Everyone intuits an emotional substance to music, yet few can explain its nature and origins. According to some, it is merely subjective; a piece evokes feelings that are personal to the listener but have no basis in the actual structure, melody, and harmonies of the composition itself. According to others, emotion in music can only be explained if anchored to a particular story or the historical context of the composer’s life and motivations. Still others disdain talk of musical emotion altogether and prefer a pure formalism, sometimes seeking to explain why music that feels jarring, discordant, or no way in particular can still be great because of some convention-flouting thing it does. M. Zachary Johnson, a teacher and historian of music and himself an accomplished composer, differs from all of those commonplace views and, in Emotion in Life and Music: A New Science, sets forth a framework by which the mathematics inherent in musical relationships and the feelings to which music gives rise are not only reconciled but shown to be inextricably linked, providing “connection of the emotion with the exact mathematical ratios which measure pitch distance and explain our qualitative affective experience” (p. 163).
Johnson’s concept of the psychological signature of a piece based on three measurable dimensions of intensity, speed, and affect provides a rubric for discerning which basic emotions a musical passage will elicit in the listener. As Johnson points out, these are generalized emotions such as pride or anguish, not anchored to a particular context (e.g., the feeling of accomplishment at having run a marathon or the feeling of having been betrayed) – although other media, such as the storyline of an opera, and even the listener’s personal experiences can provide such a context, which is indeed why different listeners may have different subjective associations with a piece of a particular, objective psychological signature. Even though musical tastes do vary widely among individuals, Johnson convincingly articulates that these tastes are still in reference to something in particular and that an individual’s response to the objective psychological signature of a piece tells more about the listener than about the piece itself. This is a welcome, refreshing contrast to the often militantly intolerant subjectivism of those who proclaim that there are no distinctions of quality or even nature to music or even art in general – that it is all up to the arbitrary preferences of the composer and/or listener, and that anyone who dares challenge this dogma deserves condemnation in the most strident terms. Perhaps contemporary Western culture, or at least the occasional oasis of rationality within it, is beginning to turn away from such absurdity, and Johnson contributes theoretical support to the view most articulately (in our era) espoused by Alma Deutscher that music should be beautiful.
Why is it desirable for dissonance to be resolved? Johnson explains that “Feelings such as pleasure, joy, serenity, inner harmony and balance – these are settled, complete states of mind. They are self-sufficient rewards, forms of satisfaction and contentment. They are ends in themselves. Feelings such as pain, suffering, fear, anger, restlessness, emotional distress and chaos – these are unsettled, incomplete, resolution-demanding states of mind. They motivate us to take some form of productive or corrective action. In respect to psychology, these are a propulsion to satisfy a need, to resolve a clash, to soothe oneself and heal, to strengthen, to gain adaptive flexibility, to stabilize the psyche and bring order to it” (p. 65). Wholesome, constructive music does not merely exist for its own sake but can greatly assist individuals in this task of achieving emotional integrity and strength. This includes music which expresses the darker or incomplete emotions, as long as this expression offers the listener an effective laboratory of the mind to work through such emotions without the risks and harms that would give rise to them in one’s personal life. Johnson notes that “Music rewards you for successful cognitive action, not for successful existential action. And when it gives you darker emotions, the function is not to indicate loss and failure, but to provide a means of sensually enjoying and studying and contemplating the states of consciousness, independently of the issue of actual material loss or gain – which is a form of self-knowledge, an affirmation of the value of one’s own faculties, and therefore itself a spiritual gain” (p. 110). However, there is a difference between a healthy, structured, rational exploration of the darker emotions with the intent of achieving resolution and completeness and the self-destructive embrace of those emotions, which certain types of “music” attempt to inculcate.
I consider myself to be within the same broad Apollonian musical and esthetic tradition as Johnson – as contrasted with the Dionysian revelry in the shocking, debased, and unrestrained. Yet perhaps my most significant difference with Johnson is the scope of what I would encompass within the Apollonian milieu and the latitude which I would allow to certain composers whom Johnson portrays rather harshly. Yes, Richard Wagner had his long, moody, meandering passages – but when his music becomes focused, determined, and structured, it is truly majestic. Yes, Dmitri Shostakovich was often despondent, but he could also write a fugue without any dissonance – and, besides, who would not be despondent when responding to the atrocities of the Stalin regime, but needing to do so in a veiled, indirect manner to create plausible deniability? (Shostakovich, too, had his heroic moments, as in the ending to his Seventh Symphony, which is about as optimistic as one can reasonably be in the midst of the devastation of World War II.) Nor would I agree with Johnson’s portrayal of the Second Movement of Wolfgang Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 22 in E-Flat as conveying a message of hopelessness or futility; I would rather characterize it as expressing mild, reflective melancholy. As for Arnold Schoenberg – well, Schoenberg deserves all of the criticism that Johnson has in store for him; he had no excuses for the misguided rebellion against tonality.
Yet, more generally, it is perhaps a misdirection of effort to focus on criticism of singular figures in musical or intellectual history. The massive departure of “high” music from tonality in the early 20th century certainly could not have been solely Schoenberg’s doing – nor could the intellectual seeds for this trend have been planted a century and a half in advance by Immanuel Kant (whom Johnson characterizes, following many similar assertions by Ayn Rand, as the mastermind of the end of the Enlightenment and the decline of the West). Kant had his errors, to be sure (though Rand always somehow overlooked the redeeming aspects of his immense humanism and political classical liberalism, especially in the context of his time), and Schoenberg’s music is simply not pleasant to the ear – but one could have a civilized and interesting conversation with either Kant or Schoenberg over a cup of coffee. No – the rebellion against the Enlightenment was more the doing of the rabble who cheered when the guillotine fell during the Reign of Terror. The widespread descent of music into atonality could not have occurred were it not for the slaughter of World War I, a crime of millions against millions – and against themselves. Johnson’s criticism of rock music (perhaps itself a bit harsh – but I offer my evaluation as one who has only heard the music separately from its typical “scene”) is better leveled at the ordinary revelers at Woodstock and Altamont – not the music itself (which is rather harmonious and innocuous compared to what commonly passes for popular “music” today). The tendency toward dissipation and destruction is not orchestrated by a handful of avatars of particular movements – but, rather, it lurks within the masses of people because of regrettable cognitive biases and irrational emotional urges that are the unfortunate inheritance of humankind’s deeply flawed evolutionary origins. In certain eras these destructive inclinations are subdued due to general prosperity and the proper incentives within social, political, and technological systems – whereas in other eras, arguably including our own (though not always or everywhere), they are encouraged by widespread norms of (mis)conduct, cultural portrayals, and everyday attitudes to become acted out by masses of people to great personal and societal toll. This is, in many regards, an ancient and recurring problem, sometimes taking on bizarre manifestations such as the pathological dance epidemic of 1518.
Accordingly, it is more important to advocate the Apollonian mindset in general in opposition to the Dionysian proclivities in general than to seek to single out particular instances of the latter. As long as humans continue to contend with our flawed evolutionary inheritance – which may not and should not always be our lot – and as long as some humans also retain aspects of nobility of character and aspiration for a better life, there will always be some exemplars of both the Apollonian and the Dionysian to point to. A more salient question, though, is, “Which of these paradigms is proportionally predominant?” Furthermore, how can the proportions among cultural creations be shifted in favor of the Apollonian? The more immediate problem we contend with is that there are vast quantities of people who would understand nothing in Johnson’s book and would have no knowledge of anything he praises or criticizes; they would be equally ignorant of Mozart and Beethoven, Aristotle and Kant, Schoenberg and Shostakovich, Brahms and Ayn Rand, and yet they would hate everything about any mention of them (in whatever light) – or about my review of Johnson’s book, or about a review from a critic with views diametrically opposite mine. The problem of anti-intellectualism in contemporary Western societies (particularly the United States) runs that deep, and it is evident that Johnson is gravely concerned about this predicament.
But perhaps good music can offer us a path toward a brighter future. If anti-intellectualism is the predominant cultural malaise of our time, then the inoculation against it may be found in Johnson’s articulation of the purpose of the best music as expressing the love of intelligence: “The essence of our humanity, the linchpin integrating reason and emotion, the special theme of the good life, the hallmark of virtue, the root of justice, the core of idealism and aspiration and heroism, the fundamental guardian of political freedom, and the root of all human love, is the love of man’s intelligence. […] The essence of music is precisely the love of human intelligence. Music, as nature’s reward for cognitive fitness, is the greatest medium in existence for expressing that theme” (pp. 179-180). Could exposure to great music – simple exposure, without even the theoretical explication which is accessible only at a much higher level of erudition – instill a love of intelligence in sufficiently larger numbers of people so as to turn the cultural tide? This is at least worth including as a tactic in the great, ongoing endeavor of civilizing the human mind and ensuring that the nobility of sentiment can grow to keep pace with material and technological advances.
“When Matter Touches Antimatter,” World Premiere, performed by tenor Brian Minnick (http://bminnick3.wix.com/brianminnick), November 3, 2017, Central Presbyterian Church, Austin, Texas. A winner of Second Fresh Squeezed Ounce of Art Song, One Ounce Opera.
“When Matter Touches Antimatter” describes a well-known astronomical concept and uses it as a metaphor applicable to a well-known human situation. See another performance of it by soprano Amanda Noelle Neal here.
You can also listen to the original (2004) arrangement of this song:MP3 file.(Left-click to listen, right-click to download.)
“WHEN MATTER TOUCHES ANTIMATTER”
Some say there must exist in the outer zone
A world of antimatter.
The thought makes people scatter,
‘Cause it could make our own
If, by some awful twist, part of it is hurled
And crosses over. Watch out, my friend:
With scarce a chance to catch your breath
You have no world.
Ah, you should know by now: Matters of the heart,
Are not just idle chatter
And more like antimatter
If you are worlds apart
While at her
Side, acting like your Earth
Circles ’round her sun.
So at the slightest hint of the end
That comes WHEN MATTER TOUCHES ANTIMATTER,
Run.Because, no matter what you pretend,
That antimatter’s touch is death
Description by Rodney Rawlings: Performed by mezzosoprano Sandra Flores-Strand with pianist John Massaro in rehearsal for Voices of Vienna concert of April 13, 2018, in Fountain Hills, Arizona. A video of the concert is expected to become available soon. This song is in tribute, and counsel, to those adventurers who push out the boundaries of our one and irreplaceable existence.
Watch an earlier performance of “To Venus and Mars” by soprano Amanda Noelle Neal here.
“TO VENUS AND MARS”
While children down here in the fields
Catch fireflies in jars,
So grown men chase evening light …
… To Venus and Mars
Someday a brave man will go–
Someone who can bear to be launched
And leave us below.
But deep in the sky
He will lose sight of the earth
Ere catching that one final glimpse–
Stuff of memoirs–
Knowing he’s bound on a course
To Venus and Mars.
Now he must seek higher realms instead.
It was time for those last looks to end.
Echoes remind him of what they said
When he first heard their call to ascend:
“Do you find most of this globe absurd,
“With its throngs, restless passions, and tears?
“This world is vain, as we’ve often heard.
“Do you long for a mission that’s one-way
“To Venus and Mars– to Venus and Mars–?”
Near Venus and Mars
Yet might he grow ill at ease
To gaze on them–visions of Earth
Taint all that he sees?
This trav’ler may soon
Dream he will one day return–
To mingle on streets full of life,
To chase falling stars
And quite serenely look up to Venus and Mars.
(Spoken:) And quite serenely look up
(Sung:) to Venus and Mars.
Four orchestral variations in a late 19th-century style build upon a piano theme begun by Mr. Stolyarov in 2002 and subsequently rediscovered and completed in 2018. The strong chords and frequent major-minor contrasts evoke the dramatic, sweeping views of the Carson Valley, which often encompass multiple contrasting weather phenomena.
Rodney Rawlings’s art song “When Matter Touches Antimatter” describes a well-known astronomical concept and uses it as a metaphor applicable to a well-known human situation. Here are two takes on it, one by soprano (video and audio) and one by tenor (audio only):
Soprano Amanda Noelle Neal on February 27, 2018, at the event New Brew: The Brewening, Heartland Cafe Bar, Chicago, hosted by Opera on Tap:
Symphony No. 1, Op. 86, was composed by Gennady Stolyarov II between June 2017 and January 2018 and is subtitled “The Contemporary World”. Mr. Stolyarov intended this symphony to be a commentary on the world and U.S. events of 2016-2017, during which civilization was severely tested. Each of the first three movements depicts the epistemic, political, and material crises which befell much of the world during this time period and threatened to undo much of the progress that civilization achieved up to that time. The choice to have the fourth movement be about preserving the good aspects of historical and contemporary life was motivated by the observation that, although severely strained and beset by setbacks from both nature and society, our civilization did not ultimately collapse during 2017, and we have made it thus far. Watch a video version of the entire symphony on YouTube here.
Movement 1 – Uncertainty – Length: 6:51
The main melody is at once ominous and much more restrained than it could be – evoking an individual seeking to focus and chart a path through an environment where little is predictable and previous understandings of the terrain he navigated have shown to be faulty. What can he hope to achieve, what can he rely upon, and whom can he trust? Various other themes in this movement show elements of longing for a bygone (though relatively recent) time, determination, and hope (though will it be disappointed hope?) – although in the background there is a certain din of uncertainty that leads each melody to be a bit less free-flowing or expressive than it would be if composed during a calmer era. This movement poses the question, “What will become of our world, and what will this era do to each of our lives?”
This movement displays the cyclical and protracted struggle between two colossal forces, neither of them benign. Both of them actually resemble one another in substance (although they are in different keys – A minor and C minor – but which of these represents the Right and which represents the Left, and does it make any difference?). There are segments in which the keys are mixed – representing one force seeking to wrest power from the other – with the ultimate outcome being the same melody in a different key. This pattern continues over the course of multiple variations and orchestrations.
Movement 3 – The Fragility of Civilization – Length: 5:19
Composed in 3/4 meter and following a “theme and variations” format, this movement actually encompasses all of the minor keys. The underlying structure and the systematic progression of the keys from one variation to the next represent the fabric of human civilization, which, in recent years, has been continually challenged by the forces of ruin – including violent conflict, irrationality, natural disasters, political folly, institutional breakdown, and disintegrating standards of behavior – along with the still-present age-old perils of disease and death. This piece can be perceived as a grimly determined waltz, danced on the edge of calamity – but as long as the forward motion within the structure continues, no matter what content the contemporary world throws at it, civilization has a fighting chance. For those who listen through to the ending, there is a glimmer of hope – perhaps appended in a “deus ex machina” fashion, but there is a purpose to it, especially when considered in light of what it leads to in Movement 4.
The first melody in this movement is the “preservation” theme, which is repeated under many different arrangements and frames the significantly re-orchestrated versions of segments from six of Mr. Stolyarov’s marches – Marches #1, 2, 8, 9, 11, and 12 – composed between 2000 and 2014. This is intended to communicate several insights: (i) at a time of great macro-scale uncertainty, only the efforts of the individual – each in their own way – can preserve what is good about civilization; (ii) one should cherish the accomplishments of one’s past and build upon them, integrating them with the present and future – because, no matter what happens, past achievements are irreversible gains; (iii) in building a brighter future, we should hearken back to the good aspects of life and human creation that were achieved prior to 2016. It is not possible for humankind to begin anew; one cannot rebuild the world, or any subset thereof, from scratch – but it is possible to undo the damage of the recent chaos by reasserting and re-instantiating the values, ideas, objects, and infrastructures that make life decent and progress possible.
A better future can only be achieved by holding onto and building upon the best aspects of the past – both personally and for humankind as a whole.
This symphonic march was composed by Gennady Stolyarov II on the occasion of the 84th Birthday of his grandfather, Gennady Stolyarov I, on October 24, 2017. This piece contains exactly 84 measures. The opus number is coincidental, but fortuitously so – as it looks forward to another year.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Gennady Stolyarov I led the development of some of the first computers in the Soviet Union and was granted the IEEE Computer Pioneer Award in the year 2000 for his achievements – “For pioneering development in ‘Minsk’ series computers’ software, of the information systems’ software and applications and for data processing and database management systems concepts dissemination and promotion”.
This composition is played using the Symphonic Orchestra in the Ludwig 3.0 Premium Software.
The Rational Argumentator is pleased to feature the most current arrangement of Rodney Rawlings’s musical adaptation of lyrics from Lord Alfred Tennyson’s 1847 poem, The Princess. This is a piano rendition, following up on Mr. Rawlings’s 2004 version of this piece for string orchestra.
Composer’s Description: In the link below I present a piano rendition of my song “Come Down, O Maid.”
The song is my musical setting of a Tennyson lyric that appears in his long poem The Princess (1847). Those much-loved verses, which I have presented at the very bottom of this post, have been described as “a summons to the valleys of domestic affection, away from the heights of idealism and abstraction.”
MP3 file for piano rendition (left-click to listen, right-click to download):“Come Down, O Maid”
If the reader is looking at my lyrics here while listening, it should be borne in mind that, because the vocal part is also represented by a piano sound, in a couple of sections it is harder to distinguish the two aurally:
Away below the frozen mountain
Deep in the valley was a shepherd,
And he sang:
Come down, O maid, come from yonder mountain:
What pleasure lives in height and cold? Come down, and cease
To sit a star on the sparkling spire.
Love is of the valley, O come thou down
And find him there,
Hand in hand with Plenty;
Nor cares for Death and Morning on the silver horns,
Nor firths of ice, furrow-cloven falls;
Let them dance thee do-own
To find him there.
(Transitional musical passage)
O maid, come down;
Leave the monstrous ledges
To spill their wreaths
That like a broken purpose waste:
So waste not thou;
All the vales await thee-ee;
Azure pillars arise to thee.
My shepherd pipe, children too, are calling,
Sweeter thy voice, but every sound is sweet;
The rivulets so clear hur’ying through the la-awn,
The Rational Argumentator again features this piece by Rodney Rawlings — a musical paean to Halley’s Comet — the feeling of the once-in-a-lifetime expectation and approach of the comet, its spectacular and beautiful show, and its eternal farewell.