Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Psycho-music-history

I used to read a fair bit of psychology: Freud, Jung and Karen Horney among others. As I thought I might have been a bit neurotic, I read more in that area, specifically books by Horney, for whom it was a specialty. But one day I noticed that reading about neurosis seemed to make me more, not less neurotic. So I decided to take a radical step. As I had been growing tired of the whole approach that has been taken over the last one hundred years in psychology, I would just stop believing in it. It was likely an unsatisfactory theory that just didn't pan out. As part of my new policy I stopped using any technical terms derived from modern psychology like ego, id, unconscious, and so on.

Today, I am happy to say, I show no ill effects from this policy. Indeed, I believe I am entirely free of "neurosis" as I don't even believe such a thing exists. And I'm happy to be rid of that pesky subconscious as well. One happy side-effect is that there is a lot of prose heavily-laden with psychology that I no longer have to read!

Which brings me to my topic for today: psychologically-oriented books on music such as the one on Mozart by Maynard Solomon. Like one of the reviewers on Amazon, I simply stopped reading it part-way through. Under my new policy (which isn't so new, I've been practicing it for twenty or so years now), much of the book is simply meaningless blather. Let me offer an extended quote:
The felicitous states that frame Mozart's excursions into anxiety may represent a variety of Utopian modalities, and the impinging, disturbing materials may be taken to represent a variety of fearful things--the hidden layers of the unconscious, the terrors of the external world, a principle of evil, the pain of loss, or the irrevocability of death. An argument can be made, however, that in the last analysis we bring to the entire continuum of such states derivatives of feelings having their origin in early stages of our lives, and in particular the preverbal state of symbiotic fusion of infant and mother, a matrix that constitutes an infancy-Eden of unsurpassable beauty but also a state completely vulnerable to terrors of separation, loss, and even fears of potential annihilation, a state that inevitably terminates in parting, which even under the most favorable circumstances leaves a residue of grief and melancholy, engendering a desire--wrapped in the likelihood of further disillusionment--to rediscover anew the sensations of undifferentiated fusion with a nurturing caretaker. Not without reason, the British psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott described a baby as "an immature being who is all the time on the brink of unthinkable anxiety." an anxiety that is kept at bay only through a mother's ongoing, mirroring validation of the infant's existence. It may be such a precarious moment where inexpressible ecstasy collides with unthinkable anxiety that we sense in the Andante of Mozart's A-minor Sonata, which reduced to its simplest essence, tells a story about trouble in paradise.

Or not! Whew! Yes, it is quite a shock at the end to find that this passage is about Mozart and, in particular, the Andante of the Sonata, K. 310 that I was talking about yesterday in this post. Actually, it is not the whole Andante he is talking about, just the development section which slips into the somewhat remote key of C minor for dramatic contrast. Yes, Mr. Solomon certainly seems to have gotten his money's worth out of that development section. But somewhere, from some niche of heaven, I seem to hear peals of raucous laughter that I believe are coming from the shade of Mozart himself.

In my little book of rules of intellectual ethics, there is a section on excessive claims that says something about distrusting any account that is constantly throwing up superlatives like "unsurpassable", "unthinkable" and "inexpressible". Not only this passage, but whole chapters and indeed, the fundamental stance of this book, is simply absurd. This kind of thinking clouds your mind. Reading this is like trying to swim in peanut butter. The connection between the words and the reality is so remote that he could be talking about nearly anything. The relation between this and Mozart is so tenuous that it might as well be nonexistent.

I labeled this with the tag "new" musicology, but it isn't even that: this is more like shop-worn New Age dithering.

Now, to clear the palate, let's listen to some actual Mozart, not someone's neurotic (heh) maunderings.  Here is Mitsuko Uchida with the first movement of the Piano Sonata in A minor, K. 310 by Mozart.


If the real Mozart's music had anything at all to do with the expression of a being on the brink of unthinkable anxiety, then we would not find it at all worth while to listen to, now would we?

11 comments:

Craig said...

Heh! I like your passion, even if it is a passionate rejection. That passage you quote is truly awful. Too bad you couldn't actually put it in a purple font.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Craig! Whenever I put up one of my ranting posts, I always brace myself for some backlash. But that passage does rather make my case, doesn't it?

Nathan Shirley said...

After reading your first post on this book it actually made me want to read it! However after reading the excerpt, that curiosity promptly died. Thanks for saving us the trouble!

Jared White said...

You are right. Music exists in a realm hermetically sealed from human emotion. Biographical events in a composers life could not possibly affect the music they write. Furthermore, the emotional events in a persons life couldn't interfere with the healthy functioning of their mind. While we're at it let's dispel that myth about an infant being affected by it's relationship with it's mother. I'm sure Mozart only wrote that sonata to distract himself from his sorrow at the death of his mother and it contains absolutely no emotional content relevant to it.

That being said, Soloman is asserting his interpretation as if he interviewed mozart about it and goes off the deep end in describing it. It is always dangerous to assert that music is definitely expressing this or that idea or emotion relating to some particular biographical event. But it is ridiculous to say that music is written in a vacuum and cannot possibly reflect emotion or the psychological states of it's composer. Also this is a pretty universal theme that soloman is relating to the sonata (everyone has a mother) and theoretically it makes sense because of when it was written in mozarts life.

Haydn's music contains humour, and plenty of other things. Obviously human attributes and experiences are encoded into music.



Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks for the excellent riposte, Jared! It is my view that we usually arrive at the truth through debate and discussion. None of us has that special pipeline to Truth! Yes, of course, music is written by human beings with emotions and moods and music is all about evoking moods (I have certain reservations about the ability of music to express particular emotions, but that is a different issue). Of course infants (and the rest of us) are affected by our relationship with our mother. But I wasn't actually making any of these claims. When you say that "music is written in a vacuum and cannot possibly reflect emotion or the psychological states of it's [sic] composer" this is still a bit different from what I am claiming. My claim is more that you cannot REDUCE a piece of music of the level of a piano sonata by Mozart to being simply a reflection of his feelings about his mother's death. Or, more precisely, as, to quote from the passage in question, the expression of "an immature being who is all the time on the brink of unthinkable anxiety." That sort of music would not be very good music I suspect.

Note, it is "Solomon" not "Soloman".

Jared White said...

I agree that music cannot be reduced to this. Of course there is purely musical material and aspects of its construction that only really relate to our cultural musical experience and traditions etc.

I'm not sure what you mean by " That sort of music would not be very good music I suspect." I think that music and other art forms do use this feeling, notion or whatever it is, often and to great effect, by creating an atmosphere of general peace and safety while hinting at the darkness and potential danger all around and the fragility of the state of peace.

Unless you mean that we cannot create good music based solely on our emotions and that we require formal structure to order it and make it meaningful?

If so, then I agree.

Some of the ironic ranting about mothers and infants and such was a reaction to your stated belief that neuroses don't exist.

Also as to whether music can express particular emotions, I think that it can. At least as much as words, actions and body language can. If that is the intention of the composer and they deliberately write something to express it, why can't we have musical sadness or anger or confusion etc?

Bryan Townsend said...

Jared, thanks again for demonstrating how incredibly valuable discussion from different points of view is for, if not arriving at the truth tout simple, then at the very least clarifying things enormously. I was actually thinking about putting up a post making some of the points you just made, particularly about the relationship of music to the fragility of life.

Yes, I do mean exactly that "that we cannot create good music based solely on our emotions and that we require formal structure to order it and make it meaningful. "

I do stick to my policy on modern psychology though as it keeps me neurosis-free! (heh)

I have talked about music and emotion in previous posts like this one: http://themusicsalon.blogspot.mx/2011/08/music-and-emotion.html

and this one: http://themusicsalon.blogspot.mx/2013/09/the-sadness-of-music.html

So my reasons are largely philosophical and have to do with the difference between the moods we hear in music, which we certainly can hear as sad, angry, confused and so on, and our everyday emotions like love, anger, hate, which normally have real world objects. In other words, absent some kind of psychological disorder, you love someone or hate something. But musical moods do not actually have real world objects so I consider them in a different category: musical moods.

Nathan Shirley said...

Some of the issues Jared brought up were what made your first post have the opposite than intended effect of making me want to read the book.

Part of it stems from the fact that while I see where you are coming from with your emotion/mood theories about music, I don't completely agree (I don't completely disagree either!). So the concept of a highly psychological view of Mozart, going into great detail of his traumas, sounded quite fascinating to me. The problem of course, as you demonstrated by posting the excerpt, is that all of these psychological insights are completely fabricated. A sorry attempt at rewriting history using the worst extreme of psychological pseudoscience- wild speculation.

Bryan Townsend said...

You know, thanks to you, Nathan, and Jared, this has been one of the best comment threads in quite a while. Thanks to you both.

As an antidote to Solomon's book I am now reading Paul Johnson's book. Let's see how his approach compares.

Marc Puckett said...

"This kind of thinking clouds your mind. Reading this is like trying to swim in peanut butter. The connection between the words and the reality is so remote that he could be talking about nearly anything. The relation between this and Mozart is so tenuous that it might as well be nonexistent." Indeed!

Had no idea he was Vanguard Records, back in the day.

Bryan Townsend said...

Neither did I!