Morality and Aesthetics Don’t Mix

A beaker filled with water to which oil has been added, demonstrating insolubility of oil in water.

Morality and aesthetics don’t mix.  Since when?  Since forever.  People continually try and mix them with nothing but problematic results.

If I say, “for the best experience of this wine, you should pair it with this food,” it sounds like a moral statement because of the word “should.” Of course, it is not a moral statement simply because it has nothing to do with well-being.  In this case, I’m recommending that for a pleasant aesthetic experience, a certain combination of elements is “necessary.”  Perhaps, it has been seen from repeated and corroborated experience, these elements work well together and better than some other combinations.  But better for who?  We also recognize that for some people, this experience won’t be the same – it won’t amount to a preferred experience.  We call this subjectivity.  What I’m NOT saying is that it is morally right to pair said wine with said food and conversely, that it is morally wrong to avoid this pairing.  Such statements would be absurd.

Likewise, if I say, “if you want a consonant harmony, don’t place an Eb against a D major chord,” I’m giving an imperative based on aesthetic criteria.  I could very well make a similar statement and make it sound like a moral imperative.  People do this all the time: you should do this; you shouldn’t do that – in circumstances that have nothing to do with well-being and everything to do with aesthetic taste.  Again, aesthetics are entirely subjective, yet not without “principles,” which can be repeatedly verified and corroborated, sometimes based on science, sometimes based on conventions. It bothers me that claims based on aesthetic criteria or principles often are stated as if they are based on some immutable moral standard (problematic because morality is itself subjective – a whole other story!).

In the musical case I’ve mentioned, varied context means a different experience, “preferrable” to varying degrees.  In some situations, an Eb against a D chord will sound “wrong” (or inappropriate, to avoid moral language).  In other circumstances, the uninitiated or untrained won’t even realize an Eb just passed them by!  Astute musicians will know that an experience of said Eb will be dependent on how it is approached and how it is resolved.

Aesthetics (of music, say) make for interesting discussions. However, I’m becoming increasingly tired of aesthetic claims coming off as something akin to truth. There are, of course, acoustic principles, for example, as well as matters of repetition versus contrast that make for both justifiable creative choices and listening preferences.  However, sometimes experience boils down to simple matters of “taste.”  Taste is not only subjective, but dynamic – it will change over time – and is influenced by understanding.  Yet, if you like green best and I prefer blue, that’s really the end of the matter.  Only an immature person turns this into “green is better than blue,” claiming one aesthetic experience is inherently better than another. Again, such statements are absurd to me and I’m growing so tired of hearing them.






End of term – what’s next?


I finally got my new alto sax – it’s a silver Yamaha Custom Z!  I’m so pumped!  It’s definitely time to plan for some more performance opportunities.  I debuted the new horn in the Ascension 4 dance show this past weekend, playing a composition for two saxes and electronics by Nathan Marsh.

I’m so happy to have been involved in Ascension.  It was really the first time I felt like I was a part of a broader school community beyond the music department.  I think these collaborative experiences are the key to a fulfilling creative life.  As a composer, I work so much in isolation that I just have a real need to connect with people.  I don’t think I could really be happy otherwise.  I’ve been thinking about the times when I’ve been most depressed in the past and it was when I lacked a strong sense of community.

And speaking of community, I’m pleased to finally launch a new project – a research initiative called “The Emergence of Unseen Voices.”  It’s basically a study of young composers and the process of becoming a composer.  I had my first interview today. I’m thinking I will start a series of posts – “Talking with composers” to document parts of this process.   I conducted the first interview today. My goal is to tell the composers’ stories and illuminate the world of the behind-the-scenes creative.  And it’s a way to contribute to the development of  a creative community.  I’m doing a bunch of interviews over the next week or so before settling into holiday mode.

Next composition projects include a piece for voice, viola and piano in the new year and some pieces for saxophone and percussion.

Also, I want to share more music exploration on this blog.  I’ve been big on Michael League’s group Snarky Puppy lately, which I’ve alluded to in another post. They’re my new favourite band!  And since I’m mentioning the group again, here’s a link to a series of eight videos of live renditions of tracks off their album We Like It Here: