Playing For the Rules

Playing For the Rules

Consider the following quote from George Orwell’s essay “Writers and Leviathan”:

I often have the feeling that even at the best of times literary criticism is fraudulent, since in the absence of any accepted standards whatever—any external reference which can give meaning to the statement that such and such a book is ‘good’ or ‘bad’—every literary judgment consists in trumping up a set of rules to justify an instinctive preference. One’s real reaction to a book, when one has a reaction at all, is usually ‘I like this book’ or ‘I don’t like it,’ and what follows is a rationalisation. But ‘I like this book’ is not, I think, a non-literary reaction; the non-literary reaction is ‘This book is on my side, and therefore I must discover merits in it.’

How can I read a passage like the above and not imagine “piece of music” every time I see “book” and “musical” every time I see “literary”? But the question of whether Orwell’s observation is really applicable to music as well as literature will have to wait, because I want to assume, for the moment, that it is.

First of all, the phrase “trumping up a set of rules to justify an instinctive preference” really caught my eye. The funny thing is that even though trumping up a set of rules about music to justify instinctive musical preferences seems 100% phony and backwards to me, trumping up a set of assumptions about society to justify (or, better, explain) instinctive musical preferences seems like it could be quite a genuine and fruitful process, given that you’re willing to stand by those assumptions no matter their musical ramifications.

In that case, though, isn’t our hypothetical listener simply defaulting to “This piece is on my side, and therefore I must discover merits in it,” a position that Orwell ascribes to critics with political agendas at the front of their minds? Maybe—but I must admit that I don’t have Orwell’s problem conflating the value of a piece of music as a piece (does such a thing even exist? If it does, who cares?) and its value as a prismatically reflective culture-object. In my opinion, the “literary” question—whether, in other words, I like the piece regardless of if it’s “on my side” or not—is immaterial: We’re humans, we inhabit a civilization, and to pretend that music (or literature or whatever) is to be apprehended and appreciated in a vacuum is to suggest, in essence, that music is better than people. It is not. Bach’s counterpoint is not about counterpoint: Bach’s counterpoint is about Protestantism and having lots of kids and having to walk a long way to see Buxtehude. Only then does the music matter, and while you don’t have to take a “side” as such on the Reformation, children, or how there didn’t used to be trains in Thuringia, keeping these things in mind prevents you from hiding behind a screen of mythology and pseudoscience when you have to formulate an opinion. In fact, if we twist Orwell’s use of the term “on my side” to mean “with my best intellectual interests in mind and willing to prompt me to consider unexpected viewpoints” rather than “aligned with my political orthodoxy of choice,” his “non-literary reaction” is exactly the reaction I’d hope for from my audience.

I’m being a little provocative here; a recent comment on another NewMusicBox post jerked my chain. When I ran across this quote in Orwell (in the context of an essay wherein he cautions writers to avoid toeing a political line, advice he himself took in only its narrowest sense), I had to bring it to your attention.

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2 thoughts on “Playing For the Rules

  1. philmusic

    Colin, back in the day I was aware of a number of musicologists and theorists (not to single them out), expert on a particular composer and their music, who privately detested said composer and their music. Does this mean their observations lack insight?

    On the other hand a few only liked their subjects music and disliked all others. Did that interfere with them teaching general history or recent music?

    Further I was also aware of more than a few musicians who could prove that composition stopped with Mozart. Even if they could, is this true?

    Being a professional performer also means occasionally performing music one does not like–does that necessarily make the performance any less persuasive?

    Anyway these H.G. Wells comments, which I have never seen before, reflect my own opinion that “like and dislike precede all” the rest is just tautology to make it work.

    If art is greater than people that depends on the people and the art.

    Phil Fried, who actually thinks that life is just high school all over again.

    A Phil Page

  2. rtanaka

    Most people like what they like and find reasons to justify it after the fact, it’s just human nature. Some people try very hard to maintain an objective point of view, but no matter how sharp your arguments might be you’re eventually going to reach a point where decisions of preference have to be made, and these are often arbitrary from a social standpoint. I think objectivity is worth striving for, though, because taking things too far in the other direction will turn you into a zealot — intensely passionate but also easily manipulated. Most people with celebrity status tend to fall into this category in one way or another, so it’s not really something to envy — they might have power and talent, but rarely any control. (People like Michael Jackson, for example.)

    Hopefully people are getting this in their education…the ivory tower is not “the real world” per se, but it is nonetheless important because it gives people the time and distance away from the rat race so that they can develop the ability to think of the happenings around them from a bird’s-eye point of view. I’d say that a good deal of problems that stem from academia come from scholars turning inward rather than outward, where education becomes an end in itself rather than the look-out point it was meant to be. We need people who know how to analyze and predict trends, otherwise social changes would be aimless and lack substantial meaning.

    One of my critical theory friends said that there are no right or wrongs, only consequences. It may not always be helpful to look at artworks from a moralistic standpoint but it is certainly helpful to see what sorts of consequences will result from employing a certain style. I like postmodernism because it doesn’t take itself so seriously, but it tends to drift around without any direction because it doesn’t have the ability to attach value to any of the artistic gestures it presents. That’s sort of the flipside of the “anything goes” mentality.


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