Imitation and classical music criticism

Composer Henry Gorecki died a couple days ago. While a serialist with plenty of heavy avant-garde works under his belt, he will be forever remembered for his beautiful (and very tonal) Symphony #3 (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs). It was commercially successful, received a lot of radio play in 1992 and made him famous.

Predictably, the critics generally hated it.

A musician friend of mine commented today:

I was surprised by the many obituaries, not dismissing, but playing down his 3rd Symphony in favor of his earlier 12-tone/serial/aserial era…

Big ‘C’ Classical music is a fickle bunch – 🙂

To which I was inclined to reply and rant:

Classical musicians are either pragmatic folks who just love music (yeah!), OR, they are snooty ivory-tower dwellers whose only requirement for criticism be that it appear to be as “original” as possible This necessitates that it highlight or applaud an artist’s least visible work, which is USUALLY (though not always) his worst work. So it is no surprise that our fickle music critics claim to dig Gorecki’s early forays into serialism. To mention anything else would risk throwing in their lot with the bumpkins. (After which, they put down their pen, go home and listen to Jefferson Airplane.)

So in short, how come critics (music critics, film critics, etc.) predictably give such high praise to things that are clearly crap?

They have to. Just like Girard says, they are defined by the Other, which ever way they go. The listener can either jump on the bandwagon and buy the new Lady Gaga CD like everyone else. Or, (and this is more prominent in academic circles), they can go out of their way NOT to embrace the same thing as the next guy. Eventually, in the quest to be unique and not appear to be imitating anyone, you are left with only the art in the garbage can. There is a reason it was put there in the first place.

Both people are still being defined by the Other. One embracing, one rebelling.

Look at the story arc of every “indie” rock band. They are cool until they become popular. Then they are accused of being sell-outs and their original fervent fans move on to the next indie band. The next even more cringe-inducing than the last, so as to further conceal their imitation. (For a great analysis of this, from a similar angle, I refer you to this post from an old classmate.)

I don’t think you need much else to go on to “understand” modern art, whether is be sculpture, painting, music, film, dance, or even fashion.

You may protest and say, “Oh! But there is so much more going on then just that. These deep and rich arts cannot be reduced to this Girardian psychological feature!”

Of course not! There is a ton of interesting things in these arts – creativity coming from many directions and taking exciting forms.

All I’m saying at the end is that any theory of aesthetics that does NOT take this psychological phenomenon (mimetic theory) into account is going to quickly drive off the road, go over the ditch, through the fence, and tear through the field, running over cows.

Is something really beautiful or not? Where should the critic start? Aristotle or Thomas Aquinas would be a better (more fundamental) place to start than (unconsciously) comparing/contrasting the work with its peers.

Real violence and theft or fake?

I had coffee today with a friend of mine who is a computer programmer like myself. It’s always fun to talk shop.

It turns out that our histories have some interesting parallels.

I got into programming when I was 10 years old with the sole intent of becoming a video game creator. My friend Patrick and I even wrote a primitive side-scroller for the Commodore 64 title Mutated Samurai Slugs. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were all the rage that year. I remember later cutting my teeth in development hell trying to get the Direct X binaries to compile under Borland C++. My goal was to remake the Legend of Zelda. I got as far as the map screen. I wasn’t even allowed to own a Nintendo as my parents were certain it would rot my brain, but all I wanted to do was make games after leaving home.

When I went to college in the fall of ’99, I declared a major of computer engineering for this very purpose. I was quickly derailed by God. Maybe. It would probably be more accurate to say I was derailed by the people of God. I came to the conclusion that a career connected to the “entertainment industry” was a much too worldly endeavor and that to be more pleasing to my Lord Jesus (which I very much wished to do and STILL wish to do), I should choose a redeeming career. Being a missionary to Africa or a pastor was of course the best, but if you couldn’t cut the mustard for that sort of devotion, then being a teacher was considered fairly acceptable. That’s how I eventually ended up with a music degree – with the intent to teach. I threw my enthusiasm for path-finding algorithms, adaptive enemy AI, and my pirated copy of SoftImage in the trash. Gaming was bad for the kingdom of God. Or at least very suspect. Kind of like beer.

My friend worked at Microsoft during much of the late 1990’s developing Office products. When the new XBox team was forming (later to be very successful) he had the opportunity to join them. It would have been much more exciting than working on Outlook. Are you kidding? But no. He ultimately declined for similar reasons as mine.

Fast-forward ten years to today. He’s working on a software driver for an electrical engineering company. The device in question will be used to transmit data for several new U.S. military satellites. As he put it today, “I’m helping to make sure we can more accurately kill people.” His work is very respectable. Nobody would raise an eyebrow as if he had run off to Hollywood.

Myself? I’m also a programmer, though I work mostly with databases and websites. If I do my job well, more people will decide to borrow money chasing after the increasingly dubious rewards of higher education. If they can be convinced to go into even more debt, it’s called “enrollment retention”. Of course my job is very respectable as well.

Looking at the situation, we both asked ourselves, “Are we really any better off now?” We traded helping people kill each other’s spaceships with fake bombs in a fantasy world for helping them kill real people in a not-so-distant desert. We traded spending digital gold doubloons in a pirate adventure or even just Monopoly money for being an accessory to bankrupting our neighbors. Was the gaming “entertainment industry” really that much more evil? One thing is certain: The programming and problem solving was much more fun!

(The picture above is called “Trapped!” from a wonderful and whimsical collection of work by artist Daniel Lieske.)

Outside my window

My wife took this picture the other day, looking out the window on the side of the house.

Seasons change. Right now, we are both working overtime on adoption paperwork and extra jobs. There’s been no time for reading and blogging has come to a stand-still.

This will pass at some point. For now, it’s likely that the only thing I’ll get a chance to read in the next month is Charles Williams All Hallows Eve. It’s the next selection for my friends’ book club and I don’t want to let them down. For our January meeting we’ll finally get to my selection (Girard of course!). Last night I stopped for a second to re-read the chapter where he compares “The Terrible Miracle of Apollonius of Tyana” to record of Jesus refusing to stone the woman caught in adultery. Amazing, amazing stuff.

Girard and U2

Alright, so one problem that nearly everyone who reads much Girard has is that they start to see mimetic theory everywhere.

I’ve been listening to a lot of U2 lately and it seems that several of their lyrics can be read in this manner without any stretch of imagination!

We fight all the time
You and I… that’s alright
We’re the same soul
I don’t need… I don’t need to hear you say
That if we weren’t so alike
You’d like me a whole lot more

-from “Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own”

I was going to copy down a couple other examples too, but now they’ve slipped my mind. Perhaps next time.