The Twisted Bell


Date: Tue Sep 09 10:28:56 1997
Subject: All that jazz

Jeff wrote:

No, it is not really true, IMHO. Taste is subjective, but I am still not convinced that art (music included) is subjective. I am not that relativistic - I think art can very well be judged in an objective way, despite one's particular tastes, especially the craft aspect of art.

Nope. Art appreciation is subjective. There's no way around it. Sure, aspects of an art object - as you say, the craft aspects - can be judged reasonably objectively: 'this chair is finely crafted/this other chair won't even stand up', 'this guitarist can play very intricate pieces/this guitarist can play like an outstretched rubber band'. But that's only one side of it. Jeff Koons's giant rabbit was finely crafted. Doesn't mean it's any good. Unless, perhaps, you're a giant rabbit. We are all prisoners of our own time, place, and culture - as well as any number of other limitations arising out of our own personal experience. Those things shape our personal taste - which IS what determines our ability to appreciate art. (I'm not talking about the 'is it art?' question, but the 'is it good art?' question.) Just consider the alternative - that art can be judged objectively. By whom? Name any person and you would find that they were unable, for one reason or another, to appreciate a particular work of art that others think is 'good'. Lots of snooty english lit types look down their noses at cartoons and comic books, for example, and wouldn't know how to tell a 'Watchmen' from a 'Garfield'. Lots of classical buffs would say that all rock music is rubbish. And vice versa for rock fans. Neither is right - and both are. They're wrong from the point of view of each other. They're right for themselves.

There would be no single human being in the world who could objectively judge all art. Groups of human beings can arrive at consensus judgements about what's good or bad, but such judgements have always been contested and subject to constant revision. The Victorians, for example, thought that Mendelssohn was a far superior composer to Beethoven, and that Beethoven's 7th symphony was easily his best. Right? Wrong? Right for them. Wrong by the generally-accepted standards of today. But the music hasn't changed. We have.

Here endeth the lesson.


Date: Mon Sep 15 15:29:39 1997
Subject: Objective/Subjective

Chris Kimber wrote:

Even Mike has studied other composers, maybe only by ear or by working out on his guitar something he heard played by another guitarist when he was 11 years old - that was an objective evaluation as [Gareth] put it.

Actually, Chris, I don't think you are talking about an objective evaluation as I (Rory) would put it. In my previous contribution to this thread, I was talking about objectivity and subjectivity as philosophers would. Basically, every interpretation by an individual - even a simple exercise in trying to play a piece note for note - is subjective, because it's filtered through that person's preconceptions. It's a subjective interpretation of an object, the object in this case being the 'pure' piece of music. In this interpretation, even the original artist who wrote and first recorded a particular song was producing a subjective interpretation of a 'pure' original.

The idea of a 'pure' original goes back to Plato, who argued that there were preexisting pure forms 'out there' somewhere which everything we see around us is a reflection of (or an impure copy of). So there's a piniest pine tree, a guitariest guitar sound, a perfect sphere, a perfect cube, and so on. And somewhere there's a 'pure' original of Tubular Bells (which Mike was trying to get down on record in all those different mixes and recordings, but never quite succeeded in doing); and there's also a 'pure' version of 'Perambulations', the album he is due to record in 2006. ;)

There is also (supposedly), 'out there', a whole range of pure knowledge about what is True. These truths are Objective Truths, just waiting to be found if only we can make ourselves 'objective' enough to find them. This is the 'objective truth' that lawyers seek in the courtroom, that scientists seek in the lab, and so on. Lawyers and scientists usually accept that they have found a reasonably objective truth if they can get enough people to agree on it (either twelve jurors, or a group of scientific peer reviewers).

The trouble is - as philosophers have been arguing about for many years - a jury or a group of scientists isn't necessarily 'objective', either, in the sense that they can successfully find the objective truth that exists 'out there'. We can see this whenever a verdict is overturned, or a new scientific theory is advanced that better explains things than the old ones did. We are, in a sense, just pretending that juries and scientists find the objective truth, because it's convenient to do so - most of the time it works out fine, and keeps society running along smoothly. But actually we're all subjective beings striving to find an approximation of the objective truth but never quite getting there.

Many postmodernists have said that in fact there is no such thing as objective truth. Likewise, there is no 'pure sphere' or 'guitariest guitar sound' or 'pure Tubular Bells'. There's only subjective interpretation. And some of them (the misguided ones, I'd argue) go from that point to one of pure relativism - saying that everything is as good as everything else, because 'goodness' is itself one of these supposedly 'objective' truths that doesn't actually exist - and that therefore it somehow doesn't matter if people do evil things to one another, either.

Others take a more subtle line, which is that it's irrelevant to we mere mortals whether or not objective truths such as Plato's pure forms actually exist, because as subjective beings we can't ever hope to find them. We might get close, but we can never be sure we've found the objective truth. So what we should do instead is take a pragmatic approach and simply say that truth is what we agree is true. This is the William James/Richard Rorty line, and the one I prefer. It recognises that a person's (or a society's, or humanity's) ideas about what is 'true' can change over time, as new information comes to light, and as old ways of looking at the world no longer seem to work out. It also accepts that morals do exist (even if we've arrived at them by concensus, they still exist), and that flouting them has serious consequences in the society concerned. So it does matter if you do things which everyone has defined as evil.

Enough of the philosophy lesson. But you can see how this relates to the idea of musical interpretation. You could say, if you like, that the sheet music is the 'object', the 'pure' piece of music, and that every time anyone plays it they produce a subjective interpretation. But in fact the sheet music itself is a subjective interpretation, too, of the music that the composer has in his or her head, and has tried (never to his or her complete satisfaction) to get down on paper. So where is the 'pure' music? In the composer's head? But what happens if they forget it, or misremember it - where is it then? Is it 'out there' somewhere? These are big philosophical questions, and I doubt we'd be able to resolve them on Amarok!

As for any successful 'objective evaluation' of music - 'this music bad, that music good' - well, this goes right to the heart of the philosophical problems I've outlined above. It assumes (a) that there is such a thing as objective good-ness or bad-ness (in this case relating to pieces of music) and (b) that an individual, or a group of individuals, can determine what that degree of good-ness or bad-ness is for any particular piece of music. Either of which would get you into a long argument with half of the members of any university's philosophy department!

It might still be tempting to think, 'But there is a 'pure' Tubular Bells; I've got the CD right here, its catalogue number is CDV2001. Why can't we objectively judge it?' But we should perhaps ponder the fact that there's CDV2001, the TB we all know; and there's a quad mix; and a picture disk mix; and an Orchestral TB; and the original demo tape; and dozens of live recordings, official and bootleg; and there's TB II, the reinterpretation by the 'mature Mike'; and these all have a claim to 'Tubular Bells-ness', such that it becomes really difficult for us to point at what the 'essence of Bells' really is. They're all a reflection of the changing interpretations of 'essence of Bells' by the original author, Mike; and his essence of Bells is probably different from each and every one of our own. My 'Bells', for example - and this is even leaving TBII out of the picture - is probably a hefty slab of the original, with the drunken Hornpipe and the guitar-playing from the end of pt 2 on the Quad, plus the solo from the abbreviated pt 2 on 'Exposed', plus a few snatches of OTB, plus the gorgeous reworked extract from pt 2 on an obscure European single, plus who knows what else. And they all become part of my 'Bells', which no doubt is quite different from all of yours.

The same's true of HR, of Ommadawn, and of Inc, all of which exist in various forms that blend together to form 'essence of HR' etc. But - and here's the scary part - the same is true of an album like Amarok, which physically exists only in one form, because each of us forms our own 'essence of Amarok' in our heads, focussing on what to us are the particular highlights, skimming over the parts we like less, dwelling on small musical features that may well have escaped someone else's attention completely (as we all know, there's always more to find in a Mike Oldfield composition).

So when someone here says, 'I'd rate TB (or Amarok) below just about everything else Mike has ever done' (which some have done), we're forced to ask - 'which TB (or Amarok) is that, then'? We're always arguing at crossed purposes, because we're never really comparing the same music in our heads, even if we're comparing exactly the same release right down to the catalogue number and pressing date.

No wonder we never resolve any of these debates about Mike's albums!


Date: Thu Sep 18 11:47:56 1997
Subject: Answers and Mysteries...

Richard wrote:

So you can assess something by its effects, its usefulness in certain situations, and its fitness for a (musical) purpose. The assessment is still subjective, but it's better than groping around in the dark

Yep. That's a good way of looking at it. ('Good' in the sense that I find it useful for explaining the usefulness of Mike's music :)

E.g. opera and classical music are as much about affirming and reinforcing social hierarchies as they are about the music as a thing in itself.

So what does Mike's music affirm, other than the music itself? Are we all at some level trying to make a statement about how we don't care whether everyone labels us as 'uncool' Oldfield listeners? 'I'm an individual... I listen to (Pink Floyd/Pulp/Puccini/Prodigy/Delete Where Applicable) and Mike Oldfield!' Or that we don't care if the composer/performer in question is known for his erratic beliefs, musical mood-swings, and protesting against the 'technofication' of music by sitting under a tent - we're just 'in it for the music, man!' (Wow, we're living on the edge, yeah!)

[Insert 'tongue in cheek and I know it applies just as much to myself as anyone else' smiley here.]

Ok, that's that problem sorted, and all the 'TB/HR/OM/TSODE ROOLZ! vs TB/HR/OM/TSODE SUCKS!' posts to this list made redundant. What shall we talk about now then? :-)

On past form, we'll talk about Elmo for another 3.5 days, then go on to discuss the merits in detail of every track on 'QE2', then someone will say that they've always hated QE2 and start a brief flame war, then we'll speculate about Mike's next album, then Mike will have a minor accident and we'll all recant our previous criticisms and pray for his continued good health, then someone will post a transcribed interview from a 1978 copy of 'Sounds Obscure: The Farfisa Organ Monthly' where Mike admits he's a closet Sweet fan, then someone will ask if anyone knows anything about an 'orchestral' version of Hergest Ridge, then someone will say that Hergest Ridge sucks and Voyager roolz, and then we will have this exact same thread about the possibility of objective evaluations of Mike's music all over again.

The Twisted Bell

©2001 Rory Ewins