly, if every note is made to be meaningful in a piece of music, then no note would be meaningful as a result, and everything would be quite anticlimactic to say the least. Or should I say over-climactic?

 

Level 6 – Serialism/formulaic music – “Holy” books and other instructional allegorical prose 
Music: Anything by the Second Viennese School
Literature: The Bible, Koran, Torah, etc.

 

I’ll admit that this is a very eclectic matchup, but it’s exceedingly logical. Serialist composers strove for total control over the aspects of music, and thoroughly eschewed such cowardly things as emotion, passion, and feelings. Luciano Berio once mused, “Alas, this industrialized twelve-tone horse, dull on the outside and empty inside, constantly being perfected and dragged to a new Troy in shadow of an ideological war long since fought and won by responsible minds like Schoenberg, with neither systems nor scholarship for armor!” Perfection is essential, and each form of a twelve-tone row (prime, inversion, retrograde, and retrograded-inversion) rule over the music with an iron fist, dictating motivic direction, development, and technical details. Take, for example, one of Messiaen’s modes of limited transposition, in which every single note of the row has been associated with an immutable dynamic marking:

 

 

As one can see, there is no room for cherry-picking in the world of serialism. All the rules the composer has laid down are absolute. If he or she has stated that a form of a tone row is to be played forte each time it appears, it must be unquestioningly played forte. If the composer specifies that every E in the piece should be played staccato, then every E had better be staccato. In some compositions, even the manner in which the staccato should be played has been specified. A serialist interpreter can’t sit and decide for herself that she will follow some of these rules, yet disregard others at whim. This stringency is innate to the style of music, and without it, the work would not be considered serialist anymore, and might as well not be played at all. The core mathematical and musical patterns at the heart of the composer’s vision for the piece would be broken, and not at all heard by listeners. The key is simple: either follow all the rules, or ditch the music if you disagree with even a single one.

 

Fortunately, serialism has never led to widespread decimation of progress and peace, unlike some other “-isms” in the world. Serialism and religious/allegorical texts are contextually alike because they both were conceived as extremely literal guides, requiring utmost, unemotional adherence. In order to truly follow a religion and call oneself a Christian, Muslim, Hindu, etc., one must subscribe to its tenets without any doubts or exceptions, as that’s the purpose they were written to serve. Even though the regulations are explained through metaphor, the resulting moral lessons are not to be understood as metaphors themselves.

 

However, the contradictory nature of the rules makes this task virtually impossible, which inexorably leads to hypocrisy. So-called Christian “absolute moralists” cherry-pick parts of their holy book to indulge their fascist fantasies, and yammer on about the Bible’s addled verses on sexuality while willfully overlooking the verses forbidding shellfish and wearing mixed materials. On the flip side, “moderate” religious folks, unlike their fundamentalist counterparts, entirely snub the negative, untrue aspects of their dogmas and insist that no “true” Christian would be sexist or homophobic, or that ISIS are not “real” Muslims, just because the Bible and Koran contain mundane platitudes about universal love and goodwill – none of which could be considered exclusive to any religion in the world. These people somehow manage to rationalize belief in books that condone violence, hatred, and inequality at their core, yet claim that the god they were written on behalf of is benevolent. Fundamentalists follow only the vengeful verses of their holy books and ignore the merciful ones, and the “moderate” religious look only to the merciful verses and ignore the vengeful ones. But the fact remains that neither can logically call themselves true believers, and both groups are grossly violating the terms of their religions. Their literature openly dictates strict, non-negotiable adherence to all their rules in the precise manner of serialism – not fluid, subjective, and selective interpretation required for non-narrative music and poetry.

 

Perhaps the biggest difference between serialism and religion is that while the former largely aims for extreme straightforwardness and pattern-oriented clarity, the latter sets people up to fail from the start with convoluted contradictions. Whatever you do, you will always suck at your religion. But don’t worry, it’s not you – it’s because your religion itself sucks. If you don’t believe me, just ask your battered slaves and wives. Which calls into question: why even attempt to follow such texts to begin with? Bill Maher summed it up succinctly when he remarked, “I always say to my religious friends, if a pool had even one turd in it, would you jump in?” Forget one turd – most holy books are overflowing cesspools of Bronze Age ramblings which should’ve gone the way of the dinosaur by now. In such doctrines that demand all or nothing, nothing is the more contextual (and moral) choice. Or perhaps converting to serialism is the more contextual choice – as far as I can remember, it has never killed anyone. Maybe if the religious channeled their zealous groveling towards Berg and Webern instead of God, the world would be a more educated (if not a more crashingly atonal) place. That’s a movement I could get behind. All hail our Lord and Savior, Arnold Schoenberg. Amen. 

 

Fuck, I miss Liszt and Rachmaninov just thinking about all this. I guess it’s not a movement I could get behind after all.

 

So that concludes my explanation of the different levels of musical and linguistic context. Of course, even despite one’s best efforts, misunderstanding will always be a part of reality of life as a human, and especially life as an artist. There is no surefire way to avoid delusion in any subjective field, but I’ve found that examining the rules of meaning and creativity in a compartmentalized fashion makes decision-making a lot easier. As tempting as it is to jump to conclusions, it is always important to remember that truth is what holds up perceptions and makes them valid, and that all is fair in art and context…

 

TUSSAH-HEERA-PHOTO-CV Tussah Heera, Macau, August 20, 2016
Originally published on Tussah and the Wolf on August 20, 2016