Saturday, 7 November 2015

Variatio 29. a 1 ô vero 2 Clav

Jamie James' disappointing The Music of the Spheres seems to serve a dual purpose: a slightly more intelligent historical survey of an underground philosophy, and an explanation of why music these days isn't very good. Kicking off with a study of Pythagoras' fusion of mathematics and music, it postulates that before The Industrial Revolution/The Birth of Modern Science, music was composed as a reflection of divine mathematics. These mathematics, identified by Pythagoras and Plato, then recognised by a variety of familiar Dead White Males, including Bach and Newton, provide the structure of the Universe.

The Romantic movement, with its emphasis on 'the genius' ruined all of this, leaving contemporary classical composition obscure and overly-intellectual: he names Xenakis as a prime culprit. 


In spotting a paradigm shift between the music of Bach and Beethoven, James makes a fair case for a change in the function of composition. Bach, and even Mozart, held down jobs and churned out tunes for cash. Beethoven, Paganini and Liszt sold themselves as artists, and for the later, relied on their superstar status to pack out venues. 

Without examining the cultural and social shifts in any detail, James does describe the movement from the composer as employee to the composer as entrepreneur. That's worth noting, but his scholarship is frequently limited - for example, he recounts the myth about The Goldberg Variations having been named after a particular player. Even Wikipedia questions this

But the idea that the variations - alongside much of the music composed before those bloody Romantics ruined it - reflect a universal set of values - is common place.  James' problem is simple: although he rejects the idea of the 'romantic genius', preferring to create a mathematical harmony as the gold standard for composition, he plays into the idea of genius by ascribing hidden wisdom to Mozart, Kepler, Plato, Bach and the boys. 

Even before I get to the similarity of The Music of the Spheres to stupid hidden history books, James fails to rid himself of the taint that he claims is ruining music (his last words are 'how we long for silence.').

And the role call of Great Men will be very familiar to fans of the Masons. Hermes Trimegistus gets a shout out, so do Newton's alchemical writings, the scientists who defended heliocentricity (reflecting the barbaric authority of the church, natch).   




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