Monday Musing: The Aesthetics Of Nature, And The Nature Of Music

Posted on March 5, 2012

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The critic has got like shit to say and all this.

Every human being is a unique individual, and inherently valuable; what’s precious about them, moreover, is somehow connected to their uniqueness, their particularity. Trees, on the other hand… well, one’s much the same as another. Agree or disagree with these statements, there are certainly a lot of people who subscribe to both, but today I’m rambling aimlessly on in my inimitable style about aesthetics, and I get the impression that commonplace aesthetic responses reverse those positions. People never seem to get tired of looking at nature, or certain select bits of it, whereas most of the people we randomly encounter on our way to the corner shop for a pint of milk probably strike us as the acme of the ordinary. Notwithstanding that Jah Wobble can see Greek gods in shop assistants, and that such metaphorical revaluations are available to anyone willing to consciously resist our default cultural ideologies, those ideologies have an extremely powerful grip on our perceptions.

And what does this have to do with music? Just this: while aesthetics may appear to be peripheral to the value of human beings or the natural world, they are clearly central to our perceptions of musical value. I would like to argue that aesthetics are by no means unimportant in our valuations of our social and natural environment, and more importantly (given that this is a blog about music), that our valuations of people, and of the natural world, are central to our valuations of music. However, for the moment, I’ll set music on one side and think about the aesthetics of landscape.

I do a lot of the work of listening and thinking that goes into my writing on music while walking the dog. I walk the dog on the same route every day, normally twice, and I never tire of the sight of that landscape; the other day, I got to thinking about that. Why, when I see it every day, does it look new to me every time? How can something as commonplace as the undramatically undulating landforms of South Suffolk, dressed in the unremarkable, safe British flora and fauna I’ve been familiar with all my life, subject to the mildest of climatic variations, retain the capacity to astonish me? What I see every day is so beautiful that it completely exceeds my ability to express it in words. I think it has something to do with repetition and variation, which I think is key to all aesthetic responses.

A tree, to pick a natural form at random, is a predictable pattern; if I say ‘a tree’ you know what I mean. Perhaps you care what type it is, in which case ‘an ash tree’ might be more to the point; and if you’re a seasoned observer of ash trees, you might wonder what age or height it is, and whether it has had its lower limbs lopped so that it has the lollipop appearance of most ash trees in villages and gardens, or whether it has its shaggy natural habit. Furnished with all that information, you’ll probably be content to assume you know what I’m talking about; but the fact is that every ash tree, identical to another in its conformity to the above variables, is still utterly unlike every other ash tree, the more so the closer you look. Like the fractal mathematics of chaos theory, the idea of a ‘shaggy twenty year old ash’ will tell you in general terms what to expect, what it will look like from a distance, and absolutely nothing about the specific, particular form of each individual twig or leaf. There is a predictable repetition, a pattern, a rhythm if you like, and within that structure, there is absolute, infinite, irreducible particularity. It’s not just trees, it’s all plants, all animals, all landforms, cloudscapes, in fact it’s all everything, but with artificial structures we read the particularities as irrelevant noise or dirt, incidental to a more generic central meaning. And importantly, it’s babbling brooks, the wind in the trees and birdsong as well.

So that’s what I think, that’s my hypothesis on why we find natural forms beautiful: I can look at the same view every day, and every day it’s different. I enjoy the novelty of that, sure, but what I really value is the particularity of which that novelty is a token. Time now to shift my attention from the natural object, to the human subject. Driving to work the other day, a circumstance in which I am probably more disposed to perceive the routine and the repetitive in my sensory impressions, I saw a young man walking along the pavement in a dormitory village I pass through. He didn’t look miserable, but neither did he look happy; he looked entirely resigned to, and uninterested in his present situation. He did not have a spring in his step, but neither did he shuffle or drag his feet; his clothing was not flamboyant, it was dark in colour, but it carried visible branding that suggested certain aspirations, and that its wearer regards themself as in some sense fashionable, identified with a group in society that is not entirely square, but by no means unconventional.

I had already been working through the thoughts I’ve outlined regarding the aesthetics of nature, and it struck me that I saw this young man in a different way. I read him as a symbol; from his gait, his hairstyle, his clothing and his facial expression I formed some sort of an impression about him, and it struck me that if I saw him again the next day, walking along the same road in the same manner, I would form the same impression, or rather I would simply refer back to the one I had already formed. I would see an ordinary young man walking along an ordinary road. There’s something wrong with that. This is a human being we’re talking about, so unique, so particular in so many different ways, and conscious, aware of their own particularity, and while unable to compare it directly with anyone else’s specific subjectivity, pretty certain that they are, in important ways, themselves and no-one else. This is a thinking, feeling, spiritual being, and if there is any hope for our species, if we are ever going to learn to live in sustainable communities of happy fulfilled individuals, we should all love him. Not in spite of the fact that we’ve never met him and know nothing about him, but because of it. Because we know that inside that ordinary setting is a gem beyond price, a particularity of experience that is valuable irrespective of whatever superficial characteristics may lead us to like or dislike him. What I saw is this: an ordinary young man, walking along an ordinary road.

Although it’s certainly true to say that human beings, like natural forms, represent particularity within a repeating pattern, I get the impression we often see other people as the reverse. We know on some level that, like ourselves, they are irreducibly specific; but that general unrepeating individuality is obscured in each actual instance by conformity to a generic pattern. Variation overwritten by repetition, rather than repetition underwritten by variation. The terms in which we read human beings, as social symbols, are too often the ones that we have been given by mass culture, and we usually require some degree of detailed one-to-one interaction before we start to respond to people empathically rather than interpretatively, as subjects rather than utterances. The human voice, when it is presented as overtly aesthetic, we happily read as such, but in its ‘ordinary’ uses, seems profoundly mundane. This perception is exacerbated hugely by its use in mass culture, not only for the voice-overs of adverts or whatever, but in telephone menu systems and other automated contexts that render that most vital sign of the self-aware human subject no more particular than text.

So the question I’m asking is ‘why’? Why are human subjects rendered generic by their engagement with a commercial culture that is supposed to differentiate them by fine degrees, while undifferentiated natural objects remain irreducibly particular, and thus beautiful? I don’t particularly want to present an answer to this question, but I want to ask it, and I want to ask it loud. I would like everyone to ask this question, to interrogate their own aesthetic responses, because our apparently uncomplicated, trivial preferences (‘I like this, I don’t like that’) smuggle fundamental value judgements below the radar of our critical faculties, all the time. It’s obviously not practical to engage with everyone as an individual, in a world in which we encounter thousands of other people in fleeting encounters, reading the complex coding of their faces and clothing as we pass them in the street, to no end, but simply because we can’t switch it off. However, I believe it’s immensely important to be aware of these processes and differentiations, the mechanisms of our responses, because without that self-awareness we essentially abdicate the right to shape our perceptions to whoever happens to be able to claim our attention, which, in the shouting match of contemporary mass culture, will be those with the most money.

Now, supposedly, this is a blog about music, and it may not look like it, but this is an article about music. Let’s look back at the first set of observations, regarding our perceptions of the natural world; I mentioned babbling brooks, wind in the trees and birdsong. What I think is interesting about these auditory phenomena is that we will usually hear them as uncomplicatedly beautiful, as easy to listen to, and as a token of the incredible aesthetic wealth of the natural environment; but if we disguise them as deliberate aesthetic utterances, that can change radically. The easiest example to tackle is birdsong, because, like musical melody, it is made up of a series of discrete pitches, issued in various durations; it contains important timbral information as well, as does music, but it contains clear enough pitch/ duration content to be transcribed, as though it were music. What we would hear, if we transcribed it and had a musician play it back to us, would be a complex stream of notes, full of trills and flourishes, broken up into phrases, but it would be dissonant, atonal, arrhythmic and generally ‘difficult’. It would sound like modern, experimental music. Most people would find it anything but beautiful; what we would want, in order to be able even to assess the music aesthetically, would be some sense of a recognisable language, of a repeating pattern in which we could seek variations. So by transposing the criteria by which we interpret socially mediated human symbols onto our perceptions of nature, we essentially render its aesthetics inaccessible. Perhaps we obscure its particularity with a generic sense of the musical utterance, in the same way that we obscure the particularity of the human subject by focussing on the generic language of their clothing. Something leads us to focus sometimes on what’s particular, and other times on what’s repeated.

Of course there’s a great deal of atonal music made and listened to; natural sounds, or found sounds, are frequently employed in music, and not just in the avant-garde; aesthetic categories are continually transgressed or called into question. In some cases the overall context can render these transgressions quite digestible, so much so that they sometimes don’t even sound transgressive. In other cases, they retain a powerfully disturbing effect. Toying with the edges of comprehensibility can be an effective aesthetic strategy, and exploiting the various ways that we respond aesthetically to the natural, the human and the artificial enables musicians to put some very profound and particular meanings into their art. Such meanings depend to some degree on the listener’s ideologically ingrained aesthetic responses, but in my view they are only enhanced by a self-conscious awareness of those responses; however much we might be aware of it, we can never escape ideology, but we can at least understand what values it encodes, and how our own values relate to it. Music is made by humans, and we always hear it as the utterance of a human subject: that’s what makes transcribed birdsong, or even a recorded waterfall legible as art. I believe that a critical self-awareness of the way we read human subjects as symbols can only help us to read musical utterances in more complete, complex, rewarding, and ultimately empathic, compassionate ways.

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