Scruton on sound and music and gesture

Roger Scruton: "The object of musical hearing is organised by metaphors of space and movement that correspond to no material realities. Music goes up and down, it leads and follows; it is dense, translucent, heavy, light; it encounters obstacles and crashes through them, and sometimes it comes to an end which is the end of everything. Those metaphors, and the order derived from them, are shared by all musical people. The order that we hear is an order that we – the musical public – hear, when we hear these sounds as music. And although there is, at any moment, an indefinite number of ways in which a melodic line or a chord sequence can continue without sounding wrong, the ideal in our tradition has been of an uninterrupted sense of necessity – each melodic and harmonic step following as though by logic from its predecessor, and yet with complete freedom. ... When we hear tones we are also hearing sounds; but we are hearing in those sounds movement, organisation and gravitational forces in a one-dimensional musical space. That is the fundamental musical experience, the experience that causes us to hear one note as moving on from another, answering another, attracted to or repelled by another. It is what enables us to hear tension and release, beginnings and endings, goals and starting points. It is at the root of the art of music as we have known it, since it is what gives music its fundamental nature as an art of motion, which grips us and takes us with it in a space of its own. We are moved by music because music moves."

The poem that foretold modernism

Mallarmé and modernism — "Consider its title. Bloch points out that Jamais (Never) is out of sequence for an ordinary French sentence, where it would conventionally follow the verb. What then motivates this terrible “Never,” with its abnormal, jarring priority? What is this extreme of negativity that cannot be gainsaid?" (The New Republic)

Unlearning bad writing

Aaron Sachs in The American Scholar — "Lopate thinks of himself primarily as a storyteller rather than as a teacher or interpreter or critic or advocate; the literary essay, he insists, “is not a logical proof or a legal brief.” It thrives on internal contradiction and a sense of exploration: “If you know already what all your points are going to be when you sit down to write, the piece is likely to seem dry, dead on arrival.” So much for the disciplined outline. At the same time, though, Lopate acknowledges that “my own essays do always contain an implicit argument and make an attempt to persuade.” To see the potential compatibility of narrative and analysis, of exploration and argumentation—say, in classic nonfiction writers like James Baldwin, George Orwell, Virginia Woolf, or Susan Sontag—is perhaps to see new possibilities for combining deep research with gripping, memorable prose."

Tradition and the Individual Talent

First published in The Sacred Wood in 1921:

Yet if the only form of tradition, of handing down, consisted in following the ways of the immediate generation before us in a blind or timid adherence to its successes, “tradition” should positively be discouraged. We have seen many such simple currents soon lost in the sand; and novelty is better than repetition. Tradition is a matter of much wider significance. It cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour. It involves, in the first place, the historical sense, which we may call nearly indispensable to anyone who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year; and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional. And it is at the same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his contemporaneity.

— T.S. Eliot

"I am a mirror..."

I am not a complete idiot, but whether from weakness or laziness have no talent for thinking. I know only how to reflect: I am a mirror ... Logic does not exist for me. I float on the waves of art and life and never really know how to distinguish what belongs to the one or the other or what is common to both. Life unfolds for me like a theatre presenting a sequence of somewhat unreal sentiments; while the things of art are real to me and go straight to my heart.

— Sviatoslav Richter

Claudio Arrau on Rachmaninoff

"Rachmaninoff was really a great pianist, but not a great interpreter, because he made everything into Rachmaninoff. He was a sensation in Berlin after the First World War. I heard a few recitals -- it must have been in the twenties. Technically, he was phenomenal. But I thought the sound was not very good. And from the standpoint of interpretation, it was appalling. He didn't seem to care at all what the composer meant. He even added several bars of his own to the end of the Funeral March sonata of Chopin. You know, once I played the Beethoven Eroica Variations in Chicago and Rachmaninoff came backstage during the intermission to tell me how beautiful it was. He had never heard of the piece before. He was friendly, very complimentary. But he wasn't even surprised that he had never heard of it! The Eroica Variations!

"Once, a philosopher; twice, a pervert."

Norman Mailer interviewed by William F. Buckley Jr., on a 1968 episode of Firing Line: "There's such a thing as a great cop, and there's such a thing as a great criminal. And the way I work -- it's very hard to explain this to people -- I don't think in categories, I think, rather, in this way: that the world is better off if every so-called type in the world, is better. It's a better world if the cops get better and the criminals get better. It's a poorer world when the cops are dull and the criminals are dull. In other words, as an existentialist what I believe is that what really is important in the world is how much life there is, how much psychic life, how much spiritual life, how much physical life, imagination, vitality, brilliance. I'm not going to carry this into every ridiculous extreme, but: you know, a mass murderer is not necessarily a criminal. One of the best remarks that Marx ever made -- or maybe this was Engels, in fact -- is that quantity changes quality. You see, a man who kills one man may be moral or immoral; we can't know, we need to know intimately what happened. Generally, the assumption is that he was immoral. Greivously immoral. At the very least, we know that he has changed his life profoundly, and that he has now (if you believe in a mortal soul, as I do, which you can gain or lose) so endangered his soul that we cannot look upon his condition as a light one. I would not presume to judge him too quickly. A man who murders four or five people is already a man of a totally different sort. A man who murders millions is a man who defies our conception of what it is to be a man. And so, for that reason, I would be perfectly willing to let my hypothesis dwindle and die long before we get to the man who kills three or four people. You see, we have to have a little wit when we speak of these matters ... Once, a philosopher; twice, a pervert. That's the key to keep in mind. That's Voltaire."

"I feel I could crack open mines of life..."

Sylvia Plath in her diary. Thursday, July 17th, 1957. "After two days of no-schedule, disrupted by our seeking Baskins, Rodman [...] I sit down on a clear cold sunny day with nothing to beef at except the slick sick feeling which won't leave. It comes and goes. I feel I could crack open mines of life--in my daily writing sketches, in my reading and planning: if only I could get rid of my absolutist panic. I have, continually, the sense that this time is invaluable, and the opposite sense that I am paralyzed to use it: or will use it wastefully and blindly. I have all the world's reading on my back, instead of a possible book a day. I must discipline myself to concentrate on certain authors, certain fields, lest I welter, knowing nothing and everything. Across the street there is the chink, chink of hammers on nails, the tap of hammers on wood. Men are on the scaffolding. I am neither a know-nothing nor a bohemian, but I find myself wishing, wishing, to have a corner of my own: something I can know about, write about well. All I have ever read thins and vanishes. I do not amass, remember. I shall this year work for steady small growth, nothing spectacular, and the ridding of this panic. The windows shake in their sockets from some unheard detonation. Ted says they are breaking the sound barrier. Somewhere I have a vision, not of thwarting, of meanness, but of fullness, of a maturer, riper placidity, a humor to bear nightmare, an ordering, reshaping faculty which steadies and fears not. A housewife--with children and writing and reading in the midst of business, but fully, with good friends who are makers in some way. The more I do, the more I can do. I should choose first the few things I wish to learn: German, poets and poetry, novels and novelists, art and artists. French also. Are they making or breaking across the street here? All fears are figments: I make them up."

"...as W.H. Auden had it, the old masters were never wrong..."

Joseph Epstein in the Weekly Standard — "Between time spent watching six segments of Seinfeld and listening to the late Beethoven quartets there really can’t be any argument about which is the right choice. Nor can there be any between reading, say, Tolstoy and Stephen King or Sir Ronald Syme and Doris Kearns Goodwin. As for visual art, about suffering and much else, as W. H. Auden had it, the old masters were never wrong, and any competition between them and contemporary visual art ended, sadly, with the triumph of Andy Warhol, after whom serious people no longer needed to be interested in contemporary visual art. The English philosopher Michael Oakeshott notes that one of the signs of being cultured is that one knows what one doesn’t have to know. Contemporary visual art, perhaps for the first time in the history of painting and sculpture, is one of those things a cultured person no longer has to know."

"One obtains the same musical colouring by external means..."

"My teacher Louis Vierne was born blind. He had an operation when he was twenty-six and could see a little. He found one thing unbearable, the way a head is attached to the neck and shoulders. For him, that was horrible. Also, if he was told: 'Pick up this pencil!' he would answer, 'I can't, it's too far away'. But he would want to pick up a house because it was large and he saw it close up. It took him one or two years to understand the relationship of large and small to proximity or distance. He used to see large objects as close and small ones as distant." "But to what degree does any of us see things as they really are? Someone who hears the organ will say, 'Oh!, it must take such strength!' Now, to play an organ with five hundred stops, you exercise the same pressure as when you play a little pipe organ with two pedals. Those who hear the organ for the first time are stunned by its power. One doesn't employ extra force. One obtains the same musical colouring by external means, in much the same way a shadow plays on the colour of an object."

(Nadia Boulanger, interviewed by Bruno Monsaigneon.)