Names and benefit of doubt

Aspiring young author contacts a critic to whom he has sent his book. Well, what did you think of it? My friend, you can only allow yourself to write this badly when you are famous! (From a Hungarian book of journalistic jokes.)

This captures in a perfect nutshell the dilemma I want to talk about. Of course it is not a dilemma if you are famous, then it is a privilege.

With respect to music, more precisely listening to music, this leads us to the following questions:

  • Does it matter who wrote the piece your are listening to?
  • If you are later told that it wasn´t Beethoven but a nobody, or a computer program, will that change your impression of the piece?

This is turn leads us to the Grand Question: Do we hear what we hear, or what we think {we hear]?

If we listen to music by a Name (Beethoven, Bach, Chopin, Wagner, Stravinsky, Bartók, etc. etc.) we, not necessarily but very probably, listen With Respect.

That is, with something like these thoughts in our head: “This is a great composer and the piece is very probably good music. It MUST be, since Beethoven/ Name / Name wrote it. I will try hard to appreciate or at least “like” it. If I don´t, there is perhaps (shudder…) something wrong with me, and I don´t want people to know THAT.”

We are so famous we don´t even have to say our names!
We are so famous we don´t even have to say our names!

Let it be clear that I view respect as something positive. Respect and tact are fine human qualities. Especially towards other beings, human or otherwise.

I am not sure one should be tactful towards art, though.

I mean, you can´t hurt the feelings of a painting or a poem or a symphony. At least I have never heard about a piano concerto that wept because somebody didn´t like it. The composer perhaps wept, but that is something else. We need not necessarily tell the composer what we think — but it would be sound to at least tell ourselves.

What a Name gets that a so called Nobody (better to say Unknown for now) doesn´t get is automatic respect. So in appreciating, valuing or rating music wee need a yardstick, a talent for being able to differentiate between an Unknown and a Nobody. It is of course difficult, and inconvenient, to do so — and very convenient to simply equate one with the other.

All the Names, the self-evident [we Now think!] Masters in art, were also at one time Unknowns, maybe even Nobodies. Back then it was the job of their contemporaries to figure out what they were, potential stars or asteroids. And today it is OUR job to make the same distinctions. Let me guess that we find this more inconvenient than our forefathers. It is just a guess, based on what I see in the zeitgeist.

Anyway, the Name gets the benefit of a doubt. Even if we don´t like or apprecaite his latest work — we might actually hate it, if we are honest with ourselves — we approach it with respect, a respect we don´t grant another work, maybe a masterpiece by an Unknown without a name.

So the Grand Question can often be answered thus: We hear less what we hear, more what we think. (Hans Christian Andersen wrote a very famous tale about this….)

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