MUSIC AS AN ART
by Roger Scruton
Bloomsbury Continuum, Sydney
Hardcover: 272 pages
Reviewed by David James
Writing about music is often an unrewarding task. It is an art form that leaves the philosopher or critic either confined to talking about technicalities, or in generalities that are too abstract to say much about any composer, or genre. The results are often empty, or say little.
It is thus refreshing to read Roger Scruton’s Music as an Art, a brilliant display of philosophical analysis, critical insight, cultural reflection, close, attentive listening and extensive erudition. For anyone who wants to reflect on the art that is music, this is an exceptionally rewarding tome.
Scruton covers many areas that need to be looked at, especially in classical music. One is melody: “When is a tune?” We know when we hear a good melody. We know when melody is absent. But what is it? Scruton does an excellent job of pointing to the areas that we do understand and the mysteries that we do not.
He examines the relevance of cognitive analysis, noting that, in terms of brain activity, music seems to correlate with syntax, but not with semantics: a language that does not refer to anything yet seems to mean something in time. He goes on to point out limits to the science of the brain, which cannot deal with the problem that minds are aware of themselves: how the experience of music “is profiled in our own first person awareness”.
Scruton addresses the idea of music and the moral life, looking, for example, to philosopher David Hume’s ideas of sympathy as a parallel to musical appreciation – a way of getting beyond mere selfishness. It is an intriguing idea of virtue, which Scruton traces in relation to movement and dance, but it does not go anywhere much, as it should not. There have been very bad men with a fine appreciation of music.
Scruton’s examination of the idea of the transcendent, derived from 19th-century German idealism, is highly informative. He neatly exposes the having of cakes and eating them too by philosophers such as Kant and Hegel, who “espoused a kind of idealism that both denied access to the transcendental and then allowed it through the dialectic of reason”.
Likewise, Schopenhauer argued that music is transcendental because it is beyond words, an observation he then set out to describe – using words. As someone who is no fan of German idealism, I found myself reading Scruton’s debunking with a smile, although his chapter on German idealism does make some intriguing points about music and the will. Music is an intentional art form unfolding in time.
Scruton goes on to more conventional musicological analysis with his chapters on Schubert, Rameau, Britten and David Matthews. These show what a range he has, and his deep knowledge.
Scruton describes a pattern seen in the literary criticism of such poisonous dwarves as Jacques Derrida and Roland Barthes: the willingness savagely to attack any competitors for personal advantage; the presentation of complexity as civilisational advance when it is merely a cover for banality; and the use of all the aforesaid as a marketing tool for the parasitic extraction of public funds.
Perhaps the most interesting chapters consider the future of music, especially classical music. Scruton poses important questions, and the answers he hints at are not encouraging. He argues that even “the educated musical ear” will be unable to appreciate something that is new and good.
Even more troublingly, he suggests that a new kind of music has emerged that is “less music than a reflection on music”. An instance of the phenomenon is serialism, a technique that broke down Western tonality, replacing it with mathematical strictures (whereby a note could not be repeated until all the other 11 semitones had been played).
Scruton says serialism “concerned more what [it] was against than what it was for”, a kind of demonic response to the end of Western musical traditions and Western civilisation. Which may explain it sounds like tuneless rubbish.
Scruton says, instead of serialism, and similar “innovations”, being discoveries, or explorations, they are a mere invention, something designed only to be different, irrespective of whether there is anything good or profound in them.
Too often, Scruton notes, the purpose and point of such classical works “is the charm of the theory, not the sound of the result”. He suggests that the proliferation of uninteresting, un-melodic pop music also heralds the end of quality music.
It is a bleak prospect. But at least we have someone of the peerless ability of Scruton to point out where it is all going wrong.