Aesthetics: Aristotle, Ke$ha, flutes, and conductors

In Politics, there is a passage where Aristotle spends some time on what sort of music we should include in the education of children. He takes some wonderful pot-shots at the flute and flutists in general. Some of my favorite gems include: “…the flute is not an instrument which is expressive of moral character; it is too exciting” and “the acquirement of flute-playing contributes nothing to the mind.”

Aristotle takes a slightly different approach to music than Plato. Aristotle is OK with music for “intellectual enjoyment, for relaxation and for recreation.” Let’s not go too far though. You shouldn’t understand this to mean that one should become a “vulgar” professional musician. That would be disgusting and unbecoming for a gentleman and a philosopher. You need to play well enough to become a critic. Judging from today’s standards of criticism in the newspapers, I’d say the bar has been set at around six weeks of piano lessons in 4th grade.

What is actually interesting in the passage is the part where he is criticizing professional music contests. In contests, “the performer practices the art, not for the sake of his own improvement, but in order to give pleasure, and that of a vulgar sort, to his hearers.” You can see where this is going. When the performer gets in front of the rabble that are already vulgar, he/she wants to please them and “the result is that the performers are vulgarized, for the end at which they aim is bad. The vulgarity of the spectator tends to lower the character of the music and therefore of the performers; they look to him – he makes them what they are, and fashions even their bodies by the movements which he expects them to exhibit.”

So there you have it. More than 2000 years ago, Grandpa Aristotle was walking around saying, “These kids and their damn popular music. At least in my day, music had a nice Dorian melody that you could hum. Now it’s just all vulgar. Is the flute even a real instrument? Give it 2000 years or so, and they’ll have Ke$ha. They'll deserve it.”

Funny stuff, but I don’t find that the world of serious music is that immune to the problem. My friend Lane Harder podcasts about these problems here. I’ve experienced the vulgarization process because of "aiming at a bad end" most often with conductors. There are some conductors that communicate that the reason we are working so hard is in service to the music. There are some conductors that communicate that the reason we are working so hard is in service to their career. I’m not always sure how they do it, but I can spot it right away. When I’m playing for the selfish ones, I’m never as vulnerable because I won’t entrust my emotional life to someone that won’t care for it and protect it. I just shut down, do my job, and play the notes.

That crowd thing is a problem. It's why we see so many composers find a "style" and continue to crank out the same thing for their entire career. Nothing against Steve Reich. I like a few of his tunes, but can anyone say that "9-11 WTC" is the work of someone exploring and pushing boundaries. That's OK. Maybe he didn't want to for this piece. I'm just saying that the Beethoven 9 is different than the Beethoven 1. That's what I want to be.

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