16 February 2005

Death to Emotional Bulimics

A motif that seems endlessly repeated in music (and film) reviews is the 'emotional laziness' critique where a piece of music is criticised for appealing to our emotional sensibilities (as opposed - I'm guessing; this is never made explicit - to our higher cortical processing). The limbic brain is apparently not the stuff that music ought to be made for; perhaps it's seen as too close to our reptile brained cousins (I'm thinking of people from Chard) or perhaps it's assumed that music itself derives from the 'human-ness' of our brains, the frontal lobes perhaps, and therefore anything seeking to activate lower brained firing should be knocked on the head for fear of losing our rational, critical appreciation.

I'm wondering: is this a fear we should all have? Have I let myself be emotionally strangled by sensory overwhelming stimuli? Should I feel soiled?


A case in point are the reviews of Orbital's The Blue Album and in particular the closing track "One Perfect Sunrise". The reviews for this album are mixed and I don't want to dwell too much on their content here but the reviews for the closing track are almost all along the lines of "Orbital have gone for the easy emotional blackmail of getting in Lisa Gerrard to do some happy, slightly poignant, wailing..." Most of the reviwers like the track but seem somehow repulsed (or maybe just plain embarrassed) by their emotional reaction to it; as if they'd be happier with an abstract, stochasticcortical barrage as an end-piece.

They don't say it but you can read between the eyes: they think it's syrup but they can't get enough... They're prepared to gorge but feel the need to bring out the leeches; Medieval flagellant mystics unable to shake their crotches free of desire or perhaps a musicological equivalent of Bulimia Nervosa...

They hate themslves for being so easily twitched and tweaked. They hate themselves for being reminded of their dewy-eyed past...

I love this track, it makes me go all gooey, makes me seep like a lonely corpse. I know that Orbital are pushing well worn buttons but I'm undoing my top right now so that the buttons are more accessible. I... Er...



The reptilian, the paleomammalian, and the neomammalian brain exist together in humans; they work by a process of addition, not replacement; perhaps it's the interaction between them that forces the pace of music. Too many notes? Too few?

I have a weakness in music for wordless, ethereal female vocals; a terrible song can be validated by a Fraser wail or a Gerrard hymn (I've bought entirely crap Future Sound of London albums based on this awful premise and never hated Enya or Enigma as much as I know I should). But should I see this as a weakness? Seems like I'm forever coming across conversations which end with statements like "Of course, it's a tired emotional short-cut..." and I almost agree when, really, I'm thinking: "Shouldn't we all be looking for emotional short-cuts? Isn't that, at least in part, the point?

I have albums by Stockhausen, on Raster-Norton, by Boulez, on Mego. I have tracks constructed out of close-miked organ transplants and ant-calls, I have music dictated by Runes and scribbles but, but...

I don't really play them that often.

I like the idea of them, my frontal lobes can buzz at the theory but, really, I don't really find many opportunities to stand up and yap excitedly: "I'm gonna whack on John Cage and freak!". Perhaps that's also why I like reading about Xenakis, Ligeti etc more than I like listening to them (and there's perhaps an analogy with Literature here too: I've got lots of books about James Joyce but I've never managed to get through any of his books - they just sit there, looking impressive).

Look down my i-Tunes most played lists and more or less all the tracks on there hit me at a gut level in some way: there's plenty of cortical music in there but I can't honestly say it ever gets burned to CD and played in the kitchen.

Am I the only one who doesn't mind being tweaked?


egg said...

gut level is great level

has been some discussion of this on dissensus here

Anonymous said...

Its part of a warped aesthetic that I trace back to cubism or thereabouts. It manifested first and foremost in the visual arts. Somehow, the theory behind an artistic movement or given work of art started to take on greater and greater preeminance and the art itself, that is the immediate aesthetic response became secondary. Galleries began to post explanatory statements about the art along with the art, to the point where the art became merely an example of the artistic theory being expounded. Now it is common to ask immediately what an artist meant by a work of art as if the art were merely an expository symbol.

I say, screw that. I could care less about what an artist meant a piece to convey. Its my aesthetic experience and I'll have whatever one I damn well please. If I want to know the theory I'll read a book.

I think the music intelligensia often tries to impose a similar ethic on music, though tempered by the fact that music is by its nature more emotionally evocative, so there's really only so far it can go.

Anonymous said...

the point you bring up has been bothering me for a while, and i think that it's one of the biggest problems in modern music, classical especially (maybe also in other genres, but i'm a classical musician watching the market diminish). music meant to be purely intellective in its appeal is one of the more ridiculous innovations of the past century. truly great music appeals to both reason and emotion and allows you to shape your own aesthetic experience. classical composers like beethoven or mozart would never be accused of being anything less than brilliant, and their music demonstrates the fact. despite that, their compositions appeal even to infants who have no way of grasping theoretical concepts, because beauty is beauty, and one of the most human things in the world is to react to it.

this is not to say, of course, that all music must be melodic and beautiful; only that i think it's reasonable to expect that it elicit a sustained visceral response. i love atonal music, and some of my favorite pieces are quite unpleasant to hear, but they are still emotionally complex in addition to being theoretically complex. a piece that only provides intellectual stimulation is not a complete musical experience, it's just a theoretical exercise, although analysis is certainly fun when listening to a piece that's also emotionally involving.

i would take issue with your use of ligeti as an example of emotional drought, though. his work is certainly a mixed bag, but i find much of it to be very involving and exciting.

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