Sep. 21, 2017

Aesthetics ~ Our Perception of Beauty in Art, Music, Nature, and the Human Form

Pictured above is one of my Stepfather Guttorn Otto's paintings, which with permission from his daughter Hildegard, I was able to pair with my recording of Schubert's "Auf dem Wasser zu Singen". I think that Tori would have appreciated that. He would have had wonderful chats with Schubert, had they lived in the same time.

Aesthetics are something that are subjective, the study of which and the judgement therein of what is 'beautiful' or important for us to acknowledge as beautiful, changes with the times, with different cultures and as we evolve.

It is in this inherent curiosity and ability that we have, in accepting change, that aesthetics take on new values at different times, especially when we don't simply move on, but when we question what has preceded and strive to move forward into a new way of thinking in an effort to expose a need, or a cultural gap. As we have progressed from the Middle Ages through to the Renaissance, and into the Classical period and beyond, one ponders that if we had not questioned what had come before with each new movement, we would never have progressed into the modern world of today.

While we all have a different sense of what beauty is or what it means to us, we know that it truly is an intangible thing, an ever changing standard, which when embraced, will become a trend and then wan again over time. In each culture, there are different human ornamentations and traditional costumes that are considered beautiful ~ in some cultures, a tattoo, a body piercing or a stretched neck would be how this is achieved, however, one element that is universal in the way that it is appreciated is Nature.

We can all be joined by the beauty of a sunset, a seascape, a flower, a bird. We also recognize that the fearsome sound of thunder or a waterfall can be an aesthetic that we find wonderful, awe-inspiring, or sublime. The Enlightenment of the 1650's to 1780's, also one of challenge in the areas of philosophy and religion, focused highly on the sublime ~ works from poets and theologians such as Thomas Traherne spoke of the divine intervention and often wove the beauty of Nature into their ideas. His works still stand today as timeless and stunning, thought provoking prose. (I am looking forward to soon performing Gerald Finzi's "Dies Natalis", a symphonic piece for Soprano and Orchestra which sets Traherne's words to music that could only be described as divine.)

In the Postmodernist period, toward the mid to late 20th Century, a lot of ideas about aesthetics were challenged, crossing through the Arts, Architecture and Philosophy. The rejection of what went before, was met with stark contrasts in line, colour, song and ideals of beauty, even in clothing. From this deconstruction, sprung many new artists who were willing to expose plainly their dissatisfaction with the establishment, and who would use their creatings to speak to the masses, causing disruption to the current ways of thinking. This approach was a large movement which took some time to catch on, and when it did, the world was changed.

The way in which we are introduced to a new idea can affect us for a long time. In my first introduction to Postmodernist work, I recall being made to watch a slide show of Picasso's paintings, set to music by Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. I was still young, maybe in Grade 5, and I had already grown up in a very different environment from most of my peers at this time. I was the child a professional flutist and the stepchild of an artist who was also a cellist, surrounded always by Classical music and also by some of the most incredibly beautiful REALIST paintings of the Canadian landscape and still life, both in oil and watercolour.
(See Guttorn Otto).

I listened often to full symphony rehearsals and to chamber music. I sang in an Operatic choir. I played violin and piano. I knew only harmony, and not atonal sounds. We did not have a Television until I was in Grade 7. You can imagine my absolute distress when this onslaught came my way. Postmodernist music paired with paintings that were abstract, with cubist, hard edges, faces askew, conveying sexuality in a grotesque way. I INTENSELY DISLIKED both Stravinsky and Picasso after this for many years. It was quite traumatic! It was not until I was able to separate the two, that I was able to listen to the music of Stravinsky and appreciate it, or to view a Picasso and ponder at what it was he wanted to convey. Both of these artists wished to turn the world's way of thinking onto its head, using their work as a social commentary, and they did just that. At the time, it was a new aesthetic for the world to digest, and both were very controversial. This is not the same film I saw (it was longer) but it provides a quick snippet of the two paired together.

Often, when we listen to music that is new to us, we are embarking on a journey of hearing something that we may not like at first, and then when we listen again, we may develop a liking, which evolves into a taste, and before we know it, we love the music and will listen repeatedly. I was at first attuned only to what I had been exposed to as a child, and as I began to grow and meet new people, I started to hear different music, and to get my groove on with Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Queen, and more. I still do lean towards Rock Music that has more melodic and harmonic tendencies, less raucous, but at the other end of the spectrum I have also listened to, and enjoyed, Rammstein, or on a tamer level, AC/DC.

This touches a bit on how we are conditioned and how we evolve to like new things. We are still discovering music of ancient people, and we still study and contemplate deeply, what the real definition of music must be. Where did it come from? There's the vibrational theory, that man heard vibrations in Nature and sought to replicate this, singing or humming and chanting, and creating instruments as early as 35,000BC. I tend to like this idea, that mankind was moved by a sound and then, began to use the sounds they replicated to honour their gods, to pray for a bountiful harvest, or a fruitful family, or to the sun and the moon for their benefits. Also, music kept a rhythm to labour to, and a song that is sung while working can make the task seem much less onerous.

I believe too, that humans have an inherent need for self-expression. Music became interwoven into our lives very early on, in ritual, in play, and for aesthetic purposes. I imagine that the earliest people did definitely derive pleasure from the sounds they made, so it must not all have been just used for prayer!

The Evolutionary perspective of music has been examined by many authors, among them Ted Gioia and Daniel Levitin. Gioia wrote three books, entitled "Work Songs", "Healing Songs" and "Love Songs". Levitin's books discussed what he felt were the six core categories of songs with words, surrounding friendship, joy, comfort, knowledge, religion, and also love. Levitin feels that music was created for mate selection, a way to seduce and to gain the best partner.

This theory of Evolutionary musicology derives its ideas from Charles Darwin who equated the sounds that gibbon monkeys would have made in their mating efforts, to those that early man would have replicated. It then expands, and in more current debates, another term has been coined, which is "musilanguage", built on the hypothesis that ancestral human traits naturally evolved into language and musical abilities.

Our classroom discussion this week briefly covered many of these things, but of particular interest was to look at how knowledge has been shared using music. We were shown a short animated film in which we could hear the ancient traditional sounds of kujika, and the film captured the 'enlightenment' of their sounds envisioned as beams of light, traveling around. Imagine a people who were not literate, but who developed a sure way of defining themselves, and delineating their land; a sure way of also recognizing another of their kin, or to identify an imposter. Kujika is a 'songline' presented through singing words, humming, and sounds from their culture, the Aboriginal Yanyuwa people of North Australia. The songlines describe in great detail, the surrounding environment & terrain, the animals, the birdsong, the behaviours, the pathways. Only someone who was taught these songs would be able to relay them properly, and they were passed down from generation to generation. Because a melody helps us to memorize, this was an effective way to remember those details, on many levels and thus imparting a deep knowledge. You can watch the film here:

Incidentally, the music heard in the video consists of only 3 pitches, but also includes birdsong. Is birdsong music? Some will argue this point. I find it music to my ears!