Æsthetica Powelli — an idiosyncratic view

Definition — is it possible? — or necessary?

"Man, if you don't know what jazz (æsthetics?) is, then I can't tell you"
— Louis Armstrong

Æsthete — one having or pretending sensitivity to the beautiful

æsthetic (according to Webster): having to do with beauty especially as distinguished from what is useful / appreciative or responsive to what is beautiful. Misapplied in German by Baumgarten as 'criticism of taste' and so used in England since 1830.

Artist: one who analyses and reflects upon the effect a work of art has — a contrast with the practical, the functional or the moral aspects of anything

"There are no moral or immoral books, there are only well written and badly written books" — Oscar Wilde

Assuming I have created a work of art, what is its effect — on me, on others, on which others? Can I analyse what (or where) the good and bad effects are? and why?

To be specific:

"Chinese Songs" What (or where) were its effects?

Its effect on me: Good: the delicate, transparent textures of voice and tape, the contrast between Tao and I Ching sections. Bad: perhaps too static. Need for change; within each style a feeling of development, of cause and effect??

Its effects on others: Chinese Songs was played a number of times in Computer Music Centre concerts but there was never any suggestion of singing it in other contexts by the singer (for whom it was written).

Æsthetic Response of the Performer

This problem of what the performer likes (or doesn't like) playing/singing can have a major effect on the end result. Should one therefore, pander to the æsthetics of the performer? On the one hand, it's impossible to write anything new if one stays within the familiar ranges or regions, on the other, if one dwells too long on the unfamiliar, the work will be rejected by the performer. The performer needs the opportunity to excel, to be heard at his/her best. This does not mean that the performer has to like the piece at the outset. It's highly likely that the composer will have to give him/her considerable "æsthetic" help at the beginning (more about this later – see § Where is the Kitschgrenze?).

Franziska Stähelin told me at the beginning; she liked singing in the range c" to c"'. In spite of the work's realisation of this wish, I often felt she was a little uncomfortable in this range. When one compares the range in the free sections with that of the fixed pitch sections, she chooses a much lower tessatura when she's free. This is of course a good thing — it adds to the contrast between the Tao and the I Ching sections — and was no doubt deliberately done. At the same time, I often wonder if the tension which one feels in the extremes of register have an effect on her aesthetic response to the work? If it had been a little easier to sing, it might have sounded more convincing?

Perception — the influence of the visual on the aural perception

"Unbewußt neben der musikalischen Phantasie wirkt oft eine Idee fort, neben dem Ohre das Auge, und diese, das immer tätige Organ, hält dann mitten unter den Tönen und Klängen gewisse Umrisse fest, die sich mit der vorrückenden Musik zu deutlichen Gestalten verdichten und ausbilden können." — Robert Schumann

No doubt that Schumann has an inner eye in mind — but in my mind this inner eye is closely connected to the perceptions of the external eye.

As composers we should be concerned with the perception of the sound world and how that world can be influenced by other senses — an uncomfortable seat or an overpowering perfume can effect what we hear. A visual event (or a message from another sense) may greatly influence an aural perception. The movements (or lack of them) of a performer, the gestures of a conductor (his ability to lead the players and simultaneously show us the music), the illumination of the mediaeval architecture at the Bourges Festival can have a significant effect on our perception of the music being played. To ignore this effect (especially at a first performance) is to risk the success of the music. Or worse still, to (unwittingly) introduce visual effects that have nothing to do with the music can seriously impair the aural perception. My view is that this is such an important aspect of music presentation, that it deserves our study and experimentation. The range is enormous: total darkness, darkness with minimal projections, allow the audience sight but focus it — on the player, the conductor, the loudspeaker box??, a slide show, ...

I remember a performance of a work by Peter Streiff in which the cellist and the top half of the percussionist were visible, but what the percussionist was playing was hidden behind a curtain. Presumably the composer had decided that the nature of the percussion instruments was visually distracting, he wanted the perception of the sounds to be unencumbered by the observation of the execution of the music.

It is, in my view, negligent to suppose that this "music-theatre" aspect of performance is unimportant. Even if we ignore this, the listener receives visual images, which influence his perception of the music. This is particularly the case with electro-acoustic music in which there is no performer or in which someone plays the computer. In the first case the normal concert-goer seeks in vain for a visual focus — finally settles on the faces of the audience or the floscles of the interior architecture. If there is a computer player visible he automatically becomes the centre of attention and is inevitably at best disappointing and at worst distracting because his tensions and relaxations are usually quite independent of those of the music.

A year ago in the Zürich conservatory there was a performance of a wonderful piece by Nono in which a tuba player sat centre stage and played a few soft farts and then the electronics took over. While the player sat there, apparently unmoved, the music travelled over a wide range of emotions. If one concentrated on the "player" the music died. Only by closing one's eyes could the music live. The tuba player would have been better placed off-stage, in fact, one could have appreciated the whole performance better from a recording.

I believe we accept (and even expect) music-related movement, in fact we seek it, to lead us into the music. Most pop and rock music show wonderful examples of very well considered movement and most of it is organic, it grows out of the music, it is music-related. If it is not there, we search for it and even create it for ourselves. In general the traditional difference between U- and E-Musik is that one has it and the other doesn't. With the advent of the modern E-Musik-Theater a new aesthetic of the glorification of the odd, the bizarre, the outrageous and the ludicrous has emerged. (eg, Berio's Trombone Sequenza who pretends to shoot ducks). Kagel takes this further when he plays on the tension generated by a discrepancy between contrasting musical and visual statements (eg. serious music and flippant movement, or vice versa).

Something which has developed recently in electro-acoustic music, which takes over the function of the performer or conductor as the visual centre of a piece, is the sight of the composer at the mixing desk as he agonises with the sliders. Some of these "performances" can be at least as distracting as a live performer with excessive music-unrelated movement.

I don't presume to have given any solution to this problem of the rôle of the visual in a predominantly aural situation, but if I have at least demonstrated that it is a problem then I am satisfied. One thing is certain: there is no easy solution, but there are good models for us to follow — Berio, Kagel, Stockhausen.

Content — what is art about?

"I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one . . . Humans are caught — in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too — in a net of good and evil . . . "
John Steinbeck, East of Eden

I believe that all art is subject to this same aesthetic law, namely the expression of human emotions (in a net of good and evil). If I can't find my own feelings in a piece, I can't respond to it (aesthetically). When I think of some of the great artistic creations of all time: — of Homer's Odyssey; of Dante's Divine Comedy; of Chartre Cathedral, of Michelangelo's David, of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, of Newton's Laws of Motion, of Goethe's Faust, of Beethoven's 9th Symphony, of Picasso's Guernica, of Stravinsky's Sacre, of Einstein's E=mc2, of Stockhausen's Stimmung — and wonder what they have in common: they are all very clear expressions of many contrasting human emotions. The media and the styles and the structures are all different (and all important) but far less important than the fact that they all have something important to say about human experience. I can find a part of myself within all these works.

"When all in the world understand beauty to be beautiful, then ugliness exists.
When all understand goodness to exist, then evil exists.
Thus existence suggests nonexistence." Tao Te Ching

I believe in this philosophy of opposites. For us to perceive an emotion we need also to perceive its opposite: tenderness/brutality, interest/boredom, or even emotion/non-emotion. In art history the pendulum swings between romantic and classical periods where the triggers which release emotions in us are more or less overt. These often very ambiguous triggers are specially interesting: we are free to translate these audio signals, and when great ambiguity reigns, the only correct translation is a personal one. Because music (even in a romantic era) is the most abstract of arts, we perceive its contained signals which are to be personalised, most easily when they contrast with their surroundings. The opposites, which for us as musicians are familiar, are: high/low, loud/soft, fast/slow. These are so banale they need hardly be mentioned. More interesting are: dense/light, complex/simple, chaotic/ordered (cf, Stockhausen: Klavierstück Nr.9 — starts in a highly ordered, simple framework and finishes in its opposite).

Perhaps the most interesting opposite of all is: æsthetic/non-æsthetic, or beautiful/ugly or tasteful/kitschig. If we restrict ourselves to the beautiful, the elegant, the perfection of good taste we become boring. The great problem is: how ugly, inelegant or kitschig may we be in order to stay interesting? The answer can never be given. It changes from age to age from person to person from piece to piece. But the question (even if unanswerable) remains essential: Where is the Kitschgrenze? How close to it dare I go? And how often?

Where is the Kitschgrenze?

As a young teacher I used to teach a course on music appreciation. It consisted largely of showing "good" music and my response to it. One day a colleague said to me: you never show them bad music. They can never understand good music if they don't know what bad music is.

As luck would have it, I had just arranged a piece (for string quartet) for the drama club. I forget the name of the piece, but it was definitely bad music! A piano reduction of this kitschig piece was printed at the back of the work the drama people were doing, so there was no escape, I had to arrange this piece, whether I liked it or not. Now, after this challenge from my colleague, the piece could at least be useful: to show the class what bad music is.

All of the lessons I'd had so far with this class had been with recorded music. Now for the first time, sat a real live string quartet in front of them. They played the piece and it sounded surprisingly good — live music always sounds better than dead. My colleague had especially come to listen. After this hearing he stood up and said: The trouble is, you all know it's bad music and you play it accordingly, couldn't you believe for one moment that it's very good music and play it again? They did, and it was superb — even I was convinced. The music had crossed the Kitschgrenze.

The Kitschgrenze is therefore not a fixed line. Its position is under our control and under that of the performer. While writing the Concerto for Orchestra Bela Bartók heard a Shostakovitch symphony, a part of which shocked him with its kitschig theme. He used this theme in the burlesque section of the 4th movement and transformed the theme into something quite wonderful.

Bartók's version of the "kitchig" Shostakovitch theme
Bartók's version of the "kitchig" Shostakovitch theme

This movement offers another example of a close encounter with the Kitschgrenze.

A breathtakingly beautiful (too beautiful?) melody is first announced by the violas. What saves it first from crossing the Kitschgrenze are the curious Bartókian harmonies in the Harp accompaniment.

Extract from Bartók's "Concerto for Orchestra", 4th movement "Intermezzo interotto"
Extract from Bartók's "Concerto for Orchestra", 4th movement "Intermezzo interotto"

Bartók wants to repeat this melody in the violins (again the Kitschgrenze looms) but it comes in canon at the octave two quaver beats later with the Cor Anglais — making the whole texture "beautiful" but strange.

On a larger time scale the whole movement is a juxtaposition of the unfitting, the inappropriate. Expressed in another way: as soon as we are in danger of wallowing in unthinking emotions we are jolted into another reality — a sort of musical Verfremdungskunst.

If there is a moral, it is, perhaps, that good and bad taste have a place together — but not apart.

I explained the idea in my piece WHALE of a man wanting to talk to a whale to Gerald Bennett.

He said: I find that a very kitschig idea.

Kit Powell Eglisau January 1996