Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Christmas music

This is that most wonderful time of the year when we all ask the question: Is it ethical for society to subject us all to music that some people enjoy, and others do not?

Sure, some people have a net gain from the music.  Probably even most people.  In fact, it's probably a net gain overall.  But if the gain requires coercively harming a minority, is it truly worthwhile?  It's sort of like the Omelas situation, where the success of a utopia relies on perpetually torturing a little kid.

I'm being facetious here, and anyway the rest of the year we're subjected to pop music.

Lately I've been listening to Penderecki.  He's a living classical composer, considered influential in the avant-garde movement.  Here's one of his most famous pieces, from 1960:

Do you think it would be ethical to play this music in public spaces?

In case you prefer something a little more tonal, later on Penderecki moved away from avant-garde music, and composed things like this Christmas Symphony:

It sounds practically like 19th century music.


miller said...

I think you're asking ethical question that's actually interesting. If your tongue is not firmly planted in your cheek, I'd be happy to share my thoughts.

miller said...

Off topic, but have you seen Huge electric field found in ice-cold laughing gas? Is this for real?

miller said...

I would say there's a note of truth in the ethical question, and I would be interested to hear your thoughts.

miller said...

Yeah, that's real. Although the article had a small error--the material should generate a spontaneous electric field, but not a spontaneous electric current.

The phenomenon is known as ferroelectricity. It's like a permanent magnet, except it generates electric field rather than magnetic field. It general occurs when there is an excess of positively charged ions on one side of the material, and negatively charged ions on the other side. The fact that it occurs in films of nitrous oxide is news to me (apparently discovered in 2009), and is very scientifically interesting. I suppose the atoms of nitrous oxide must all align? Wikipedia tells me that they have applications in capacitors, which makes sense to me.

miller said...

These are both so great, so moving, each in their own way. Obviously not appropriate for a shopping mall or grocery store. I also couldn't imagine listening to either of these pieces without giving them my full and undivided attention.

I'm eager to hear what TheBarefootBum has to say about the ethical question.

I'm also wondering:
• Does it make sense to evaluate the ethics of music in public spaces without considering the soundscape of the space as a whole (including the unintentional ambient noise)?
• To what extent can one make an objective judgement about a public soundscape, something that goes beyond purely subjective differences in music appreciation?

Fun links:
• Bang On A Can, introducing a live performance of their arrangement of Brian Eno's "Music for Airports" at, of all places, the Düsseldorf Airport: http://youtu.be/4g1Ezvfh7po
• Julian Treasure's TEDTalk, "How Can We All Listen Better," which notes, among other things, the connection between sound environments and evolved feelings of safety, security & general well-being:

miller said...

My thoughts on the subject: Coercively harming a minority

Excluding other problems, the comparison with Omelas is apt: we have to just subjectively decide, based on our preferences, abstract, concrete, and meta, whether or not the coercive harm of torturing a child is better or worse than the coercive harm of not torturing a child. Since this evaluation is subjective, some will walk away, and possibly, some will stay. (I think (hope?) that the subjective moral preferences of 21st century Americans are such that most would walk away.)

miller said...

I thought the TED talk was a bit overreaching. First he says that news stories exaggerate their shock-value in order to get us to listen, and then he shows a bunch of shocking photos in order to assert that listening could prevent these things. Okay, whatever.

One thing notable about the TED talk is that the speaker expresses a preference for a shared soundscape, decrying the bubbles created by our electronics. I think this demonstrates that it is flatly impossible to satisfy everyone's preferences. Even if personal music players were ubiquitous, some people would prefer to force everyone to listen to the same thing.

I think Brian Eno was onto something with minimalism. Most of the time I'm listening to music, it is not the only thing I'm doing. And often it's within a larger soundscape, such as the sounds of the streets. A lot of my frustration with classical music is that it's plainly not suited to modern listening styles. I wish classical recordings would at least take the minor step of compressing the volume.

miller said...

You can, of course, compress the dynamic range yourself with an MP3 editor. I think MP3Gain might help.

A lot of classical music was intended for sitting down and just listening to it, but a lot was intended to be heard within a "larger soundscape" and has a narrower dynamic range.

Symphonic music and concertos are hard to listen to in the background, not just because of their dynamic range but also because of their melodic and harmonic complexity.

With some notable exceptions (*cough* Beethoven *cough*), works for smaller ensembles, such as string quartets, solo instrumentals, and chamber music, would be more suitable for background music. For example, Segovia's performances of Bach's guitar music is very nice for background music.

miller said...

I'm sorry, I should have been more clear. If you just click the link for the TED talk, it's not as interesting. If you click "Listen to the story" at the top, you get the interview with Guy Raz. If you prefer, you can find the transcript here: http://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=283464243