Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Metaphysics of Monk

OK, kids, time for some more pretentious half-baked pop culture analysis. But we want to move on now from the grotesqueries of Gaga to the good stuff. So, put on that bop beret and let’s get to it.

Why is the music of Thelonious Monk so beautiful? (Let’s not waste time arguing about whether it is. It is. So there.) Consider a few well-known representative samples. First, that classic piece of driving bebop, “Straight, No Chaser”:



Then, for something softer and more contemplative, “’Round Midnight”:



Finally, perhaps the mother of all Monk tunes, “Brilliant Corners,” a piece so difficult to play that twenty-five incomplete takes had to be stitched together in order to produce a version for the album of the same name. (See Robin Kelley’s account of the sessions in his recent book Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original.) I prefer the big band version myself, but since I can’t find it online, here’s the original:

That will give you a sense, if you weren’t familiar with it already, of the famous odd angularity and discordance of Monk’s music. And yet it works. But why? And why is it beautiful in a way that the notoriously even more discordant music of (say) Ornette Coleman is not?

The answer might be found in the work of G. W. Leibniz (of all people); or, to be more precise, in a set of principles that long pre-date Leibniz but which he adapted for his own philosophical use, viz. the principle of plenitude and the principle of economy. The principle of plenitude tells us that a world with more variety in it is better than a world with less; the principle of economy tells us that a world governed by simple and elegant principles is better than a world governed by needlessly complex ones. For Leibniz, the best of all possible worlds would be one that exhibited the perfect balance between plenitude and economy. A universe comprised only of a single metallic sphere might score extremely high on the economy scale but extremely low in the plenitude scale; a world comprised of an incalculably large number of different objects so diverse that no two of them fell under the same categories or laws would score extremely high on the plenitude scale but extremely low on the economy scale. Famously, Leibniz held that the actual world must be one which strikes the right balance, since in his view God must create the best of all possible worlds. Now, I don’t endorse Leibniz’s theological application of these principles. (We Thomists reject the claim that God has to create the best of all possible worlds.) But we can agree with him that there is goodness, and thus (if we factor in the doctrine of the transcendentals) beauty, in the balancing of plenitude and economy.

Consider that among the kinds of variety in which we seem naturally to take pleasure, and thus which possess a kind of beauty, is the kind that involves some element of the unexpected. This seems to be one reason why we enjoy stories with twist endings, jokes, roller coasters, dreams, surrealist art, science fiction and fantasy, and other artworks, activities, and experiences in which routine is departed from and ordinary expectations are upended, sometimes even suddenly. Their “plenitude” makes them good and beautiful, and a lack of plenitude or variety makes watching paint dry (say) or standing in a long queue unpleasant, despite the high score such activities have on the scale of economy or order. But there are limits to how much of this sort of variety we can stand. Obviously, we do not (always) find the unexpected pleasant when it poses a danger to us. More to the present point, we also find it unpleasant when the ordinary is departed from too radically – when it is hard to detect even a minimal or abstract level of order, so that making sense of what it is we are doing or experiencing becomes not only challenging, but impossible.

It seems to me that this helps to make sense of much of our aesthetic experience. For example, it accounts for something about the history of modern art that might otherwise seem puzzling: that while at least some of the early stuff manifests an aesthetically pleasant “shock of the new” (to borrow Robert Hughes’ phrase) the work of contemporary artists who have pushed the novel themes of the modernists to their limits is uniformly hideous. It explains why Christopher Nolan movies deserve the hype they get, while David Lynch movies are tiresome crap. And it explains why Monk’s music is beautiful while the “free jazz” of Coleman is often downright ugly. (Check out this further example. Yikes.) Both take you in directions you do not expect to go, but Monk’s tangents invariably resolve themselves into an order and economy which is, however complex, still clearly perceptible.

14 comments:

Josh said...

Finally, something I'm qualified to talk about!

When I was in high school, I played jazz piano and Monk was my favorite guy. All the horn players were more into bebop and this meant improvisation stressed virtuosity over melody. Couldn't stand it then; can't stand it now. Monk was a charming, idiosyncratic dissenter from the popular jazz of his time.

Especially in Round Midnight, there is such an emphasis on proportion and composition. Kenton was great for this too.

On Lynch, though, I'll have to disagree. He's made his share of crap, for sure. But Blue Velvet's a pretty good flick, and The Elephant Man is one of the finest movies ever made, in my humble opinion.

Tony said...

Sorry, Ed, I know plenty of high quality music lovers, whose quality is both in their deep knowledge of music, and in their love of the true, the good, and the beautiful, who reject the kind of discordant jazz that Monk does.

Is it possible that a person can have otherwise sound sensibilites that are warped in one direction only, so that in that direction they can find a "beauty" that a person whose sensibilities have not been warped cannot see or hear that "beauty"?

Alternatively, is possible that some modern music forms, such as jazz, participate so strenuously in a specific cultural milieu that nobody not inculturated with that milieu can quite appreciate that form of music?

Edward Feser said...

Josh,

I like Kenton too, though sometimes the bombast gets to be a little wearing.

Re: Lynch, I haven't seen Elephant Man in many years, but I'll concede that at least from what I remember it is a good movie. Can't agree vis-a-vis Blue Velvet, though. Ugh.

Tony,

Is it possible that a person can have otherwise sound sensibilites that are warped in one direction only, so that in that direction they can find a "beauty" that a person whose sensibilities have not been warped cannot see or hear that "beauty"?

Gee, do you have anyone specific in mind?

Anyway, the short answer is no, I don't believe that that is possible, at least not on any large scale. An anomalous judgement here or there might be possible, but not systematic error about an entire gigantic range of human experience.

Here's a question for you: Is it possible that someone could have basically sound (i.e. reactionary) moral, political, and philosophical sensibilities, including a recognition that far too many conservatives far too glibly assume that the moral, political, and cultural tendencies distinctive of modernity can be reconciled with sound thinking -- and yet, for all that, still take too simplistic and narrow-minded a view of modern culture (as if absolutely nothing that the last forty or even the last four hundred years have given us has the least value)?

I would say it's not only possible, but actual.

Josh said...

Yeah, I can see how them trumpets might wear on the ear after a while.

I can also see how Blue Velvet might strike you as repulsive, I think it might do that to me too at some points.

awatkins69 said...

Monk is GREAT! You guys should watch some more videos. He used to love spinning in circles to make himself high. Check out the album of Coltrane and Monk together. Genius.

I agree generally with your aesthetic ideas. I certainly detest pushing it too far. Coleman and the like are ridiculous. Same thing goes with a lot of contemporary art, sculpture, and architecture. We've gotten to the point where it is so pointless. There's literally a "movement" called post-postmodernism.

However, philosophy of art is always kind of iffy. For instance, as much as I love Thelonious Monk, I like Bach best. I think most of us would say that Monk provides more in terms of the plenitude scale. Yet, to me, Bach's Magnificats and Masses are more beautiful. Maybe it has more in the scale of order? All I can really conclude from this is that aesthetics is not an exact science.

Tony Flood said...

Your principles of plenitude and economy reminded me of Charles Hartshorne's circle of aesthetic contrasts (as discussed in his Creative Synthesis and Philosophic Method. I cannot mark and move it into this box, but I can describe it:

In circle's center lies a smaller one labeled "Beautiful."

Atop the larger circle sits the phrase, "Hopelessly monotonous"

Below, "Hopelessly chaotic"

Outside the larger circle:
On the left: "Hopelessly complex or profound"

On the right: "Hopelessly simple or superficial"

Inside the larger circle:

atop the smaller, "Neat"

below the smaller, "Ugly"

To the left of the smaller circle are three stacked vertically words: "Magnificent," "Sublime," "Tragic."

Corresponding to them to the right of the smaller circle are: "Commonplace," "Pretty," and "Ridiculous."

mpresley said...

When thinking the aesthetic experience, and since encountering this blog, I've found it helpful to consider the natural end of man. Traditionally this has been understood as a movement towards transcendence. Such a thing cannot be approached in the usual discursive way, but rather relies on something shown instead of something said. It is the realm of a symbolic understanding

Among the various arts, it has long been agreed upon that music possesses an almost qualitative difference-- an immediacy allowing direct experience of a "higher" state.

In this, certainly Plato can be cited, but of the modern philosophers it could be that Schopenhauer's name is the best example inasmuch as he felt music's uncanny uniqueness and was able to convey its spirit in words.

For Leibniz, the best of all possible worlds would be one that exhibited the perfect balance between plenitude and economy.

Against Leibniz (and Dr. Feser?) we may consider the last of the great Western composers, R. Wagner, whose music was almost always (within the popular mind, at any rate) viewed as superfluous. Yet I do not think it possible to understand Western music until one has confronted Parsifal. I know of nothing as "plentiful" nor anything as transcendent. Ironically, Schopenhauer probably didn't think much of Wagner in spite of the latter's dedication to World as Will and Representation, and Nietzsche, who felt the sublimity of its music, could only allow himself to sit through a few minutes lest he, too, be transported to that place he always wanted to deny.

mpresley said...

Not everyone's cup, but some of the more traditional piano musings of Sonny Blount (Sun Ra) are worth approaching.

Also, within an almost but not quite "free jazz" realm, one ought to be familiar with the work of William Henderson--whose sometimes tenure with Pharaoh Sanders acts as a very traditional counterpart to Pharaoh's wild swings. Check out Polka Dots and Moonbeams from the record, Oh Lord Let Me Do Know Wrong (which also features the erstwhile talent of the sublime vocalist, Leon Thomas).

DmL said...

I don't know much about free jazz, but that last recording you posted (of Coleman), it didn't seem to me so much that the different musicians were experimenting, really, so much as they were all playing basically the same song, just in different keys and out of tune. It was very structured, they all moved together, but it sounds terrible because the keys are (purposefully?) gross and mismatched and the lines themselves are close-enough-to-but-not-quite-in-tune that it is especially jarring (much more than if they had just been playing random notes.)

Anonymous said...

There is this professor in a wheelchair, very brilliant mind you, that wants everybody to buy his book and in it he says:
http://www.news24.com/SciTech/News/Hawking-God-didnt-create-universe-20100902
"God did not create the universe and the "Big Bang" was an inevitable consequence of the laws of physics, the eminent British theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking argues in a new book."

I guess he is not familiar with classical theism. Who can inform him though?

Dave Lull said...

For Charles Hartshorne's aesthetic circle try this:

http://tinyurl.com/29yuovl

or this:

http://books.google.com/books?id=DK1Y1JYzzS0C&pg=PA103&dq=%22aesthetic+circle%22+%22%22hopelessly+monotonous%22&hl=en&ei=_55_TN3fMtOnngfpn61h&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CCUQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=%22aesthetic%20circle%22%20%22%22hopelessly%20monotonous%22&f=false

Tony said...

mpresley says:

Against Leibniz (and Dr. Feser?) we may consider the last of the great Western composers, R. Wagner, whose music was almost always (within the popular mind, at any rate) viewed as superfluous.

I always keep in mind this important dictum:

THE MUSIC OF WAGNER IS BETTER THAN IT SOUNDS.

Tony said...

Ed says :

Is it possible that someone could have basically sound (i.e. reactionary) moral, political, and philosophical sensibilities, including a recognition that far too many conservatives far too glibly assume that the moral, political, and cultural tendencies distinctive of modernity can be reconciled with sound thinking -- and yet, for all that, still take too simplistic and narrow-minded a view of modern culture (as if absolutely nothing that the last forty or even the last four hundred years have given us has the least value)?

Yes, I agree that this happens. But what you are talking about there (with "political, and philosophical") is a "sensibility" that resides in the intellect. Such a holding may come about through poor use of reason, more informed by personal preference for earlier ideas than by intellectual rigor, but it is still an even that happens in the intellect. It is not the autonomic response of (however well developed) sensibilities that respond to music, in the vis cogitativa, if you will.

mpresley said...

Tony: As you probably know, the saying's generally attributed to Mr. Twain, a man who never enjoyed opera or, for that matter, classical music very much. However, the quip was actually sourced by Twain from another American humorist (and newspaperman), Edgar Nye.

Twain, himself a newspaperman, had a talent for distillation:

In "Parsifal" there is a hermit named Gurnemanz who stands on the stage in one spot and practices by the hour, while first one and then another character of the cast endures what he can of it and then retires to die.

Always concerned about value and the need for preserving expenses, especially when traveling abroad, Twain was happily able to report:

Seven hours at $5 a ticket is almost too much for the money.

At the same time he could be very serious, respectful, and this was somewhat surprising given his aesthetic sensibility:

Finally, out of darkness and distance and mystery soft rich notes rose upon the stillness, and from his [Wagner's] grave the dead magician began to weave his spells about his disciples and steep their souls in his enchantments. There was something strangely impressive in the fancy which kept intruding itself that the composer was conscious in his grave of what was going on here, and that these divine souls were the clothing of thoughts which were at this moment passing through his brain, and not recognized and familiar ones which had issued from it at some former time.

Whether Twain would have understood Mr. Monk, I don't know.