I’d blogged earlier on a particularly satisfying book haul that included a conference volume autographed by Chandrasekhar and Antonio Damasio’s Descartes’ Error, autographed by the author himself. What I didn’t realise was that one of the books in that haul which I’d picked up on the basis of its title and cover alone, Robert Jourdain’s Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy, had once belonged to the late Wayne Booth:
I decided to read it last week as a break from the likes of van Fraassen, wasn’t sure at first that the signature was Booth’s, but quickly became sure when I came across comments in the margins that indicated significant musical knowledge, in particular knowledge of the cellist’s part in the opening of Shostakovich’s 12th String Quartet. I then remembered that Ted Cohen had mentioned that Booth was an amateur cellist.
The book itself lived up to its promise. Lively, picturesque prose, betraying the fact that Jourdain is a writer by profession (after reading a certain amount of philosophy, I tend to be somewhat grateful to read prose that is not only clear, but also flows):
The power of sound cannot be explained merely by the power of music’s structure, for there are plenty of non-musical sounds that cut deeply. The infamous use of chalk squeaking across a blackboard is example enough. The screech of the chalk is not very loud in the scheme of things, so its intensity cannot be the culprit. And while the sheer ugliness of the sound is hard to match, there are plenty of sights that are equally ugly, but somehow do not reach to our core and cause us such pain. For pain it is. Inordinate noise has been used as an instrument of torture for centuries, and is disallowed by the Geneva Convention. On the other hand, it is hard to imagine extracting a spy’s secrets by showing him the collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art.
It will probably not go unnoticed that that’s an unfair (if amusing) attack on contemporary art, since presumably it’d only be fair to compare it to contemporary music rather than chalk-board screeches. And it is not inconceivable that one could extract a spy’s secrets using rather more visceral and upsetting images than those found in the MCA. Nevertheless, I think Jourdain is essentially right on this point: it’s easier to imagine that we could get used to upsetting images than to imagine we can ever find the sound of chalk screeching across a blackboard neutral or pleasant.
In keeping with his art-snobbery, Jourdain inserts negative remarks on modern music throughout the book. On several occasions Jourdain compares contemporary art music unfavorably with that of the old masters, and accuses audiences to such music of subjecting themselves to an unpleasant experience only because they know they are supposed to enjoy it. He paints the old masters as having already explored all the aspects of harmony worth exploring, and claims that present explorations of alternative harmonies and of timbres are inadequate in comparison.
His elevation of harmonic structures above everything else also leads him to dismiss pop music for having inanely simple harmonic structures. To be fair, though, such dissing is only a small proportion of what makes up the book, so it didn’t grate too much with me.
The musically educated would probably find much to disagree with in Jourdain’s cartoon picture of what makes music work, but I still think it is a good book for a preliminary introduction to the psychology of music — I would have liked to read it before I was introduced to formal musical analysis.
Some of Wayne Booth’s remarks in the margins illustrate how the musically educated could too easily find fault with Jourdain. In the section on how melodies work, Jourdain claims that a scale is “boring to listen to”. Booth writes here “Shosta. qt. #12 opening cello”. Indeed, the cello’s opening part in Shostakovich’s 12th String Quartet (listen to an excerpt here) is essentially a drawn-out ascending scale with some oscillation about each note of the scale. It doesn’t sound boring to me though, and no doubt it didn’t sound boring to Booth. But I do think Jourdain is right insofar as most people would find that ‘melody’ boring. I suspect that Booth, like me and most others who enjoy Shostakovich’s music, find in the slowly ascending scale a creeping ominousness and increasing tension, the harmonies used adding to the uncertain, foggy, almost paranoid atmosphere that few composers can bring forth so vividly. But I know several people, even professed classical music lovers, who can’t abide Shostakovich. They are unable to appreciate themes rather than melodies, and blurry atmospheric effects rather than explicit statements. A major reason why I dislike [most] pop music is its lack of the kind of subtle shadings that make the opening to that quartet.
It’s worth noting, though, that Shostakovich’s opening probably relies on our “positive” reactions to full, well-formed, ‘interesting’ melodies. It’s partly because the opening does not form a ‘real’ melody that we get that feeling of uncertainty. So Shostakovich leverages on what makes other melodies work to make his music ‘work’ in a different way.