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An Overheard Conversation Concerning Musical Taste

Chadwick Jenkins
"Conversation" by Zhou Jumin — image from

'But who determines the criteria by which one determines if something is well formed?' A debate of taste rages in a small field outside Maryland.

In a small field in a Maryland suburb, two young men gather to discuss music, taste, and something one of them insists upon calling "irremediable artistic sensibility". Exactly why they decided to meet in a field to discuss such matters is quite beyond explanation, but one can assume it has something to do with the wavering of each of the interlocutors between hopelessly Romantic immersion in music's seductive flow and a Stoic withdrawal from music's Siren song, as well as their endless vacillations over whether art approximates nature, perfects it, or repudiates it altogether. At any rate, here they are and their conversation follows:

Desmond: Do you know that just the other day I discovered a recording of three Beethoven sonatas by Arthur Rubinstein? They were absolutely wonderful.

Oscar: Well, I hardly imagine you discovered them. Furthermore, there is certainly little point in listening to Rubinstein play nearly anything outside of Chopin.

Desmond: Why is that? I thought these performances nothing short of phenomenal.

Oscar: A simple matter of economy. Rubinstein for Chopin, Brendel for Beethoven, Gieseling for Debussy, Uchida for Mozart, and, of course, Gould for Bach. This way one knows where to go. There's less confusion. You have to imagine performance as a hermeneutic enterprise. Each performance searches among the detritus that a composer left behind (vulgarly known as scores) in order to ascertain the kernel of truth at which this composer arrived. Only one of them can get it right.

Desmond: But you assume that such a hermeneutic enterprise can only have one outcome. I realize and agree that Brendel is a phenomenal performer of Beethoven, but � and perhaps this is owing to his overall unfamiliarity with Beethoven's oeuvre � I find something terribly compelling in Rubinstein's approach to the Appassionata Sonata. Take the slow movement as an example. Rubinstein's version seems so bass heavy at first, even murky. He lifts it out of the mire only to fall back again: an endless struggle. The whole performance strikes me as a beautiful attempt to reach something just beyond its own grasp, like hope � somehow resplendent in itself and yet dependent upon an absence for its own sense of plenitude. The piece becomes a metaphor for hope, the fullness of which requires the absence of the hoped-for object.

Oscar: Very poetic of course, but Brendel is so much more precise. Every moment has been carefully considered and properly ordered. He knows what he wants to say with the sonata and he says it. Or better yet, he knows what can be said with the sonata and he demonstrates the limits of the piece by exposing them as necessary limits. Rubinstein seems to want to say something else, something Beethoven might not have recognized as properly sayable at all. Rubinstein wants the piece to be other than what it is.

Desmond: OK. But doesn't that make you think of Mendelssohn's famous quip? Had Beethoven wanted to say something he would have used words not music. Music accesses what cannot be said.

Oscar: That strikes me as a platitude designed to install metaphysics in the place of artistry. Music is a craft and we judge it in the same way we would judge any other craft; that is, by how well it is formed.

Desmond: But who determines the criteria by which one determines if something is well formed?

Oscar: The cynical answer, I suppose, is that an elite, in order to buttress and further its status as an elite, establishes the criteria. This is the general drift of the argument put forward by Pierre Bourdieu. Classical music must be perceived as requiring education and culture for its proper interpretation and enjoyment so that the elite has something (namely cultural knowledge) that others lack.

Desmond: Well, considering that we are in a field in the middle of a Maryland suburb and neither of us is rich and both of us are firmly entrenched in the middle class, doesn't that exclude us from the conversation? It seems to me that, while that may have indeed been the case, it hardly explains everything anymore when classical music lovers have to fight hard to be seen as anything other than a throwback to another era � or worse, an incarnation of Frazier Crane who knows what one should listen to in order to appear cultured in a society that no longer cares to support such antediluvian notions of cultural knowledge.

Arthur Rubinstein: The only performer to get Chopin right?

Oscar: Well then, the corporations market the music in such a way that it offers a false sense of preference or choice (perhaps precisely to capture the Frazier Crane market, of which I fear I am an unreconstructed member); instead of marketing to taste, these corporations (what Adorno would call the Culture Industry) manufacture taste as a product. Or, I suppose, if you prefer to have a bit more agency in the matter, then we might postulate that the individual purchasing the music judges the craft. It has its worth through my conferring that worth upon it. Art as a whole attains its worth through a series of totally subjective, isolated moments of personal decision. In the end, the answer is quite old: De gustibus non est disputandum.

Desmond: "There is no disputing about taste?" To borrow your earlier phrase: that strikes me as a platitude designed to forestall critical engagement. It doesn't matter what kind of music you listen to or whether you prefer modern art or sitcoms � people feel the need to discuss such preferences. In the end, it doesn't matter whether you call it art or entertainment. Whatever it is called, it fundamentally has a social function. That's why your first answer (the cynical one) was not totally off the mark. Throughout history, elitists have employed high art (the term seems designed to be exclusionary) as a mark of distinction, clearing out a rarefied social space that is separate from and by no means equal to the lower classes. But at the same time, other people have used art in other ways.

Oscar: But social use is totally beside the point when we are talking about art. Perhaps in its social function one could lump art and entertainment together but I should lament going so far as to think them the same altogether! And indeed my reason for making such a sharp distinction has to do with that social function you keep raving about. Entertainment is wholly wedded to its social function. It is socially conditioned, so to speak. Now art may be used as entertainment. This happens all the time. But in its essence art as art is wholly divorced from social concerns. It is autonomous, a world unto itself that can tell us a lot about the world in which we live precisely because it is not constrained by our world nor is it merely a product of that world. True reception of art as art can only take place alone � even if you are in a crowded concert hall. Art's message can only come from art; it cannot be bandied about by a community of enthusiasts like some ridiculous game of Telephone.

Desmond: This "world unto itself" idea has attracted many people throughout history. Mahler once said that when he wrote a symphony, he was composing a world. Even Adorno, as concerned as he was with the relationship between art and social politics, could not resist, and indeed was dependent upon, the notion of music's autonomy. But the more I think about it, the less it satisfies me. In that mode of thinking, we are never truly part of the experience. We observe, detached and removed; we are not involved. There is a sort of Schopenhauerian bleakness to such an aesthetic. But music is a temporal art. By its very nature, it seems to want to thwart stasis, not simply capitulate to it. When we listen to a piece, even one that we know intimately, we should engage with it as it unfolds. We should be surprised as it wends its way through time. We should concentrate as much, maybe even more, on its moments of openness and possibility as we do on its moments of closure and resolution.

Oscar: Suddenly I feel like the realist. Aren't you succumbing to the same vagaries of poetic metaphor masking itself as perception that has plagued far too many aesthetic discussions � to the point where most people think that it makes as much sense to "explain" taste in music as it does to explain to someone who detests pickles why you think they ought to be considered delicious? Isn't this to substitute the language of ethics (how one ought to behave) for the language of aesthetics (how one perceives)?

Desmond: At least since Plato, discussions of how one perceives what we now call the fine arts (a term that would have been totally foreign to the ancient Greeks) has always been closely bound up with ethics. Anything we might be willing to consider aesthetic thought has always involved how one ought to perceive, how one ought to relate to what is heard and what is seen.

Oscar: I agree with you to a point but I am still suspicious of what you call moments of openness and possibility. This, to me, smacks of the kind of willful misunderstanding that allows people to reduce paintings to refrigerator magnets while considering themselves as perfectly "familiar" with Da Vinci; one might properly say that they have become too familiar in their dealings with the poor Renaissance painter. Even worse, in my opinion, such misunderstanding allows the Ode to Joy to become an advertisement for movie rentals, candy bars, and every other imaginable abomination. If moments of possibility include the possibility of altering the work (to reduce it to a jingle), then it strikes me as questionable at best, dangerous at worst. If ethics is involved in aesthetics then surely the first ethical act with regard to art is to avoid its degradation. Schoenberg once said something along the lines of "Art is not for everyone; if it is for everyone, it is not Art." I cannot say that I think he was entirely wrong. Art requires a special kind of person to create it (most people acknowledge this) but it also requires a special kind of person to receive it. Not everyone qualifies. They must have what might be called an irremediable artistic sensibility. One needs to be an artist of a sort in order to understand art. Now, I see you are tempted to accuse me of making my own flight into the language of vagary. But I mean something quite specific: art is a communication between minds that may be separated by great distances of time and space. Such messages cannot always get through; they are fragile, delicate, and not designed for those who consider the best form of reading to be skimming for the essentials. This is the problem with your moments of possibility. The artwork realizes its possibilities; it demonstrates its limits and contrives to make them cohere. Our fervent desire to see it as open betrays our base inability to hear its message.

Desmond: Your metaphor is actually rather apropos. The artwork can be considered a message as long as you keep in mind that a message depends as much upon the receiver as it does upon the composer. No matter how precise you attempt to be in composing a message, there are always going to be holes, fissures, and empty spaces. We should be thankful for this because the reader enters in precisely at the site of those fissures and holes.

Oscar: We seem to have arrived back at the dialectic between the Apollonian and the Dionysian, haven't we? Your Dionysian cabal threatens to derail the possibility of meaning altogether, not to mention the very critical thought that you seem to think you are securing. Apollo, the Sun god, demands clarity. He elucidates the distinctions among objects, people, and thoughts. He embodies the spirit of individuation and beseeches you to "Know thyself". Knowledge depends on such distinctions; it demands lucidity (notice how the adjective "lucid" and the verb "to elucidate" combine knowing and light). With Dionysus, all is a muddle. No one need think because in drunken, orgiastic fervor all thought is obviated. Apollo offers structure. Even Nietzsche, the great defender of Dionysus, recognized the need for Apollinian structure � a fact that his readers too often ignore. For the sake of clarity, let's take an example. If I play this opening phrase from Mozart's famous C major piano sonata K.545 on this piano...

Desmond: Wait a minute! How did a piano get out in this field?

Oscar: Shall I continue or not?

Desmond: Fine, but it all seems highly improbable to me now.

Oscar: As I was saying, if I play this phrase and it ends as it does on the so-called dominant chord (a chord that does not offer complete resolution) then by the very laws of musical structure, it demands that another phrase be realized that will return it to the tonic chord and thus create balance. Now what constitutes balance alters drastically from period to period so that the Romantics would delay the arrival of balance or even force that balance to be achieved in an entirely different tonal realm (as paradoxical as that sounds) and once tonality is left behind composers such as Schoenberg had to seek out other means of balance but I still contend that all composers manifest some concern for balance and structure precisely because it is that structure that shall be communicated to listeners.

Desmond: Perhaps you are right. Perhaps that is a very composerly way of thinking about music. But there are other ways, ways that make the listener less a passive recipient of the composer's message. Take the same example from Mozart. When the music pauses on the dominant, that is a close in a fashion (insofar as it closes the phrase) but on the other hand it is a tear in the fabric of the tonal space. That dominant does not proceed to the tonic; it requires a new phrase to get there. That dominant is left eternally hanging. We can choose to hear its suggestive power as being closed off by the resolution of the next phrase but it strikes me that there is no reason for necessarily doing so. Now at first this may seem like a rather trivial point but then expand the range of your perception to consider the entirety of the piece. All of those moments of openness may make you begin to question the validity of the concepts "entirety" or "wholeness" when it comes to musical discourse. Suddenly these pieces are no longer antiquated historical objects rolled out along the framework of a relatively short expanse of time. The "piece" insofar as it can be considered any longer as "of a piece" becomes a set of possibilities for what might be called, following Barthes and other critics, a readerly interaction with the musical passages. Here there is no single "Mozart's K.545" but rather an entire range of possible interactions with Mozart's K.545. Listening again to familiar music need not reduce it to an indulgence of the same message or worse to musical wallpaper (familiar and easily ignored) but rather it may become a renewed source of consideration and possibly another ethical act of communication and understanding.

Oscar: You are, of course, free to indulge in any "readerly" fantasies that please you but I do wish you would stop thinking that you are having anything to do with Mozart!

Desmond: And I wish you would stop thinking that you are in possession of the Holy Grail of musical understanding with your preposterous "irremediable artistic sensibility"!

At this point, both parties storm away from the field, leaving the mysterious piano to suffer the vicissitudes of the Maryland summer weather. Although I am not much given to stories with morals, perhaps one might consider an alternative translation of "De gustibus non est disputandum". Instead of "there is no disputing about taste", we might consider "taste ought not to be disputed" thus putting taste in league with other forbidden topics of conversation like politics, religion, and the Great Pumpkin. However, we persist in talking about all of these things (well, Linus and I talk about the Great Pumpkin, even if you do not). And since most conversations between Oscar and Desmond end in such swift departures, I imagine that their friendship shall endure and perhaps even benefit from many more discussions of this ilk.

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