A young composer living in Midhurst, England, Rory Smith is well-known in Soundcloud circles throughout the world on account of having been chosen as the “Soundclouder of the day” last February 15, an honor bestowed in view of his pledge to write and publish a composition once a day during the entire month beginning at the end of January – a resolution he managed to fulfill. But more importantly, and what probably was of greater relevance in the award: what pieces of music these thirty compositions were! None was mere filler or mediocre, but on the contrary they all manage to astonish and many are positively magical and new.
Now, Smith’s February accomplishment was something of an athletic feat involving considerable exertion and even greater stamina on his part, a one-man Tour de France in music; so it’s not entirely surprising to find that many of his compositions would in turn demand the utmost from the musicians performing them – above all from the pianists (the piano being a favorite instrument which he himself plays very well indeed) who’d have to hold to a tempo that often pushes, so it seems, to the very limit of the speed with which human hands could move without forfeiting their dexterity and skill. Or rather, at times, quite a ways beyond that limit.
Of course, it may not be safe to assume that these works are meant to be performed at all in their current or a similar form by human beings; but if that be the aim, it puts one in mind of the fact (and this summer of athletic competitions is propitious to such a line of thought) that the capacity of human limbs and bodies in general – I’m not speaking mainly of those of any one individual – has indeed been increased over the course of the last several decades through participation in organized activities whose character is concerted and competitive by turns or concurrently. This fact is incontestable in the sphere of athletics (e.g., the four-minute mile), but it is a feature of other fields as well, and in instrumental music it has a special importance in those instances where technology has been devised which could conceivably supplant the musician – notably, the player piano, able to outdistance the human performer in terms of tempo and perhaps in some other more subtle respects also. Here an invention entered the musical arena to throw down a gauntlet to the latter, who, generically speaking, did not refuse to take up the challenge and develop the capacity of his or her instrument – the pianist’s own hands – beyond what had been considered desirable or even possible; and with this inducement to new or greater effort and exertion there appeared on the musical scene something like (to invoke a pair of perennial notions) a good Eris to underscore its existence as an agon and to spur the pianists and other musicians onwards.
(To compress the foregoing into a brief thesis: had the player piano not been invented, there would have been no Georges Cziffra.)
But be that as it may, as some of the piano passages in Smith’s compositions rush by at their nearly superhuman speeds, one finds oneself reflecting on technology’s effect upon the physical basis of musical performance – and consequently about its character as a specifically human activity and the nature of the pleasure and the beauty that are intrinsic to it.
In this context too it may conduce to a better understanding to consider musical performance not as an art like other arts, but rather as being something like a sport. (And actually, a similar line of thought might be pursued in the case of painting as well: just think of the practices of Jackson Pollock or Yves Klein, in which the physical act is brought to the fore as what painting is or ought to be all about.) I realize that this comparison of music and athletics could well sound either banal or entirely inapt – but why, exactly, is that? After all, on an impartial consideration, both of these activities appear to suffice in themselves, or are in other words ends in their own right, and as such each could qualify as a constituent part of the βίοι that represent in Aristotle’s canonical definition (Nicomachean Ethics, bk. I, chap. 5) the various possible modes of “the good life” – and this similarity would furnish a basis for the comparison.
Well, to put the matter in this way may provide the beginning of an answer.
If the comparison of music and sport is found to be misguided or just wrong, this could be due to a preconception that the latter properly belongs to the third of those βίοι, namely the “life of pleasure,” whereas the former, music, the art of arts, simply must be brought over to the first of them, the βίος θεωρητικός, and comprehended – that term is something of a euphemism, and it would be better to say: neutered, disarmed – primarily in accord with the experience that typifies it, θεωρία in all its necessary tranquility. (The object of this assimilation would seem to be the music itself and its audience, but not the musicians, who cannot be assimilated in such a manner, obviously; and hence they are simply ausgeblendet by this procedure.)
Or, if this comparison is accepted but then dismissed as being too obvious, trite, and uninteresting, it would bespeak, it seems, a lack of curiosity as regards that third βίος and its specific constitution – which is to say, a noteworthy disinterest in the question of the essence of pleasure, perhaps from unease in the face of the startling discoveries that such an inquiry might conceivably bring to light, once athletics and sport as one main activity of this “way of life” were considered as they would deserve to be.
In either case, one has before one’s eyes an example of the way in which the βίος θεωρητικός has nearly monopolized the common understanding of the nature of the other two βίοι and of the various human activities of which they are comprised. Now, while my main concern here is music and its nature as a physical activity, I should like to acknowledge that what I’ve said thus far owes much to Hannah Arendt’s investigation of the relationship between the βίος θεωρητικός and the βίος πολιτικός in her book The Human Condition (something which will not have escaped the notice of any political scientists or theoreticians who happen to be reading this), although in touching on the third of these βίοι I’ve extrapolated from the results of her investigation, as the sections of that work wherein she deals with the topic of the understanding and experience of pleasure in antiquity and in the modern age, are written in an especially telegraphic manner and can thus be difficult to decode – and, apart from that, those parts of her book just are not as satisfactory as the rest. (For the sake of completeness, perhaps this is the place to mention that in the passage cited above even Aristotle himself seems to slight that third βίος, also terminologically: he does not dignify it with a compact technical term, as he did in the cases of the βίος πολιτικός and the βίος θεωρητικός, though he certainly could have done so, had he chosen to.)
So, the comparison of sport and music – first and foremost the actual performance of it, but also perhaps the activity of writing and composing it, and possibly also the listening to it, insofar as the latter requires of the listener an active effort and exertion – might render a bit more distinct what the pleasure and the beauty in music are, or at least help to situate the question more adequately.
The pleasure taken by athletes in their activity would seem to be balanced or even exceeded by a great deal of strain and pain, and thus alloyed the whole could probably be characterized as painful more readily than as pleasurable, at least in the common sense of these terms; what’s involved is a prolonged strenuous effort punctuated by moments of relief and relaxation and the peculiar kind of pleasure that flows from them (the well-known but less well-understood negative pleasure that’s often more intense but also more fleeting than the positive kind) over which there arches an anticipation of a satisfactory and satisfying completion. On the other side is the prospect of considerable personal risk, of injury of one sort or another, and even perhaps of permanent disfigurement or deformation. (Jacob Burckhardt, in his Griechische Kulturgeschichte, vol. IV, sec. 9, chap. 3, does not overlook the broken noses and fingers, the poked-out eyes, and the cauliflower ears of the Greek boxers and participants in the pankration.) And yet from all this there emerges much beauty and much pleasure – an astonishing amount of enjoyment for the athletes themselves and for the spectators too.
To bring this train of thought back to Rory Smith over in Midhurst (lest I stray even further afield), it’s the daring exertion of the athletes that might provide a better paradigm than any characteristic feature of the βίος θεωρητικός – a better paradigm for understanding what could be involved were a performance of his delightful super-rapid music, which now seems to exceed the capacity of musicians to play and which might expose them to some occupational wear and tear should they nonetheless attempt it, somehow to come about in the future; while to comprehend what it is that might actuate the audiences of these works, one could look at the mode of involvement of the public at athletic events, impartial or not but never disinterested and, for its part, straining on the edge of the seats to take in so much action all at once – engagement so very different than θεωρία in any of its variants visual or auditory.
As for what led Rory Smith to compose these works and the nature of the exertion that he took in stride to create so many of them in so short a time, well, I suppose that he himself would have a thing or two to say about it . . .
Those who have their doubts whether in fact a quasi-athletic character can be attributed to this music and its intention, may find more to their liking a somewhat different comparison between music and dance. For Smith has also composed specifically for choreographers, and even his other music sounds as though it might also have been written with movement in mind; in any case, many of his compositions, such as “We Had Snow Last Night,” would lend themselves readily to contemporary dance: in this connection the choreography of Garry Stewart at the Australian Dance Theatre springs to mind, or closer to home and perhaps an even better fit, that of Wayne McGregor of the British company Random Dance.
This other comparison is sharpened by the fact that, with its great tempo, its atmospheric acoustic effects, and its use of technical malformations such as tape glitches as musical elements in their own right, Smith’s music often leaves one feeling that it itself is a dance.
Before concluding – this text must already have gone to the edge of the reader’s patience – I’d be remiss not to draw attention to a few of Smith’s compositions that aren’t included in his February set and yet which will I’d wager delight the reader as much as they’ve pleased me.