Sunday, July 25, 2010

A Theory of Music: The Most Abstract of Arts

The great music theorists have written extensively on the mechanics of music--cadences, counterpoint, chord progressions, etc.  But I feel that there has been some negligence in regard to a more general theory of music.  So I'd like to start a series of essays that focus on the nature of music and provide a more philosophical approach than what has been traditionally granted this most ethereal and elusive of arts.  In this first essay, I will examine music's abstractness.

I submit that music is the most abstract of arts.  This does not make music superior or inferior to other arts; it simply marks one of its distinct qualities.  Pure abstractness is music's ultimately unique trait.  If we try to learn something of its nature by comparison to other arts, it stands to reason that the foundation of the examination should be in music's abstractness.

The other arts are largely representational.  Drama is the art of making an actor a passable ambassador of fiction.  His or her job is to make us believe, to some degree, that we are witnessing tangible reality.  If actors have not convinced us that what we are watching is a plausible reality, then they have, by definition, failed.  (By reality, I mean a performance that "holds water" within the realms of the drama's own universe.  A good performance of Peter Pan will convince us of Peter Pan's reality, even though he does not adhere to actual physics.)

And then the literary aspect of the play or film steps in.  Whether fiction or non-fiction, literature uses characters, settings and events that connect the audience to the portrayed reality.  And often the subject of drama or literature is actual events (Julius Caesar, Henry V).  Literature uses its own reality which must in some way be comparable to actual reality in order to convey a truth or message about actual life.

With the exception of Islamic art which intentionally depicts nothing but shapes and patterns, visual art is also highly representational.  Even "abstract art" signifies a signified in the actual world.  One could look at a purely abstract painting and perceive it to be a highly stylized image of a rose garden.  And still, the most abstract works still do not abandon shape and color.  A child may point to a deep yellow stroke and say, "That's the color of my school bus."  Visual art constantly reminds us and enriches our understanding of actuality.

These three arts (drama, literature and visual art) are all equalled in nature.  I doubt many artists would rush up to a vast sunset spilling across the sea, set their canvas in the sand and exclaim, "See!  Isn't mine better?"  And as the cliché goes, "truth is stranger than fiction."  The lives of real women and men are often just as inspiring as any epic and as complex as any Dickens novel.

But what is there in nature to rival music?  The first thought to come to mind is birdsong.  I invite those bird-lovers to listen to Bach's "Chaconne" in D minor and then walk outside to see if they can hear anything so magnificent.  The only equivalent to music I can think of is to hear the voice of a loved one, but while I cannot argue against the emotion that voice may bring, no one can argue that a lover's voice shares the technical and mathematical beauty of even the simplest folk song.  Not to offend any acousticians--the competing frequencies of a voice do have a kind of beauty.  But that sunset by the sea shares a beauty of composition and color theory that all great artists aspire to, whereas the acoustic structure of a voice is not even comparable to the linear development of a melody or the dramatic shifts in chords as they progress.  Music has no natural teacher--no one to emulate.

When I was discussing this idea with friends, someone argued that dance was as abstract as music.  I have two objections to that argument.  1) There are movements in nature which are just as thrilling as dance.  A group of running giraffes was one of the most elegant spectacles I have ever beheld.  2)  Dance is an attempt to make music more accessible and less abstract by giving it visual, tangible, human form.

Linguistic Testament to Music's Abstractness:
In English, as well as all the other languages with which I am acquainted, there is no one word to say that the sound of a piece of music is beautiful which isn't used metaphorically.  I will explain what I mean.  The word beautiful derives, obviously, from beauty, which is a primarily visual attribute.  Its application to music, then, is metaphorical.  The music sounds the way mountains look--beautiful, majestic, etc.  All the other senses have a positive and negative adjective to describe them: beautiful & ugly, fragant & foul, delicious & unsavory, comfortable/pleasurable & painful.  What can we say about music at a literal level besides "sounds good" or "sounds bad?"  We can talk of music being luscious, pleasant, striking or witty, but all of these adjectives are metaphorical, and they encode much more than just a positive or negative aspect.  It is as if music is so abstract that we cannot come up with a single word that describes it as being either positive or negative besides the generic good and bad.

Representational Music:
Once, I substituted for an elementary school music teacher for several weeks.  One lesson/experiment I did was to play movements from Saint-Saëns' Carnival of the Animals and have the children draw whatever animal they thought the music was depicting.  For every song, one or two students out of 25 would get it right, but more often than not, students (and home-room teachers) were dead wrong.  People guessed bluejays for "Elephants," and baboons for "Fossils."  Now, imagine if I had shown them pictures of those animals and asked them to draw what they thought it was.  Obviously, they would all be right without exception, unless by some odd chance a student had never seen a picture of an elephant before.

I feel confident that most educated people could spot Napoleon Bonaparte in a lineup, even though they have never seen him.  The portraits we have left of him give us a pretty good idea of what he looked like, even though they are not an exact likeness.  Were there any photographs of him, most people would be able to instantly identify him, because they had seen his other pictures.  But take Beethoven's Eroica Symphony.  It was written in reference to Napoleon, but without being told so in a program note, no one would be able to tell, even if they had personally known the emperor.  Similarly, if another piece were written about Napoleon, the subject matter wouldn't be transparent.  Even if the piece referenced Beethoven's third symphony, without being told the intent of the allusion, listeners wouldn't know if the reference were to Napoleon or Beethoven, or just heroism in general.


What separates music from the other arts is its overwhelming abstractness.  To the uninitiated, music seems like sheer chaos that somehow speaks directly to the core of the human soul.  In later essays, I will begin to examine what that abstractness means in terms of the emotional, spiritual and intellectual effects of music.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Great Conversation

I sat in my armchair
on a steamy day in early July.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle got me drowsy,
and as I drifted into reverie
I caught the queerest glimpse of my bookcase.
Mr. Lewis (of the Clive Staples variety)
walked right out of his book
as if it had been a wardrobe.
He looked to his right, but it was empty.
(Conan Doyle had been nestled there)
So he knocked on Dickens' door to his left.
Out came Charles with some sausage
while Jack ran to fetch some tea.
Their dialog quickly turned to the French.
"Never could learn from the Germans."
"Quite right."
"Far too much garlic in their sausages."
Next door Dante and Homer enjoyed each other's company.
Homer launched into a monologue
he was rather proud of
about Achilles' shield.
But really his diatribe was about
With beautifully declined nouns
Homer thought of what violent extremes
he would be forced to embrace
if he had to suffer through another sonnet
"for Beatrice."
Thank the Gods Petrarch moved down a shelf.
And who made this Italian the Eternal Judge
free to toss poor Odysseus
deep in the Inferno?
Meanwhile, Dante couldn't give a damn
about Achilles' shield.
He regretted not placing Homer
much farther down below limbo.
he missed his pal Virgil.
At this point, Austen was kicking herself
for not being more diligent
in her Greek and Italian.
She could only guess at the sublime utterances
crammed with clandestine truth
issuing forth from those venerable lips.
Instead, she was swarmed
by those contributors to the 1,001 Nights,
exotic and wild.
And I employ not one ounce
of their skill for story crafting
when I tell you that
several of those sultry savages
pinched her prolific behind.
This thoroughly amused Douglas Adams
who sat next to Shakespeare,
both enjoying an excellent repartee
during the brief respites
the Arabs granted Jane.
Yann Martel was all too happy to be there,
but he had an odd way of showing it.
His nose was buried in a yellow legal pad,
trying to catch the natural wit
spewing from those two great wise-cracks.
Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach,
just one book over,
had her hands full trying to console Conrad
on the human condition.
"What could be more exquisite
than the rueful forgiveness from the wronged
to the offender.
In such a scene, how can we deny human greatness?"
"Can anyone know human greatness
if we can never know each other?"
Just to the right,
Tolkien was busy ignoring Conrad
and loudly complaining
that Lewis had suddenly turned uppity
after his talking animal show went leather-bound.
Clyde Pharr would occasionally try to talk some Greek Grammar,
but Tolkien just dismissed his attempts
with jabs about the superiority of Norse mythology.
And then Eliot sprang up from the shelf below.
He was born in an anthology,
so he had the nasty habit
of either
quoting people at themselves
intentionally speaking Sanskrit to Dickens,
Greek to Frank Herbert,
or English to Dante.
In fact, every time he saw Dante,
his pernicious habits mixed.
"Unreal City!"
he would say
with an American/London drawl.
There were several other discussions of note:
Victor Frankl spent quite a bit of time with Goethe.
Neal A. Maxwell and David McCullough
had a great time being insightful and polite.
Lloyd Alexander thoroughly enjoyed
his chat with Edith Hamilton.
I couldn't even follow
Tad R. Callister
and Phillip Pullman's
icily intense exchange.
Joseph Campbell and J.K. Rowling
found plenty to discuss.
Johann Fux and Tim Gautreaux tried.

And then as quickly as they came,
they all lept back in their respective books.

"What a loss!"
at first I thought.

Then I realized that
in a sense,
I had just seen my life.
I take all those writers with me everywhere
and am always trying to make sense
of their great conversation.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Provo Dining Guide

Like many BYU Freshmen, I began my college career in the dorms called "Heleman Halls."  I didn't have a car, so I exhausted the on-campus dining options rather quickly and naturally and gravely underestimated the culinary wonder that one can find in this little college town.  Here are seven of my favorite restaurants that I've discovered over the years:

Bombay House
Location: University and 400N (west side of intersection)
Price:  $15-$30

A friend of mine invited me to go out to celebrate with a string quartet after their concert (neither of us were in said quartet), and they chose this place.  I have been grateful ever since.  Fantastic Indian food, fantastic specialty drinks.  The atmosphere is enchanting, what with all the turbaned waiters, draped fabric and candle-light.  I recommend getting the appetizer sample platter, the Saag Shorba, garlic Naan, and then anything lamb or chicken.  They have three levels of spiciness for the entrées.  Their rice is phenomenal.  (Side note, "India Palace" is a less impressive clone of the Bombay House.  One of their cooks left and uses the exact same menu.  Atmosphere isn't as nice, prices are the same, but it's often less crowded.  So if you can't get into the Bombay House, there's a substitute.)

Brick Oven Pizza
Location: Southwest corner of BYU campus
Price:  Comparable to other pizza establishments--depends on the number of fellow diners

I actually knew about this place before I even started going to BYU.  It used to be called "Heaps 'A Pizza," and my mom spent a few years of her childhood living in the basement of a house that was where their parking lot is now.  It has been a beloved haunt of BYU students for generations.  They make their own root beer which is a mellow brew with a piney twist.  It's quite good by itself and even better with their pizza.  I recommend their "Supreme Heaps 'A Pizza," which is the standard deluxe.  Their mushrooms are incredible.

Location: University and 100N (Northeast corner)
Price: Depends, but you could easily spend $40 per person

When it comes to fine dining in Utah county, "communal" is the champion--hands down.  The atmosphere is so pleasing and unpretentious with all the design and carpentry done by the owners themselves.  The waiters and cooks are unbelievably pleasant and well mannered, and the food is out of this world.  Their menu is constantly changing (daily, it seems) to fit what's in season as well as what new innovation they've cooked up that week.  communal's specialty is preparing a seemingly hum-drum dish like pot roast better than it has ever been done before.  I am convinced that mortal hands simply cannot cook a traditional chicken breast better than how they do it at communal.  It is cooked just long enough so that it's bursting with juices and flavored to perfection.  The same is true for their steak.  You think you've had good steak until you've tried theirs.  (This place can get pricey, but the steak is actually one of the cheapest items, because it's honestly not the greatest cut of meat, but I promise you won't notice.)  Oh, and I've failed to mention the significance of the name.  It's designed so that you order the appetizers, salads, entrées and sides separately, and then everybody shares.  I recommend going with about eight people and ordering everything on the menu.  Also, go there for lunch some time.  It's cheaper, and the menu is quite unique--they make their own ketchup, which is better than any ketchup you've ever tried.

Four Seasons Hot Pot & Dumplings
Location: Northeast side of University and 200N
Price ~$18

If you've never had "Hot Pot" before, then this place is a must--especially in Provo's obnoxiously persistant Winter.  Hot Pot (Huo Guo) is an eating experience that comes to us from Northern China.  In this, as in many Hot Pot establishments, there's a buffet with a plethora of raw veggies, mushrooms, meats, noodles, seafood (shrimp, fish, mussels and crab) and assorted varieties of tofu.  You take a plate to the buffet, load it down with what you want, and then dump it in the flaming-hot pot at your table.  You pull it out and enjoy when it's cooked!  There's also a freezer full of ice cream treats that come with the meal. I recommend getting a pot that is half-spicy, half-miso (like the picture above); that way, you can sample multiple flavor combinations.  Warning: the spicy may be too spicy for some of the locals.  But at the same time, it's a different kind of spicy than what they're used to.  Give it a shot.  Also, you can only get dumplings if you order them at least a day in advance.  I recommend the pork and chive dumplings either boiled or fried.  They are the best in Provo, without anything close to a rival.  Even and especially if you think you don't like Chinese food, you need to pay a visit to "Four Seasons Hot Pot & Dumplings."

El Gallo Giro
Location: East side of University, between 300 & 400N
Price: Cheap

This is my favorite Mexican establishment.  For starters, they have a cinnamon horchata that will blow your mind--don't even bother with the fountain drinks.  Next up, you cannot go there without ordering guacamole.  They prepare it fresh and table-side in a stone basin.  Their tacos are world class, and their smothered steak burrito is simply to die for.

J Dawgs
Location: Southeast corner of BYU campus
Price: ~$5

J Dawgs is a local favorite.  It's a hot dog stand (and recently they've opened a restaurant adjacent to the original stand) with really high quality dogs and an infamous special sauce.  They have polish dogs or standard hot dogs.  They add all the traditional "fixin's" free of charge, and they also have drinks and chips for a little extra.  I've heard from fairly reputable sources that this was started by a guy who went to Toronto on his mission and fell in love with the quality hot dog stands in that city.  Having also lived in Toronto, and having sampled the stand-food of several of the world's great cities, I have to say his establishment measures up.

Pizzeria 712 (pronounced "seven-twelve")
Location: State St. in Orem, in the back of those huge, unfinished condos.
Price: ~$15

Don't let the name deceive you.  It's not just a pizza joint.  They have pizza, but it's really innovative and gourmet and wonderful.  This place is owned by the same people who run "communal," and it actually predates the latter.  Like communal, the menu is constantly in flux, but with a few standards remaining constant.  For appetizers, I strongly recommend the short rib.  (I failed to mention this in my review of communal, but they've started slaughtering their own pork, which made a good thing even greater.  They do phenomenal stuff with bacon.)  Their cobblers are also always top-notch, and all their chocolate desserts are made with chocolate from the local Amano masters.  And this place is an insanely good deal.  They could easily charge two to three times what they do, and I would happily pay it.  Also, the menu is totally different for lunch: they have a triumphant assortment of panini sandwiches.  

It may be impossible to leave this place disappointed. Everything is so masterfully done--the pizzas are fired in a real brick oven, the desserts are bursting with freshness, and the atmosphere is down-right charming.  These people know how to do food, and have mastered the art of the restauranteer.