Finding the Emotion in “Left-Brain Music”: A Response to Robert Baksa (Part 1)

Robert Baksa’s argument against the overwhelming prevalence of left-brain-centric contemporary music and its adherents (American Record Guide, Nov/Dec 1999) strikes me as the latest example of a divisive mindset in Western classical music that has persisted since time immemorial. Critics have always tried to show how one music is inferior to another, usually by resorting to their own particular backgrounds. Scheibe criticized Bach’s music for not being natural enough; much later, Philip Glass called Boulez and his Domaine Musicale “these maniacs, these creeps, who were trying to make everyone write this creepy, crazy music.” There is truth to both criticisms, I admit, but the truthfulness only strictly obtains when the standards of another musical sensibility (proto-Classicism in Scheibe’s case, minimalism in Glass’s) are applied lock, stock, and barrel to musical styles with very different aims and aesthetics. In similar fashion, the composer Robert Baksa appeals both to the history of Western music and to the oversimplification of recent scientific experiments to support a claim that dissonant music (particularly serialism, Cage, and Ives, who seem to be Mr Baksa’s principal targets) can only stimulate the left side of the brain—the hemisphere that does not respond as strongly to emotional content.

Disputes over taste and preference are not unique to Western classical music, of course; but since the market for classical music is pitifully small and probably shrinking all the time, ultimately these disputes do us no favors. And worse, I’m afraid they may have a destructive effect, discouraging people from exploring possibilities and alternatives and eventually experiencing them fully. Let me first respond to Mr. Baksa’s arguments and then suggest a few thoughts on our twenty-first-century condition.

When we write history, we must privilege some facts and exclude others in order that the story we tell makes sense and feels true to us. Even so, I think Mr Baksa’s account of history is more exclusive than it needs to be. For example, we have certainly not always assumed that the most complicated or progressive music is always the best. Mr Baksa’s “periods of simplification,” in short, have usually not been ignored. The fiendish rhythmic subtleties of the late fourteenth century, the Ars Subtilior, for example, never held lasting sway. Likewise, the chromatic experiments by Lasso, Gesualdo, and Vicentino didn’t substantially change the prevailing style of the time.

Nor does Mr Baksa’s account of the natural appeal of consonant intervals—because of their more audible place in the harmonic series—hold up very well. Our wonderful, euphonious thirds were once regarded as incidental and harmonically unstable. In fact, it was only when Dunstable’s sweet “English countenance” made its way to the continent that composers began thinking about making thirds the dominant feature of the musical landscape at all. Moral: our ideas about what is interesting or moving or beautiful in music change, and they’ll probably continue to do so. The “absolute,” perfect state of triadic music that Mr. Baksa would like us to believe in has never existed, not even in the West.

Now as far as experiments in listening are concerned, I’m not an expert, but friends of mine who are experts believe that we are still at the threshold of our understanding of how the human brain responds to stimulus, how it interprets and processes what it takes in. For example, the left and right sides of the brain do interact and influence each other, but in ways that are still unclear. And, perhaps more important, what we consider to be consonant intervals are not inherently familiar to all. Non-musicians can’t discriminate between them and dissonant intervals as well as trained musicians can. (I know this from teaching music appreciation for 10 years; so do many of my colleagues.) And so I’m content not to take these experiments so seriously that they influence my decisions about what I want to listen to or what others should listen to. In other words, I choose not to believe that dissonant or intellectually-stimulating music is devoid of emotion. I’ll make up my own mind after I listen, thanks. And furthermore I will try to create a situation in which my students and friends can be free to make their own choices, too.

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