But is it art?

Today I was at a talk that pressed all the wrong buttons for me, and I spent a while trying to understand why. The following is the result.

The talk was officially titled “On composing music” and the blurb said the speaker would take the audience through the process of what it means to make music; the speaker was a composer and faculty member of a college in New York. And that was the first problem. The only reference to the process of composing was early on in the talk, when he observed that he couldn’t make his mother understand it, though, he said, it is similar to the process of composing in writing. His effort here was not more successful. He referred to exactly two composers other than himself — namely, Joaquin des Prez and J. S. Bach — and played a few seconds of music from each, to illustrate the notion of polyphony, but did not discuss the larger-scale architecture of those pieces. Other than that, his talk was devoted entirely to his own work, and the accompanying explanations were devoted entirely to associated material — a couple of computer programs, a medieval text — not to the music itself.

As for the music: Tom Lehrer said of a “peculiar hard core” of folk music lovers that they equate “authenticity with artistic merit, and illiteracy with charm.” There are forms of music (and, indeed, other art) that make me feel that aficionados must equate obscurity with artistic merit, and incomprehensibility with talent. And this music was of that sort.

But that was not the problem: the problem, to me, was that the talk advertised something else, and didn’t deliver. It was as if a physicist promised to explain string theory to a lay audience, spent a minute on the mechanics of Galileo and the gravitational law of Newton, and jumped into a dense set of equations from his latest research paper, without ever stopping even to mention anything of the rest of classical and modern physics on the way. I am not a total non-musician, but I’d have hoped that — at the very least — the talk would deconstruct a modern composition and explain, if not why I should enjoy it, at least what the ideas behind it were and why it was constructed the way it was. The speaker’s ideas were otherwise.

Anyway, whatever the cause, I was sufficiently irritated at the end of the talk to ask a couple of questions that had the effect, I think, of making the speaker as annoyed as I was. (I need to learn when to shut up.) The questions I asked, as it happens, have been bothering me for a while and I have discussed them before on my blog, and they apply quite broadly.

The first question I asked was, from memory, phrased like this. The speaker had observed that Western ideas of harmony had been in development for about 400 years, and polyphony for nearly 1000 years. I didn’t want to comment on the speaker’s work or other recent music. But about 100 years ago, there was a divide in Western music, with a group of musicians (led by Schoenberg) throwing out everything that had been accepted of Western harmony, and starting with a completely new scheme where the twelve tones were equal. So there was a divide between Schoenberg, Berg, Webern and other modernists on one side, who are appreciated by very few; and Bartok, Stravinsky, Shostakovich and others, who are widely listened to today. Now, surely 100 years is sufficient time to assess an idea, and twelve-tone music (and many later modern ideas) have entirely failed to gain an audience of any kind, beyond the musically highly-educated. Is it time to declare the experiment a failure? And as a followup, when another audience member asked whether there were analogies to “raga-bhava” and other emotional associations in Western music, the speaker gave a very limited answer. So I couldn’t help observing that Western harmonic theory does associate emotions with chords, harmonies, chord progressions, in a quite elaborate way, and all of this was thrown out by a certain school of composers a hundred years ago.

The speaker’s response to all this was basically that popularity is not important: Jay Z is more popular than Bach, and lots of people eat at McDonald’s but that doesn’t mean it’s good for you. My unnecessary and obvious observation, that unpopular things aren’t necessarily good, was clearly not appreciated.

In fact, I think there is a strong analogy between art and science in this matter. (The speaker did bring up mathematics as an example of things that the general public doesn’t understand.)

Let us first ask: how are practitioners of arts and sciences funded? There are basically four ways, I believe:

  • Immense private wealth (eg, Lord Kelvin, Swati Tirunal); uncommon in earlier times and more uncommon today
  • Benevolent patrons; common in the middle ages, less so these days
  • A paying public; common today
  • Government support; common today

Focussing on the third and fourth ways, already the analogy becomes clear. “Pure” scientists and “serious” artists are mostly government-funded. Applied scientists get funded by industry, and popular artists sell to the public or to industry. Pure scientists look down on applied research, and serious artists look down on commercialisation of art (the phrase “sell-out” is a pejorative).

The question of how a musician or other artist is to make money, in an age where vast amounts of art float on the internet for free, legally, and even vaster quantities are transmitted illegally, is for another discussion. But shouldn’t art, or science, that is funded by taxpayers, be somehow accountable to those taxpayers?

I know many of the more serious scientists in this country are concerned about this and spend a lot of time on “outreach”: school education, science popularisation, and so on. The newer institutions, like the IISERs, emphasise teaching heavily. I’d guess very few scientists would say that the general public is incapable of appreciating science. To say that it is not important for ordinary people to understand modern music, because most people listen to Jay Z and eat at McDonald’s, sounded incredibly arrogant to me. But not unprecedentedly so. The opinion seems alarmingly widespread these days that art is for the “cognoscenti” and the lay public can amuse themselves on lesser things.

So let me come out and say it, knowing that I’ll be called a “philistine” and be reminded that Wagner, Beethoven, even Monteverdi met with similar reactions for some of their music. What I heard today, and what I often hear in the name of modern “music”, is not music.

I am not a trained musician, but neither am I a musical ignoramus. The system of western harmony and tonality that has evolved for a thousand years is not an arbitrary or man-made system. Essentially the same seven notes of the “major scale” are used in diverse cultures around the world, and there are physical explanations why notes in these particular intervals are likely to sound pleasant or “consonant”. Western music already compromised on the ideal scale when it accepted the irrational (in the mathematical sense) system of “equal temperament”; the tradeoff was improved scope for modulation, and Western music peaked in the 19th century.

Then, in the twentieth century, the “modern” composers decided that the old ideas of harmony were arbitrary and constrictive, and invented their own rules in which all twelve notes in the equitempered scale were equal. And the result is not music. It violates laws, not only of traditional Western harmony, but of the physics of music. What John Cage did, and what I heard today, are not music either. And the proof is in the size of the audience, however much the cognoscenti may like to dismiss it.

The speaker mentioned that classical music and jazz each account for about 3% of the music market in the USA, and his sort of music is a few percent of the classical music market. But when something is appreciated by a “small” audience of a few million people, it is reasonable to conclude that others will appreciate it too if they are exposed to it. This is certainly the case with pre-modern classical music and pre-1970s jazz, as well as with a lot of newer music in both genres. That’s the essential quality of art: it can attract those who have never encountered it before, and who do not understand its nuances, but who are familiar with and appreciative of equally sophisticated art in other genres.

But when something (like much modern “serious” music) is appreciated only by a few thousand, or few hundred, or few dozen people, and those people declare that it is only for the “cognoscenti” and ordinary people are incapable of liking it, then it no longer looks like art. It looks like a cult, and it is. There is no more “art” in such “music” than there is in a can of artist’s shit. Those who claim they “appreciate” such things are either very suggestible, or are insiders on a joke.

In short, the first step for art is to convince other artists of its qualities. Jazz succeeded. Much modern serious Western music did not. The reason is that jazz built on (and innovated on) ideas of harmony that were not only time-tested, but physically sound. Modern music rejected those ideas.

And what of science? To discuss that adequately would more than double the length of this post, but I think the same general ideas apply: scientists who survive on taxpayer money need to be able to persuade, first, other scientists, and then, the general public, of the value of what they do. When a field of science is so esoteric that only a fraction of other scientists (even in the same broad discipline) are capable of understanding it, let alone appreciating its importance, then the task of justifying support should be correspondingly harder.

Leave a comment


  1. gaddeswarup

     /  January 21, 2011

    Thoughtful article. Though I enjoy music, I know very little about it but thought off and on about “But shouldn’t art, or science, that is funded by taxpayers, be somehow accountable to those taxpayers?”. In my own case, I felt that I was working something esoretic and moved to universities rom research institutes. I guess that in general ‘invisible hand’ possibly plays a role, and funding dries up for topics too far away from ‘proven’ criteria of usefulness. Meanwhile, for a while, some of the moribund topics survive if the establishment and funding agencies are not staffed by people in those desciplines. I have seen ‘set topology’ slowly shift to southern universities in USA and then slowly diminish. But in the 80’s it was found useful in the for dimensional Poincare conjecture and it is difficult to know which topic is not useful. But, as you say, dialogues with other scientists and public may help in outlining some guidelines and probably practicing popular science writing will help scientists in thinking about such problems.

    • Rahul Siddharthan

       /  January 21, 2011

      Swarup – thanks. As I said, I will leave the science discussion to a later post (maybe). But what you did — moving to a university — is certainly a good thing. I have not taken that step, but I moved from physics to biology and I like to think that what I do now is less esoteric.

      And I am certainly in favour of some funding for esoteric stuff in sciences and arts, but what’s the desirable proportion? The way it works now, the rich get richer — that is, once a set of scientists in a field establish themselves, they are able to secure more funding for that field, purely based on how many papers they have published in good journals (reviewed by their peers, of course): nobody considers whether what they do is interesting or relevant to the rest of science, or the rest of humanity. We all say we don’t want bureaucrats making funding decisions, and grant approvals are, in the best systems, made by scientists. But would it be a completely unreasonable idea to require scientists from other disciplines (as well as from the same discipline, of course) to examine each grant proposal?

      • gaddeswarup

         /  January 21, 2011

        I really do not much about funding procedures. In pure math. I did not need it while I was in India since travel was taken care of by the institutes or the inviting people. I did apply in Australia more because the dept. wanted us to apply and sometimes did not know how to spend the money (apart from travel for oneself and colloborators). It is of course different in areas other than pure mathematics. Generally both here and in USA (like NSF), I think that the funding is mainly done by scientists, not always in one’s speciality, but I am not too sure about this either.
        I do think that writing popular science articles is helpful (here blogs can be starting points. I have not been doing it because I have retired and mistakes have already been made). I think that teaching also helps. Carl Zimmer of The Loom has been off and on writing about popular science writing. He is a gifted writer but I am not sure how useful his advice is. Here are a couple of links
        In the next one also from ‘The Loom’, Julie Rehmeyer, whose writings I like, explains how she chooses the math. topics to write about
        Here is a piece I liked very much which explains the complexity and uncertainities of medical science which does not conform to Carl Zimmer’s advice:
        “The Itch” by Atul Gawande
        Some follow ups are in http://gawande.com/links
        But as you said, we can come back to the science part later.

  2. Excellent post. A few points I’d like to raise, perhaps each one unrelated to the other:

    1. The man was there for the express purpose of gathering in his audience to the ‘purpose’ (which I’ll leave unquestioned at the moment) of his music. If there were questions – as there would have been – he should have answered them in the spirit of furthering understanding and not showing how ignorant the audience was. Of course, it’s not clear that he thought the audience was ignorant; but there does seem to have been some arrogance in his answers, as if he was saying, ‘even if I explain you won’t understand, so take my word for it – popular stuff needn’t be good for you.’

    In other words, the failing is all his.

    2. I know less than nothing about music, so I usually can’t tell if something is music or not at the point that it gets conceptual. But it does seem to me that you’re tending towards cutting off definitions of what is ‘musical’ to about a 100 years ago. Now, I know it must be possible to argue for this stand, but I’m wondering if it’s equally possible to argue that though a radical shift has taken place, though few people understand it, this is also music because [insert theory and attempt to explain it.]

    3. Many artists abhor the idea of explaining their work. I think this is often counter-productive. Yes, to explain too much fixes only one interpretation – often, perhaps, not the best one – upon the work for all memorable time. But communication in some form or the other is essential, otherwise an artist would hardly make her work public.

    On the other hand, let’s also admit that people are often lazy, afraid and/or unpractised in the art of engaging with anything new and unfamiliar – whether it’s science, music or a piece of difficult writing.

    4. To get people to lose these attitudes towards the new and unfamiliar is surely one of the neglected [of the many other] areas of education.

    5. I’m a little wary of the accountability to the funder argument. Yes, it’s necessary to take everybody along in the enterprise, provided it is possible to continue with it despite a majority being offended by it, not convinced by it, ashamed of it, though it’s value cannot be discerned at the present moment, and though it appears to be useless.

    And this is because nobody has hindsight in the present and cannot predict what the usefulness of any art is, beyond the discussion and questioning it generates in the present.

    6. Funding decisions, like so much else, is political. Which is to say, not all discussions about art should be aesthetic ones.

    I wish you, KM et al would do a series of posts on music, theory, movements etc.

    • Rahul Siddharthan

       /  January 21, 2011

      SB – that’s a large number of points! Let me take them in order:

      1. Maybe I overstated his arrogance. His talk was not arrogant, just irrelevant to his title. His answers were not arrogant towards me or the audience: it is just the point of view that he expressed, that “ordinary people” don’t follow high art anyway, that I found arrogant. For example, he said nobody reads Joyce’s Ulysses, but it’s not a mistake; and the market for jazz is small, but jazz is important. (It was he who brought up jazz). I dispute both premises. Lots more people read Joyce, and listen to jazz, than listen to his kind of music. And jazz in particular is very accessible even to people who don’t listen to it regularly or spend money on it.

      2. I didn’t want to give that impression (the speaker got the same impression and I had to clarify). The divide I referred to wasn’t between the 19th and 20th centuries, but between different approaches to music in the 20th century. In my collection, among 20th century composers, I have and like Bartok, Stravinsky, Shostakovich (mentioned above); also Ravel, Mahler, Enescu, Copland, Gershwin, and probably others, the most recent being Mark O’Connor. And, of course, jazz is entirely 20th- and 21st-century. As for why the other stuff is not music: well, the theory for 12-tone music is there, but it doesn’t make sense. It is as if they are trying to draw abstract mathematical patterns in sound (and this is true of other modern music too). But while visual patterns can be pleasing with very few constraints, musical sounds do have constraints on how they can be overlaid: some intervals are consonant, some are dissonant, and this has been understood both by musicians and by scientists for centuries. If you reject that knowledge, you end up with music that is consistently dissonant, an assault on the ears without resolution.

      3. Yes, people should be receptive to explanations of new work — and people are. I’d guess that fewer people in the west listen to “modern” Western classical music than to Indian classical or “world” music. Some avant-garde “serious” musicians, like the Kronos Quartet (who commission a lot of work from modern composers), do pretty well too. So there are enough people who are receptive to new stuff — at some point one has to stop blaming the audience.

      4. Same as 3. We can always hope to introduce more people to new ideas (and I think Europe does very well at this: the event listing in Paris on any day is astonishingly diverse, and much of it is very well attended. There is a lot of government support, and in fact a lot of events are organised by the Paris city hall, but it is not being rammed down anyone’s throats: people voluntarily go and buy tickets to see them.)

      5. There should be flexibility and the ability to take risks — like Google’s 20% projects. 20% is a good number. But who’s quantifying?

      6. Funding decisions should be by peers, not politicians and bureaucrats — but not, I think, only by immediate peers. See my reply to Swarup above. So in the art context, an avant-garde musician shouldn’t be assessed only by other avant-garde musicians, but by established artists in other fields — mainstream classical musicians, dancers, poets, etc…

  3. Loved this post. [I’m reading Alex Ross (“Listen to This”) right now, so music history/ music criticism are very much on my mind.]

    I do believe all forms of art have certain immutable rules. But the question is, as always, who makes those rules? The challenge in trying to develop such a framework for evaluation is that it either becomes rigidly prescriptive or vague.

    at some point one has to stop blaming the audience.

    Either the music speaks to me or it doesn’t. Or maybe it’s the other way around? Maybe *we* bring something to the music?

    I’m sure we have all experienced huge and often inexplicable shifts in our listening tastes. For e.g., it took me only 2 minutes to fall in love with “Appassionata” but 10 years to really get into country music – this after spending a lifetime listening to folk, blues etc!

    • Rahul Siddharthan

       /  January 22, 2011

      km – thanks! I will expand on what I think are “immutable rules” of music in a later post. But I’m not sure all forms of art have such rules. At least, it’s not obvious to me.

  4. anon

     /  January 22, 2011

    Samuel Johnson says:

    “I rejoice to concur with the common reader; for by the common sense of readers uncorrupted with literary prejudices… must be finally decided all claims to poetical honours.”

    Maybe this is true for music too.

  5. gaddeswarup

     /  January 23, 2011

    “immutable rules”? I doubt it. Evolution must have had some effect.

  6. Rahul, gaddeswarup: it may seem pompous, but these immutable rules are what define every form of art. Without these boundary conditions, there is no form and therefore no art. Even concepts such as noise, dissonance, atonal music have their own rules.

    A simple rule of blues music is using the I-IV-V structure. Another rule found in almost all forms of western music is that descending chromatic line heard in so many styles of music ranging from Mozart to Beatles.

    So yes, evolution has immutable rules and so does music! If it has a form, it has rules.

  7. gaddeswarup

     /  January 23, 2011

    May be. I am out of my depth here and it was initial skepticism. If music provided some evolutionary adavantage, may be some rules of ‘good’ music can be discerned. In any case, I hope to learn through your and rahul’s comments.

  8. gaddeswarup

     /  January 23, 2011

    I just noticed that David Levitin’s “Your Brain on Music” is available online:
    I only read bits of it and do not know how good it is.

  9. Rahul Siddharthan

     /  January 24, 2011

    anon – great quote, thanks!
    km, swarup: The “immutable rules” I have in mind for music don’t originate in the brain, but in physics. I will expand on this soon. I can’t think of an analogy in other arts.

    km – I’m sure you know that a boogie can be played with just one chord. So the I-IV-V structure, and the 12 bars, etc, are not immutable rules of blues. Jazz musicians tend to throw in a lot of II-V-I’s in there. Meanwhile, both I-IV-V-I and II-V-I are widespread in other forms of Western music too — and the reason for that, I believe, is the “immutable rules” from physics. Of course composers go beyond those rules, which is good and necessary. Where I think they went wrong is in pretending that those rules simply don’t exist, and inventing their own. 12-tone/serial music may make interesting patterns on paper, but when played, it just conflicts with the physics of sound, and human brains can’t handle that — unless they have been thoroughly indoctrinated.

  10. Rahul: Precisely my point – each form has its own rules. The rules, in fact, are what constitute the form.

    When jazzmen throw in the VI chord or a V-9th, it changes the form and is no longer the same form as, say, pop music. For e.g., Steely Dan’s music uses those jazzy 9ths liberally and it often confuses pop guitarists. OTOH, many opera singers do not understand how to sing pop or rock: same seven notes, but they don’t understand the structure or the rules.

    I’d love to read about the “physics rules” of music. It’s always a fascinating read.

  11. avin

     /  January 25, 2011

    Let me qualify, atleast to some extent, the claim that ‘modern music’ is not listened to by the ‘general’ public.
    A huge amount of film music is hugely influenced by the 20th century ‘avant garde’ music. And when i say film music, i dont mean the film soundtracks to some esoteric european art movie or something.. I am talking about hollywood blockbuster releases that are watched by millions. SO yes, the public that sees those movies may not necessarily go out and buy a Schoenberg CD, but they have certainly ‘heard’ Schoenberg, even if they may not realise it.
    Play a CD of Schoenberg, or Webern to the average person off the street and they might not ‘get’ it. But that same person will be perfectly happy listening to the highly atonal music that accompanies a particularly tense, or suspenseful moment in a movie.
    Its the same with ‘art’ cinema itself. The ‘jump cut’ after all which is so overused in Hollywood now, was I think pioneered by Godard, a man whose films would be largely incomprehensible to most people (i certainly cant stand most of his films). ‘Jump cuts’, and a whole range of other film-making techniques were pioneered by ‘art’ cinema directors, who were hugely influenced by hollywood, and who, in turn hugely influenced hollywood right back. thats the way art often works – in indirect ways which are not to be sneezed at.
    the bigger issue is that you simply cannot segregate ‘modern’ music and popular music. both influence, and are hugely influenced by, each other often in very subtle ways. And both get enriched in the process.

    • Rahul Siddharthan

       /  January 25, 2011

      Avin – thanks for the comment. Of course atonality (or dissonance or chromaticity) can convey suspense and tension. And Schoenberg certainly didn’t invent that. Wagner got attacked widely for his unorthodox chords that gave unique colours and moods to his music. But what he did is recognisable as music to any lay listener. Actually, I’d think Wagner is a much bigger influence on film music than Schoenberg.

      What’s missing in atonal/serial music is resolution. I guess unremitting dissonance may be acceptable in a one-off piece, just to see what happens, but to found an entire school based on that idea is just insane. Using all twelve tones is not insane: Bach did that too. (In fact Bach was largely responsible for reducing Western music to “only” twelve tones: strictly speaking, B# is not C, but on a piano they are the same, and Bach promoted “equal temperament”, the careful mistuning of the piano that underlies all subsequent Western music.). Dave Brubeck used all twelve chord-roots in “The Duke” and it is one of his most successful and widely-covered compositions. But Bach, and Brubeck, and Wagner, and everyone else who achieved success with the public, knew how to resolve. For them, the music was the goal. (Well, ok, Wagner had loftier goals). All techiques were means, to be adopted judiciously, not elevated to ends in themselves.

      I’m willing to admit that there were useful ideas in these composers that were borrowed by musicians and film-makers. And I have certainly discovered new music through films. But you say “both (modern and popular music) influence, and are hugely influenced by, each other…” Was serial music influenced by any musical ideas from popular music? I know Debussy dabbled in ragtime, Bartok drew from folk music, and jazz influenced many early 20th-century composers. Those are the composers who produced music that the public actually listens to. But the serialists seem to be a world unto themselves. (They did dabble in popular techniques: electronica, prepared pianos, etc, but I don’t consider those musical influences.)

  12. avin

     /  January 25, 2011

    To make my point in a better way:
    Is avant garde music ‘good’ music? I have absolutely no idea.
    Is all modern music (jazz, pop, classical) better off because of Schoenberg? I dont think you can simply reject, out of hand, a ‘yes’ answer…

  13. chaprajilla

     /  January 25, 2011

    I think using a tone row to structure your piece is as valid/invalid as using the sonata form or a chord progression and is as relevant/irrelevant to producing good music.

    To my ears a “serial” piece like Berg’s violin concerto is full of melodic and harmonic riches — comparable to any tonal piece I’ve heard. I’ve seen the score and I suspect that the tone row had a strong generative effect on the coda, especially the writing for woodwinds.

    Lutoslawski’s later output (post 70s) is another example of serial music that works for me. I’ve heard Boulez conduct some of his chamber pieces live and found them to be truly inspirational. So I don’t agree that serialism was a dead end, though it is probably true that it has spawned a large community of composeurs :)

    • Rahul Siddharthan

       /  January 26, 2011

      chaprajilla – well, let us admit that some serial music may be very good. I’d be rash to claim otherwise, since I haven’t heard every serial music out there. Now, is it possible that it is good not because of the tone row used to construct it, but because of Berg’s or Lutoslawski’s musical talents that shone through despite the overlaid ideology?

      Worse, is it possible that the inevitable mounds of unlistenable serial music has so turned off several generations of listeners that even the occasional and deserving gems by serial composers are overlooked?

      • chaprajilla

         /  January 26, 2011

        “…musical talents that shone through despite the overlaid ideology?”

        Could be true. But in the Berg example I mentioned I don’t think it is. It is difficult to explain the wind parts in terms of contrapuntal movement like one could explain the harmonic writing of Wagner or even Debussy. That is the reason I strongly suspect that the tone row and the ideology played a role in the brilliant harmonies in the coda, similar to the way soloing over an unusual chord progression might open up one’s mind to new melodic possibilities.

        I think in the end it is not about the rules/processes — by following tonal rules/raga bhava/serialism etc people can and do produce a lot of dreck. Good music ultimately rests on the the ears of the composer and what processes she finds generative.

      • chaprajilla

         /  January 27, 2011

        “…occasional and deserving gems by serial composers are overlooked?”

        I agree, this is possible because of the almost systemic obsession with serial methods in contemporary music. But I don’t think it is a serious concern — the volume of modern music that actually makes it to performance is dwarfed by the volumes of spam produced by baroque composers, and the last few centuries have, on the whole, filtered it out just fine :)

        • Rahul Siddharthan

           /  January 27, 2011

          Well, good point about the Baroque composers. Bach is quite consistently good, Handel somewhat less so. Scarlatti (fils) is quirky enough to be interesting even today. Vivaldi — if you’ve heard the Four Seasons, you’ve heard it all. The rest are rather forgettable. If it weren’t for Bach and Handel, Baroque music wouldn’t be played much more often than medieval/Renaissance music.

          The same can be said of the “classical” era — take away Mozart and Haydn, and what’s left? (Beethoven, to me, is more “romantic” than “classical”.)

          So, who’s the Bach or Mozart of serial composers? One or two outstanding pieces by Berg or whoever won’t really be enough, in my opinion: it has to be a body of work that appeals to the public. Bach was forgotten by the public for a few decades, mainly because polyphony became unfashionable in the “classical” era; but he remained highly respected by composers (including Mozart and Beethoven), and was then revived in the public eye by Mendelssohn. Since then, for nearly 200 years now, he’s been worshipped — people from Jethro Tull to Ilaiyaraja have borrowed from him. Is any serial composer likely to have such a reappraisal in the future? Perhaps it is impossible for us to say.

          But the decline of Baroque was because it sounded too boring and old-fashioned — I don’t think a parallel can be drawn with serial music.

  14. V. Balakrishnan

     /  January 26, 2011

    Very nice and post, Rahul. Much food for thought. In lighter vein—as a total
    ignoramus when it comes to art, music (and all the finer things of that sort…),
    I often joke that my very ignorance helps me identify without ambiguity what
    I like and what I don’t, when I see it or hear it! In this sense I’m perhaps a
    representative of that vague but undoubtedly large group often called the “lay
    public”. As for art (painting), my primitive mind recognises just three categories:
    (i) Art with a capital A (i.e., I like it), (ii) art for the Mart (commercial art), and
    (iii) art with a capital F (much of Modern Art). No doubt I’d be pilloried if I
    didn’t start by admitting my pathetic ignorance of the subject.

    Regarding the funding for science (and for other areas of knowledge and scholarship), it’s a complex story (as all of us know), but I have a brief observation to make that applies to funding for the individual (as opposed to equipment, etc.), in the sense of providing a livelihood for scholars. In olden times when scholars were few in number, they were patronised by kings and emperors and such, i.e., by those with temporal power, for a variety of reasons (including soothsaying, prestige, etc.) The other big supporter (with definote vested interests) was the church, through monasteries and similar institutions. Subsequently, the teaching model arose and grew in size to evolve into modern colleges and universities. It is only in relatively recent times that the idea of “pure research” institutions funded by public money has gained ground. It seems to me that in India this has been pushed to an extreme, rather, to the detriment of both the research institutes and the universities. If the natural connection between teaching and research is restored systematically, much of the hand-wringing, looking for justification for the money spent, devising ingenious raisons d’etre, deploring falling standards, etc. would be obviated. In the absence of this connection, we do have this sorry spectacle of one side trying to do its bit for the nation with purely sporadic forays into the hinterland to bring enlightenment to the awestruck locals, while the other is content to sit back under the pretext that it has earned its bread and butter by regular teaching, so nothing more needs to be done.

    • Rahul Siddharthan

       /  January 27, 2011

      Bala – yes, “art with a capital F” describes it well. About the hand-wringing, I’m not sure it is confined to India though it is certainly worse here for the reasons you describe. I find much to agree with in this recent article in The Economist, that suggests that we (worldwide) are producing too many Ph.D.’s and it is beginning to look like a pyramid or Ponzi scheme. In India, even our graduates are largely unemployable. If the government is serious about starting new “world-class” universities, our PhDs will continue to be employable for a while and hopefully the quality of our undergraduates will improve, so the money will be justified — until we reach first-world standards, when we can start worrying about research and PhDs again :)

      • V. Balakrishnan

         /  January 30, 2011

        You say: ‘If the government is serious about starting new “world-class” universities, our PhDs will continue to be employable for a while and hopefully the quality of our undergraduates will improve…’

        Sounds good at first sight, Rahul, but it’s precisely because of the very existence of a phase-separated binary system of ‘research institutes’ and ‘teaching institutions’, that talented young persons overwhelmingly prefer the former, thereby perpetuating the status quo. A position in the latter is regarded in this milieu as a fairly direct indicator of being certified not-quite-first-rate in many quarters, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy—especially because it is exacerbated by the covert, basically mala fide and unabashedly partisan manner in which awards and recognition are decided upon by small cliques in this most feudal of societies. So *that* problem, too, gets inextricably linked with the original problem of research versus teaching institutions. Maybe your suggestion made elsewhere to wind up all the academies would be a good first step. It would at any rate be a more benevolent first step than the “let’s nuke the place and start all over again” gut reaction that one has when one sees the mix of servility, cronyism, hypocrisy, arrogance and totalitarianism that comprises present-day science politics in this country.

  15. About the particular talk: I was attending the same talk, hoping to learn something about the art of composing music, part of the “lay public” as I am. And I was disappointed too. After you left, I had asked the guy if there were any universal standards (or guiding principles) as to how one goes about composing music and whether such principles can be used to distinguish music from non-music in an objective sort of way (even i wasn’t sure if what he was playing – esp the electronic “music” – qualified as music). It didn’t sound too pleasant to my ears. And to me, as I suppose to anyone in the “lay public”, music is fairly distinguishable from noise. And that was a sentiment shared by a number of people around me. Indeed, I voiced that sentiment when I asked him where the fine line between “polyphony” and “cacophony” is, citing my primitive sense of music as an excuse for the irreverence.
    No satisfactory answer, other than something on the lines of “obscure music”=”good music”.

    About the Teaching (Universities) vs. Research (Institutes) debate: As a student I have noticed that divide between research and teaching in the Universities. The best Universities in the world produce the best research too, and sadly, that isn’t quite the case in India. Here, centers of excellence in research are usually highly specialized places where a small bunch of experts, funded generously, do high-end research, and some teaching if there’s an active graduate programme. However, the undergraduate teaching is left to the Universities and is largely devoid of a research component unless one is lucky enough to have teachers who are also active researchers.

    On a different note, we have a very unidimensional academic structure. There are hardly any places that offer a broad enough education in the Arts and the Sciences under the same roof. There clear divisions between “Science and Engineering” colleges and the “Liberal Arts and Commerce” colleges. To have a well-rounded education (esp in one’s undergraduate years) is quite important if one is to have a sense of science and society and their interrelationship and especially one’s responsibility (as a scientist) towards the society that funds your science.

  16. Tom

     /  June 26, 2012

    I generally agree with what you say. I am a semi-professional musician (it is hard for those that are not world-class to make a good living as full time performers!) but I cannot agree with some of your comments about science. THe point with pure research is that it is very difficult tom predict in advance which esoteric are of research will lead to useful technologies in the future.


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