When in doubt, try gospel: the virtues of interpretation


I am a big fan of Susan Sontag’s essay “Against Interpretation,” and I’ve written pieces espousing similar positions in the past (e.g. On the other hand, I’m also a big fan of interpretation – contradiction is the spice of life (What? That isn’t how that saying goes? Whatever, smarty pants.).

I’m a scientist, an atheist and a lover of gospel music (amongst other things). The constant bickering between “science” and “religion” (as if either of those things is a single entity) that pollutes so many information streams today (Ack! Memetic warfare!) is often boring at best. “Religion” has indeed been associated with its share of atrocities (not quite as many as “humans”) throughout cultural history, but it has also been associated with much of lasting value. If you can’t see the “good” in something because you’re blinded by the “bad”, here’s an easy 4-step process:

  1. Read the Wiki entry on the “nirvana fallacy” –
  2. Have an icy cold shower.
  3. Read Alan Watts’ The Book.
  4. Have a piping hot shower.

Will that help? No idea, but it probably won’t do you any harm (be sure to get warm before you start step 3).

Anyway, I dig gospel. Gospel and the blues are very closely related, so closely related that the song I’m about to discuss can be found on compilations of music from either genre. Whether you’re religious or an atheist, unless you’re an idiot (no offence, idiots!), then you’ll probably agree that the “African American” originators of these musics were having a seriously rough time, and perhaps that the music was a “coping mechanism” – a way to focus on something other than how incomprehensibly awful the way one group of humans treats another can be.

I know what you’re thinking (I can see the future, too) – “how does this relate to you, atheist middle class white boy of 2016!?” Well, hush for a second and I’ll tell you. On the surface, gospel songs might appear to be about God, but really (like most songs), they’re about the “human experience”. Check out these lyrics:

“I said no, don’t worry,

no, please don’t worry,

no, don’t worry,

see what the Lord has done.

Just keep your lamp all trimmed and burning,

keep your lamp trimmed and burning,

keep your lamp all trimmed and burning,

see what the Lord has done.”

What on Earth was Blind Willie Johnson (in my chosen version of the song) on about? Well, you’d have to ask him (good luck), but for me “keep your lamp trimmed and burning” means “pay attention”. A lamp is like a torch (, it’s a piece of technology designed to augment our senses, to help us see in the dark. He’s saying keep your eyes open, keep your senses sharp (trim that lamp, in case it burns itself out) and keep your awareness projecting outward. The “dark” could be the confusion we all experience sometimes in everyday life, in which our attention is constantly attracted by the “wrong” things; the “lamp” is your awareness, or a thinking tool that augments it, something that can help you see through the BS and focus on how absolutely glorious the world really is (“see what the Lord* has done”), despite everything.

OK, so maybe you think my middle class white boy interpretation is facile. That’s fine. It’s always up to us to choose which things to pay attention to and which things to ignore (and what a “superpower” that truly is). Regardless, it’s nothing more or less than my interpretation, anyway. For the good stuff, proceed directly to the source:


* “see what evolution has done” had too many syllables, I guess.



The sacredness of objects



For a variety of reasons, catharsis prominent among them, I will be posting a lot of guitar clips on my blog and FB in the near future. As some of my friends know I lost several guitars recently, an experience which hurt. Beloved musical instruments, through which one has experienced many hours of lucidity, are very personal objects. Perhaps, for atheist musicians like myself, they are the equivalent of sacred objects of ritual through which believers find communion with their deity of choice. Perhaps they are not the “equivalent” at all.

Anyway, part of moving on is remembering the good times, to which end I’ll be posting some old recordings made with lost friends. The other part of moving on is celebrating the present and looking forward to the future, so I’ll also be posting some more recent noodlings. Enjoy my lo-fi babies….or ignore, denigrate or ridicule them if you prefer – catharsis is achieved in the act of giving birth 😉

This is the second last piece of music I ever recorded on the guitar that was most dear to me. It’s essentially a free improvisation, so it’s semi-abstract, but for me that’s its charm:


Hominids and ursids (aka “Not so fast!”)

I’m a bit obsessed with music. Anyone who knows me knows this. Strangely though (at least it’s strange to me), a lot of people seem to think I’m primarily obsessed with just one kind of music. People say things like “I know you’re mostly a classical guy, but…”; “You’re a jazz snob, but…”; “It’s not prog, like what you usually listen to, but…”; “You really only like virtuoso musicians…”; “You just have a prejudice against electronic music…”. Actually, I like all these things (including electronic music) and much else besides. Or, more accurately, there’s a “me” that likes each of them. Like everybody, I experience myriad different states of consciousness – some types of music “match” some of them, other types match others.

One kind of music I really like is “folky singer songwriter stuff”. This isn’t really a genre (what’s a genre?), but in my mind it includes artists like Bert Jansch, Roy Harper, Karen Dalton, Nick Drake, Bill Fay, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Iron & Wine, Fleet Foxes, Jack Carty (check him out! and many others. The other day, someone gave me the Boy & Bear album “Harlequin Dream”. Just now, I listened to the track “A Moment’s Grace”. Wow. It blew me away and made me happy to be alive in a world full of so much beauty. Why am I telling you this? Because it’s not the first time I’ve heard Boy & Bear. They’re pretty famous here in Australia. I don’t really keep up with current music (I’m generally too busy exploring the art form’s history), but even I’ve been exposed to them before. The thing is, last time their music didn’t do anything for me. The “me” who heard it then wasn’t the “me” who listened to it today.

I don’t trust my initial reaction to a piece of art unless it’s positive. An artwork is an experience catalyst and any one piece of art has the potential to catalyse a wide range of experiences – different ones in different people, but also different ones in the same person at different moments. All of these experiences have a legitimacy that is absolute, but that doesn’t extend beyond the experience itself. I don’t mean to get all philosophical on you, but what I mean is that if you have a good experience listening to/looking at/reading a piece of art, nothing anyone else says about that piece of art can change the fact that it catalysed a good experience for you. If somebody makes fun of you for liking a piece of music, that just means they haven’t had the same experience as you (or they think they’ve “grown out of it”) and that they think their experience trumps yours. They’re wrong. The legitimacy of your experience is unassailable. Its legitimacy is limited to itself, however. What that means is that if a piece of art fails to catalyse a good experience for you, or catalyses a bad one, this doesn’t necessarily mean anything intrinsic about the artwork itself. It doesn’t mean the art isn’t “good”, it just means it didn’t work for you this time. Try it again at some other time (or don’t, just don’t imagine that you’ve “understood” the work and found it wanting).

The principle of the unassailable, but bounded, legitimacy of experience applies to all of our experiences, not just the art-related ones. Fundamentally, our experiences can’t tell us directly about anything except themselves. This is a disconcerting fact and I’m going to avoid wading off into the philosophical deep end by getting back to the point…

Not so fast! Don’t be so quick to judge – what bores you today might enthral you tomorrow. The incredible diversity of possible experiences available to us is what makes our lives potentially so rich. Don’t be so hasty to give it up.



In praise of doing.


In art, as in life, the doing is everything. Well maybe not everything, but why sacrifice the strength of an aphorism for mere accuracy? Besides, without the doing there is nothing to hear, watch, look at or read, and certainly nothing to criticise.

Before the doing comes the dreaming. Dreaming is vitally important – it’s hard to imagine an artist that doesn’t dream and fantasise about making art! Dreams are not only important; they are real. Crucially, however, they are only real to the dreamer. In the jargon of metaphysics, dreams only have “first person ontology”. Now, as anyone who’s ever tried it knows, making one’s dreams real for other people, giving them a third person ontology, can be really hard work. Sometimes it’s impossible. Giving artistic fantasies third person ontology requires not only technical skill; it requires willpower. Willpower is actually far more important than technical skill. The world is full of talented people with incredible artistic fantasies and the world is full of people with great technical skill. What distinguishes the “real” artists from all the rest is willpower – the willpower to take something that begins as a dream, as a mere idea, through the stages of conceptualisation, planning and execution required to give it a life in the big wide third person world.

Everyone’s a critic. There’s a truism for you, and it is true. We all love to criticise. It’s common to hear people say “I could have done that” when considering a piece of art (be it visual, musical etc.). Of course the full sentence should be “I could have done that if I’d been willing to put in the time and effort required.”….but no one bothers with the second half. It’s a mistake to compare our first person fantasies with someone else’s completed artworks. It’s apples and oranges.

Criticism is the act of drawing comparison, of comparing one work to another. Art is not a competition (the truisms are flying thick and fast now); so do we really need criticism? Ideally, each piece of art we encounter should be considered in isolation; judged on its own terms. In practice, however, this can be tricky. Works of art are always in competition for our time – why listen to this, when I could be listening to that? Unfortunately the industrialisation of art has created an additional kind of competition – for our money. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the music industry, but it’s the same for books and films and also visual art to a lesser extent. There are even entire art forms that seem to have lost out in the competition for our dollars – for example it’s almost impossible to make a living these days as a poet.

In some senses criticism is a misguided process from the get go, but it might be a necessary evil. In a world in which we are constantly bombarded by art, criticism plays a role in giving us an idea about where to spend our limited amounts of time and money. This is important, but it is a tool that must be used appropriately. The role of a critic should not be to tell us what to like, rather it should be to tell us where to look for things we might like. We can make up our own minds about the rest.

If we concede that critics are necessary, who should be one and how should they operate? Firstly, as already noted, everyone is a critic. This is not entirely illegitimate because the first thing to note is that criticism is just a matter of opinion. It’s a form of “word of mouth”; so “everyone is entitled to an opinion” (truism number three). It’s obvious (if slightly controversial), however, that not all opinions are created equal. There are any number of variables that can affect the value of a critic’s opinion to us, including the knowledge base of the critic about the art form in question and the critic’s level of awareness of our own tastes (our friends probably know more about what we might like than some professional critic who doesn’t know us from Adam). Perhaps the single most important criterion for effective criticism is receptivity. This is to do with how the would-be critic approaches the artwork in question. This is where things get really tricky, because to be truly receptive one has to banish all thoughts of criticism from one’s mind. “Honest” art is created for “ideal audiences” (I just made that truism up on the spot). Ideal audiences give a work their full attention and consider it on its own merits. Contextualisation can occur after the fact, but if you’re composing your critical analysis in your head during your initial exposure to an artwork then you’re not being receptive. Obviously this is tough. It’s a “big ask”. It’s not easy to be an ideal audience member. It’s not easy to “really” listen, watch or contemplate. You have to make yourself open, vulnerable – it’s a form of meditation. This may seem harsh, but if you haven’t tried to be an ideal audience member then your opinion isn’t going to be worth much as a critic.


(Igor Stravinsky on the subject of listening – “To hear has no merit. A duck hears also.”)

One might imagine that artists, “doers” themselves, would make the best critics. In practice this often seems not to be the case. Artists often (subconsciously perhaps) make the cardinal error of seeing other artists as competitors and this severely compromises their ability to be an ideal audience member. Stravinsky apparently didn’t take his own advice about listening (admittedly he never said to listen impartially, but I’m not sure there’s any other kind of listening) and a book could be filled with the silly things he said about other composers. It’s telling that he rescinded many of these statements in his later years, often after the other composers had died (cf. statements about Arnold Schoenberg and Bela Bartok) and there was no longer any question of “competition”. Great artists have a unique insight into the artistic process of course, and so their opinions do have a certain validity. If an artist you respect praises the work of another artist then it’s probably worth checking it out. Just because an artist you respect denigrates the work of another artist, however, doesn’t mean you should expect it to be devoid of value.

Is it possible to be an ideal audience member all the time? Probably not. At any rate it’s exceedingly difficult. What this means is that we shouldn’t be in such a rush to form an opinion about a work of art. Sometimes we need to give it time to sink in. We need to be sure we are making the requisite effort to appreciate the work on its own terms and we need to be ready to fault our own appreciation before faulting the work. All this may seem like a waste of time and effort. With so much art available, many of us demand art that doesn’t make us work to understand it. We often seem to want art that grabs us immediately and forces us to appreciate it, not art that makes counter-demands of its audience. This is our prerogative. In my own experience, however, the rewards of learning to appreciate demanding artworks often dramatically outweigh the effort required in doing so.

The truth is that everyone is qualified to be a critic but no one is really qualified to be a critic. The point of this article is that we should generally criticise less and celebrate more. Sure, we have our opinions, we like some things and we don’t like others, but before we make decisions and shout our verdicts from the rooftops we should always pause to first celebrate the achievement that giving a dream third person ontology represents. We should have respect for that act of will. We should try to see the work for what it is; there will be plenty of time for contextualisation after-the-fact. I myself am a naturally critical person, but my first impressions have been wrong so many times in the past; often because I failed to live up to my “responsibilities” as an audience member. These days I’m trying to be less critical and more celebratory and I believe we can all benefit from taking that approach.

I think it would be appropriate to finish this article by celebrating a couple of doers:

The first is my wife, Genevieve – the untitled painting in the article above is by her and (perhaps – the interpretation is mine) depicts the struggle of giving a dream a third person existence…..a process a little bit like dissecting one’s own soul. Gen is a serious artist and a real inspiration to me; she has an exhibition of her paintings (“lighter” works like the one that features in my header) in a gallery in Brisbane, Australia next month.

The second is a friend of mine – Jack Carty. Jack is a singer-songwriter and has just released his third album, Esk. It is a collection of wonderful songs and it’s not at all “demanding” – it’s just damn good. Jack is an independent artist and works without the backing of a label, so the amount of willpower he exhibits in churning out album after album of quality music is truly inspiring. Here’s a link to his website so you can check him out:

Howard Goodall’s “The Story of Music” and the Second Viennese School


I recently read Howard Goodall‘s The Story of Music, a populist account of the history of Western music. Overall it was a good read and I would recommend it to anyone interested in the subject matter, however, there were some fairly serious issues present in the discussion of 20th century art music contained within.

Goodall is generally not fond of the music of Arnold Schoenberg. This is of course the author’s prerogative, but does not excuse the inclusion of major factual errors in the text. In his cursory discussion of the aforementioned Viennese composer, Goodall states, “when Schoenberg chose not to obey his own serial strictures he was capable of producing works like the beautiful and haunting Verklarte Nacht”. The problem with this statement is that the string sextet Verklarte Nacht was composed in 1899, some 20 years before Schoenberg began his experiments with “serial strictures”.

Arnold Schoenberg was a self-taught musician who went on to become one of the most influential composers and teachers of composition of the first half of the 20th century. He began his career in the closing years of the 19th century, composing in a late Romantic style inspired by the music of Wagner, Mahler and Richard Strauss; a style in which he continued to compose during the first years of the 20th century. Verklarte Nacht belongs to this period along with works such as his beautiful Six Songs, op. 8, the tone poem Pelleas und Melisande, which included the first ever notated trombone glissandi, and the epic cantata Gurre-Lieder, initially completed in 1900, orchestrated in 1911, and premiered to great public acclaim in 1913.

Some years before the cantata’s premiere, Schoenberg had begun composing works in a new style; entering what came to be known as his “freely atonal” or (borrowing the name from the contemporaneous movement in visual art) “Expressionist” period. “Atonal” refers to music without an obvious or functional key centre, and composition of this kind first appears in Schoenberg’s music of 1908 and 1909, in pieces such as String Quartet No. 2, op. 10 and Three Piano Pieces, op. 11. During this period, lacking the scaffolding of functional harmony on which to structure his works, Schoenberg often relied on texts to provide form. His most famous and influential works from this period are therefore vocal pieces such as the “monodrama” Erwartung (op. 17), for soprano and orchestra, and the nightmare pantomime Pierrot Lunaire (op. 21), for a quintet of multi-instrumentalists and a soprano half-speaking, half-singing (“sprechstimme”) the words of Belgian poet Albert Giraud.

In his expressionist period Schoenberg composed without a safety net, guided only by the form of the text and his musical intuition. He himself was uncomfortable with the fact that his music had become unanalysable; he maintained that it did follow a form of logic, but that he himself did not know what it was. His increasing discomfort with this compositional method and his desire to break from his reliance on the setting of texts, led him to the technical innovations that shape his third stylistic period: the “Serial” period. The codification of the “rules” of serial composition is probably what Schoenberg is most famous (or notorious) for today. Briefly, in a serial (or “twelve tone”) work the composer begins with a “tone row” containing all 12 notes available in the tempered pitch set of Western music. This tone row is then treated as the thematic basis for the composition, with the simple rule that its order be maintained from start to finish and that no notes be repeated until all 12 have been sounded. The composer may treat the tone row in a variety of different ways (forwards, backwards, upside down etc), deriving both the harmonic and melodic content of the piece from its order. Schoenberg began to apply this new system in Five Piano Pieces, op. 23, composed between 1920 and 1923 and his first completely serial work is the Suite for Piano, op. 25, also completed in 1923.

That is the basic background on Arnold Schoenberg, but why have I gone to all this trouble merely to point out that Goodall made the mistake of stating that Schoenberg ignored the rules of serialism when composing Verklarte Nacht? Am I really that much of a pedant? Not quite (almost). The reason I think this is important is because I believe the factual error to be symptomatic of a prejudice against Schoenbergian and post-Schoenbergian music that infects much populist writing on the subject and that ultimately distorts Goodall’s representation of art music in the 20th century. I’m fairly confident that Goodall is aware (on some level) of the fact that Verklarte Nacht is an early, non-serial, composition, but, either consciously or unconsciously, he conveniently overlooks this fact in order to strengthen the point he wishes to make, which is that serial music is essentially “unlistenable”. If it is a conscious distortion of facts in order to support the point, this is of course unacceptable. If, however, the distortion is unconscious, this is a manifestation of something I refer to as “lazy brain syndrome”, in which a strongly held notion distorts the recollection of facts regarding a certain subject, restructuring the facts such that they support the (independently formed) conclusion. This is unfortunately a syndrome that frequently rears its head both inside and outside the academic world. The “brain” is referred to as “lazy” because rather than reviewing the facts it goes straight for the conclusion and then, knowing they had previously been reviewed in the formation of the conclusion, assumes the facts to be in accord with it.

Along with Schoenberg, Goodall gives the short shrift to Schoenberg’s two most famous students, Alban Berg and Anton Webern, who, together with their teacher, make up the “Second Viennese School”. Berg he mentions only once, in a list of composers influenced by Gustav Mahler, and Webern he doesn’t see fit to mention at all. Berg was a major composer during his lifetime; he was revered by other composers and achieved considerable popular acclaim with his opera Wozzeck. There is, however, limited space in any popular history of music and it is inevitable that many important composers must be overlooked. Leaving Webern out entirely, however, is a much larger oversight in consideration of the fact that he is widely considered to be the single most influential composer on post-World War II avant-garde art music; music Goodall claims it “requires a Ph.D. to understand.”

It is entirely fair enough if Goodall does not enjoy the music of the Second Viennese School. However, I believe it is important that the personal prejudices of an author and do not cause him to commit errors of fact such as that described above, or to overlook important areas in the history of his subject. Goodall laments the divide between music’s avant-garde and the popular listening public in the 20th century. This divide is indeed lamentable and there are many reasons why it exists, not the least of which is the persistence of certain music critics and historians in portraying the music of the avant-garde as essentially cold and lacking in expression. In the case of Schoenberg and Webern, the expression contained within the music is in fact so deep and personal as to be alienating at first – this is quite different from there being no expression contained within the music whatsoever. Goodall seems to have conflated these earlier composers with members of the post-World War II avant-garde such as Pierre Boulez who explicitly stated that the technical aspects of music were its most important attributes and declared (as reported by Goodall) that composers not working in the new language of “total serialism” were “useless”. Although the innovations of Schoenberg and Webern inspired Boulez and may have led to the primacy of technique over aesthetic in (some of) the latter’s work, they themselves would not have sympathised with the attitude of their musical descendant.

During his freely atonal period Schoenberg may be thought of as one of the most intuitive composers in all of music history. Essentially, he is directly transcribing the musical improvisations of his mind, with nothing but his aesthetic sense to guide him. This music has much in common with the “free jazz” of 50 years later, and should not be misrepresented as completely formal or technical music. Indeed the music of Johann Sebastian Bach is far more “formal” and “technical”, but we rarely feel the need to point this out because it is also far “easier to listen to”. In order to break down the divide between the musical avant-garde and the general public, it is important that music writers provide a balanced assessment of the music, including its place in history and the motivations of its composers, rather than simply declaring it “unlistenable” because the commentators themselves do not enjoy listening to it.

Wet weekend gesamtkunstwerk


Last weekend was (like today, as it happens) cold wet and miserable. In an effort to keep the rainy day blues at bay, my wife and I decided to indulge in an impromptu improvisation uniting the visual arts, music and poetry.

It sounds a lot more high-minded than it was, actually it was just a bit of light-hearted fun – I recorded a guitar improvisation which I then immediately overdubbed with a second improvised part, creating a dense piece of “free polyphony”. I then recorded myself (using my iPhone, which, along with the rain, accounts for the fact that it sounds like I was underwater at the time) intoning Baudelaire’s The Metamorphoses of the Vampire over the top of the guitar piece whilst my wife Genevieve hastily sketched and then highlighted (in watercolour) a portrait of the poet inspired by the poem.

The reading is perhaps a bit more funereal than necessary, but I think it rather fits with the tone of the poem as well as the atmosphere created by the music. Feel free to disagree!

Here’s a link to the audio, the portrait at is at the top of the post: