Barcelona

Not a political post, weirdly enough… I’m headed to Barcelona where a conference on music criticism happens to be taking place in a couple days (it’s not canceled!). I’ll be throwing in a few cents about possible object-oriented contributions to criticism. My  example is a major work by the Dutch composer Louis Andriessen. (Here’s the program.) The tune is called De Staat, which is Dutch for Plato’s Republic, and was finished in 1976. It is structured around three selections from the Republic. Below is a 2017 performance at Oberlin.

I had planned to post on a totally different topic after a long friendly exchange with the clear-headed and remarkably patient Noah Roderick, and I will eventually. The capsule preview of the upcoming post is that I got majorly stuck on one of Graham Harman’s claims while I was working on a paraphrase of his theories. In Chapter 7 of Quadruple Object, he asserts that each of his object-quality tensions has both a “banal” and “explicit” version. There are four tensions in his object-oriented ontology, so he counts eight possibilities: time + simulation, space + allure, essence + causation, eidos + theory. In my opinion, a proper Harmanian universe has only FIVE possibilities with the object-quality tensions, not eight (or four). But that fifth one is pretty interesting. It also appears to have given Harman the most trouble with terminology. (Obviously that post will be for OOO geeks, but a description of what the hell I’m talking about will come, I promise. This is a rare occasion where I’m confident enough to stick to my guns, so I really will do my best to explain it.)

But back to Barcelona. The paper on Andriessen spawned from some pre-OOO research. File it under Winking Wolfendale. My old argument — or at least a coherent-sounding summary of it — was that scholars and critics had gone to admirable lengths to incorporate the musical and socio-political context behind De Staat in their commentary, but they missed a major spot. They carefully showed how Andriessen’s progressive political views seeped into his work, yet took his interpretation of Plato at face value. And Plato’s not nearly the arbitrary authoritarian that Andriessen portrays. I also sloppily tried to connect my discussion with a critique of a distinction between “structural” and “intentional” statements in music analysis (as in “structural notes” vs. “composer’s intentions”), which a music theorist named Ethan Haimo suggested many years ago. And that was that.

If you enjoy De Staat like I (mostly) do, you won’t find my missed-a-spot argument convincing—even if you agree that Andriessen mangles Plato at least as much as Popper does in The Open Society and Its Enemies. Indeed, from Popper you can see why we might want to give Andriessen a pass: accuracy isn’t really the point of his musical take on Plato.

(By the way, none of what follows matches my wording for the conference paper. And I don’t even mention Popper there. Re-writing things helps me a lot for some reason, hence the existence of this blog.)

The short version of my new argument is that object-oriented thought helps out in two ways: (1) through its critique of formalism vis-à-vis the “taxonomic fallacy,” and (2) through its aesthetic theory. Harman’s critique of formalism is an argument against making ontological distinctions based on kinds of things. That is, we cannot decide in advance (taxonomically) which contexts are relevant to an object. And context is important precisely because the critic has to decide which aspects of a thing’s parts or effects – in other words, its context – are on the interior of their object. It is too easy to assume that some apparent self-contained unity is the object (like a work’s sonic content in the case of music). However, OOO has us on guard about taking such things for granted. To this extent it agrees with critics who claim that certain so-called “extrinsic” factors really are important. Obvious examples include Picasso’s Guernica or the classic Chilean protest song, “El pueblo unido jamas sera vencido.”

And then OOO’s aesthetic theory draws the boundaries that were left open by the critique of formalism. It agrees with the “formalist” critics who are only interested in the purely sonic drama of the music insofar as they are protective of its status as an autonomous work of art. With De Staat, then, the question isn’t whether or not Andriessen turns Plato into a crazy-looking caricature, but whether he animates that caricature. For an analogy, think of the film Amadeus. Part of its charm (assuming you like it) is that it’s so easy to feel some sympathy or even complicity with the jealous bad guy, Salieri. And he was anything but a bad guy in real life.

Now, to end on a mystery (because it’s still a mystery to me), I’m not sure whether and how De Staat meets the above aesthetic standard with respect to its Plato text. I’m leaving this part out of my talk, but the best I can do right now is to suggest there might be a point of genuine complicity between music and words (and not just ironic or “dialectical” portrayal) in the first choral section. Here are the words, from 397b-c:

“…and if one adds to the diction [lexis] an appropriate mode [harmonia] and rhythm, it may be correctly uttered in virtually the same manner throughout – in one harmonia, that is, since the changes are slight, and in a rhythm that is similarly uniform?”

“That is certainly so,” he said.

The original context of this passage is as follows. When poets sing their tales to young members of the ruling class (it’s educational, like Sesame Street), they need to limit all mimicry to mimicry of good people, so that they don’t teach the wrong values. And good people are more likely to narrate in their own voices (diegesis) than try to sound like villains, storms, birds, and farts (mimesis, in Plato’s sense). By contrast, Andriessen’s de-contextualized version of the passage is just about the cooperation of different elements: a musical style to match the general narrative vibe. This might be a point of intersection between Andriessen’s ideal of anti-hierarchical solidarity and the rule-bound happiness of Plato’s dream Kallipolis.

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