Monday, October 01, 2012

What the hell kind of music does Richard Halley write, anyway?

Last week I read Atlas Shrugged, and I have so, so many things to say (or rather "scream" as EVERYONE IN THE BOOK DOES, CONSTANTLY) about so, so many things, but as a composer, I wanted to point this one out in particular.

There is, remarkably, a composer woven into the narrative named Richard Halley. Although we don't know the exact nature of his music, it is evidently so wonderful and heroic that a mere melody written by him, whistled by a stranger completely without context, transports hero industrialists into ecstasies of delight that cause them to extrapolate an entire orchestration in their imagination. No, really, that happens.

Later, we get to meet Richard Halley, who has withdrawn completely from the world and is hiding out in Galt's Gulch, much to the delight of fangirl Dagny. He furnishes her and us with an explanation for his disappearance (see below for TL;DR, because omg writing):
"I would have forgiven men for my struggle," said Richard Halley. "It was their view of my success that I could not forgive. I had felt no hatred in all the years when they rejected me. If my work was new, I had to give them time to learn, if I took pride in being first to break a trail to a height of my own, I had no right to complain if others were slow to follow. That was what I had told myself through all those years —except on some nights, when I could neither wait nor believe any longer, when I cried 'why?' but found no answer. Then, on the night when they chose to cheer me, I stood before them on the stage of a theater, thinking that this was the moment I had struggled to reach, wishing to feel it, but feeling nothing. I was seeing all the other nights behind me, hearing the 'why?' which still had no answer—and their cheers seemed as empty as their snubs. If they had said, 'Sorry to be so late, thank you for waiting'—I would have asked for nothing else and they could have had anything I had to give them. But what I saw in their faces, and in the way they spoke when they crowded to praise me, was the thing I had heard being preached to artists—only I had never believed that anyone human could mean it. They seemed to say that they owed me nothing, that their deafness had provided me with a moral goal, that it had been my duty to struggle, to suffer, to bear—for their sake—whatever sneers, contempt, injustice, torture they chose to inflict upon me, to bear it in order to teach them to enjoy my work, that this was their rightful due and my proper purpose. And then I understood the nature of the looter-in-spirit, a thing I had never been able to conceive. I saw them reaching into my soul, just as they reach into Mulligan's pocket, reaching to expropriate the value of my person, just as they reach to expropriate his wealth—I saw the impertinent malice of mediocrity boastfully holding up its own emptiness as an abyss to be filled by the bodies of its betters—I saw them seeking, just as they seek to feed on Mulligan's money, to feed on those hours when I wrote my music and on that which made me write it, seeking to gnaw their way to self-esteem by extorting from me the admission that they were the goal of my music, so that precisely by reason of my achievement, it would not be they who'd acknowledge my value, but I who would bow to theirs. . . . It was that night that I took the oath never to let them hear another note of mine.

(TL;DR I suffered for a long time because my music was so innovative that nobody liked it. Then one day, I achieved acclaim with one of my pieces. But while they were cheering, the audience didn't once apologize for not liking my music before! Instead they acted like it was my job to teach them how to enjoy my music! They thought I was writing my music for them! Those looters! I will never let them hear my music again!)

Well! Let's put aside what I might think of this attitude for a moment, because I am clearly an immoral moocher-lover. Given that Ayn was writing this in the 1940's and 1950's, one might assume that she is portraying a composer of modern music, right? It makes sense. I mean, if anyone could be accused of writing music that audiences had to be taught to enjoy, it would be the Second Viennese School (and I think it could be argued that audiences still haven't learned to appreciate them). And "Who Cares If [They] Listen" anyway. So in my head, Halley was a mighty expressionist. Let's hear a hearty cheer from the atonalists out there! Ayn Rand, for all her faults, is championing your music and your struggle!

You can guess where this is going.

What's this? From the book What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand (good lord):
A brief word about so-called modern music: no further research or scientific discoveries are required to know with full, objective certainty that it is not music. The proof lies in the fact that music is the product of periodic vibrations -- and therefore, the introduction of nonperiodic variations (such as the sounds of street traffic or of machine gears or of coughs and sneezes), i.e., of noise, into an allegedly musical composition eliminates it automatically from the realm of art and of consideration. But a word of warning in regard to the vocabulary of the perpetrators of such "innovation" is in order: they spout a great deal about the necessity of "conditioning" your ear to an appreciation of their "music." Their notion of conditioning is unlimited by reality and by the law of identity; man, in their view, is infinitely conditionable. But, in fact, you can condition a human ear to different types of music (it is not the ear, but the mind that you have to condition in such cases); you cannot condition it to hear noise as if it were music; it is not personal training or social conventions that make it impossible, but physiological nature, the identity, of the human ear and brain.


I find this deeply hilarious.


Peter said...

Wow. If I ever make the mistake of reading Ayn Rand again, please remind me to keep my vomit bucket handy. Good on you for reading her, especially with Paul Ryan on the ticket, but I could never wallow through 1000+ pages of that.

The online community seems to place Richard Halley with the likes of Rachmaninoff, Mahler, Beethoven, and evidently Rossini (wtf?). Why not Schoenberg? After all, at the 1913 premiere of his Wagner-style Gurre-Lieder, perhaps his best-received opening night of this career, he didn't even turn to face the audience. "I was rather indifferent, if not even a little angry. . . I stood alone against a world of enemies."

Oh, yeah. I forgot. Schoenberg kept moving off into left field, writing some pretty damn cool stuff along the way ("conditioning" optional!), Halley apparently just gave up. Because every composer knows that's a top-notch strategy to stick it to the man. What a hero.

Mormolyke said...

I can explain the wtf, somewhat. Ayn Rand's musical taste was about as unsophisticated as it gets. Her favorite music in the whole world was happy turn-of-the-century music hall tunes, fluffy stuff like "It's a Long Way to Tipperary," and this extended to her taste in classical composers -- she preferred pop operettas like those by Lehar. She also seems to have liked Rachmaninoff; Randroids who know anything at all about music cling to this for dear life and try to forget anything else she said about music -- especially, for example, the fact that she considered Beethoven "malevolent" and declared anyone who liked his music to be suffering from a "psychological error" (i.e. not a true objectivist).

Also malevolent and worthless: Mozart, Bach, Brahms, Wagner, and Handel. Chopin was alright. I haven't seen an explicit reference to Mahler, but I'd be very surprised if his music was acceptable.

Mormolyke said...

Oh, and the only reason I'm wallowing through it is that I'm writing an opera about her sex life. Narrated by Alan Greenspan.