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The Decline of Aesthetics

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The Decline of Aesthetics

Older folks get a reputation for being cranky and disagreeable. I think this is because when you have several decades of experiences to ponder, you notice changes and trends that a younger person is unlikely to. As an example, I notice that the pursuit of goals related to aesthetics is in severe decline. I wish I had statistics to cite, even though we know how deceptive they can be, but I don't. I just have an impression that very few young people are attracted by careers that involve aesthetics.

Let me define aesthetics, first of all. I think that the standard definition of aesthetics as found in Wikipedia for example is rather outdated:
Aesthetics, or esthetics, is a branch of philosophy that deals with the nature of beauty and taste, as well as the philosophy of art (its own area of philosophy that branched from aesthetics). It examines subjective and sensori-emotional values, or sometimes called judgments of sentiment and taste.
As far as music goes, both beauty and taste are no longer central to the idea of aesthetics. For one thing, they are hard to define and composers and performers do not primarily aim for the creation of beauty according to the taste of the listener. Challenge me if you like on this, that would be a productive discussion. But I know in my own experience that while I am certainly seeking the realization or expression of something in a composition, I would not describe it as "beauty." I am looking for something dynamic, expressive, compelling, captivating and so on. A passage that is perhaps "beautiful" is merely one sort of strategy. A passage that is "ugly" might be equally useful. So that is my testimony. I suspect other composers might agree.

Now, regarding the decline of aesthetics, my thoughts on this were sparked by a couple of recent conversations. I ran into a young person who is studying at one of the universities I used to teach at. In answer to the question what was she studying, the answer was "computer engineering." Just one data point, of course, but it makes me recall that this or a similar answer was what I have heard for years and years now. People are studying international business, criminology, economics, business administration, psychology and various areas in science and technology. I suspect that people that would have been attracted to something related to aesthetics in the past are now in the "studies" areas: women's studies, gender studies or others relating to colonialism and identity. In other words, people used to write poetry, now they are social justice warriors--or studying something job or occupation related.

Well, ok, that's just the changing world. The other conversation related to my song cycle that a friend has just been listening to. The song cycle, which I wrote about a decade ago, is titled Songs from the Poets because it consists of twelve songs using poems that I particularly like. When we were talking about the songs I realized that he was not relating to the poetry very much. This is partly a language issue: his second language is English and nearly all the songs are in English. But more significant is that he is young, just twenty years old and it seems that people of that age no longer read (or write) poetry. That made me realize that poetry (aside from lyrics to songs and hip-hop) is pretty much a dead medium. When I was a young person, many of my friends wrote poetry and most of them were familiar to some extent with poets like T. S. Eliot, Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson. Now I doubt if most young people could even name a poet. I would be hard-pressed to name a living poet! There are almost no places where contemporary poetry is published these days. Recall that the two most prominent prizes in literature recently were given to a rap artist and Bob Dylan.

The other problem for my friend is that it is hard to hear the poetry clearly in the recording. Perhaps some of this is my fault as the composer, though I am not sure how. But part of it is the singer. We talked a lot about making the words as clear as possible with some success. But with female voices it always seems harder to hear the words--perhaps this relates to the higher pitch of the female voice. One thing I do know is that there are only two singers that I can think of that really make the words clear: one of them is retired and the other is dead! Thomas Quasthoff recently retired and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau died in 2012. With the latter in particular, you can hear not only every word clearly, but every syllable--no, every letter!

The looming question is, why the loss of interest in aesthetic pursuits? Somehow they have become less meaningful to young people. Is this a consequence of the idea that all aesthetic judgements are relative? If it is in principle impossible to achieve anything of objective value, then why bother? Perhaps you should spend your time fighting climate change instead. Is this what is going on?

Over to you commentators.

Here are a couple of songs to listen to while you ponder. The first is "Listening to a monk from Shu" from my song cycle setting a poem by Li Po:


The second is "Im wunderschönen Monat Mai" from Dichterliebe by Robert Schumann sung by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.




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