The dominance of western music
Karlheinz Stockhausen, RIP
December 13, 2007
Fans of Oliver Kamm1 will be familiar with his charming habit of denouncing the recently dead in tones of stentorian conservatism. So it goes with his CiF post about Stockhausen, the newly late German composer. Unfortunately, Kamm is rather out of his depth on the topic of music, as can be deduced from the following hilarious passage:
The dominance of western music reflects its ability to combine melody and harmony, and thereby produce a discourse. A musical composition is above all an argument that appeals to the emotions. The work of Stockhausen is not like that.
The dominance of western music, eh? Where is it dominating? Is it that it is dominant in the west? Well, one might suppose that to be true by definition, as far as it goes.
Sadly, it goes nowhere. Because Kamm can’t really mean “western music” when he says “western music”. After all, Stockhausen was a European, and so quite western, composer. And the feature that Kamm supposes to be unique to “western music” — “its ability to combine melody and harmony” — is, of course, a feature of lots of other musics, from around the African continent, or India, or China, or Japan, and so on ad pretty much infinitum.
But let us give Kamm the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps what he is really thinking of is not “western music” but specifically a current in what is loosely termed “classical music”, viz., the contrapuntal tradition that issued in the great Renaissance polyphonists. In such music, harmony is created through the movement of independent voices, which is perhaps what Kamm really means by “its ability to combine melody and harmony, and thereby produce a discourse”.
Sadly for this generous interpretation, Stockhausen’s music, particularly his choral writing, contains many examples of counterpoint too.
What about the claim that “A musical composition is above all an argument that appeals to the emotions”? I once wrote a long review of Roger Scruton’s very interesting The Aesthetics of Music,
in which the author rightly points out that such a childish view of music is untenable. (Even though Scruton himself nods at times, as when he somehow intuits that the opening bars of a Beethoven sonata “express a tranquil gratitude”.) Plainly it is fatuous to say that a musical composition is an “argument”, never mind an “argument that appeals to the emotions”; unless Kamm is able to précis for us the argument of Mozart’s 40th or Claire de Lune.
(Update: I somewhat misremembered Scruton’s analysis, which is that music can indeed “express” meaning, though not in the way Kamm implies: music is not, Scruton says, a “language”. In comments Mr Kamm offers a sentence from Scruton’s 2007 book Culture Counts, in which Scruton does argue that a piece of tonal music can have, though not be, an “argument”. It is rather illuminating, actually, to compare Scruton’s sentence with Kamm’s. Emphases have been added:
It is tonality, however, with its unique potential to synthesize the melodic and harmonic dimensions, that makes counterpoint and voice-leading intelligible to the ordinary musical ear, and so makes it possible for people not otherwise versed in musical theory to follow the argument of a symphony or a string quartet, and to understand the message addressed through tones to their emotions.
The dominance of western music reflects its ability to combine melody and harmony, and thereby produce a discourse. A musical composition is above all an argument that appeals to the emotions.
It is surely just coincidence that Kamm’s passage is so similar to Scruton’s. Kamm does not cite Scruton by name in his blog post, and so cannot have had this sentence in front of him when he wrote it. It would, of course, be absurd simply to substitute Scruton’s “tonality” with Kamm’s “western music”, since the two are not at all the same thing. Much Chinese music is just as tonal as Beethoven; and much western music is not tonal in the traditional sense.)
Reluctantly, then, I approach the conclusion that, on the subject of music, Kamm is cloth-eared and ignorant. Still, his blog post itself is, in a way, an “argument that appeals to the emotions”. You don’t really need to have listened to any Stockhausen to read it; nor, perhaps, to write it. All you have to do is swell with a vague emotional attachment to old-fashioned “western music” (not including Germans), and — evidently the real source of Kamm’s doltish animus against the composer — an emotional reaction against anyone who could have said that 9/11 was “the greatest work of art ever”.
Kamm is also fond of accusing various writers of disgraceful scholarship when they cite things while eliding context. In the interest of enabling unspeak.net readers to assess the level of disgrace that ought to attach to Kamm’s “scholarship”, I end this post by reproducing what Stockhausen said about 9/11 in full:
Well, what happened there is, of course — now all of you must adjust your brains — the biggest work of art there has ever been. The fact that spirits achieve with one act something which we in music could never dream of, that people practise ten years madly, fanatically for a concert. And then die. And that is the greatest work of art that exists for the whole Cosmos. Just imagine what happened there. There are people who are so concentrated on this single performance, and then five thousand people are driven to Resurrection. In one moment. I couldn’t achieve that. Compared to that, we are nothing, as composers. [...] It is a crime because the people did not agree to it. They did not come to the “concert”. That is obvious. And nobody had told them, they could be killed.2