I’m going to the Kennedy Center tomorrow to listen to the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio play Shubert’s Trout quintet and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich‘s tune inspired by Schubert’s. I thought this would be a good time to expand my reviewing into Other fields. But how does one write a review about music and classical music at that? Focus on the composition or the performance? Say I went to a rock concert, do the same rules apply? I think I’ll probably read some examples of ‘big time’ critics and get some ideas on structure and finished product.
However, I anticipate (without any evidence) that this experience will be of little or no use to me. I want to review the music and that requires I review art. Not in the sense that I had to write this article to write the review, but that a thing, these concerts, as art must be reviewed. If I say that KLR rocked the bows or that The Black Keys rocked the mic, then I am providing something of no value to you beyond my wit and charming prose style. A dubious gift. But what I should provide is a review of the music being played. It is the music, after all, that I am there to appreciate–I italicize I because it is not everyone’s raison d’être là–and therefore any review of the things that are merely designed to distract me would be somehow disingenuous. So I say, again, that it is art that I hope to review. And music is a special form of art.
I first heard the term qualia, unsurprisingly, in a philosophy course. Wikipedia sums it up, nicely, as a “raw feel” and is Latin for “what sort” or “what kind.” A quale is a subjective experience, or rather, the subjective experience–the experiencing of redness, a taste, or a smell. Certain media of qualia are better expressed in our language. I think this says something about us as creatures and what we depend upon. Sight, for example, consists of infinite qualia running into our eyes and being interpreted by our brains at every moment and we can describe them very well–curved, blue-green, matted, concave, etc. Smells, tastes, and sounds, however, are limited to the things themselves. “That smells like a wet dog” or “that tastes like chicken” or “Did you here that? What? It sounded like a twig snap.” These are probably as complicated as sights, but perhaps don’t last long enough to be constructed into words such that it can be distinguished to a degree.
Art takes these qualia–though, generally limited to sights and sounds–and turns them into… What exactly? Qualia are absolutely subjective. I daresay we’ve all had that thought about colors being “different” to different people. Does that mean that art must also be subjective? I know of at least one person who would give a resounding “No,” but I’ve always been wary of the absolutist. Yet we all do seem to have an echo of a common understanding of the word. When we say “Bill Clinton turned lying into an art form” we all know what it means. Who says a word has only one meaning? Wikipedia suggests the following:
I’ll give two perfect examples using the film (Untitled) (2009).
In that film, Adam Goldberg plays Adrian the composer and Marley Shelton plays Madeline the gallery owner. The question of the film, for me, was “What is art?” Adrian composes atonal music–that is, without melody–and Madeline exhibits only the modernest of art. I know where my loyalties lie. I like (love) music and I despise modern art. Throughout the movie, I hold on so tight to my loyalty that I almost do myself an injury. Adrian drops chains into buckets and then kicks those buckets. But Madeline exhibits the works of this social-retard like “a thumb tack in a wall” or “a post-it note on a wall” as if to use the article “a” instead of “the” somehow makes the piece timeless. Madeline keeps the gallery in business by selling the hotel-wall art of Adrian’s brother out of the back room. Each “artist” is creating something. A weak fart is also human creation, but it isn’t art.
Those of us with what an amateur pop-psychologists would call mild-to-average OCD are familiar with a particular sensation. You sit down before a test and you have about fifteen minutes to wait before you can start. You’ve got a pencil, an eraser, possibly, and your test papers. You assemble these items in such a way that just feels “right.” The pencil sitting perfectly parallel with the test paper and the eraser above, centered. It’s like it belongs there.
That is not art. That is why Thumb Tack boy from the movie is an idiot (and with him, Madeline to boot) and the film is considered a satire. TTB is expressing something: the order his mind makes of the chaos of the wall and the thumb tack. Enough? That expression can be considered and even made sense of by another person. Enough? Perhaps the thumb tack represents a memory that TTB had sometime in his life. Enough? Is it TTB and his relationship with the tack or the audience’s experience that makes it art? Wikipedia says it could be either or both. I’m going to say it is about the audience of which TTB is but one member. But viewership is not sufficient.
Art must be evocative. A tack evokes nothing in me. Neither does a chain being dropped in a bucket. But I want to credit Adrian and give no credit at all to TTB. Adrian has thought out his composition and worked it over in his mind. Madeline seems to understand what Adrian is doing. She can make sense of it. TTB makes random crap and Madeline makes sense of that as well. I’m going to say that art is not to be made sense of. Here I separate Art and Craft.
A sunset is evocative. For most people, the sight of the sunset is a glorious thing. It evokes feelings that go beyond mere association. Rapture. Caught up in the moment and a sort of euphoria sets in that goes beyond what the word can describe. Unadulterated qualia. That’s art. Nature is the greatest artist because it evokes the sacred that is beyond us. Other evocations are less enormous, like evoking simple joys and pleasures or evil and pain.
Then there’s Craft. That’s the production of something that stimulates the senses. Telling a story. Putting together some noises that might be made sense of but are devoid of magic. These things may be made to ape emotion or follow the constituent parts of art, but simply fail. The Supreme Court had to decide on whether pornography had any artistic value and thereby obtain First Amendment protection. I’ll let you decide for yourself on that, but I would put the following before you.
Porn is no more art than a pencil is art. With porn, you may create art, and with a pencil you may create porn. But to conflate the tool with the outcome is just fallacious phallusy.
A pun is art.
But I digress. The whole question is how do I try to capture the music in words? Craft is essentially what I discuss in the film reviews and what I will have to do for music. But be wary. I am dealing with qualia whatever its assembly and what it evokes is subjective or personal. I smile wryly when reviewers say “It reminds the viewer of” or “It makes the viewer feel” because by “the viewer” they should mean themselves but they really mean all of us. This is what I call projection. And projection is something that only the theater is allowed to do.