Getting the question right

A few years ago I took a graduate seminar on aesthetics taught by Michael Hicks. We asked many questions like what is art? and what is music? Must it be man-made? Can an object's display in a museum alone make it art? Is the score the musical work? Must a musical work be performed? Can it exist in the mind? Can it be a recording? etc., etc. As it turns out, there were no good answers.

And that makes me wonder if we were asking the right questions. I could go on with some philosophical implications for various answers to the questions above, but to paraphrase composer Mark Applebaum, it bores me (at least right now it bores me). In fact, I should share a video of Applebaum's TED talk.


To sum it up, Applebaum says questioning whether something is music is to ask the wrong question. The right question he says, and I agree, is "Is it interesting?" So much ink has been wasted on criticism of classification.

Pixels, too. I just read the following comment on a YouTube video of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot:

"Is this the purpose of theater? I must explain myself, I really like the play, and in general Becket (sic), nevertheless is a masochistic pleasure. Every time it gets me, however, after that I feel terribly empty. Even banality can inspire art, but haven't we created art as an escape from banality? Is this the purpose of theater?"

The commenter really likes it! But still, he can't swallow it's classification as theater. Or rather, its fulfillment of the purpose of theater. When can we get past this modernist obsession with classification and uniformity? For one thing, it's arrogant. As though we are armchair experts on music or theater, knowing surprisingly little about being human ("haven't we created art as an escape from banality?"--who is this person and how does he know so much about art?). But the larger problem for me as a "composer" is that narrow definitions are restrictive. Of course I think that what I do is music. But I also see music in almost everything. In fact, I would say that I think of any dynamic relationship between moving parts as intrinsically "musical". But, what difference does it make in the grand scheme of things?

I appreciate Applebaum saying he doesn't write music like Beethoven. Bravo. I'm not bored with some pieces by Beethoven, I am bored with others. But boredom with old music (whatever that means!) is a trend I've noticed in my own listening.

(I having a feeling that's why orchestras are going broke--there must be a lot of people out there who find Beethoven boring. Orchestras are asking themselves "why don't people get this 200 year old music with its arcane rules on clapping?" and "how can we make young people interested in classical music?" Something tells me those are the wrong questions, too.)

©2017 Joshua Harris