Sunday, April 22, 2018

Musings on Marketing

I mentioned to a Canadian friend via email that after I have done the recordings in Toronto I might arrange for some sort of release via CD or something of them and some other recordings of my music, even though, as I said there was obviously no commercial potential. He immediately wrote back to say that there was the name for the album right there: No Commercial Potential.

Then I was reading Sviatoslav Richter's memoirs this morning and was noticing the enormous shift from the kind of simple self-deprecating honesty that he exhibits to the self-serving promotion and marketing that seems obligatory in all performers today. Here let me quote some passages (all taken from Bruno Monsaingeon's book  Sviatoslav Richter: Notebooks and Conversations):
I remember that on 27 June [1949] ... I'd for once in my life given a really good performance of the Tchaikovsky Concerto, at Dzintari, near Riga, on the Baltic.
It was [in Prague] that I first heard Václav Talich, one of the greatest conductors I've ever worked with, even if our recording of Bach's D minor Concerto is unfortunately not very good.
I gave my first recital at Plzen. It wasn't a success, no doubt because I was from Russia. Also, I had to play in factories.
Recordings have always been a problem for me. I don't like them, especially my own.
Glenn Gould came in 1957. I attended one of his concerts. He gave a stunning performance of the Goldberg Variations, but without the repeats, which took away some of my pleasure. I've always thought one should boo musicians--and there are lots of them--who ignore the composer's instructions and omit the repeats.
I was terribly nervous during this first American tour and in a state of almost permanent panic ... I was unhappy with my performance. Bunches of wrong notes!
There was also the recording of Brahms's Second Concerto with Erich Leinsdorf, one of my worst records, even though people still praise it to the skies. I can't bear it. I've lost count of the number of times I've listened to it in an attempt to find anything good in it. Each time I'm appalled. Tam, param, taram, param. A Tempo di allegretto, you bet! Leinsdorf took it as an allegro, constantly pressing ahead.
He goes on to say that the exorbitant praise showered on him ruins the relationship with the public because it tells them what to expect. Very tellingly he says:
What's the point of watching a pianist's hands or face, when they really only express the effort being expended on the piece?
Instead of the actual musical content, of course. Nowadays it seems that watching and appreciating the effort being expended is the whole point. And the attention isn't always focussed on the hands or face, either!

The situation today is that frank discussion from performers is largely prohibited in the interests of marketing. Performers are trained, like so many seals, to say the same 100% positive self-serving things in every interview:

I'm reminded of that bit in Bull Durham where Crash tells Nuke how to do an interview:

Let's end with part of one of those terrible performances in that first American tour in 1960 with, as Richter says, bunches of wrong notes:

Ok, I heard a couple of wrong ones. And a lot of great musical expression.

Saturday, April 21, 2018


I saw this just too late to include in my Friday Miscellanea, but it is worth mentioning. The Wall Street Journal has a piece on Edgard Varèse's Amériques, a piece for large orchestra that will be performed this month by the LA Philharmonic. I mainly mention this because it is an informed article about a piece of music that, whether you enjoy it or not, is certainly serious in its intent. Things like that are surpassingly rare in the mainstream media these days!
Early critics assumed that the siren, which became something of a signature device for Varèse, reflected his desire to depict the hustle and bustle of New York, like Gershwin’s use of French car horns in his 1928 “An American in Paris” to create a sonic image of the City of Lights. For Varèse, however, it was simply a way of utilizing microtones—pitches that would lie in the cracks between the piano’s keys. “Amériques” was not place-specific, but rather a reflection of the sense of exploration and discovery he found in the “vastness” of the New World. “I might as well have called ‘Amériques’ ‘The Himalayas,’” he quipped to his student, composer Chou Wen-chung.
He was driven by the idea of newness—unsurprising given his early associations with such artistic leading lights as Guillaume Apollinaire, Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia and Jean Cocteau, and cutting-edge musicians like Claude Debussy (to whom he introduced the music of Arnold Schoenberg ), Richard Strauss, and especially Ferruccio Busoni, who wrote the influential “Sketch of a New Esthetic of Music.” (“The role of the creative artist is to make new laws,” stated Busoni, “not to follow those already made.”)
The author, Stuart Isacoff, also mentions the influence of the Rite of Spring, particularly evident in the opening (and recurring) flute solo that echoes the beginning of the work by Stravinsky.

I have never been much of a fan of Varèse, but I have to admit that Amériques has a lot of interesting stuff in it. This is the Ensemble intercontemporain conducted by Matthias Pintscher:

Friday, April 20, 2018

Apologia for Civilization

Things used to be simple--well, not recently, but if you go back a ways, say, to Greece in the 5th century BC. As we see in the somewhat overheated motion picture 300, the fragile roots of democracy and reason in Athens and Sparta were threatened by the immense army of Xerxes I. Rather surprisingly, the forces of Oriental despotism were defeated by the Greeks, thus ensuring the survival and growth of Western Civilization.

Now, however, the forces fighting to destroy Western Civilization are not only outside, but inside. Activists who claim to merely want the contributions of oppressed minorities to be honored are pretty clearly fighting to have the actual foundations of civilization erased. The Wall Street Journal today editorializes on a recent example:
For more than 70 years the 1,500-student private liberal arts school in Portland, Oregon, has required every freshman to take a yearlong course covering the Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman canon (Humanities 110). Through these texts, students explore “issues of continuing relevance pertaining to ideals of truth, beauty, virtue, justice, happiness and freedom, as well as challenges posed by social inequality, war, power and prejudice,” according to the course description. These themes transcend race, gender and culture.
But activists calling themselves Reedies Against Racism denounced the course as “oppressive” and “Caucasoid,” claiming too many of the writers were white men. You know, like that lame Aristotle dude. Last spring they demanded that their peers participate in sit-ins, and last fall the bullying grew worse.
Author Michael Walsh has a new book coming out that points out how the diminishing role of the arts in education has weakened the cultural defense of Western Civilization:
In Monday’s speech ... I located a signal change in the Western education system that, at the time, looked like an advance: the American reaction to the launch of Sputnik in 1957. Suddenly, America felt it was losing its technological edge over the Soviets so American schoolchildren became acquainted en masse with the wonders and joys of the slide rule and the hard sciences. The effect was immediate: we quickly regained and maintained our advantage over our antagonists, but it came with a price: the downgrading of the importance of the arts as a civilizing and ennobling force in American public (and private) life.
So while the emphasis on tech eventually resulted in the creation of the personal computer and the iPhone, it also reduced the literary and plastic arts from essential elements of nationhood to “entertainments” for the wealthy; triggered the coarsening of society and, worst of all, cut both America and, shortly thereafter, the Western European nations from the wellsprings of their shared patrimony. This may not entirely have been by design, but it was seized upon by the nascent philosophy of the Frankfurt School, which by this time had been transplanted from pre-Nazi Germany to Columbia University in Manhattan and quickly spread throughout the American system of higher education.  
The result? To take just one example, the New York City public school system went from offering a model education in music and the arts to needing police officers in the schools—a reflection of the overall changes in demography, to be sure, but also of the decivilizing effect the loss of a democratized high culture entails. More Mozart, fewer metal detectors…
I was very critical of Walsh's last book in this post. One hopes that the new one will be better written. Two things that are absolutely essential for honest scholarship are first, to find the best expression of the arguments of your opponents and confront those. Not, as is common these days, to fake up weak straw men to attack. Second, do not hesitate to criticize those who make poor arguments even if they are on your side.

That being said, I think that the point Walsh is making in the above quote is a very good one. A big problem, and one that I am constantly trying to address in this blog, is that we have lost touch with a great deal of our cultural patrimony in the form of the arts and philosophy. These fields cannot, cannot, be replaced by science, though that is what is constantly being attempted.

Let's have a little Mozart for our envoi. This is the String Quartet No. 19 in C major, K. 465 by Mozart, nicknamed the "Dissonance" because of the strange harmonies of the introduction. The performance is by the Hagen Quartet at the Mozarteum in Salzburg:

Friday Miscellanea

I like to save the weirder items for the Friday Miscellanea, so here we go, the Courante from the Cello Suite No. 1 by Bach on a glass cello:


* * *

The Guardian reveals to us the lineup for the 2018 Proms: Bernstein, Bach and NY disco-punk: 2018 Proms lineup revealed.
There will be plenty of Beethoven, Bernstein and Bach at the 2018 BBC Proms, but also a good helping of pagan-gospel, disco-punk, DIY indie and feminist rap. The festival is set to be more with it and edgy than ever before with a late-night prom celebrating the music of modern New York.
In theory I like the idea of "with it and edgy" but so often how it manifests itself is more like "brutally ideological and aesthetically questionable." I won't be making a pilgrimage to Salzburg this summer as I will likely be going to Toronto to oversee the recording of a couple of my recent pieces. Next year I do plan on spending a couple of weeks there. But, I will certainly look over the offerings at the BBC Proms as well. Just in case...

* * *

Norman Lebrecht has an item up recalling a post from a few years ago on pieces you never want to hear again! I missed it first time around. The comments are absolutely hilarious. Let me give you three lists. First, from pianist Katya Apekisheva:
1. Vivaldi. Four seasons
2. Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals
4. About 85% of music by Liszt
5. Berlioz
6. Ending of Tchaikovsky piano trio ( around 8 last pages)
7. Neapolitan song ‘O Sole Mio’
8. Beethoven Fur Elise
9. Virtuoso violin music, such as Sarasate and Weniawsky
10. Brindisi from Traviata
Next, Norman's list:
1 National music
2 Tchaikovsky (except last 3 syms and violin concerto)
3 Anything with Moon in the title – any language – lune, mondo &c.
4 Mahler’s Adagietto except when played within the fifth symphony
5 Vivaldi’s you-know-what
6 Messiaen
7 Bernstein’s Mass
8 Anything by Puccini after Bohème
9 Elgar’s oratorios
10 Barber’s Adagio
Finally, my list:

  1. Andrew Lloyd Webber
  2. most Liszt
  3. most Mahler
  4. Bernstein's Mass
  5. Hip-Hop
  6. EDM
  7. Pachelbel Canon
  8. Spanish Romance
  9. Sevilla by Albéniz
  10. Choro No. 1 by Villa-Lobos
As a guitarist, I reserve the last three places for the pieces for classical guitar that I don't ever need to hear again.

* * *

There are ways of fighting back: FABIO LUISI DENOUNCES ‘COMPLETELY UNACCEPTABLE’ ECHO AWARD. What's this about, you ask?
The Zurich Opera music director has joined the rush of musicians who are giving back their ECHO awards after the 2018 prize was given to a pair of rappers making Holocaust jokes. ‘They have mocked the suffering of millions of people,’ he says.
Follow the link for his letter (in German). Now, has it occurred to any of the recent recipients of the Pulitzer Prize for Music to return their awards? Different situation, I guess.

* * *

The New Yorker weighs in on the deep significance of awarding the Pulitzer to Kendrick Lamar:
Lamar’s historic win figures in the grander, affected consecration of blackness within élite spaces—exemplified, I think, by the “thousand flowers of expectation” blooming in Kehinde Wiley’s portrait of Barack Obama. It was Obama, with his caucuses of rappers in the White House, who accelerated the conclusion that hip-hop had earned a prestige as a great American art. In its long and perplexing lurch toward acclaim, did hip-hop sacrifice its edge? Lamar is a fascinating and brilliant non-answer. He is a complicated artist because he sits at the nexus of forces that seem misaligned: he is an alert political gadfly who will happily curate a soundtrack for the commercial juggernaut “Black Panther”; he is a literary virtuoso who understands the charisma needed to make songs you can play in a club. He is hip-hop, which means that he skirts categorization. The Pulitzers got it right.
If you have a lot of spare time, perhaps you could unpack that paragraph! My favorite bit is the gratuitous French accent in the word "élite" that has not been necessary in English for, oh, a hundred years or so.

* * *

Here is a lovely piece on the history of the concert hall:
Throughout the Romantic era, several interrelated cultural shifts coincided to make a concert culture that more closely resembles what is expected in concert halls today. Romanticism, particularly in Germany, emphasized the inward experiences of the individual. Music became more closely associated with personal expression, statements from composers to be received by listeners. Also, as William Weber has written, people started making greater distinctions between “high” and “low” art, with the presumption that a person’s taste in music corresponded to their social stature and moral bearing. Furthermore, it became an expectation that people needed to educate themselves about art to fully understand and appreciate it. Music was no longer just the background of social events; it could itself be the focus of attention.
These ideas emerged throughout the first half of the 19th century, contributing to a new, meditative form of listening, notes Meredith C. Ward. This aesthetic experience of music required more from its audience—more education, more concentration, more thought. As music became an inward experience rather than the background of a social function, performance spaces reflected the change: audience seats faced the stage rather than each other. Symphonies came to be perceived as unified works with motives that tied the movements together, rather than separable movements that may not even be performed in succession. Influential conductors like Felix Mendelssohn discouraged applause between movements of works to help audiences sense these connections.
* * *

 One of the past winners of the Pulitzer in Music was Jennifer Higdon (who has also commented on this blog) and now she has a new award: Philly Grammy-winner Jennifer Higdon now wins $100,000 Nemmers Prize, too.
The Nemmers Prize comes with a performance by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and will bring Higdon to Northwestern to lead coaching sessions with ensembles and to conduct lessons and seminars with composition students in two residencies over the next two years. The award was established in 2003 and has previously gone to composers such as John Adams, Kaija Saariaho, John Luther Adams, Aaron Jay Kernis, and Steve Reich.
I think that what this illustrates is that it is prizes like this and the Grawemeyer Awards and other similar ones that are the significant ones, at least for classical, concert or "art" music composers. After all, nowadays they are giving Pulitzers to hip-hop artists. Heh!

* * *

For our envoi today let's listen to a piece by Jennifer Higdon. This is her Percussion Concerto in a 2016 performance by the University of Toronto Symphony Orchestra conducted by Samuel Tam. Michael Murphy, solo percussionist:

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

What They're Telling Us Now

My title is a take-off on a headline that I saw long enough ago that I can't recall where. I do associate it with New York however. Google tells me that "The Way We Live Now" is both the title of a novel by Anthony Trollope from 1875 and a New Yorker piece by Susan Sontag from 1986, so I guess that will have to do. I associate the phrase with various items in perhaps The New Yorker or the New York Times chronicling the current cultural landscape. More and more I see these kinds of things as shaping the cultural landscape as in telling us how we should be living or appreciating. This is what is important now, they are always telling us.

I'm reading, finally, Michael Lewis' book The Big Short about how wildly things went wrong in the sub-prime mortgage market about ten years ago to the point that some very big players like Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns simply went bankrupt and other very big names lost tens of billions of dollars. Why? Essentially because, as the Zen koan goes, they mistook the map for the territory, their models for reality. The whole of the established players on Wall Street, from Goldman Sachs to Deutsche Bank were simply delusional.

I have had a contrarian temperament for most of my life, part of which I attribute to my father and part to my own intellectual tendencies. I really do not put much faith in authority: by their fruits ye shall judge them. And their fruits are a rather mixed bag, are they not? A great deal of the way things are organized is simply to make life easier for those who are in positions of power. Yes, there can be accountability, but often it is simply one power nexus taking temporary advantage of another. This is how I understand the conviction of Martha Stewart, the impeachment of Richard Nixon and the current battle between Donald Trump and his own Department of Justice. Power in society is rarely monolithic.

All this is to lead up to a couple of items this week that seem to me to illustrate another kind of widespread delusion, this time an aesthetic one. The first item is the awarding of a Pulitzer prize in music to Kendrick Lamar. You can read about it here:
Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer Prize win is the latest sign of the growing recognition of hip-hop—this time from one of America’s highest-profile cultural institutions.
The rapper, who won for his album “DAMN.,” is the first winner who isn’t a classical or jazz artist since the first Pulitzer for music was issued in 1943. Aside from previous award winners Wynton Marsalis, Henry Threadgill and Ornette Coleman, it has largely been a prize for classical composers.
Hip-hop fans cheered Mr. Lamar’s win and what it says about the artistic importance of the rap genre.
Or, more accurately perhaps, the shifting of culture away from things of artistic importance to ones of commercial importance? Let's have a listen to something from the aforementioned album. Just listen to the first cut, "Blood":

"Blood" is a little two-minute vignette that starts with some Manhattan Transfer-like harmony over a really inoffensive smooth background. This is followed by a recitation of astonishing banality. This is followed by a brief segment of what sounds like captured dialogue about police brutality. And that's it. Now there could be a lot more interesting stuff later on, but this first bit pretty much used up my boredom quotient. The next track is "DNA." Yes, the major creative advance here seems to be the random use of the period. The musical accompaniment to "DNA." is so dull that it nicely sets off the extremely annoying sneering, trite vocal recitation. For me this is way beyond just unlistenable.

Ok, on to the other item, Beyoncé's triumphant headlining at the Coachella music festival. According to everyone this was just cosmic in its wonderfulness:
INDIO, Calif. — Let’s just cut to the chase: There’s not likely to be a more meaningful, absorbing, forceful and radical performance by an American musician this year, or any year soon, than Beyoncé’s headlining set at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival on Saturday night. The New York Times.
Tonight, Beyoncé plays political as fiercely as she plays feminist. During Sorry she hones in on the line “suck on my balls” with furious wrath. She flits between going hard and expressing sweet graciousness towards the audience during her addresses. The artistry of the transitions between songs, and the travel across her 20-year catalogue – combined with the sheer awe of scores of people on stage moving and playing in perfect unison – proves that Beyoncé is in a league of her own. She is the greatest of a generation, both a leader of a huge group and a solo star of unconquerable talent. The Guardian.
Beyoncé captures popular music’s zeitgeist: She is a pop-R&B entertainer fluent in hip-hop and a social-media-savvy businesswoman. Her 2016 tour was that year’s highest-grossing in North America, according to Pollstar. Combined with music sales, streaming and publishing, she was 2016’s biggest moneymaker, Billboard says.
Her Coachella performance will be the first time a black woman has headlined the nearly 20-year-old festival. The Wall Street Journal.
Beyoncé became the first black woman to headline Coachella in a breathtaking set that featured her best material from a staggering back catalogue... and set a near-impossible standard for every headliner that will follow her.
Appearing at the festival in Indio, California, Beyoncé  performed one incredible dance routine after another – those rumoured 10-hour day rehearsals ahead of the show certainly paid off, as she didn’t put a foot wrong. The Independent.
And these are the more restrained tributes! Ok, let's have a look. Here is a clip of the opening:

UPDATE: My original choice got taken down, but this seems to be the same material.

That's not quite the most annoying seven minutes I have ever experienced, but it's close. It combines the refined subtlety of a college football marching band with an interminable fashion show catwalk with the kind of semi-religious mass celebration that was popular in the early days of the French Revolution. What it does not seem to be, to any significant extent, is a musical experience.

Now I have always been a pompous, pretentious little git, but I have refined it a bit over the years and when I look at the two biggest musical events this week, I think that we really must be in the grip of a delusion as massive as that which preceded the mortgage credit meltdown ten years ago.

Do we really want to claim that either of these "musical" events had anything to do with serious music? In any way? Now I can very much sympathize with Duke Ellington who was denied any recognition by the Pulitzer Prize board in 1965.
In 1965, the jury unanimously decided that no major work was worthy of the Pulitzer Prize. In lieu they recommended a special citation be given to Duke Ellington in recognition of the body of his work, but the Pulitzer Board refused and therefore no award was given that year.[3] Ellington responded: "Fate is being kind to me. Fate doesn't want me to be too famous too young." (He was then sixty-seven years old.)[4] Despite this joke, Nat Hentoff reported that when he spoke to Ellington about the subject, he was "angrier than I'd ever seen him before," and Ellington said, "I'm hardly surprised that my kind of music is still without, let us say, official honor at home. Most Americans still take it for granted that European-based music—classical music, if you will—is the only really respectable kind."[5] --from the Wikipedia article on the Pulitzer Prize for Music.
The Pulitzer Prize is an American award, of course and there is a very good argument to be made for including jazz musicians even if that was not how it was originally conceived. My personal view is that these kinds of awards should be reserved for pieces, forms and genres that are NOT widely popular to both promote the kind of aesthetic activity that is not commercially successful and to acquaint audiences with that sort of music. Under these terms, jazz would qualify while hip-hop would not. Perhaps the solution is to carve out three prizes in music: one for "European-based music" though that is a bad characterization, one for jazz and one for popular music.

Last year Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature amid quite a lot of criticism. I thought that it was a perfectly justifiable award because Bob Dylan has certainly written a lot of very interesting, creative, and serious lyrics in his career. If there is a justification for giving the Pulitzer Prize to Kendrick Lamar, I certainly haven't heard it. Maybe next year they will give it to Beyoncé...

Monday, April 16, 2018

Opera in Toronto

I hear more and more about really interesting and creative opera production in Toronto, who are blessed with not one, but two excellent opera companies: the Canadian Opera Company and Opera Atelier, who specialize in early music. The latter are currently offering Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria by Monteverdi, which is sold out. For the end of April and extending into May, the Canadian Opera Company is putting on a revival of The Nightingale and Other Short Fables which is a collection of shorter works by Stravinsky between 1911 and 1919, the second half consisting of his short opera The Nightingale. The Globe and Mail reports and it sounds absolutely fascinating:
The evening is full of novelty. The players of the orchestra are moved up onstage, and the orchestra pit is filled to the brim with water. Carl Fillion’s set extends over the pit, bringing a sense of excited claustrophobia to the first few rows of seats. We’re regaled with stories of rabbits, cats and foxes, all narrated by singers downstage while six acrobat/puppeteers play with light and bodies in brilliant puppet choreography by Martin Genest.
The first half, in which we hear every story except the titular fable of the Nightingale, is charged with the responsibility of introducing us to this production’s world. Our eyes and ears learn the delineation between narration and action, and our fascination is split between watching the puppets and the puppeteers themselves, their technique fully visible and a performance of its own
For the premiere a similar reversal involved putting the singers in the pit while their roles were sung and danced onstage. But filling the pit with water sounds like a brilliant idea. Here is a photo from the production showing the effect:

I would have liked to have heard more about the short items in the first half, but apart from mentioning that one of them is The Fox, there is no information. Presumably they are referring to Renard, the one act opera-ballet composed in 1916. These early, brief opera/ballets by Stravinsky were all very innovative in both musical and dramatic terms and it is wonderful to see them in production because they have been rather neglected over the years. The origin of Renard was a commission from Winnaretta Singer, Princesse Edmond de Polignac, who asked Stravinsky to write a piece that could be played in her salon. You get a taste of the wonderfully weird kind of theater this is from this performance by the Ensemble Intercontemporain (sorry, the subtitles are in Italian):

Saturday, April 14, 2018

The Pleasure of Music

There is a new field of scientific endeavor called "neuroaesthetics" that studies the neural processes that underly our appreciation and production of artworks and the New York Times has an article on a dispute within the field: Why Scientists Are Battling Over Pleasure.
A battle over pleasure has broken out. On Twitter and in the pages of scientific journals, psychologists, neurologists and neuroscientists are forging alliances over the question of whether pleasure we get from art is somehow different from the pleasure we get from candy, sex or drugs.
The debate was ignited by an opinion piece titled “Pleasure Junkies All Around!” published last year in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B. In it, Julia F. Christensen, a neuroscientist at the The Warburg Institute at the University of London who studies people’s responses to dance choreography, argued that many of us have been turned into “mindless pleasure junkies, handing over our free will for the next dopamine shoot” provided by social media, pornography and sugar.
She offered up an unconventional solution: art, which she says engages us in ways these other pleasures do not and can “help overwrite the detrimental effects of dysfunctional urges and craving.”
The paper struck a nerve with some of her fellow art and pleasure researchers, who published a rebuttal last month in the same journal. The idea that the way that art engages the brain is somehow special has been around for far too long and it is time to kill it off once and for all, they insist.
I appreciate the efforts scientists put into trying to answer questions like this, but I often feel they are hamstrung by the very limitations of the scientific method. Prof. Christensen seems to have a more encompassing view:
Dr. Christensen, who studied dance before she became a neuroscientist, said she is not disputing that a single reward system processes all pleasures. But that does not eliminate the possibility that the arts also activate additional neural systems “related to memory processes, sense of self and reasoning that add something more to this pleasure.”
This “high-level pleasure” requires more scientific investigation. But given that we spend our lives chasing pleasures, she argues, why not try to better understand one of the few that “do not induce states of craving without fulfillment,” or cause health problems and instead make “you think and experience things differently.”
Well, sure. The first thing that occurs to me is why this myopic focus on pleasure, which seems to be limited to physical pleasure: sex, sugar and dopamine response? In the case of music, the range of responses would surely include, yes, physical pleasure in the way we respond to rhythm, mental pleasure in the delights of harmony and counterpoint, emotional responses to music of great depth of sadness, psychological responses to music that confuses or perplexes us and on and on. There are so many ways we respond to music that I can't even think of words for most of them!

Dr. Nadal, one researcher, says:
“humans appear to use only one pleasure system to assess how pleasurable or unpleasurable a sensory experience is.” He calls this discovery “one of the most important insights to emerge from the last 15 years of neuroscience,” and believes it shows that while enjoying Cheez-Its or a sculpture may feel different, in our brains they are processed the same way.
The phrases "to assess how pleasurable or unpleasurable a sensory experience is" and "in our brains they are processed the same way" are to me, somewhat opaque. I don't know exactly what he means by these phrases, that appear to be perfectly simple, but likely are not.

Just speaking for my own aesthetic assessments, I find a lot of music unpleasant because it is excessively sweet or melodic with smooth, luxurious harmonies. Enjoying Cheez-Its or a sculpture may be "processed in our brains" in the same way, whatever that means, but they are not similar experiences. For one thing, eating Cheez-Its may begin as a hunger response, but it can easily become an addictive cycle. Looking at a sculpture is neither of those things, but is instead an exploration of a configuration of space. The "pleasure" involved is perhaps akin to the pleasure of discovering a new landscape. A great deal of the most intense and profound musical experiences are only very loosely pleasurable at all. The music may involve extreme dissonances or the extreme contrast between dissonance and consonance and it may achieve its aesthetic goal by means of pleasure and pain. Music can be both soothing and brutally punishing, sometimes in the same piece.

Perhaps most telling of all is the misuse of the word "assess." Assessment, whether of an aesthetic object or a corporate balance sheet, is not an activity of the "pleasure system" at all. It is an intellectual activity using logic and reason even though the objects assessed may be experiences.

Here are three different pieces of music. Please explain to me how they are processed through the same pleasure system.

Monks singing Gregorian chant:

The English Beat performing "Mirror in the Bathroom":

Penderecki, Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima: