my mortifying month


There needs to be room for music writing that’s not just about the author performing taste and making value judgments. So much of the life of music — the ways we hear it, the things we want from it, and so on — exist in a huge, complicated context, and someone needs to describe that context.

On Taste – Edmund Burke

Like yesterday’s Oscar Wilde, here’s favorites from another good bit of vacation reading.* First a bit on imagination, and that there’s nothing new, just what we take in and recombine:

The mind of man possesses a sort of creative power of its own; either in representing at pleasure the images of things in the order and manner in which they were received by the senses, or in combining those images in a new manner, and according to a different order. This power is called Imagination; and to this belongs whatever is called wit, fancy, invention, and the like. But it must be observed, that this power of the imagination is incapable of producing any thing absolutely new; it can only vary the disposition of those ideas which it has received from the senses.

Burke argues that, when comparing, it’s easier and to our benefit to look more for similarities than differences:

The mind of man has naturally a far greater alacrity and satisfaction in tracing resemblances than in searching for differences; because by making resemblances we produce new images, we unite, we create, we enlarge our stock; but in making distinctions we offer no food at all to the imagination; the task itself is more severe and irksome, and what pleasure we derive from it is something of a negative and indirect nature.

Ain’t nothing you can’t learn from. Also reminds me of Seth Roberts’ writing on appreciative thinking and Philip Ball’s suggestion that “Ideas and views that differ from one’s own should not be targets for demolition, but whetstones for sharpening one’s own thoughts.”.

He goes on to talk about our opinions and tastes, how we outgrow them, and how our smugness and satisfaction with our own views is a second-order pleasure at best. This strikes me as something well worth remembering:

Almost the only pleasure that men have in judging better than others, consists in a sort of conscious pride and superiority, which arises from thinking rightly; but then, this is an indirect pleasure, a pleasure which does not immediately result from the object which is under contemplation. In the morning of our days, when the senses are unworn and tender, when the whole man is awake in every part, and the gloss of novelty fresh upon all the objects that surround us, how lively at that time are our sensations, but how false and inaccurate the judgments we form of things? I despair of ever receiving the same degree of pleasure from the most excellent performances of genius, which I felt at that age from pieces which my present judgment regards as trifling and contemptible.

We change our opinions over time (hopefully some, at least) by learning more, paying more attention, and thinking about them more. Slow opinions tend to be better. See also stong opinions, weakly held.

Men of the best taste, by consideration, come frequently to change these early and precipitate judgments, which the mind, from its aversion to neutrality and doubt, loves to form on the spot. It is known that the taste (whatever it is) is improved exactly as we improve our judgment, by extending our knowledge, by a steady attention to our object, and by frequent exercise. They who have not taken these methods, if their taste decides quickly, it is always uncertainly; and their quickness is owing to their presumption and rashness, and not to any sudden irradiation, that in a moment dispels all darkness from their minds.

*Yeah, this is what I read at the beach. Instapaper ftw. Just how I roll.
On Taste – Edmund Burke

It’s hard to beat the entertainment value of people who deliberately misunderstand the world, people dying to be insulted, running around looking for a bullet to get in front of.

Whatever the subject, a real critic is a cultural critic, always: if your judgment doesn’t bring in more of the world than it shuts out, you shouldn’t start.

Odds are good that you primarily know one sort of person: highly educated, high-achieving, extremely cerebral, etc. Odds are also good that you give too much weight to feedback and ideas from this sort of person, while discounting arguments and complaints from people who don’t know the right way to persuade you. Try to keep that in mind.

Ezra Klein – Common mistakes made by economists. (via) I’ve come across a lot of good posts about arguments and opinions.

I think painters and sculptors react to music, more naively, in a sense, because their politics are a lot different from our politics. It’s very hard for one composer to listen to another composer without somehow bringing his own mind-set to the music he’s listening to. It’s not that it’s impossible. And that’s only natural, whereas someone in another art field is going to listen to it very naively, in a sense (you hope), and that’s a worthwhile, unbiased opinion. Ultimately, it’s a naive opinion that rules the roost.

When Charlie and I disagree, Charlie says, “In the end you’ll see it my way, because you’re smart and I’m right!”

Ideas and views that differ from one’s own should not be targets for demolition, but whetstones for sharpening one’s own thoughts.

Philip Ball in the preface to his very good book, The Music Instinct.

Of all the duties required of the professional critic, the least important–certainly the least enduring–is the verdict.