Music hath charms to soothe a savage b[r]east


A while ago, I went to see this local rock-pop band called Disappear Fear. They were quite good. The band is composed of two sisters; one sings lead and plays the guitar and another is the backing vocalist.

The lyrics were of the usual kind, dealing with humanistic issues such as homelessness, love, and sexuality. The keyboardist was exceptionally good, as was the lead guitarist. I was quite pleased with their performance; all they need is a record label push in order to make it big---to join the ranks of alternative-rockers.

But while the music was above average in quality, they weren't extremely innovative in their style even during their high points (which unfortunately were limited). This isn't the reason they haven't broken through (they just need a push), since real innovativeness leads to exclusion. Still, it was good to see a band play music because they enjoyed doing it, than for any other reason.

Which brings me to the discussion of Music by Allan Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind. Music, he says, "is the soul's primitive and and it is alogon, without articulate speech or reason. It is not only not reasonable, it is hostile to reason." In a sense, Bloom is wrong because there is some reason in musical style, especially in the rock, pop, alternative, and metal genres (and in the classical compositions of Bach). It is industrial music that has truly attempted to remove any sense of musical reason in its style. But Bloom I don't think is talking about musical reason, but reason in the lyrics. The former is required. The latter should be eliminated.

Classical music deals with the raw passions of the human self in the most direct fashion (Bach's religious intentions and Beethoven revolutionary and humane ones are clear enough examples). Metal itself is a rebellion against society in general, but not against reason. Mainstream alternative and pop rock mostly deal with issues that are relevant to the "real world". But by doing this, you take away what music is really supposed to be: Plato's teaching about music is that rhythm and melody, accompanied by dance, are the barbarous expression of the soul. After hearing Disappear Fear last night, it was clear to me that a lot of mainstream music that attempts to deal with societal issues in a rational way, by the very act of imposing rationality on music, fails miserably. It leads to no resolutions. Music made without reason, but containing the raw passions and anger exemplified by societal actions, will suceed far better than music that has been carefully, or not so carefully, thought out to address "real life" problems. The point here is that music shouldn't attempt to address any issue---it should just be... music.

The reasoning here is opposed to the Socratic formula: "the lyrics---speech and, hence, reason---must determine the music---harmony and rhythm." However, according to Bloom, pure music can't endure this contraint. "To Plato and Nietzche, the history of music is a series of attempts to give form and beauty for the dark, chaotic, premonitory forces in the soul----to make them serve a higher purpose, an ideal to give man's duties a fullness." With music, rationale can be tossed around and doubted. A person whose activities reflect a music (the soldier and the marching band, the religious and the church organ) is whole. Passions have waned under the the rule of so-called reason that most rock musicians impose today on their music, and by the institutionalisation of the musical genres. Nietzsche has always encouraged the Dionysian and the music derivative from it and this is missing in most of today's mainstream music.

Bloom then gets a bit Freudian saying that rock has the beat of sexual intercourse. That young people listen most to rock simply as a means of accepting the "reality principle" proposed by Freud. He says "life is made into a nonstop, commercially prepackaged masturbational fantasies." He claims it will distract them from learning and it ruins their imaginations. This I do believe is what mainstream (or its style) music does, since that's what Bloom is most acquainted with from his ideas of what constitute rock music. "As long as they have the Walkman on, they cannot hear what the great tradition has to say. And, after its prolonged use, when they take it off, they find they are deaf."

I agree with him in some respects, and I particularly agree with the Nietzschean and Platonic descriptions of music. This is why three of my favourite groups have pretty much made music without reason but with great passion and aggressiveness. I am not sure of whether lyrical reason supplimented by raw passion in music is as acceptable as the absence of reason in both music and lyrics. Judging by the style of music I listen to, I would say lyrical reason is irrelevant, and if anything, it complements the raw passions the music.

Plato says that passionate music, by its nature, encompasses all that is most resistent to philosophy. "So it may well be that through the thicket of our greatest corruption runs the path to awarness of the oldest truths." Education tames the soul's raw passions. Music involves a delicate balance between passion and reason, both of which are needed for one's existence to be whole. Music lacking passion and self-indulgence disrupts this balance.


Pseudo-intellectual ram-blings || Music ram-blings || Ram Samudrala || me@ram.org