Friday, June 10, 2011

Les Paul contra Scruton

As you’ve no doubt figured out from the latest Google logo, Thursday was the birthday of the late Les Paul, pioneer of the electric guitar and related musical innovations.  Should we be thankful for what Paul gave us?  I certainly am.  Roger Scruton (whom I have also always admired) might disagree.  In An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture, Scruton tells us that:

The electric guitar… [is] a machine, which distorts and amplifies the sound, lifting it out of the realm of human noises.  If a machine could sing, it would sound like an electric guitar.  Techno-music is the voice of the machine, triumphing over the human utterance and cancelling its pre-eminent claim to our attention…. However much you listen to this music, you will never hear it as you hear the human voice… You are overhearing the machine, as it discourses in the moral void. (p. 107)

If you are tempted to regard that as anything but over-the-top… well, ladies and gentlemen, I give you Les Paul and Mary Ford.  Just try to find a “moral void” here, or anything other than something delightfully human:

Now, I’ll grant you that Paul and Ford are a far cry from (say) Nine Inch Nails, or house music, which are no doubt the sorts of things Scruton had in mind.  The point, though, is that whatever it is that is objectionable about the examples Scruton means to target, it is implausible that the electronic features per se make them so.  The electronic manipulation of Mary Ford’s vocals is part of the charm of a Paul and Ford tune (here is another famous example).  And are we really to believe that almost the entirety of modern popular music – in which the electric guitar features so prominently, alongside other electronic elements – is a “moral void” in which truly human sensibilities cannot be expressed?  Or that the electronic and machine elements by themselves could entail this?

A machine is, after all, a human artifact, no less than a viola or an acoustic guitar.  What is crucial is what is in the mind behind the instrument, not the instrument itself.  Nor can it be said that the instruments and electronic techniques in question fail to add anything aesthetically distinctive and valuable to the musician’s repertoire.  They are, again, a commonplace in contemporary popular music, for some of which even Scruton himself has confessed a weakness.  As I noted in an earlier post on Scruton and pop music, they are crucial to the sound of a band like Steely Dan, the “smoothness” of which has an undeniable beauty.  Even the most thoroughly electronic contemporary music offers us examples – consider the trip hop mood music of Portishead or Massive Attack, the Vangelis score for Blade Runner, the playful surrealism of Yello, or the sampling techniques of the Dust Brothers (here’s a Beastie Boys example of the latter that I think even a family friendly blog can link to, and a further example from Beck).  One does not need to claim greatness for such music to allow that it has aesthetic interest, and in some cases real beauty.

Nor, where the stuff Scruton might reasonably object to is concerned, does pinpointing the electronic elements really seem to the point.  The most extreme examples of electronic dance music seem questionable precisely because of their associations with the sensual excesses of the club scene, the complete immersion of the dancer in the bodily aspects of his or her nature to the exclusion of reason.  But what do the electronic or “mechanical” aspects of the music as such have to do with that?  The same moral or psychological effect on the listener could be achieved using tom-toms and other low tech instruments.

The trouble with too many conservative appeals to “human dignity” and the like in moral and aesthetic contexts is that they are woolly and subjective, and threaten to remain so when not backed by rigorous, metaphysically-grounded argumentation of a traditional, Aristotelian natural law sort.  The analyst projects what are really just his own contingent and fallible intuitions and sensibilities onto “the person” or “the human” as such.  He also too often forgets Terence’s dictum: Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.


  1. "Then Aule took up a great hammer to smite the Dwarves; and he wept. But Iluvatar had compassion upon Aule and his desire, because of his humility; and the Dwarves shrank from the hammer and were afraid, and they bowed down their heads and begged for mercy. And the voice of Iluvatar said to Aule: "Thy offer I accepted even as it was made. Dost thou not see that these things have now a voice of their own, and speak with their own voices? Else they would not have flinched from thy blow, nor from any command of thy will." J R R Tolkien, The Silmarillion

    Is it possible possible that Scruton's objection is more theoritical, and that humans are actually able to "build better than they know"?

  2. Just listen to Stevie Ray Vaughan play an electric guitar and any thought of it being somehow mechanical and inhuman goes completely out the window. This makes me wonder if Scruton has ever really listened to a piece of music that wasn't filtered through some strange form of Platonism.

  3. Two stories:

    First, a pentecostal preacher tells his congregation (of which I was one), that country music is "of God" and rock music is "of the devil". You'll probably never guess what kind of music the preacher liked!

    Second, a minister tells a leadership seminar (of which I was a part) that only major chords and keys are "of God" and that any disonance in music is "of the devil". I have no clue what kind of music that guy could possibly listen to!!

    Personal bias is a dangerous (and universal) thing.

  4. I don't understand many attacks on music. I don't see a difference between a a classical composer using the piano and violin to create a song, and Metallica using guitars and drums to create an instrumental like Orion. You may like one over the other, but there both still music. I appreciate both of them in the same fashion, through basically raw emotion. How do other people respond to music?

  5. Scruton would really lose his lunch over Captured by Robots...a death metal band consisting of one human and a bunch of robots he programmed to play his music.


  6. "You may like one over the other, but there both still music."

    I confess I hate the idea of music being a wholly subjective matter. Some musical tastes are simply objectively better than others, and moreover some strings of sound shouldn't qualify as "music" to begin with. As a terse but effective illustration, someone who regularly listens to kitsch like this...

    [A note of caution: each of the following is so transcendentally awful that it could effectively replace waterboarding as a form of torture.]

    ...has objectively worse tastes than someone who enjoys Beethoven and Rachmaninoff. Furthermore, such tripe shouldn't be considered "music" by any respectable standard, regardless of whether it soothes some individuals' neurons.

  7. I have to admit, without the electric guitar, my life woould be so much more empty. Without that wonderful instrument I couldn't listen to metal, and that thought is quite simply unbearable. No GWAR and no Chthonic make Richard an insane man.

  8. Scruton's point in the outstanding essay Yoofanasia cited above is that popular music is not designed for hearing, but for overhearing.

    It has to be this way by design, for the exact same reason youth culture even exists in our postmodern age -- which is the thesis of the essay. "Artists" in popular music usually function as iconized, sexualized, immortalized tribal totems, with bands confering experiences of membership to those who follow them. The singer performs timeless, ritualistic spectacles, which is why one isn't going to find a pimpled, frumpy, old, digusting obese chick getting famous doing an act similar to Rihanna or Lady Gaga. In classical music, the performer ideally is a means to present the music -- which is why it has an element of interpretation -- while in popular music the music is a means to present the performer.

    That's why most "songs" in popular music only last for mere minutes -- the music itself simply can't move toward anything carefully prepared, such as a cadence. Such depth would draw too much attention away from the performer. Scruton argues this deliberately displays a lack of musical argument, which itself displays a lack of musical thought. I'm inclined to agree. While I listen to my Decapitated along with my Debussy, I'd be a fool to assert that it is a matter of unbased opinion as to who is a master of their craft. That would be tantamount to equating a Big Mac with a world class steak.

  9. jhbowden,

    I agree that "Yoofanasia" is an outstanding essay. If you read my earlier post on "Steely Dan contra Roger Scruton" (which I referred to, and linked to, in the present post up above) you'll see that I summarize and partially endorse exactly the argument you sketch. But, as I also argue in that earlier post, the trouble is that Scruton overstates the case. The analysis fits some contemporary pop music, but not all, nor does it capture all there is to some of the music it does apply to.

    And I don't think the length of contemporary pop songs really means what you say it does. Traditional songs of all sorts are brief, as are folk, jazz, and popular standards that have no necessary associations with a particular performer.

  10. Different musical forms engender different ends, and affect different faculties on the way.

    Popular music, especially electric or otherwise processed music (which is most of it), tends toward an almost group orgiastic and bacchanal spirit. Mr. Taupin expressed this spirit in his lyrics to Elton John's "Bennie and the Jets."

    The music is often rather undisciplined, too loud, and sensorially numbing. Usually it is geared toward folks with a certain level of musical sophistication, a group that often (but not always) cannot approach higher forms.

    Note that I write "higher." The democratic idea that all music is somehow equal in goodness cannot be further from the truth. At the same time, this understanding does not derive from an empirical analysis and therefore confuses those bent on scientism. Rather, it is an aesthetic judgement, different, but objective nevertheless.

    A point that cannot be discounted is that music is primarily emotional (albeit with, sometimes, an intellectual component), Since people are typically very identified with their emotions, it is sometimes difficult to discuss the topic without generating some discord, especially if you tell them that their choice of music, while perhaps good, is not as good as other types. In this case, people often take it as a personal insult. I'm reminded of Voltaire when he somewhere claimed that the perfect is the enemy of the good.

  11. Time for true confessions.:
    Jimi Hendrix.
    Pink Fl.
    Rammstein (good luck I don't know German)
    Should I beg for forgiveness?
    mea culpa

  12. forgot: I sing the Gregorian chant in our choir.

  13. Speaking of NIN, there is this wonderful cover by Johnny Cash

    It seems that so many songs are improved by going acoustic or unplugged.

    Eric Clapton sounds great unplugged

    It's like the aging of whiskey, the harsh is mellowed, the drink becomes smooth.

    Even the stuff that starts off smooth comes off well unplugged

  14. Music is like food.

    Arguing over which music is "the best" is like arguing over whether steak is better than broccoli - pointless and completely subjective. (And steak IS better BTW!)

    And, the same goes for the "higher" forms of music. They - like the "higher" forms of food - are a matter of taste. It may come as a shock but some people actually prefer a fire-grilled hot dog to a soft-boiled fetal duck!

  15. Or you could put it this way:

    Music is like food.

    Arguing over which kind of music is the best is, in fact, not pointless. Broccoli and vegetables are objectively better, as in healthier, for you, whereas other "lower" kinds of foods are not as healthy, and are in fact plain unhealthy. Similarly, some forms of music are objectively better, morally "healthier", than others.

  16. I wonder where Wagner ends up in all of this debate...always found him a bit decadent. I imagine he would be something like a New York chocolate chip cheese cake.

  17. @Daniel Smith: if musical preferences are purely subjective then we might as well throw away all aesthetic criticism as completely useless.

    I should add that while I think that the major task of criticism (musical, literary, what have you) is not to produce value judgements but an understanding of its subject, just like anyother scholarly discipline, the effect of a deepened understanding is a deepened appreciation. There is nothing to understand, in whatever specific ways understanding is taken to mean in music, about bad, trivial, ephemeral music.

  18. I think this highly respected physicist will arouse the interest of Dr feser as he attempts to defend first causes in the context of quantum mechanics contra Bohr, einstein and hawkings....

  19. "Artists" in popular music usually function as iconized, sexualized, immortalized tribal totems, with bands confering experiences of membership to those who follow them.

    This isn't restricted to music though. It is a fairly common part of the romantic view of the artist. What rock musicians are doing isn't really any different than Lord Byron, or even the cults of personality that grew up around Keats and Shelley after their deaths. You get much the same thing in France with Hugo, Baudelaire, and Rimbaud among others. Eventually these celebrity cults die down and you're just left with the work. Nobody cares that much about Byron the man anymore, but Childe Harold and Don Juan still hold up. I expect the same will be true of Bob Dylan, The Beatles and Nirvana.

  20. The Maestro: "Similarly, some forms of music are objectively better, morally "healthier", than others."

    That statement is only true if it means that Black Sabbath's Sabotage is objectively better and morally healthier than all other albums released to date!

  21. Reminds me of a comment that Wittgenstein once made to his friend Drury, that music "came to a full stop with Brahms; and even in Brahms I can begin to hear the sound of machinery."

  22. Richard asks: I wonder where Wagner ends up in all of this debate...

    There is no need to wonder, and no need to make a strained analogy. Wagner was the last of the giants of Western music. However, from your rather trite analogy you do highlight something worth discussing. I will attempt to be brief.

    Western music found its highest manifestation during a short time period, and a period mostly isolated within a specific geographic area. We can cite the names of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven in this regard. These men represented a progression of the musical aesthetic. One encompassing, in order, the intellect; a naïve (or perhaps) innocent emotion; and, lastly, a movement toward an ostensibly universal humanism. Why this should be, that is, why in this particular locale, and within a certain time, Western music reached an apotheosis, is an enigma no one can rightly explain.

    Wagner, for his part, advanced this progression to its logical end. I would argue that it is impossible to understand Western music until one confronts Parsifal. Whereas the the Ring was, in form, ostensibly pagan, Parsifal was, in spite of what one may read elsewhere, infused with an authentic Christian mysticism. But a mysticism that understood its own prerequisites, and its predecessors.

    When dealing with composers we must not be guilty of admitting a cult of personality. Wagner, as a man, was as marginal as any of us. However, as with any truly aesthetic manifestation, he was simply the conduit for something we might call higher mind. This is a psychological understanding, but one that can be noticed elsewhere. Somewhere, I don't recall exactly where, Nietzsche wrote that when reflecting upon his own artistic impulse, the original ideas came from within—from outside his own conscious being. He wrote that it almost made him understand the idea of God.