Monday, September 22, 2008

"A Book To Keep Music Critics Honest"

"My Music; Explorations of Music in Daily Life"; the book doesn't merit an outstanding review, but the write-up is intriguing.

Hanslick's Vacuum Jar

On p. 25 of Hanslick's On the Musically Beautiful (Payzant translation), he refers to "a bird in a vacuum jar." I thought you'd be interested to know that Hanslick was referring to a famous set of experiments that helped define the emergence of the scientific thought associated with the Enlightenment--a mode of thought clearly vital to Hanslick's conception of aesthetics. Here is one description of it:

J Appl Physiol 98: 31-39, 2005;


“Robert Boyle’s landmark book of 1660 with the first experiments on rarified air”

John B. West

Department of Medicine, University of California San Diego, La Jolla, California

In 1660, Robert Boyle (1627–1691) published his landmark book New Experiments Physico-Mechanicall, Touching the Spring of the Air, and its Effects... in which he described the first controlled experiments of the effects of reducing the pressure of the air. Critical to this work was the development of an air pump by Boyle with Robert Hooke (1635–1703). For the first time, it was possible to observe physical and physiological processes at both normal and reduced barometric pressures. The air pump was described in detail, although the exact design of the critical piston is unclear. Boyle reported 43 separate experiments. . . .

[B]y early 1659 Boyle had a much-improved air pump and was ready for experiments. The pump was designed and constructed by Robert Hooke (1635–1703), who was a mechanical genius. He made important contributions to an extremely wide field, including microscopy, horology, mechanics, and architecture. Boyle hardly mentioned Hooke in the 1660 book, but later he acknowledged the great contributions of his assistant. In fact, it seems likely that a number of the experiments described in the 1660 book owed their origin to Hooke’s interests. . . .

These observations led to a much longer account in experiment 41 on studies on the nature of respiration. A lark was placed in the receiver and sprang to a good height on several occasions when the pressure was normal. But when air was removed, it began to "droop and appear sick, and very soon after was taken with as violent and irregular Convulsions as are wont to be observ’d in Poultry, when their heads are wrung off." Another experiment was carried out on a hen-sparrow, and the bird seemed to be dead ~7 min after the pump was employed. However, when the air was restored, the bird revived and nearly escaped through the top cover, which had been removed. But when the air was removed a second time, the bird convulsed and died. A mouse inserted into the receiver behaved in a similar way, being very active initially but when the pressure was reduced appeared giddy and staggered before falling down unconscious. Again, the animal was revived when fresh air was let in.

more bloggin

Class members Evan Carmouche (aka i. kharamot) and I occasionally write for a music blog that my friend Fran and I started last Spring called Dancing About Architecture. For some reason the www's before the address are essential -- this is the first domain either of us has owned and issues like this have been common (if anyone can help please let me know).

Rating Music

Hi All,

The Sgt. Pepper talk reminded me of this thing I read a while ago:

Enjoy, Jeremy

Agee on listening

Here is a passage from James Agee's book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, an ethnography of three tenant farmer families in Depression-era Alabama. This passage is taken from the end of his introduction, as he tries to explain how readers should consider the book, which tends toward the inflammatory. In the process he outlines an unusual way to hear canonical music.

"Above all else: in God's name don't think of it as Art. 
Every fury on earth has been absorbed in time, as art, or as religion, or as authority in one form or another. The deadliest blow the enemy of the human soul can strike is to do fury honor. Swift, Blake, Beethoven, Christ, Joyce, Kafka, name me a one who has not been thus castrated. Official acceptance is the one unmistakable symptom that salvation is beaten again, and is the one surest sign of fatal misunderstanding, and is the kiss of Judas.

        Really it should be possible to hope that this be recognized as so, and as a mortal and inevitably recurrent danger. It is scientific fact. It is disease. It is avoidable. Let a start be made. And then exercise your perception of it on work that has more to tell you than mine has. See how respectable Beethoven is; and by what right any wall in museum, gallery or home presumes to wear a Cezanne; and by what idiocy Blake or work even of such intention as mine is ever published and sold. I will tell you a test. It is unfair. It is untrue. It stacks all the cards. It is out of line with what the composer intended. All so much the better.

        Get a radio or a phonograph capable of the most extreme loudness possible, and sit down to listen to a performance of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony or of Schubert's C-Major Symphony. But I don't mean just sit down and listen. I mean this: Turn it on as loud as you can get it. Then get down on the floor and jam your ear as close into the loudspeaker as you can get it and stay there, breathing as lightly as possible, and not moving, and neither eating nor smoking nor drinking. Concentrate everything you can into your hearing and into your body. You won't hear it nicely. If it hurts you, be glad of it. As near as you will ever get, you are inside the music; not only inside it, you are it; your body is no longer your shape and substance, it is the shape and substance of the music.

        Is what you hear pretty? or beautiful? or legal? or acceptable in polite or any other society? It is beyond any calculation savage and dangerous and murderous to all equilibrium in human life as human life is; and nothing can equal the rape it does on all that death; nothing except anything, anything in existence or dream, perceived anywhere remotely toward its true dimension.

        Beethoven said a thing as rash and noble as the best of his work. By my memory, he said: 'He who understands my music can never know unhappiness again.' I believe it. And I would be a liar and a coward and one of your safe world if I should fear to say the same words of my best perception, and of my best intention.

        Performance, in which the whole fate and terror rests, is another matter."

pp. 12-13. Agee, James. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1988.