Delacroix And The Rise of Modern Art, exhibition at The National Gallery, London

The purpose of this exhibition at the National Gallery, as one might surmise from the title, was to demonstrate the influence of Eugène Delacroix’s work on subsequent generations of artists. It made its historical point extremely well. Throughout the exhibit, for instance, there were numerous homages from subsequent artists, some even featuring Delacroix as a quasi-deity around which other artists gathered.

Each room in the exhibition was also themed around a certain aspect of Delacroix’s style. There was a room on Delacroix’s landscapes, for instance, for which, apparently he is not particularly well known, a room of his flower studies, and a room of his paintings from his memories of North Africa. Each room was littered with copies of Delacroix originals by artists such as Van Gogh, Paul Cézanne, and Claude Monet to show that Delacroix offered a model from which subsequent artists would learn and adapt to their own particular style. Far more than mere copies, these works were creative engagements with the subjects of Delacroix’s paintings.

What was far more interesting, and what provided a unifying theme throughout the exhibition, however, was the emphasis on Delacroix’s use of colour for expressive purpose. In this respect the exhibition amounted to a history of art from the point of view of the emancipation of colour from line, beginning with Delacroix, and taking in Monet and Cézanne, Van Gogh and Vasily Kandinsky (a favourite of mine, though I wish there had been more). This gradual process by which colour is no longer obligated to be representative, but can become expressive ‘things-in-themselves’ seems to represent the shift from the classical aesthetic of mimesis to a more brazenly romantic aesthetic, in its early stages, at least.

Funny then that Delacroix should have said, discussing the contemporaneous composer Hector Berlioz, that ‘[In Mozart]: Each of the parts has its own movement, which, while still according with the others, keeps on with its own melody and follows it perfectly; there is your counterpoint…He [Chopin] told me that the custom now is to learn the harmonies before coming to the counterpoint, that is to say, the succession of notes which lead to the harmonies. The harmonies of Berlioz are overlaid like a veneer; he fills in the intervals as best he can.’

For me this exhibition demonstrated a family resemblance not just between Delacroix and subsequent painters but with that other great pioneer of romanticism in France. And it made me think that a history of music could be written along similar lines. Finally perhaps, then, we’d find a place for Berlioz.

 

Science’s claims to objectivity. Or, why we all need a bit more humanity

Given the recent disavowal of arts subjects in the national curriculum by our hopelessly incompetent Education Secretary Nicky Morgan, I’ve taken Sir David Attenborough’s comments about world population as an opportunity to mount a defence of the importance of humanities subjects in order to be able to tie a few thoughts together. Essentially I want to argue that the fallacy of scientific claims to objectivity can only be elucidated with recourse to the ideology critique commonly taught on humanities courses. More than that, though, I want to suggest that disregarding the insights of the humanities can frequently lead to the assertion of highly troubling and ideologically obscurantist statements under the questionable guise of objective observation.

Sir David Attenborough’s recent suggestion that, as the Telegraph reports, ‘If we do not control  population, the natural world will’ is unashamedly Darwinian. Attenborough suggests that famine in Ethiopia results from the simple fact of too many people on too small a piece of land. In such a situation, as Darwin famously argues, when resources are limited, a battle will ensue between those competing for the resources and by ‘natural selection’ only the fittest among the population will survive. Thus Attenborough’s assertion about the causes of famine and death in Ethiopia are backed up by the objectivity of a well-established and widely accepted scientific theory. I do not wish to dispute the claims Darwin makes about evolution and processes of natural selection. Indeed I have no doubt that they are true. But it is here that someone with training in humanities can begin to deconstruct Attenborough’s statements.

Among scientists I will make few friends to suggest that it is no coincidence that Darwin’s theory of evolution emerged in the advent of industrial capitalism. Again, I do not dispute Darwin’s claims. All I wish to point out is that the economic conditions of capitalism, based as they are, on rampant competition between individuals, could conceivably have provided the intellectual conditions under which Darwin’s theory could not only be conceived but also be widely accepted. Indeed Darwin’s theories have often been held up as scientific proof of the natural-ness of capitalism as an economic system.

Marxist definitions of ideology, as distinct from the common usage of the term to denote ‘a system of beliefs’, suggests that ideas emerge as dominant in popular culture by virtue of their compatibility with an economic base. That is to say that, whether true or not, ideas will only become dominant and widely accepted, in a capitalist economic system, if they in some way support that economic system. Darwin’s theory of evolution is an unusually clear example of a theory held to be true (despite some religious objection) that all too conveniently supports the ideological foundations of capitalism. Again, this is not to say that I do not accept Darwin’s theory of evolution. Only that the idea of a neutral or objective level disconnected from social and economic conditions is a false one.

Attenborough’s statements on world population adequately demonstrate the danger of relying on claims to objectivity without the ideological critique provided by training in the humanities subjects. Attenborough’s suggestion that famine is caused by over-population is not just false, it obscures the economic conditions that really give rise to famine in Africa, that is, the West’s exploitation of Africa’s resources. Worse than that, in suggesting that famine is the result of ‘too many people on too small a piece of land’ Attenborough is suggesting that these deaths result from ‘natural processes’ and that nothing can be done, aside from population control, to prevent it from happening. This is the very stuff of ideology. It refuses to acknowledge the complicity of the economic system under which we live, in the deaths of millions of people and is consequently an unintentional defence of capitalism. Where is the humanity?

 

 

Adorno on the problem(s) of musical analysis

The following is a blogpost I wrote as a summary of the discussion of the second meeting of the Critical Theory for Musicology Reading Group. The original can be found here: https://criticaltheoryformusicology.wordpress.com/2015/11/06/adorno-on-the-problems-of-musical-analysis/

The second meeting of the Critical Theory for Musicology Reading Group was dedicated to discussion of Theodor W. Adorno’s now celebrated public lecture, ‘On the Problem of Musical Analysis’ [Zum Probleme der musikalischen Analyse]. But what problem is Adorno referring to here, and how might we get beyond it? Since the advent of New Musicology it is fair to say that music analysis has lost its privileged place as a mainstay of university music education. Indeed the relative decline of musical analysis in British universities—where it did not enjoy institutional protection, by contrast with universities in the US where musical analysis exists, and always has existed, as a separate institution—would seem to suggest that musical analysis’s problem is more of an existential crisis.

The objections to music analysis, which arguably brought about this crisis, are well-known and largely accepted by the academy. Music analysis is seen to uphold problematic assumptions about musical autonomy, to reduce music to its textual form as opposed to its realization in performance, and to reject examination of music’s social and historical context in favour of abstract and ahistorical theories about musical coherence and structure that tend to prioritize pitch over other musical elements, such as rhythm and instrumentation. Furthermore, musical analysis, when placed back into its historical context and considered as an extension of modernist thinking about music, can be said to reflect the same social prejudices revealed by New Musicological critiques of modernism itself.[1] But can Adorno, who despite being the pre-eminent social thinker of music is as much a product of the modernist project as musical analysis, be charged with such accusations? Or does he, in fact, hold the key to some sort of solution?

Initial discussion was given over to the more ‘purely musical’ problems identified by Adorno with regard to traditional methods of analysis, such as his criticism that formenlehre is mere description or fact collecting, and that Schenkererian analysis is far too reductive by treating formal structures as of peripheral importance in comparison with the Ursatz. Adorno’s response to these problems, arguably a synthesis of the two techniques, seeks to uncover what is going on underneath the formal schemata, without losing sight of such schemata as a determinant of their own deviation. Thus a dialectical relationship emerges between deviation and schema not too dissimilar to Hepokoski and Darcy’s Sonata Theory (indeed, it was even suggested that their dialogical approach to musical analysis might be seen as a response to the problem posed here by Adorno).

But how does this seek to resolve the problems identified by proponents of New Musicology? At this point in the discussion it was pointed out, quite rightly, that treating Adorno’s text as a treatise on how to do music analysis was not going far enough. What, for instance, might be the relationship between this text and Adorno’s wider project? After all, Adorno was concerned first and foremost with social questions and how they could be brought to bear on music. In looking for a response to this question we locked on to Adorno’s repeated references to the idea of a musical surplus [das Mehr], with its possible connection to Marx’s concept of surplus value, as providing a bridge between the aesthetic realm and the social. The surplus in art, for Adorno, is ‘concerned with that abundance which unfolds itself only by means of analysis. It aims at that which—as has been said of poetry […] is the truly ‘poetic’ in poetry, and the truly poetic in poetry is that which defies translation.’ It would appear, then, that the transition from mere ‘description’ or ‘tautology’ to analysis proper, from ‘what everyone can hear in the music anyway’ to a true understanding of the work, is achieved by the identification of this musical surplus, within which musical meaning is said to be located.

And herein lies the way, for Adorno, towards a sociological critique of music and the discovery of its truth content: ‘Now, the ultimate “surplus” over and beyond the factual level is the truth content, and naturally it is only critique that can discover the truth content. No analysis is of any value if it does not terminate in the truth content of the work, and this for its part, is mediated through the work’s technical structure.’ With this, Adorno arguably allows us to turn the critique of music analysis on its head. Far from analysis being the means to close off questions of social and historical context from the study of music, Adorno argues that it is only through proper musical analysis, conceived as an examination of the relationship between schema and deviation, that we can access this context at all.

And this, it transpires, is the ‘problem’ of musical analysis to which Adorno is referring in his title. It is a ‘problem’ conceived as a riddle or paradox, to be found at the center of the musical work, within which we discover the antagonisms of the society that produced it, and arrived at through contemplation of the problems of traditional analysis. In summary: ‘“To analyse” means much the same as to become aware of a work as a force-field [Kraftfeld] organised around a problem.’

For those sympathetic to the plight of music analysts, this was no doubt an exciting way to reconcile the musical and the social, critical thought and musicology. For others, however, Adorno’s solution did not constitute a convincing rebuttal of the more recent critiques of ‘the music itself’ advanced by New Musicology. Some expressed concern with the troubling relationship between knowledge and power, whereby access to the ‘social content’ of music was premised on a highly selective understanding of what constituted the music’s real content. Discomfort was also expressed with regard to the leap of faith that one has to make, when reading Adorno, that social antagonisms are indeed contained within musical structures. Some suggested there were better ways of getting at music’s social content, such as by examining contemporaneous discourse about music or by assessing ways in which music interacts with the body. And so we concluded with an altogether different problem, best encapsulated, perhaps, in the quasi-Dahlhausian question of whether we are trying to determine the social content of music or the social content of music?

[1] For an extended discussion and convincing rebuttal of many of these claims see Horton, Julian. 2001. “Postmodernism and the Critique of Musical Analysis”. The Musical Quarterly 85 (2). Oxford University Press: 342–66. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3600916.

Audacious Euphony: Chromaticism and the Triad’s Second Nature

I have just read one of the most important books about the analysis of nineteenth-century music to have appeared in recent years: Richard Cohn’s ‘Audacious Euphony: Chromaticism and the Triad’s Second Nature.’ Interested as I have always been in alternatives to so-called functional harmonic analysis, I found it an exhilarating read.

The book forms the culmination of a life’s work on what is commonly called Neo-Riemannian analysis (a term now rejected by Cohn). Accordingly, Cohn has synthesised, in one fairly brief book, insights garnered from years of research and a host of publications by him and others. Such a project could easily bore readers well-versed in hexatonic systems and Weitzmann regions but repetition is largely avoided and Cohn often succeeds in re-framing and, in many cases, simplifying his insights. Although his aim for the book to be of interest to the general reader may seem hopelessly naive, scattered as it is with various graphs and mathematical functions, the book is surprisingly entertaining.

One of the many delights in reading Audacious Euphony is Cohn’s use of metaphor to elucidate what is happening in the music he analyses. An early example will serve well here as well as highlighting the central problem Cohn is trying to solve. When discussing a passage in Schubert’s B flat Major Piano Sonata, which traverses the keys of B flat, G flat, F sharp minor, and A major, before returning to tonic B flat, Cohn identifies the difficulty of understanding this passage from the perspective of common-period tonality. Yes the passage begins and ends in B flat, indicating a global tonic, but that is not enough to confirm its being tonal. As he points out:

We have yet to consider how the local keys (or, from a different perspective, the triads prolonged by the local spans) relate to one another and how they work together to express the global tonic of B flat major. If we are unable to do so, we just have a bunch of tubs floating around on their own bottoms. Each vessel is internally coherent and occupies a space bounded by the B flat shores. But in relation to one another, their relation is random, for all we know. And that is no way to express a tonality. We can’t just go <B flat major, Cough, Wheeze, Honk, B flat major> and pretend that we have made coherent music in B flat major. If a tonal theory is to meet its claims of explanatory adequacy, it needs to be able to specify the role, with respect to tonic, of the harmonies that separate the bounding tonics.

Cohn’s main thesis, then, is that movement from any given triad to another can be achieved in two ways: functionally, in accordance with the diatonic system, or contrapuntally, by emphasising maximally efficient voice-leading. Compositions which operate within both systems simultaneously are labelled pan-triadic, emphasising the dual-nature of the triad, implied by the book’s title.

Audacious Euphony maps out in stages the components of its system; first we deal with the familiar Hexatonic Cycles, then the Weitzmann regions and finally a unification of the two. Once this unified model has been achieved for the triad, Cohn can deal with dissonance and tetrachords. Up to this point, though, we are largely in the realm of pieces or passages that have been conceived of entirely contrapuntally. It is not until the end of the book that we discover how all of this interacts with the tonal system and this can, at times, test one’s patience.

Cohn confronts some contentious issues throughout the book, namely the notion of reciprocity, or how two chords can simultaneously pull towards each other. An example given is of the minor variant of a subdominant chord. In this instance, the tonic functions as a dominant relation to this chord, its third acting as a leading note. At the same time, however, the subdominant’s flat 6th pulls in the direction of the tonic’s fifth. Many have taken issue with the concept of reciprocity but it seems to me entirely convincing. When faced with these chords, out of context, it is impossible to determine their relationship to one another. Cohn’s examples demonstrates how the reciprocal potential of this relationship can be used to subvert the listener’s expectation, seemingly functioning in one way before revealing itself to be the other. Perhaps more contentious is the notion of ‘dual syntax’ or the possibility of the human mind simultaneously comprehending two alternative systems. Cohn brushes off this potential criticism with an appeal to multilingualism but such controversy is really not what interests me about Cohn’s book.

What we essentially have, here, is a total system, an effort at an as full as possible understanding of a piece of music that may have previously eluded us from a tonal perspective. In this sense, the work is invaluable for analysts of music post-Schubert. As dry as such a topic might seem, though not so much in the hands of a writer such as Cohn, the author often pauses to consider the implications for those inclined towards a post-structuralist approach to music. And it is here that the book really demonstrates its importance.

While Cohn does indeed offer us a ‘total’ view of the artwork, an approach very common in the music-analytic community, what is of far more worth is the conceptualisation of tonality offered at the end of the book. Working with the diatonic ‘Tonnetz’ model allows us to see the extent to which certain passages ‘pervert’ tonality (to use only the most common metaphor). It is surely this that lends the greatest opportunity for ideology critique or hermeneutic insight. Rather than attempting to achieve a full picture of a piece, Cohn offers us the ability to map a hexatonic route through tonal space which reveals the frightening strength of tonality to encompass and withstand even the most extended challenges to its hegemonic function and nevertheless remain, in an important sense, tonal. For critics keen to emphasise the ‘fault lines’ to be found in a musical work they need look no further.

Don’t Get it Right, Get it Written.

I’ve decided to start this blog in order to get me writing.

First, a little about me.

I am a Ph.D student at Royal Holloway College, University of London writing a thesis on Berlioz – I’m afraid it doesn’t get a lot more specific than that. On top of a full-time Ph.D, I am a peripatetic guitar teacher, an external marker of Theory papers, and an assistant librarian. I have also been allocated teaching for next year at my uni as well as essay marking. Research, I hope, will come somewhere and somehow among all of that.

Now, for someone wanting to pursue a career in academia it is perhaps curious that I face difficulties with writer’s block, but recent advice seems to have yielded some positive results. Here I get to one of the main purposes of me writing this blog – to get into the habit of writing something – anything in fact.

My problem with writer’s block stems, I think, from my habit of trying to write essays from start to finish in a linear and complete manner. I basically wanted everything I set down on paper to be perfect and to require minimal editing. What this generally meant was that I never ‘risked’ anything: everything was considered and, most often, rejected before it had the chance to reach the page. All I could consequently do was regurgitate secondary literature, secure in the knowledge that it would at least be acceptable and most likely correct.

After talking with a lot of other postgraduates, however, I’ve repeatedly received the same advice: ‘Don’t get it right, get it written’. Initially this advice stumped me. When you struggle to write and someone tells you to ‘just write’ you tend to feel a little bit helpless, ‘That’s the problem! I can’t *just* write’, you might reply.

I’ve only recently realised properly what was meant by that phrase and now understand the difficulty that I imposed upon myself when trying to complete a final draft first time round: the impossibility of trying to conceive of something perfectly in my head before writing it down. I’m now trying to write in an iterative way – I write whatever comes to mind, I repeat myself, I don’t try to link anything with what has preceded it, I summarise secondary literature and comment on it as soon as my thoughts come to mind.

For me this is a huge step, before I would be agonising over every sentence in order to reach the word count. Now, I could double the word count before even getting to the main point – in much less time. It’s a lot easier to organise and structure an essay when it is written than to try and do both at the same time. I don’t know why I was so slow to realise this when everyone else seems to have stumbled upon this naturally, but at least it’s working for me now.

So, the first purpose of this blog, as I said, is to get something down on a page, whatever that might be. I’m hoping also that it will act as a sort of journal for my progress through my Ph.D and will allow me to easily survey what I have been reading and when I have been reading it. With this in mind, I’m hoping to write some reviews/thoughts about things that come up in the literature I read, that might come in handy later on. Consequently a lot of what I write will be work-in-progress or erroneous but that is exactly the point!