‘Musical’ as an adjective

I remember when I did the ABRSM exams, and when reading an assessment of an old school friend (who is now a professional Clarinettist), one word that described a performance seemed exceptionally odd. That word is: musical. Sometimes musical performances are said to be ‘musical’. When I was younger that confused me. I would think to myself: surely all performances are musical, isn’t that a trivial description?


In more recent times I am starting to get an understanding of it, is a term of distinction. I’m reminded of people like WH Dray or RG Collingwood, who had the view that having an historical understanding meant really immersing yourself in the period of something. Perhaps people love period dramas because of the way that a certain zeitgeist or je ne sais quoi (literally ‘I don’t know what’), captures a period of history or culture. I laugh for example when I hear ragtime music being played in cowboy movies. Ragtime came about 15-30 years later from the old west periods that are usually the mid-late 19th Century. It’s like playing dubstep in a period drama set in the Thatcher Years.


A musical performance can have an appreciation of its period. Although not necessarily. My late piano teacher used to teach me that a piece of music should be treated as an internal unity, with its own spirit. You look at a piece of music and you see it as a living being, what you express is how you perceive that living being, and naturally people will have their own interpretations. I would often conflict with him about this, saying that period sensitivity and context were the crucial factor to interpretation, and not some inward-looking insight. What is the answer to this? Well that’s constantly an ongoing question when it comes to interpreting certain pieces of music.


Glenn Gould is often said to be an exemplar of one and both of these views to musical interpretation. Gould often spake of the importance of period and is said to be a fine interpreter of Baroque period pieces and the selected 20th century composers such as the Second Viennese camp, Paul Hindemith or Richard Strauss. On the other hand, many of his choices when performing pieces are not of the musical text. I have a bad habit of stealing a few of Glenn Gould’s quirks when sight reading the Well-Tempered Clavier, slightly adjusting speeds. In a recording of Mozart’s C-Minor Piano Sonata (No. 14 k. 467), Gould’s playing is notoriously off piste (perhaps the best way of describing bad performing for a pianist who is vastly superior to me), and perhaps an unhelpful guide for learning that piece. There are little quirks of Gould’s from the second movement that I sometimes adopt.


Sometimes reading a piece of music away from its literal text can be insightful. Sometimes I use sight-reading and going ‘off the tracks’ as a form of improvisation. I often among friends create a form of humour out of music this way. ‘Insert a Chopin reference here’ (C minor cadenza) my friend might request, or ‘how would Mozart have interpreted this?’ (alberti bass), or ‘give this a classical ending’ (V-I-I-I-I-I….I cadence). Communicating humour is one way of expressing musical sensitivity. I would think that a composer like Haydn would hate his music seen as ‘serious’. On the other hand, I think Joplin might consider the his rags played a Steinway as great respect to his music in an era where he did not get the respect he deserved.


A musical performance is one that has conviction. Some people I know that will remain nameless are sometimes a little bit more technical in their playing than I am capable of yet cannot carry conviction. This can be due to many reasons: playing-music-by-numbers; not having an appreciation of the musical text; failing to understand the construction of the music; following conventions of playing set by others.


To call a performance musical is the highest esteem. A musician takes the performance not as a text, but an organic unity. A musician takes the musical performance as an artist: this can mean a reaction to a piece of music in its context of performance, its cultural-historic location or some other factor which makes the actual physical performing of it irreducible to its mere sum of breathwork or body movements.


I think one of the problems I had in a music education is failing to understand the musical. Sure, one could learn chord progressions, fancy italian names for how to pluck a string or memorise key signatures, but where’s the musicality?


I take this question to be primitive and foundational. At the same time, it forms as a constituent in the background of more critical questions, such as the discussion whether to be sensitive to a musical text, or to take liberties at interpretation. Or whether to consider the appropriateness of use of instrument and acoustics for a venue in performance. Or specificities in the use of technique from embouchure to fingerings.

Which individual do they remember?

Hitchens, in an address of the notion of death, appeals to Shakespeare’s ‘seven ages of man’ notion. Throughout our life, we have transitions to different kinds of people. The person we were as a child may be unrecognisable to our selves of today. We are always going through different phases of life, and as one new phase begins, another dies. In that sense, many people have died many times over before our ultimate demise. Why is the physical death so ultimate and conclusive when we have died many times before? So the thought goes…

We have a habit of immortalising a single kind of person when an individual dies. Although we acknowledge their growth and change, we alays remember them in some singular, unitary kind of way. Michael Jackson escaped his negative press by his death, and became remembered for his career highs. Some, by contrast, will always be remembered for their death. This year, the actor David Carradine had died, few people remember him for his circumstances of his death (autoerotic asphyxiation), but more toward whatever production they remember him most fondly. Kill Bill, for example, or Kung Fu.

Sometimes people can be remembered as their youthful selves, perhaps those to whom it would benefit seeing them as the eternal young. Others, by contrast, may be seen in a moer sagely light as the elder. I recall a discussion about which picture of Brahms one should remember. While Brahms is most often remembered as the mature, bearded man; his career the highlights of his career span throughout his younger years as well. When we consider David Hume, we imagine his empiricist philosophy, and the man sporting a turban. It was a twenty-three year old Hume, however, who had written his Magnum Opus, the Treatise on Human Nature. Why should we not remember Hume in his glorious youth and at his most intellectually fierce.

The person we remember may tell us something of when we may talk of the ‘peak’ of their career. For many composers, we remember them for great works of music but ignore the horrid circumstances of their twilight years. Stephen Foster, composer of great American Folk tunes like Beautiful Dreamer died penilless. It may be seen as an appeal to remember those who had died young, considering how much more they could have done in their lives. The likes of Kurt Cobain, Buddy Holly, Janis Joplin may have been saved of a life of mediocrity. There are many who age well, some who died agelessly young, and those who, by manner of their own poor dispositions, age terribly. Ironically, it is those who try to hark back to a past self.


Education Today

I’ve been pondering about making some posts about the recent changes in UK education, but I think I shall give pass that over for the time being. There seems to be a change in the landscape regarding education.

Let us go into the current situation to set out the ideologue:

1. The standards of post-16 qualification, AGCE’s (‘A’ levels), are being undermined by the increased numbers of pupils getting A grades.
2. The standards of ‘A’ levels are being undermined by the percieved lowered standards, and the teaching methods that undermine independence in favour of memorising a syllabus and learning to answer exams in the fashion that they know it will be asked. In other words, there is less surprise, or test of skill and creativity in exams and more strategy involved.
3. Universities have for a long time been concerned with funding deficits: this is due to a whole variety of factors, some are general  and some are specific to the university and their research culture.
4. For the past few decades, many have pointed out the ‘professionalisation’ of academia; this includes the many buzzwords like ‘business model’, ‘schoolification’, interdisciplinary network initiatives, public engagement, ‘research’ and so on. While some aspects of the contemporary academy are positive (increased contact with the public; commissions for documentaries and television series and other wider media), there are some aspects in which academia has lost something of a better past.

i. The ‘lone-scholar’ archetype: academia, particularly the arts and humanities, used to be less ‘research’ based and less interdisciplinary, but engaged with more hard hitting and in-depth systematic studies, this is not to say that this kind of study does not occur, but is becoming more epheemeral in departments and less the norm.

ii. The ‘old’ notion of interdisciplinarity. Interdisciplinarity is inherently a weak idea; it is like, how, I consider the concept of someone calling themselves eclectic: Jack of all trades, master of none. There used to be a time when people were masters of many things. Physicists like Descartes and Newton have particular resonances to many fields beyond physics because of the way in which their philosophical thinking engaged and melded with their mathematics and natural philosophy.

Few physicists from the mid-20th Century really know much about philosophy beyond basic philosophy of science (or skeptics 101, if one were to be American about the whole thing). A similar thing should be said of philosophers today; many, excepting those few on the real cutting edge of philosophy of psychology and mathematics, are not themselves scientists or mathematicians. Interdisciplinarity is a response in a way, to the death of the polymath, and the increasingly ‘professsional’ status of academia. In a sense, a certain kind of concession should be made to the ‘dryness’ objection of the continental philosopher to analytic philosophy today.

I’ve a bit of time before I can elicit some more responses in terms of the underlying political responses. For now I shall just sketch out the landscape


This week in radio

Over the past 6-7 days, I’ve found that there has been a quite spectacular selection of radio programmes available for podcast, here are the highlights

1. In Our Time, BBC: The Logical Positivists.

In Our Time is always a staple favourite for its broad yet expertly chosen topics.Melvyn Bragg always expresses some reservations on air when doing a programme about philosophy, especially when it comes to the more technical, inaccessible and unfriendly issues. This issue was one of the best in the whole programme. The Logical positivists were one of the most important movements in philosophy, particularly in how they have shaped the contemporary landscape of philosophy. Barry Stocker and Mary Carwright were the expert commentators, particularly notable ones at that.

Something that Bragg insinuated but did not explicate very much was the fact that the three experts come from very different camps and perspectives. The Logical Positivists can be a divisive issue in philosophy. It is continental philosophy par excellence, and yet, the Vienna (and earlier Berliner philosophers for that matter) are ignored the most by ‘european tradition’ ( as opposed to the anglo-american analytic) philosophy. The Logical Positivists do not talk much about normative philosophy in the way that applied ethicists or contemporary social thinkers do, but have a somewhat nuanced relationship with value theory (viz, the trajectory of Error Theory or Emotivism).

Even my own interest in 18thC philosophy puts me in a postion where I must stand in relation to the the Vienna philosophers: am I to accept their critique of Kant, for instance? What was rightly noted in the programme is that this is not a very simple question: the vienna philosophers were not an intellectually homogeneous group; as they composed of members from different disciplines and focii. Schlick was one of the first philosophers who actually understood the modern physics of Einstein with much rigor. Neurath was a sociologist who had aspirations for the social status the academy as part of a social ideal of academics of all stripes working together, a notion which, though perhaps desired and desirable, is so very far from the truth.

A lot of Scholarship is dedicted towas the early history and origins of analytic philosophy. I’ve found it particularly interesting in the increase of interest that links Carnap to Kant (Friedman, Chigwell). The vienna philosophers were living in both wonderful and horrific times. Einstein was a mature physicist and the icon of the generation, but also, Austria and Modern Germany were under the Nationalist-Socialist reign.

Their further reading looks particularly nice

2. BBC Analysis: Thought Experiments

Various studies have demonstrated that by slightly different appraisals or wordings of questions concerning moral considerations,we exhibit different reactions or responses. Theres a moral significance to these studies, particularly concerning issues like whether we attribute intention to actions, responsibility,or how our actions line up with our propositional beliefs.

A lot more needs to be said of this issue. The standpoint of the anti- x-phi’s goes something like this (and I suppose this would be my view): so we have these studies that give us insights that go against our normal moral theories and insights. That’s fine, what else can you tell us? Interesting it may be, although the armchair-burning gesturing is quite purposefully and unnecessarily polemical. As if to say all philosophy except theirs is ‘armchair theory’. While philosophy does not normally rely on empirical measues, it is far from being pie in the sky idea-mongering, the sort of associations had with those having pot-fuelled thoughts on the world. That said, the current generation of philosophy often has an eye towards work that has instant gratification or generating departments which are “paper-mills”. The old focus of exegesis, comprehensiveness and the labours of criticism are not as strong as they used to be. The studies, in terms of social science methodology are quite interesting nontheless.

3. The Spirit of Grunge (BBC Radio 4)

This program marks 15 years (I think) of when Kurt Cobain had killed himself. This was a survey of Grunge and in particular, its place in mainstream UK youth culture. In the UK’s pop music history, the late 80s began to grow tired of the new wave optimism and hit factories which hardly met the aspirations and pessimism of Thatherite 1980s. The emerence of acid hose and fusion groups like the Stone Roses exploded and disappeared from the scene just as quickly. Along comes grunge.

Grunge, according to the journalists of the programme, captured something in the social consciousness. It’s lo-fi and authentic roots could no longer be sustained as the genuine grunge movement became a victim of its own success, most signficantly marked by Cobain’s death. I think it was really nicely captured when one of the commentators described it thus: the outsider music genre becomes popular. The jocks begin to listen music that the bullied nerds and loners had made, and in that respect, the genre could no longer be viable.

Some other subthemes include: inauthentic grunge and authentic grunge: Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, and Smashing Pumpkins should hardly be considered to be grunge: Pearl Jam was a rock and roll band which had a twist, Smashing Pumpkins had more prog-elements to it. Also noted was how hugely unlikely Cobain’s success was: a boy from a broken family, living at one point in a trailer park in an area of great poverty and substance abuse. Popularity normally has a clean and friendly face and it was unlikely to be his.  The tragedy of grunge was in how the alternative becomes mainstream and commercial.

This narrative often is to be had: music which starts out as par of the fringe, polemical, challenging and ideologically opposed to the mainstream becomes homogenised and neutralised. ‘Nirvana’ is no longer a symbol of grunge, but a shirt in HMV that costs £13.99. It’s for that reason that I think its uncool to say that one likes Nirvana.

The potted history of UK music follows grunge with a reaction against it: britpop, locally made, self-indulgent, singer-artist archtypal and less ideological. Oasis is noted as a band which embraces its own success, with songs purposefully trying to be anthems, trying to be legendary, trying to appease for the masses.


The Decline of Western Civilisation II

(I’ve been meaning to post about this for a while.)

In the past few months, I mangaged to see a documentary by Penelope Spheeris. Apparently, this volume (II) is part of a larger corpus of works. The first film, The Decline of Western Civilsation concerns the punk rock movement around the end of the 1970s while the third part is about a more gritty gutter punks. I’ve yet to see these two. Part II of this film series concerns the glam and heavy metal music scene in Los Angeles, California.

There are some very clear themes in this work. Firstly is the misogny of the musicians and the overt objectification of women. Another feature is this ‘bohemian’ complex had by many of the musicians, of how they are very much striving for a reputation and gain merit by virtue of their musical achievement. However there is a questional nature to their claims; many bands and individuals were interviewed and each represented different phases in their career. There were the old guard of heavy metal; Motorhead’s Lemmy and Ozzy Osbourne (during a time when he was kicked out of Black Sabbath and successful in his own eponymously titled band), represented the more experienced and wisened rock idol. Ozzy and Lemmy were aware of the damage that alcohol and narcotics can do, while they were agnostic at best about the groupies; they were quite clear that there is a tragedy to success.

There were a great number of metal failures in this documentary as well. Many of the bands interviewed were either signed, unsigned or in a position which is surprisingly common: signed to a label, yet poor. This documentary was an exploration of the youth culture of the time. I though this perspective was particularly enlightening. The youths who sustained the heavy metal scene were sometimes also the members of small-time bands. Heavy metal possesses a hierarchy which may be likened to some crass contractarian state of nature. The powerful, and successful bigwigs are those who are idolised and siphoned. Women throw themselves freely to the big stars of the time, while those (males) lower on the food chain fight and struggle to compete for popularity, success, and sexual delight.

Club owners are overtly perverse. The less a girl wears, the more likely they will get in, one of the owners say. A distinct element stated early on in the film is that the heavy metal fan is powerless socially. Normally they are high school dropouts and with little employment prospects. Facing the Reganite conservatism of the time and the PMC; youth culture has no longer become a matter of deviance. Acceptable forms of ‘parental rejection’ are granted as the original baby boomers (the first generation who had a ‘youth culture’) have set the rules for social conformity. It is a partial irony that those original teenagers were the later arbiters of conformity.

There is a secret pathos to the interviews of the characters. We see alcoholic and ultimately doomed heavy metal musicians. Those who strive for success and a deified status akin to the likes of Dio or Ozzy are doomed to fail and are oblivious to said failure. It is, I think, clear to the audience watching the documentary, that this ‘vanguard’ of heavy metal is really a bloated failure. Heavy metal seems not to be a genre and ideology with clear goals or determinate ideas. The reception of this documentary led to an eventual change of attitude towards the late 1980s’. Hard rock and glam metal fell away of popularity, or slowly sidelined as the tassels and building blocks of future pop and AOR rock music towards the 1990s. Challenging guitar-heavy music moved away from NWOBHM heavy metal in a variety of directions. The bloated and popular scene of glam and mainstream heavy metal were divided. Some bands who were always underground, found new forms of expression. The disgust at the self-indulgence and percieved ‘femininity’ of glam metal led to a desire for more ‘authentic’ forms of music. Enter Generation X….

One redeeming feature of the documentary was the appearance of Megadeth at the end. Megadeth, while part of this scene which was largely indulgent, had the seeds of change. Some artists, particularly Metallica, Megadeth and Slayer; stayed true (initially) to their underground routes and formed a unique style of heavy metal in the 80s that reclaimed the authentic aspirations of heavy metal: challenging, gritty, dark, technical, political and relevant. The discourse of the mainstream and bloated indulgence seems always to be not far away in musical scenes. A similar story can be told in the origins of Black and Death Metal; another reactionary movement (in part) to the glam scene.


Lexical faux pas

People use exclamations too much. It is more a signification of the superflous and a tendency of hyperbolising one’s vocabulary than term of exception.

Also included in these character of phrases are: the over use of ‘literally’ or ‘random’ to mean ‘unexpected’