The fickle world of credibility and believability

This post is not one of my usual musical musings but rather looks at literature to ask, to what extent the credibility and believability of a work is affected by the our knowledge of its source material.

Let us begin with fiction, which the oxford English dictionary defines as: “ that which is invented or untrue”. What I wish to consider here is the probability of someone being able to create something purely independent of themselves. Any thought, idea or scenario available to you, cannot be independent of you who is therefore the medium through which it has come to exist. Although what is produced may not appear to have come from the individual who created it, due to its seemingly removed nature, it is possibly a reinterpretation of something previously experienced. In this way nothing can be truly fictional to the creator of the work, in the sense that it can never be completely untrue or invented to those who have experienced the actual roots of these “fictional” ideas. The question I wish to raise here is, does the knowledge that the fictional events of a book stem from reality, damped our enjoyment and ability to “be carried away” by the story? If all fictional works were traced back to their origins, in the minds of their makers, they would no longer provide an escape from reality. They would merely show a reinterpretation of the human psyche. This would allow that fiction which previously inspired dreams, through its distance from the reality, would now be viewed as an internal coping mechanism of the mind to deal with emotional stress.

This process of transference is often used in psychoanalysis to trace the emotional path of an individual back to key life events.Transference was defined by Freud to be the repetition of the individuals earliest emotional relations, although it can be elaborated to refer to the movement of any significant emotion from one place to another in order that it might be expressed.Since it is proven that the brain does this with emotion, it is not so far to assume that the same cycle may occur with ideas or experience.

Let us now have an example of where transference might ruin the credibility of a work of a different nature:

A philosopher puts forward the suggestion of a new social model which favours the weakest members of society, allowing them superiority over the strong. He reasons that act of elevating these members would in fact raise the overall standard of society. This idea targets the problem of inequality and aims to eradicate the notion of “survival of the fittest” by proposing an alternative method towards a more productive society. Everyone loves it. So there is no problem…right ?

But wait. What if it emerged that this particular philosopher had been horrifically bullied as a child and that as a result of this he maintained a lifelong resentment to figures of power, such as those who had loomed over him. Is his theory now viewed in a different light? The focus is no longer on this idea as an independent thought but rather as a transference of emotional trauma; a biased view. Does the inclusion of personal information taint the purity of the philosopher’s theory? I think it does. The pairing of literature and philosophy with their human origins seems to impact our enjoyment and respect for them. We like the illusion these works create as they appear completely unaffected by life, creating a purity of meaning which exists independent of the world we know.

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Art and the Mystification of Existence

“To that gaunt House of Art which lacks for naught,  of all the great things men have saved from Time,”-Wilde, 1879 ‘Athanasia’

Today I have been thinking about art’s role in the mystification of existence and our idolisation of artists. As in my last post, on the deconstruction of the creative process, our idolisation of the artistic object could be found to be similarly deceptive in nature. Art, for me, is the small but perfectly crafted illusion of immortality, one which few manage to achieve and fewer live to reap the benefits of. It is an object through which both the maker and the observer may believe they have, respectively, created and witnessed something transcendent, increasing for a moment the mystique of their lives. The object itself implies, as in the creation of music, an ineffable process which has resulted from divine qualities bestowed upon the maker. We then raise these creators up as figures of high importance in our society, we remember their names and immortalise them as examples of greatness towards which we should all endeavour.

But why do we do this?

Consider this quote from sociologist Bryan Turner:

“Regardless of social differences, our origin in the womb and our closure in the grave are necessary, incontrovertible and universal experiences of men and women” (Turner, 1991, page 227)

If artists were viewed in the same light with which all others are seen, would they appear as great? Our application of importance to their existence and output removes them from the consequences of this process of birth and death; it immortalises them. Though the artist has obviously experienced or will experience these things, it is not the feature of them which choose to acknowledge. We choose to see only their magnificence, allowing us to feel they have transcended us and escaped from the inevitable facts of human life.

Now, consider the collection of this art, is it not the same? To own something which you feel has an immortalised meaning from an immortalised figure fuels your belief in immortalisation. In fact, is not all vanity, all materialism, merely an attempt to embellish oneself to the point of divinity whereby you feel exempt from death? Has our whole culture not now escalated to a point where we covet fame and celebrity, aim to be known, to be recognised, to be publically validated? As if this validation could change our nature, remove us from the reality of our existence into a constructed world of fame, where the participants are never forgotten nor truly die.

This could be a reason we are so affected by the death of an artist. They shatter our illusion that extreme talent or ability can save us from death and so we mourn the loss of this dream. However, these individuals soon again fade from our reality to become memory. It is here that they find themselves exaggerated from their living state, acting in spirit as further fuel towards this delusion of escapism which their death only momentarily disrupted. The enthusiasm with which now people praise them increases, their work suddenly speaks volumes more than it spoke before, as if death has loosened its tongue; thus is the desperation of man to keep his illusion.

“We live beneath Time’s wasting sovereignty, It is the child of all eternity.”- Wilde, 1879 ‘Athanasia’

Artificial security in the ineffability of music

I can’t go into this subject too deeply as it is also a chapter of my dissertation, which I have yet to write, but I thought that it was particularly relevant in this reflective task.

Why are we afraid to understand the processes behind musical creation and expression? Is it a fear of finding that the ineffable is not actually divine but rather simply inarticulatable (I know that’s not a real word but I want it to be)? By refusing to look deeply, are we “muddying the waters to make them seem deep” as Nietzsche once said? Are we adding mystery to our lives in order to conceal its un-mysterious, unremarkable nature? Are we sick of rhetorical questions? Quite.

The only question worth asking is why, if there is in fact something spectacular to be found behind creative processes, it could not remain so even after we dissect them. Is the remarkability of musical creation only to be found in its mystery and not in its nature? In which case, why do we fuel this exaggeration of worth, when the removal of this valueless ideal was never able to add true value to our lives to begin with (“ the demonstration that they cannot be applied to the universe is no longer any reason for devaluating the universe”, Nietzsche, WP, 1910, page 12, ).

However, from the perspective of a performer, I find it is quite a different story. Here, I would choose not to question the motives behind my creative process as it is far more comforting to believe that there is something, other than myself,  ultimately in control. Yet, doing this while being aware of the former is incredibly hypocritical. I, as the performer, become a peddler of untruths, a catalyst in a long process of concealment.

But concealment from what you might ask? Why would we need to conceal the true nature of life with musical and artistic ineffability?

Unless, we did not like its nature…Unless it lacked the meaningfulness we so love, the depth and divinity we now so highly value…

So much so, that we need fill it ourselves…

“As soon as man finds out how the world is fabricated solely from psychological needs, and how he has absolutely no right in it, the last form of nihilism comes into being” Nietzsche, 1882.

Reflective task 2

I have been asked to think about the area of music psychology I find the most interesting and why, before considering what this choice says about me as a musician and a person.

Well, from a fairly substantial list of subsects, I have decided that the area which interests me most is social psychology. I enjoy the complexity of determining the different permutations of social factors acting upon a person, in order to speculate their combined effect upon an individual. This no doubt appeals to me as I enjoy making unrelated things relate (as anyone who’s read my essays may have noticed), finding how two seemingly removed concepts actually interact with one another in a significant way. I think that this kind of random linking is an effective way of revealing new perspectives on core topics which usually have a staple body of associations…but then again I am biased! However, this thinking style was validated by Deleuze and Guattari in their book A Thousand Plateaus(1987), in which they propose a rhizome structured mind,  allowing that everything which can be related should. As for how this reflects on me as a musician…given that the nature of this blog seems to revel in the reinterpretation of music psychology questions in a distinctly non -musical way, I think this selection only further reveals my reluctance to be in any way involved with practical music discussions or theory.

Is modern art more accessible than modern music?

Why is it that people are happier to go along to a modern art gallery than attend a concert of similar style? My first thought was that the answer might be connected to the etiquette prevalent at both events, while a gallery shares the same intellectual sphere as a concert , its etiquette is far less formal, allowing the individual a greater amount of freedom. Newcomers, to the world of classical music, may be swayed from attending such events due to this fact and the very British attitude of not wanting to cause offence with their lack of circumstantial know-how.

Yet this answer doesn’t really satisfy my curiosity regarding this phenomenon; could there also be a cultural influence- is modern art somehow “cooler” than modern music? Who knows!  I feel that the most unbiased way to approach this question is through the scientific evaluation of some sociological factors, allowing the findings a greater scope of application in this problem of artistic exclusion. If we consider this feeling of exclusion or cultural superiority, as an example of a sociological deterrent in modern music, it is first important to consider its stimulants. Why do people feel excluded when they hear modern music yet not when the view modern art? I propose that the answer to this might be found in the realms of educational psychology; specifically learning styles. The Visual Teaching Alliance (yes, they do exist) have provided a few fun facts for us to consider:

Around 65% of the population are visual learners.

The brain processes visual information 60,000 times faster than text.

40% of nerves in the brain are connected to the retina.

From these statistics it appears that a large per cent of the population would be far more comfortable looking at something, than listening to something. I personally fall into this category finding that even as I listen to music, I contextualise the sound into a visual medium. Music becomes unenjoyable for me when I am unable to place the music within a given context or when the context in which I place it, is unenjoyable. These facts may provide a further insight into why few people are willing to attend a modern concert  and could perhaps inspire the introduction of further visual aids to guide the individual towards a possible form of musical interpretation.

One further aspect of this conundrum that I wish to draw attention to,  regards the quantity of education received by a person as opposed to their learning style. The writer Roger Scruton in his essay Understanding Music, suggests that a person’s ability to understand music is dependent on their ability for metaphorical transfer. This is the part of the brain which lets you connect something you don’t know with something you do, in order to understand it without all of the necessary components (the biological equivilant of Shazam). Scruton suggests that music is processed as movement within the mind, which provides it with flow, direction and meaning. Now, considering that metaphorical transfer is a linguistical tool, used in everyday cognition, it is easy to assume that everyone may be equally as well practiced. However, I think it is worth considering  that the more highly a person is educated, the more opportunity they will have to practice, improve and perfect their metaphorical centres, allowing them to be more efficient at processing seemingly abstract information than less educated others. When you relate this to modern music, with its often experimental nature, it is easy to see how it may surpass the average person’s everyday experience of music. This allows that upon hearing,  a person may not only feel intimidated by the etiquette of its setting but also confused by its nature which does not easily relate to their previous conception of music.

A brief overview and discussion of ideas in Carl E.Seashore’s Psychology in Music (1938)

Overview

This book aims to explore the musical processes of the mind, to further our understanding of what lies between the physical world of music and its finished audio product. Seashore seems to favour the idea of musical aptitude as a naturally occurring phenomenon in a person’s capabilities which cannot be altered or improved upon in any remarkable way.  For Seashore, to be born with an inability to hear pitch is the same as being born short-sighted; no matter how hard you practice your physical components are unable to perform the task.

In chapter one,  the four areas of perception which construct musical ability are proposed: pitch, volume, time and timbre. Seashore explains that these functions are formed during childhood, after which they are unable to be improved upon with training, intelligence or time. However, if a person has these capabilities then training can improve their functional scope. This idea is similarly explored with performance in the sense that a person may be limited in their musical abilities by physical or mental dispositions. With this book Seashore encourages the individual to reflect upon their own physical, mental and musical states so that they might select a medium through which their talents can be utilised to  fullest effect.

Discussion

This book may be viewed in an unfavourable light, given that it is suggesting genetic superiority to a society which has reformed its educational system towards a wholly inclusive objective. For a subject to be seen as anti-inclusive or elitist, even at the cost of limiting more able students, is almost viewed as a breach of human rights.  I am not in favour of irrational elitist attitudes but in the case of academic success,  which I think is a far more substantial basis of elitist validation, we are failing students in our attempts towards inclusion. If this were a discussion about a child failing in maths, no one would think twice about removing them from the class or decreasing the level at which they study. Yet, to tell a child that they are not musically talented seems to be the cultural equivalent of slapping.  Does this not raise the question:

Why is it offensive to be inartistic but not un-academic?

A possible answer to this could be our society’s placement of high importance on artistic talent as an expression of personal worth and success. In an article by George Stanely and Lawrence Baines called “Celebrating Mediocrity (2002)” the issue of anti-elitism is discussed with regards to the American education system :

“If a ten-year-old can only learn what a six-year-old can, money will be spent but if a six-year-old can learn what a ten year-old can, nothing is done.”

Although this article focuses on the lack of support available for gifted children, its message is still relevant here; our society has become far more focused on the less able, at the cost of most able. Yet there is a far more worrying future of musical education, given its current anti-elitist attitude, which can be seen in Fran Smith’s article “Why arts education is crucial and who’s doing it best”(2009):

“Involvement in the arts is associated with gains in math, reading, cognitive ability, critical thinking, and verbal skill. Arts learning can also improve motivation, concentration, confidence, and teamwork.”

Have the arts become no more than a tool towards academic success? Is true artistic ability no longer an independently valuable skill but rather a means towards an end? Allowing elitism to be removed from the arts, by a society who fear social exclusion, has reduced the value of the arts themselves to a common stepping stone towards educational mediocrity at the cost of true artistic brilliance.

 

Funeral playlists; your last selfish act.

I’ve been asked to reflect on music’s ability to channel or evoke emotion through the construction of a playlist to be used at a public ceremony in my life. By relating musical features to their equivalent psychological or physiological reactions, I am to choose list of works which would allow my, hopefully attendant, mourners to follow a step-by-step musical journey from grief into acceptance. From beyond the grave I could then ensure that my musical selections evoked just the right amount of sadness, at appropriate times, so as to make my funeral quite an elaborate yet efficient affair.

Music’s ability to influence, channel and exaggerate our emotions is not in doubt here, nor is it what encourages my, perhaps slightly too jestful, musing but rather it is the appropriacy of emotional manipulation at a funeral or indeed any other public affair. So, although I have been asked to consider the psychological process involved with music’s semiotic suggestions towards a particular emotional progression, I feel that it is only logical to first consider how it would disrupt the natural psychological progressions of man; in this case grief.

Uniform and perfectly timed emotional outbursts have no place at a funeral. What right has anyone, even the deceased, to tell you how you should feel during such a sensitive event, let alone force its equivalent musical example down your throat. It would surely be naive to believe that every person copes with grief in the same way, or that they may all feel similarly enough at any given time to allow you to aid their expression with a piece of music. Is it not detrimental to the grieving process to force feeling upon someone? Why be forced to feel something that you don’t? Why need we all feel the same way at the same time? Does mass culture affect us even here?

Perhaps there is something to be gained from these in-between states of emotion which people feel during such difficult times. Those emotions which don’t really have equivalent words. If a person chooses to express themselves through music in order to alleviate this emotional turmoil, it would be their choice and their musical selection which they feel best displays their feelings. However, is a forced musical emotion not the same as a lacking word? Neither manages to fully capture how the person feels but rather try’s to force their feeling into an ill-fitting shell which is unable to hold the full spectrum of their emotional state. If Lacan were around I’m sure he would agree that the Real in your head is lost as soon as you try to shove it into words…or someone else’s music.

So, perhaps a funeral should be a time for silence which allows you to feel exactly as you like, in whatever unconventional, indefinable way you choose without the influence of music forcing you into emotional states which you may not yet, or ever, feel.

Although, for the sake of inclusion if someone feels that they need a musical push to help them channel their emotions they should perhaps be given an iPod and made to sit in the back row!