On Saturday I had the pleasure of attending a performance of the Brentano Quartet at the Norfolk Chamber Music Festival. They played three pieces. I liked two of those pieces very much. The first one that I liked was a set of madrigals composed by Carlo Gesualdo, arranged for a string quartet. The other one was String Quartet No. 7, in F Major, Op 59, No. 1 by Ludwig van Beethoven, which I loved. It had all the intensity you would expect from a Beethoven piece, but there were some parts of it that played with interesting dissonances, making it less predictable while still clearly Beethoven-ish.
I did not like the third piece that they played, but it is the inspiration for this blog post.
The piece was “From the Fifth Book” by Stephen Hartke. He wrote it specifically for the Brentano Quartet, and they premiered it in November of last year. I find that modern music of this sort tends to be, simply put, unpleasant. There is too much dissonance and no tonality. I can never tell where it’s going; indeed, it’s unclear whether it’s actually going anywhere. Maybe I just don’t get it, but I’m skeptical that there’s anything to get, just as I’m skeptical that there’s something significant I’m missing when I look at highly abstract modern art.
Upon hearing the piece, my initial thought was “this is bad.” My subsequent thoughts were about how I might justify the initial one. Do I have good grounds for saying that music should not be like this? Shouldn’t music be beautiful? I have been pondering a similar question with regard to modern art. Much modern art seems to me to be pretentious nihilistic crap (e.g. Duchamp). Am I justified in thinking the same way about modern atonal music as I think about Duchamp’s “Fountain”?
I do think I can justify my position, which is that modern atonal music is not only unpleasant to me, but is bad. So I’ll try.
To start, I think it’s important to determine what exactly is the telos of music. More broadly, it would help to consider what might be the telos of art in general. My first thought was beauty, but after further consideration, it seemed to me that not all good art is beautiful. This is especially true in literature. I recently read The Broom of the System by David Foster Wallace, and beautiful is one of the last words I would use to describe the book. But still, I believe it is good literature. But what makes it good?
My tentative requirement for art to be good is that it powerfully exhibit the truth. Truth is thus the telos of art. In representational art forms, it is easier to see how this works. For example, Crime and Punishment exhibits timeless truths about human psychology and morality through the story of Raskolnikov. But in nonrepresentational art forms, things become more difficult. How can a work of nonrepresentational art be true? In other words, what truth-content can a nonrepresentational work of art have? These are important questions to consider in this context, as most music is nonrepresentational.
Whereas representational art refers to the truth, nonrepresentational art is the truth. True representations lead one along the path to truth; they are not themselves truth, but they are true. True nonrepresentational art does not lead to truth, but is itself the truth. Representational art is true by virtue of what it says. Nonrepresentational art is true by virtue of what it is. This raises the question: What must nonrepresentational art be in order to be true?
This question returns me to my initial instinct, which is to appeal to beauty. But I’m not sure how to define “beauty.” And I’m also not sure if it’s right to say that music must be beautiful in order to be true. Perhaps the beauty follows from the truth of the music, rather than the other way around; indeed, this seems more likely. If this is the case, then we can say that the truth of the music is that which makes the music beautiful.
Perhaps it’s because I’ve been watching too many Jordan Peterson videos, but I think that what makes a piece of music beautiful is its mediation between chaos and order, between unknown and known territory. This means that what is beautiful to one person may not be beautiful to another, as chaos and order to some degree depend on individual experience. A piece of music fails to be beautiful when it suffers from either an excess of chaos (e.g. too much dissonance) or an excess of order (e.g. no dynamics).
As far as I can tell, atonal music cannot have a sufficient degree of order in it to be beautiful. The order present in most music gives you an idea of what is to come. It creates expectations which it can either meet or subvert. But atonal music cannot create such expectations, meaning that it can neither meet nor subvert them. It just ends up being utterly dull and unengaging.
There still remains the possibility that atonal music is just unexplored territory for me, and that some people do find in it sufficient order to form expectations of what the music will become. But I’m skeptical. I’d love to be proven wrong.