From Bach to Born: A philosophy of music

Recently I’ve been writing about music. The study of music from a philosophical perspective is often ridiculed, as it is traced to the work of critical theorist Theodor Adorno, who preferred Bach and Beethoven to Mozart and jazz music (preferring not to comment on the decrepit condition of popular music). Adorno played the piano, but he was not a notable composer in the last century, and his works are mainly of interest to musicians from a purely theoretical perspective. This, of course, is true of some great pianists, such as Glenn Gould, whose technical reworking of J. S. Bach’s piano pieces is often ridiculed when compared with the balance between technical precision and artistic passion in the acclaimed playing of András Schiff. The philosophy of music is distinct from its performance, and both philosophy and technique are distinct from the art of composition, which requires an application of concepts to the physical waveforms of sounds emanating from instruments as they are played.

J. S. Bach, foremost composer of the baroque period.

But even composers struggle to balance art, on the one hand, and technique, on the other hand. I have previously argued that art reflects Plato’s idea of ‘the good’, while technique reflects Hobbes’s idea of ‘power’. Technique is all ‘is’; art, all ‘ought’ — at least, roughly speaking. Technique is the physical side of music. Art is the conceptual side. Technique is closer to physics; art, to poetry. Music itself, then, is close to politics — between Aristotelian physics and Platonic philosophy.

But enough of the ideas. What of their application? The first composer of the ‘classical’ era, J. S. Bach, is, on first glance, a technician, who devised a harmonic system that prevails to this day. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is better known for simplifying Bach’s technique early in his wunderkind career to allow room for the artistry of Requiem in the 1790s. Ludwig Van Beethoven went further, developing art to such a level that it spilled over into romanticism, which eventually killed classical music and led to the modern era of music, beginning with jazz.

Miles Davis is like J. S. Bach. His jazz music is elaborate and sophisticated, technically refined and beautifully sounding. But it does not involve the same passion as the hip hop music of Kanye West, whose film Runaway (based on the groundbreaking album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy) opens with Mozart’s Requiem. Since then, aptly, pop music has become increasingly romantic, with song after song pining after lost love as the romantics of the nineteenth century did.

In between jazz and hip hop was the era of rock music, recently echoed by pop artists Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell on Happier Than Ever, a startlingly original turn towards a modern balance between art and technique, as Mozart once tried. It is neither as artistic as My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, nor as technical as Kind of Blue. It is beautiful in its own way, but not that beautiful. It is neither powerful nor good. It is balanced. Like Mozart’s early and middle works; the prelude to Requiem. The sadness running through the O’Connells’ music does, however, echo Mozart’s later artistry, and therefore puts them squarely in the middle of our spectrum — between Miles Davis and Kanye West.

But after jazz music reached its technical pinnacle, it developed into an art form with soul music, as transmitted by Michael Jackson’s Thriller, a collaboration with producer Quincy Jones, whose protegé Jacob Collier is taking the music world by storm with the startlingly exciting, highly produced, and, in his own words, ‘complex and ambitious’ Djesse album cycle and ongoing world tour. He is, perhaps, the greatest musical technician of our time.

If Kanye West is the greatest musical artist of this century, the O’Connells are the greatest balancers of our time (with brother Finneas O’Connell specialising in technical production, and sister Billie Eilish specialising in artistic vocals — much like the Quincy Jones / Michael Jackson collaboration). We have technique, artistry, and balance all around us. What we lack is a synthesis of all three.

Technique can be learned. It can be acquired, through experience. Art is more innate. It emanates from deep wells of reason and passion, below the surface electricity. Kanye was always an artist, but learned to produce songs — and is perhaps the most technically gifted producer of our time.

If we can learn harmony from Miles Davis, production from Kanye West and Finneas O’Connell, and singing from Nina Simone and Billie Eilish, while the classical composers provide a masterclass in composition, Jacob Collier provides a theoretical backbone to this practical architecture.

What is left? We need a new Bach — a new foundation, and a real one — to reunite the timber of technical perfection with the spark of artistic inspiration, into a new whole. And the rest will follow.

Shall we begin?

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