Provocation No.1: Is music ever objective?

In July 2017, I had the pleasure of attending the week-long development week of a new collaboration between string orchestra Scottish Ensemble and theatre company Vanishing Point, where I was introduced to the notion of ‘provocations’ - statements or ideas intended to goad, stir, prod, tease, stimulate, and other excellent words ultimately meaning ‘make you think about things’.

For the first couple of days, Vanishing Point director Matthew Lenton sat in a circle along with two actors and a handful of musicians and basically kickstarted discussions. These went far beyond the reach of the hushed, dark theatre space and touched upon, amongst other things: our beliefs about social care; our concerns about illness; whether music helps with pain; the concept of white; the concept of snow; birds; atomic matter; T.K. Maxx.

Afterwards, my mind was full of all the sorts of things you get to think about when you just stop for a moment. This series of blog posts is intended to be a way of extending this experience of provoking; a pause to stop and think. They are inspired by concepts and topics surrounding the performance (and not, it’s worth noting, necessarily reflective of the content of the show).

Pauline Goldsmith face is full of emotion as violinist Daniel Pioro snakes around her on stage during a performance of Arvo Part's Fratres.  

Pauline Goldsmith face is full of emotion as violinist Daniel Pioro snakes around her on stage during a performance of Arvo Part's Fratres.  

When I first crept into Tramway 1, where violinist Jonathan Morton and pianist Sophie Rahman were rehearsing a piece called Spiegel Im Spiegel, I had an immediate, instinctive and surprising reaction. The notion of tears welling in the eyes on hearing a piece of music is so clichéd now that it almost feels untrue to say it, but that's what happened. The music entered my brain, I stopped in my tracks (again, what a cliché), and tears welled. For the record: social conditioning thankfully kicked in in time to force them back down into the murky mental bank of repressed emotion before the lights came up and anyone saw this; gratitude was experienced.

This was the development week for Tabula Rasa, a new collaboration between theatre company Vanishing Point, and string orchestra Scottish Ensemble. After Jon and Sophie had stopped tormenting us with their horribly beautiful playing, the musicians gathered in a circle with the actors and discussed the piece - in which it was revealed that my own personal response was not by any means as universal as I’d imagined. One of the actors, Cath, found it uplifting - it made her feel hopeful, peaceful, light. But someone else found it hopelessly sad, something to accompany a death or an ending in a film. 

Perhaps because of the nature of the situation, in which a group of people discussed an emotional response to a piece of music, at the time it felt like these responses were connected in some way; that they were on the same spectrum. But on paper, the responses were actually directly oppositional; sadness vs happiness; loss vs completion; calming vs provocative.

Working in music, writing about music, and talking about music, I describe music all the time in order to communicate to other people - but, possibly, probably, always within my own subjective spectrum. And sometimes, I’m aware of that, so what happens to a piece like Spiegel Im Spiegel is that it gets called ‘emotive’. That’s right, we describe it by saying that this music provokes emotions. I know. How interesting. What a fascinating insight into this piece of music.

But, it’s nice and safely beige; no-one can really dispute whether someone is feeling an emotion.
When it becomes more interesting is when a piece of music, or art, or whatever, provokes such a strong and certain response in us that we forget, when describing it, that it’s still just our measly, humble opinion. We feel so certain of it being sad or happy that we forget that this is ultimately still just an opinion. And the question is, are we OK with this? Are we comfortable with the thought that we can never describe a piece of art as being X, Y or Z and that it’s always opinion?  
For those who enjoy this kind of thinking, I'll elaborate...

A little while ago there seemed to be a trend, in classical music marketing in particular, towards BIG CAPITAL LETTER EMOTIONS on posters and so forth. PASSIONATE. THRILLING. HAUNTING. JOYFUL. Of course, this is just one example - theatre shows and works of art and so forth are described in emotive terms all the time - but it really hammered home the way that we rely upon emotional adjectives to lure people into concerts and plays and exhibitions.

And there is, of course, no small print - “according to so-and-so; not necessarily the emotional response of all listeners” - because this would be seen as unnecessary fusspottery. If we lived like this then we’d have to preface and suffix and asterisk pretty much everything we said or wrote. We all live by an accepted code that when we read “passionate” what we are really reading is “someone is describing this as passionate”. It’s subconscious, but it’s a thing.

So far, so boring. But, what was bothering me, during this discussion about Arvo Pärt’s music, was what happens when you arrive at something that feels a little more factual in your mind.

Let’s take Beethoven’s Ode To Joy, for example. Could you accept someone calling this music sad, or angry? Would you believe someone who described the opening of Chopin's Funeral March as cheerful (without quietly excusing yourself to call the police, that is)?

Jokes aside, though - why would we instinctively think this person to be potentially unhinged, but very certainly wrong, if what we’re doing each and every time we describe something is simply imposing our own opinion onto it? If we accept this, then surely we also have to accept it no matter how objective, or given, or obvious, we feel the emotional response should be. 

Perhaps what I said earlier about everyone’s responses to Spiegel Im Spiegel feeling connected is that they all felt believable. No-one stood up and shouted “oh, stop, stop, it’s making me so ANGRY!” And, I’ve deliberately chosen two well-known and assaultingly characterful pieces above because they both (or, to me, I should say) scream a certain tone or mood, with a believeable spectrum of sub-moods circling each of them. But there is a very, very definite line of believability which, when crossed, would cause you to tell someone that they were wrong (nicely, of course), or for you to think there was something wrong with their judgement.

If we’re to really put all the cards on the table - take major and minor keys. (For non-music people, the ‘key’ is a way of describing the set of notes that forms the basis of a piece in the vast majority of Western music - here’s a good introduction for anyone who’s interested). The thing is, even if you don’t know what the word means, you’d very, very likely be able to recognise each one by ‘happy’ and ‘sad’. As children we are taught very simply that major keys are happy, and minor keys are sad. So, when you hear a song that sounds sad to you, the chances are it’s in a minor key.

Given this, does it still make sense to us to deny that there is nothing objective about music? That certain sounds have nothing in and of themselves which provoke an undeniable, intractable emotional response?

Of course we’re starting to wander down a specific and very well-trodden path of the philosophy of art, and in particular value judgements here; a fascinating topic, but one so huge we’re not going to attempt to do anything more than pat its head here (and provide some links to further reading below). The thing is, you could go into the most rigorous pseudo-scientific analysis of musical structure and correlating responses in neural pathways and still come out no further forward. Emotional responses are kind of untouchable.   

Instead - I’ll end with three interesting-in-my-opinion thoughts in terms of our specific conversation.

Number one

This conversation happened because of Arvo Pärt. I don’t think the same discussion would have happened after hearing just any music. There is something about the way he writes which invites ambiguity. It’s like there is space not only between the notes, but within them, and I think what happens is that this makes us feel we’re allowed to have our own response to it. And, it’s not only that it’s about us as well as him - we’re being encouraged to make it about us. And you simply don’t get that all the time.

But I’ll not say too much on Pärt’s music here, because we’ll touch on it in other posts, and I could write about the man’s genius for days, and we’re all busy, aren’t we.

Number two

When I walked into that room in July 2017, I was a different person to who I am sitting here writing this today. That was a particular moment in my experience, and all the factors and brain functionings and so forth conspired to creating that particular response. In that windowless brick vault, descending so suddenly from the bustle of the outside world into a darkened hush, suddenly presented with an (astoundingly good) violinist making the music live in front of me… those notes felt like a bittersweet reminder of life and death. It was a sad, reluctant acceptance of the self-containedness of life, its simplicity and its circular pointlessness. Looking back, I can also recall that I hadn’t yet had my second coffee of the day, which always affects my mood at a profound level.

To put it another way: I went to put on the track just before starting to write this, tissues to my left, waterproof mascara to the right, and was bemused to find that it simply didn’t inspire the same reaction. In fact, I’d describe it in quite a different way, and I’ve only described it like in the last paragraph because I wrote it down that way and am sticking to that. I’m just in a different mood, a different context - an office, headphones, a damp and grey Wednesday morning, caffeine coursing. The mixing desk of chemicals and hormones that is my reactions and thoughts is set differently today.

Whether it’s something about Pärt’s music or not, it seems bizarre that we can ever attach definitive descriptions to any kind of music if our responses to it are so affected by our circumstances. No matter the ‘facts’ of the music, whether it’s major or minor: no-one’s listening experience occurs in a vacuum. Those notes are combining with context such as memories, associations, brain chemistry and personality  to create this very specific, very personal response.

Number three

Using music like this in a theatre production is so brilliant. By adding the music to a scene of some sort, a feeling of narrative or story or location, you create a kaleidoscope effect of meaning. There’s the director’s intention; there’s the audience trying to work out the director’s intention; there’s the director’s belief about the audience’s intention; and there’s the audience’s instinctive, primal response, which, as we’ve just discussed, smashes the kaleidoscope on the floor and releases a whole carnival of emotion upon emotion, image upon image.

Watching even the budding moments of its development, it was easy to see how Tabula Rasa would play with, enhance, and benefit from the subjective nature of Pärt’s music. Its innate capacity to provoke this sheer number of surprising emotions, combined with narrative triggers and guide posts, will make for a wealth of experiential possibility.

I'll leave you with this (insert adjective here) piece by Arvo Pärt. How does this make you feel?


If you want a little more... 

An introduction to value judgements
A lesson specifically on value judgements from the Sacramento State University Philosophy Dept

Philosophical concept of beauty and art
A lovely detailed (but easy-to-read) outline of this branch of thought in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

What makes a song sad?
Article on The Atlantic with examples of our common perceptions of popular songs

Rosie Davies is the Scottish Ensemble blogger-in-residence, as well as a freelance music writer. She has previously written for The Skinny and The List, and currently writes for The Herald

Rosie Davies