josh blog

Ordinary language is all right.

One could divide humanity into two classes:
those who master a metaphor, and those who hold by a formula.
Those with a bent for both are too few, they do not comprise a class.

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28 Jan '02 11:05:57 PM

Listening so far today: American Analog Set upon waking, and Jay-Z Vol. 2 on the way to school and while working. Then a bit of Shostakovich's Preludes and Fugues.

28 Jan '02 11:04:57 PM

Jess said he fixed his archives but he is a LIAR. Despite this, have a look-see at his Beta Band review, which I enjoyed.

(Also his mentalist singles list.)

(Mentalist because it's so long, and numbered, not because he likes them.)

28 Jan '02 11:03:08 PM

So Solid Crew have been the talk of Freaky Trigger-related sites and folks lately. I only wish that their music was easier to get in the states.

See e.g. Marcello's review of their new mix release. I find his mention of the music as "celebratory" interesting just because it's a label I've found in the past doesn't always apply well to my own favorite or usual music. Sometimes to my dismay. But it does apply better to a lot of the music I've liked in the past year or so.

It also makes me think of John Coltrane's Meditations, which I am going to put on soon since I've been reminded of it more than once in the past week or so. Coltrane's "celebratory" is probably better suited to a party of one, though, which may seem out of keeping with many usual uses of the word.

28 Jan '02 05:29:53 PM

This morning I have been listening to the American Analog Set and singing along to the melody loop to "Magnificent Seventies" in a faux-arena-rock guitar-crunch voice.

28 Jan '02 06:34:40 AM

More listening: Smog again, then Ellington's "Black, Brown, and Beige," then AAS's From Our Living Room to Yours, then five Massive Attack singles on shuffle (probably "Risingson", "Safe from Harm", "Sly", and uh two others), then more American Analog Set.

28 Jan '02 06:25:09 AM

Last semester I had a philosophy of music class that met in the music building, because we needed a room with a piano in it. One day while wandering around the basement looking for the music library, I passed by lots of music students and busy practice rooms. Being around all the busy and happy people, and more importantly, the sound of musicians practicing, reminded me immediately of being in high school and playing, in a way I hadn't thought much of for a while. It's been more than five years now since I decided to stop practicing, and playing, altogether. I had just graduated from high school, and barely played all summer long except for a few times and a bit on the Fourth of July. Despite this I tried to work up an etude at the last minute, in order to try out for the university jazz band. I made it past the first tryout, but not the second, where we did some section playing with a full group and soloed a bit. This left me feeling dejected and frustrated, not just because I failed, but because I had characteristically hoped to succeed without putting in enough effort. I decided that, because I couldn't maintain my level of playing without practicing more regularly than I cared to, I would just not bother playing at all, and give that time over to the rest of my life.

Walking past all the practice rooms, hearing people starting and stopping, playing scales, dozens of people playing different music all at once, took me back to the time I spent playing and practicing in high school. It reminded me of the feelings of pleasure and well-being I had so often from challenging myself, working and playing with others, being around like-minded people, feeling the power of actually making music instead of only listening to it. It made me miss it.

27 Jan '02 09:33:45 AM

Listening all night while writing (something else), by the way, has been Red Apple Falls since that's what I'm writing about. But I'm switching back to The Doctor Came at Dawn since the chug-chug and horns on Red Apple Falls will distract me too much now that I am going to sleep.

27 Jan '02 09:32:04 AM

This here Salon review of Beanie Sigel's The Truth takes note of his tendency to end-rhyme, as they should, and notes that despite this being a usually tired and lazy way to rhyme, it actually works for him. Again as they should. Because it's really obvious. But what they don't do is really satisfactorily explain, for me, why it succeeds. I mean, Boots Riley, for example, seems to do something pretty similar, but I don't care nearly as much for his rhymes (or flow, which is a related thing). Does it have something to do with the more monolithic grooves on Party Music, as compared to The Truth? Does it have something to do with Beans' slower and more careful flow - one where the rhymes are perhaps not as emphasized as in Boots' incessant rhyming caused by the faster and shorter lines?

27 Jan '02 07:31:26 AM

Reading Peter Singer's Hegel: A Very Short Introduction, I came across a beautiful presentation of an idea commonly at work in my writing. So I thought I'd share it and re-state it for music and aesthetic taste. I'm not working too hard to paraphrase Singer, by the way.

In talking about Hegel's Philosophy of Right, Singer compares Hegel's conception of freedom to the "negative freedom" espoused by various liberal thinkers, among them Isaiah Berlin. "Negative freedom" is that where a person is free if they are not made to do things they do not want to do. Hegel was critical of this notion of freedom; he called it formal, or abstract, freedom. He contended that individual choice is the outcome of arbitrary circumstances, and thus is not genuinely free.

If you've been paying attention since, well, Hegel, this won't seem that new to you. A point like this has probably been related, in some way, to various statements to the effect that tastes, or individuals, or moral standards, or whatever, are socially constructed or constituted. People say those things in more radical forms, sometimes, but at the very least statements like these just say that social, historical, and material context matters. The reason I liked the presentation in Singer is because of the role of freedom, though.

Singer makes an analogy to contemporary economics. Liberal economists judge how well an economic system works by the extent to which it allows people to satisfy their preferences. These individual preferences are prior to the economic assessment - supposedly because to attempt to select among individuals' preferences and give more weight to some rather than others would be to impose the economists' own values on others by denying their right to choose what they want.

Radical economists, on the other hand, criticize this approach because it fails to take into account how preferences come about. Singer gives an example of an economy in which people aren't concerned with natural human odors like those from sweat. Someone develops a deodorant, which is not too successful in this economy. However, the inventor markets the product by making people feel anxious about their body odor, and the deodorant is successful. People develop a preference for it, and can satisfy that preference because the product is within their means. Liberal economists would see no difference between the pre-deodorant and post-deodorant economies, from the point of view of economic efficiency (or whatever it is they would call their assessment). Radical economists would say that this is absurd, and prefer to judge systems not by their ability to satisfy any preferences, but those which contribute to genuine human welfare or satisfy genuine human needs.

I'm sure some people I know are now grumbling, mentally, about the appearance of the word "genuine" above. Maybe I don't want to jump that far yet - it's just what Singer said. But he notes that Hegel's criticism is basically that "the negative conception of freedom [...] gives its blessing to whatever circumstances happen to be influencing the way people choose." Abstract freedom is "effectively the freedom to be pushed to and fro by the social and historical forces of our times."

Now to the connection with music. I think the role of freedom above is interesting partly just due to some analogical similarities with the debate on objectivity of aesthetic judgments versus subjectivity of aesthetic judgments. For instance, lots of people who favor punk or indie or a number of other kinds of non-mainstream music often talk about how the mainstream doesn't even present people with the choice to listen to other kinds of music. People who listen to the mainstream are sheep, who sometimes are even said to be not making their choices about music freely. This is supposed to compromise their choices, and make the choices of those who prefer whatever non-mainstream music better choices.

There's another way to carry Hegel's critique of negative freedom over into the aesthetic. I don't have a handy characteristic view to hand, but it seems to me that a lot of conceptions of what it is for e.g. a piece of music to be objectively good are rational conceptions that carefully cordon off any influence of the emotions or historical and social context, or at least involve those influences in ways that tend to reinforce, rather than contravene, the rational conception. (By 'rational' I probably mean something like 'satisfying a set list of criteria' or 'meeting a definition in any one of a number of ways, including through supposedly irrational signs like making the listener happy or sad', though I doubt I really know what I mean.)

This makes it sound like whoever's defending these kinds of judgments would go along partly with Hegel, in agreeing about the importance of context. They would see it as a pernicious influence, though, something to be avoided in any way possible. Thus talk about timeless records, that kind of stuff. Luckily for me, though, Hegel had some things to say about this kind of thing, too. If context matters then it's wrong to ignore or avoid it, even if you're trying to be rational (rationality normally involving, on usual interpretations of it, some more away from the particular and historical, to the universal and absolute).

I'm too tired to expand on it now, but "Hegel finds the unity of individual satisfaction and freedom in conformity to the social ethos of an organic community." That could use some explanation just on its own, but at the moment I'm not sure what Hegel's positive views on freedom would like like, transported over to aesthetics. (Of course I own a volume of his aesthetics, but at the moment I would rather think about my own half-assed appropriation of his political philosophy from Singer's short little summary of it.)

The Singer book, by the way, is part of a series of "Very Short Introduction" books, which I enthusiastically recommend. They really are short, which is good for swivelheads. They look and feel nice. They're written by respectable authors. Despite consistently giving broad looks at their subjects (including e.g. "History" which is pretty broad, I think), they're insightful, precise, and detailed - at least far enough that they should give the reader a good idea of where to go for and what would be involved in further reading about the subject. I've read a handful already and have a few more to read, on both things I've already known about (some quite a lot about), and things I know little to nothing about. Even in the former case, the way the books treated their material in such a small space was very interesting to me. I think they're a good way to peek warily into new subjects, and to make my knowledge slightly less limited and fraudulent in general.