February 10th 2018

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Blackouts due to closure of coal-fired power stations

EDITORIAL Behind China's push for global power

CANBERRA OBSERVED The left's appetite for change can't be satisfied

POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY The Four Ideologies of the 21st century: Transgenderism, Libertarianism, cultural and Economic, and Radical Environmentalism

SEX-TRAFFICKING Meet modern slavery - in your very suburb

EUTHANASIA Delivering Victoria's death law: an unedifying spectacle

ENVIRONMENT Too hot? Too cold? Blame global warming

OPINION Report on child sexual abuse aimed at Church

FREEDOM OF RELIGION 'Equality' and equally disingenuous terms

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS Saudis, Israel confirm Middle East alliance

OBITUARY To the memory of a multimedia Chestertonian: Tony Evans

MUSIC Straight to the heart: for the listener, at least

CINEMA The Commuter: And my criteria for reviewing films

BOOK REVIEW Essays take 'settled science' to task

BOOK REVIEW A pathway through a tangle of nonsense

BOOK REVIEW Quarterly Essay


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Straight to the heart: for the listener, at least

by David James

News Weekly, February 10, 2018

French composer Claude Debussy described music as “pure emotion”. If this is right, it makes music a distinct art form in that it only acquires an intellectual dimension after the fact; the immediate emotional response to the sound is what most matters.

Literature can create powerful emotions, but does not usually do so immediately. Emotional effect tends to occur later: because of the story being told, or as the interplay between words and ideas has its impact on the reader. The visual arts likewise can have a powerful emotional impact, but it, too, tends to be less immediate and involve more intellectual engagement.

Music, however, need not involve the intellect at all. The emotional effect, whether it is the exultation of Beethoven, the sublimity of Mozart, the desolation of Mahler or the sensuality of Debussy, is all that the listener need take away from the experience. Those who find classical music “uplifting” typically see themselves as having experienced a refined emotion that is better than their usual day-to-day fare of sensations.

Yet if music does rely on such immediacy when seen from the perspective of the listener, the view looks very different on the other side of the fence. For players, emotion typically only comes at the very end of an arduous process. In order to get the ability to affect an audience, the performer must undertake years of intense practice, which typically involves the suspension of normal emotions, except perhaps boredom, and the self-denial required to achieve high levels of discipline.

There is also a high degree of cognitive activity. For classical musicians, there is great accuracy and speed of thought required to achieve the hand-eye coordination necessary to read the sheet music. Soloists usually do not use sheet music, but that means they are required to memorise their part, which is more a cognitive than an emotional function.

For jazz musicians, improvisation usually requires fast computation about the harmony – a kind of rapid arithmetic. This works in conjunction with the pursuit of effective phrasing, which is more an instinctive function.

Composers tend to be very involved in intellectual processes, although this is not always the case. Many songwriters in popular music say that some of their best work was completed in a matter of minutes. Paul McCartney, for example, said that many of his best songs came to him in this way. Mozart’s writing was executed very rapidly, in keeping with the natural quality of his genius.

For most composers, however, the process is reflective and arduous. Composer and ABC Radio host Andrew Ford compares it with being a “cottage gardener”, pottering away trying get things right. Debussy’s contemporary, Maurice Ravel, commented that, after the initial moment of inspiration, composition was an arduous process, mostly a matter of hard work (Ravel tended to be more interested in the mechanics of composition and poetic effect than in emotional revelation).

Some composers, such as Arnold Schoenberg, used entirely intellectual means to create his compositions. He became famous for his theoretical innovation rather than his affect.

What it means is that for audiences the experience of music is almost entirely about emotion, whereas for the producers of the music, emotion is only part of the mix; often only a kind of icing on the cake, something that arrives after a great deal of mental or physical work.

The only exception is perhaps singers in popular music, where the expression of emotion – a kind of musical acting – is often the sole preoccupation. The singing in the Sex Pistols, for instance, was deeply unmusical, if one can call it singing at all; but there was no mistaking the emotion – anger, mostly.

Ford believes audiences like to engage intellectually after the fact. He says in the ABC’s The Music Show, which he hosts, audiences show greatest interest in gaining insight into the technical side of music. But in the first instance, emotional response to the music is everything.

It means that musicians are in a situation not unlike a magician. While the audience marvels, the magician knows it is only tricks. True, it is not as extreme as this; musicians imparting emotion also feel emotion. But it is rarely as straightforward as the emotion being experienced by the audience.

David James is a Melbourne writer and musician.

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