The comparative aesthetics of music

The creative mind sets itself upon the creation of the new, but the media in which it does so are different in certain philosophical respects that are relevant to the creator. Within the plastic and literary arts, the great can arise again more easily than in music. Of all art forms, the medium least prone to the cultural prejudices and depravities of any given era is architecture. The reason for this is that architecture must remain plainly useful to human beings. The phrase by Quintilian “Numquam vero species ab utilitate dividitur” (Institutio Oratoria 8.3) – that form should never be divorced from utility – always applies to architecture because it creates buildings to be inhabited or otherwise used. And so it is indeed that architecture is the only art form that is almost always perfectly alive and well (one shortcoming of the Greeks is that, even though they created very great and truly seminal architecture, they did not abstractly recognize architecture as a high art form). Architecture depends upon technology more than any other art, and must also by necessity have at least some usefulness to regular human beings – otherwise it becomes not architecture, but sculpture – and this allows the practitioners of architecture, for the most part, not to be carried away by overly foolish ideas. To any great architect, man is always in the center. The Homo Mensura-dictum of Protagoras (discussed by Plato in the Theaetetus), that man is the measure of all things, can be seen as a piece of relativism, as Plato saw it, something that does away with all truth – and may indeed have been so intended – but that is not how I see it. To me, Protagoras is not the annihilation of truth by man, but the finding by man of truth in his own image. It is not a mere semantic difference – man is the legislator; not any man, for that would be perspectivism, but the wisest man.

Beethoven, qua musical genius, can never exist again.

Beyond the plastic arts, literature also lends itself rather easily to renewal and the perennial rebirth of greatness. The source from which literature draws its fruits is language (the corresponding point of origin for the plastic arts is technology and the physical world), and language is ever evolving. Since these – language and the physical world – are constantly changing, these two artistic media may also ever change, thereby having at least the potential of producing ingenious creators for times to come, people whom we may admire as strongly as we admire those of the past. The fact is that the rise of a future Homer or Shakespeare, even if seemingly unlikely, is not ontologically impossible. But music is mathematical, and mathematics is universal, which makes it limited. This is paradoxical, naturally, but is actually true: the fact that 2+2=4 is true everywhere makes it static. This is the case with music, for the essence of the syntactical structures of music is also static. Of course there are sounds known to us that were not known to our ancestors – the screeching of an automobile or the firing of a rocket – just as there are sounds that will exist in the future and that you or I shall never know, sounds that may be incorporated into a piece of music, but as mathematical formulas are static, so too the mathematical combination of notes is static, and this is why music will not be able to evolve the way the other arts might. In five hundred years there will be words that do not exist today, a practically infinite variety of new syntactical combinations, but there will be no note then that does not already exist now, and therefore a much smaller source of new syntactical combinations. As opposed to another Homer or Shakespeare, the rise of another Beethoven is in fact an ontological impossibility. The static nature of the mathematical makes music a finite medium, whereas the ever changing linguistic and technological lend evolution to those other artistic media.

This should be evident, but to make it more so, let us reflect for a moment on our actual history: Surely one will not be laughed at for admiring T.S. Eliot as much as one admires Dante. One may naturally disagree with this particular taste, but no one in his right mind will consider the proposition absurd. So too, one will generally not be mocked for fancying Warhol as much as one fancies Giotto. But no one can with any justice compare, on a syntactical level, someone like John Cage or Louis Armstrong with Beethoven. Poetry, for example, is still poetry, but music has started to become something else. Cage, though not a man entirely without talent, created nothing with his 4'33", a point in the development of music when one resorts to the conceptual to keep the ailing Muse alive. Whether one cares for such things is not my point here, though I personally do not – what is important is that music is in syntactical decline, and has been for a long time. There are of course other composers today who still write what is actually music, such as John Adams, whose piece A Guide to Strange Places I once had the opportunity of hearing at New York’s Philharmonic, and which was not at all bad, and there are some popular musicians too who every once in a while manage to come up with a catchy song, but the greatest achievements of all of these people still fall syntactically far short of those of previous centuries. A person may personally prefer rock music to classical music, which is fine, but it would be ignorant to claim that the former is anywhere close to the latter in syntactic complexity.

While the laughable sycophant Goethe bowed to the nobles, the artistic revolutionary Beethoven ignored them, because he knew who the true nobleman was.

This is not the fault of more recent musicians, however, for it is a metaphysical phenomenon. The greatest that music has to offer has passed and will not – cannot – ever come again. This “cannot” is important. One may easily be carried away by the greatness of Beethoven (– the greatest creative spirit, of any medium, in the history of mankind, and no human being has ever walked as close to God as he, and where he walked is forever sacred ground, and when Goethe bowed down to the royalty walking by, Beethoven stood tall and proud, for he knew he was the most royal, and he was, is, and will be the greatest human of all times), and one may therefore say, ecstatically, “there will never be another Beethoven!”, but there is a great difference between such an exuberant exclamation and the somber acknowledgment that another Beethoven is in fact ontologically impossible. Contrary to what one might think today, Aristotle was right in esteeming poetry above music (mainly Politics 8.5-7). Today one turns one’s nose up at such an estimation, not realizing that all Aristotle had was the music of his own day. Even if the music of ancient Greece were perfectly reconstructible, there can be no doubt that it would be no match, in an absolute syntactical sense, for the “classical music” we have today, whereas the poetry of ancient Greece still holds its own in comparison with any modern canon. That is to say, poetry – letters – are ever dynamically evolving, provide us with a continuum all of which has a claim to greatness (and the same is true of the plastic arts), whereas music started low, reached a climax, and then began to ebb away as the static source of syntactical structures began to be exhausted. So, as stated, though Beethoven is in fact impossible again, just as Shakespeare came two millennia after Homer, so too a new guise of Homer may arise in another thousand years. That is not impossible. And since I know that it is not impossible, since I know that beautiful poetry, drama, philosophy, painting, sculpture, and architecture may jubilantly continue to pour forth across the face of the earth, since I know this better than many others know it – for I know it scientifically, metaphysically, in my mind as well as in my heart – since I know this, I clamor all the more loudly for its realization. The great will come again and is always coming.

I thus hesitate to embrace much of the new, while still believing firmly in its possibility. It is a rejection of that ridiculous sense of impossibility among scholars, who simply cannot believe that beautiful art is still possible. They are content with the volumes on their shelves, and it would never even occur to them that the person right next to them might be pregnant in his or her soul with the most beautiful things – their own barrenness makes them blind. They cannot be like a person they admire, Plato, who sent one of his own students to Colophon in the hunt for the poetry of Antimachus. No greatness and no new thought will ever emanate from them. And so to repeat, the great will come again and is always coming.