Wednesday, 1 June 2011


Feeling a wave of poptimism at the moment (probably as a reaction to the Retromania kerfuffle - see below). Getting a bit obsessed with Nicki Minaj, for instance.

Also reading some philosophy of music stuff, and having ambivalent thoughts about it.

Take Peter Kivy's Antithetical Arts: On the Ancient Quarrel Between Words and Music (2009). This is a book that deploys an infuriatingly fustian prose-style, a classic case of the analytic philosophy text that tries to be chatty and everyday and to avoid theoretical "pretention", "imprecision", and "verbosity", but ends up being utterly pretentious, imprecise, and verbose with its fussy bourgeois patois and interminable Ivy League circumlocutions. (Is it Marcuse who talks about the fact that analytic philosophers often "define their terms" in an arcane public school dialect that is anything but "pragmatic" and "neutral"?)

The content of Anithetical Arts is also DEAD annoying. “I am an inveterate, entirely unrepentant believer in the good old romantic concept of genius, and in the doctrine of progress that it supports", says Kivy, not very winningly. The entire book is a defence of the old notion of "absolute music" - an extreme formalist position which holds that, effectively, context is irrelevant; works should be denuded of their social-historical dimensions and studied as pure artifice (and even then, so the argument goes, music is such an abstruse phenomenon that it's probably ultimately un-analysable). 

Of course this is classic Romantic-conservative crap, which moreover begs the obvious question: how have you managed to become a distinguished and (probably) wealthy professor of philosophy of music if you don't think it's possible to analyse music?

So that was that. But then I heard this again:


And I was reminded of this:

“… absolute music does have the effect that it does, of character-uplifting, consciousness-expanding … and to that extent, it can, as well, be described as morally uplifting. There is no evidence that this ecstatic, character-uplifting experience has any lasting effect at all on moral behavior or moral character in the long haul. Nor is it some mysterious, Orphic or Pythagorean quality that music alone possesses. (It is not the harmony of the spheres.) But never mind all of that. Music does possess it. And while you are experiencing its effect, you are the better for it, and so is the world. So we should forget about what absolute music can’t be and cannot do, and thank God, or evolution for what it can.” (Antithetical Arts, p. 232)

And I found myself agreeing with Kivy. 


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