Charles Murray and “The Impossibility of Being Nonjudgmental” (part 1)

Charles Murray’s Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 BC to 1950

In Chapter 5, “Excellence and its Identification,” of Charles Murray’s book (Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950) the author writes in the section titled The Impossibility of Being Nonjudgmental:

To accept the position I just laid out requires one to adopt considerable humility about the arts in which one is not an expert.  While I am free to not enjoy the music of Richard Wagner, it is silly for me to try to argue that Richard Wagner does not deserve his standing as one of the greatest composers.  That’s a matter of judgment and I’m not competent to judge (Mark Twain said that “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds,” which seems about right to me).  Surrendering that independent judgment is irksome, and gets more so as one’s knowledge approaches the fringes of expertise.  I know more about literature than I know about music, and I nonetheless do not enjoy the later novels of Henry James that are most highly regarded by the experts.  But my wife is an expert on Henry James and over the years I have had to accept that I don’t know what I’m talking about.

In dealing with such situations, Hume’s distinction between sentiment and judgment is invaluable.  One is not required to surrender one’s opinions, but merely to acknowledge their nature.  I am not able to argue that the later Henry James does not write well; all I can do is assert that his later style is not to my taste–an assertion that is true and valid within its limits.  The cliché “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like” is in this sense a precise and admirable preface to whatever comment comes next.

Setting aside some of the issues regarding excellence and music I mentioned in a previous post, I was struck by how much Murray’s sentiment [sic] regarding only being able to assert an opinion about our relationship to works of art was something I talked about in my undergraduate thesis.  Namely that most of the things we say about anything has to do with our relationship to that thing rather than about any Kantian Ding an sich (“thing-in-itself”).  His relationship to how Hume deals with that issue is probably a bit clearer than Hume himself ever was. Continue reading “Charles Murray and “The Impossibility of Being Nonjudgmental” (part 1)”

dhawq, or "courtesy" in music accompaniment

This section of Racy’s “Making Music in the Arab World” could be just as applicable to the non-Arab musician. In the chapter titled simply, Music, he begins the section titled “The art of accompanying” with

When called for, musical accompaniment plays a crucial role in the evocative process. Basically, an accompanying performer must be musically effective without being too prominent or obtrusive. Musicians usually describe good accompaniment as tawriq, a term that implies subtlety and evokes the image of filling spaces somewhat sparsely with ornamental leaf designs (as in the case of calligraphy), or covering something with a thin film of paper or plaster.

Most of the above is relatively straightforward and goes without saying. I cannot recall the number of times I’ve performed with accompaniment that is just too loud and “in-your-face” to even warrant being called accompaniment. If the accompanying music is more prominent than the main melodic line(s) then why bother with a melody, right?

Racy continues, giving one particular example of a qanun player

He must refrain from moving ahead of the singer by anticipating the higher tonal areas of the mode, or playing more loudly than the vocalist, or producing melodic lines that are technically more complex or more ornate tan those being accompanied. It is often stated that the accompanist must have dhawq, namely “taste” or “courtesy.”

“Courtesy”–I like that. I’ll have to look up the Arabic word, dhawq, to see if that is indeed a good translation of the term but it encompasses exactly what I would think is the sentiment of good accompaniment. Courtesy implies some acknowledgement of the other musician in this context–an acknowledgement that what is going on in the melody or melodic line is far more important than what is happening in the accompaniment.

Racy continues

Tarab musicians devote a great deal of attention to the dynamics of accompanying particularly by praising the discreet and supportive accompanists and finding fault with those whom they consider musically self-centered, aggressive, and intent on soliciting attention

“[I]ntent on soliciting attention”–we have a saying for that in the West–intent on “being a Rock Star.” Something that annoys me to no end! Racy then gives several examples of musicians that, while having great technical facility, nevertheless are being “disrespectful of the artist being featured” (i.e. the artist that has the actual solo line). Apparently the Arabs have a phrase for this with respects to a singer (the quintessential melodic solo instrumentalist):

biqul kathir ma’ al-mutrib

which literally means “he says too much with the singer.”

nothing can ruin a piece of music more than a musician that has too much to say.