Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Conservative music critic?

David Horowitz has become the next big music critic. From his critique of classical saxophone he moves on to female composers.
He spent a little time on the Summers affair. The whole situation is simply explained: Summers asked an innocent question, and the liberals formed a lynch mob. Hiss, boo. And, by the way, did you know that there has never been a great female composer or mathematician? It's been 50 years since Betty Friedan, so there's been plenty of time to raise one, if they were capable of it. (That's right, Betty Friedan fixed everything for women, so it's all your own damn fault now, feminists.)
and from comments:
Piffle. As Horowitz explained, musical composition is at its root a mathematical activity; women aren't as good at math as men; ergo, there have been no great female composers.

PZ's commentors wisely point out some counterexamples to Mr. Horowitz's claim (Hildegard von Bingen, Amy Beach, Joan Tower, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, Elizabeth Jacquet de la Guerre, Nadia Boulanger, Sofia Gubaidulina, Louise Farrenc, Cecile Chaminade, Rachel Eubanks, Marta Ptaszynska, Lili Boulanger, Judith Weir, Ethel Smyth, Rachel Portman, Ruth Crawford Seeger, Deirdre Gribbin) to which I would add Augusta Read Thomas, Judith Lang Zaimont, Jennifer Higdon, Meredith Monk, Maria Schneider, Mary Lou Williams, et al.

But what about the claim that composition is primarily a mathematical activity? Let's see some arguments for and against this claim.

9 comments:

Lisa Hirsch said...

Thank you for that link. My opinion of David Horowitz remains as it was. I can't believe he was much of a fan of Larry Summers, by the way. Summers was not exactly a conservative.

When I was teaching intro music theory as a grad student, an undergrad asked me why there were no female Beethovens, and I replied "Well, somebody had to take care of the kids" and mentioned how Clara Schumann spend her time: playing piano to support the kids after Robert went nuts.

Tim Walters said...

I'd just like to add Carla Bley and Joni Mitchell to the list.

Terminaldegree said...

And early on there was Beatritz, Comtessa de Dia; Francesca Caccini; Barbara Strozzi; Isabella Leonarda...

Xopher (Christopher Hatton) said...

I think music is approximately equal parts mathematics and intuition. In fact, it's a glorious blending of the two; that's why I personally consider it The Sacred Art.

But then I believe that Mathematics and the laws thereof are the Divine Mind. The most intense "direct experience of the sacred" I've ever had have been while engaging in trance-aided group vocal improvisation (no, not gospel singing; only the soloists get to improvise there IIUC, though they're certainly doing something very sacred too).

The numbers can tell you which harmonies will work, but the best melodies come from the heart...which is doing the math in background, but the melodist is generally unconscious of that. In my own compositional experience, I'm at my best when I'm focused on the words while creating the melody!

Without mathematics, harmonic complexity is impossible (I mean without mathematics in mind; there's no music with NO math because music is inherently mathematical--as are all things, but it's real obvious with music).

Without intuition, or by overemphasizing the math, music takes terrible wrong turns: equal temperament, 12-tone-technique--or worse, the radical serialism practiced by such perniciously math-headed pseudo-composers as Milton Babbit. 12tt would have been impossible without equal temperament; while music appears to have figured out that the baby isn't getting any cleaner in that bath, we haven't dumped out the bath water yet!

This is all just my opinion, of course. Pace you lovers of Luigi DallaPiccola. (If you like Milton Babbit...well, I disagree but I'll fight for your right to misattribute this quote to Voltaire.) And certainly I would NOT say that women can't do it. Some of the greatest musicians who've ever lived have been women. Anyone who can sing can compose if they get the right education; but the "fact" that there are "no great women composers" helps enforce a system that keeps women out of that track.

ntjma, I say! That's pure ntjma! (Sounds Egyptian, but it's actually my verification word.)

Tim Walters said...

What if what I don't like is your calling someone a "pseudo-composer" just because you don't like his music?

As to the assertion "composition is primarily a mathematical activity," given that:

--many cultures have virtually no math, but plenty of music;

--writing music generally requires no math beyond counting, and even total-serialist music requires at most grade-school arithmetic;

--I'm not aware of anyone who has made significant contributions to both music and mathematics;

I'd say that the burden of proof is squarely on the affirmative.

damers said...

isn't music in a sense the translation of feeling into mathemtics?

Michelle said...

...and Shulamit Ran...and Laura Schwendinger...

Drew said...

And Kaija Saariaho, currently kicking ass and taking names worldwide....

And regarding the whole music=math thing, Tim above is spot on. Even Xenakis at his stochastic best isn't math: he might be using statistics to control complex textures, but it's not math that comes out in the end, it's music. Whether you like it or not is another matter....

Jack Wright said...

Ellen Zwillich? Geri Allen? Jennifer Higdon? But why rack our brains? Well, to make our collective point of course, but here's a pretty good list of female mathem- er, composers:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_female_composers

Jack Wright
Bank of America Celebrity Series
Boston, MA