(Non-) Objectivity – an anecdote

There is a lot to say, of course, about objectivity and subjectivity in the arts, and in other realms. (Some of it is said very interestingly here by Robin Black). I talk to my students about it all the time, and I will probably write about it quite a bit as time goes by. The purpose of this post, however, is not to discuss the issue at great length, but just to recount one true story that has some bearing on the subject, that happened to me, and that was very important to me at the time. Not just at the time: increasingly so over the years.

About forty years ago – at least thirty-five: I don’t exactly remember – I was having a conversation with someone about a passage of music. This someone was a fellow organist who was at that point much more experienced than I was as a player and somewhat more experienced as a listener, and who was just as passionate about organ and harpsichord and the Baroque repertoire as I was. The passage was one of the longer “episodes” from a Bach organ fugue. That is, it was a passage in the middle of a piece, and it was different enough in texture from the rest of the piece that it might make sense to play it on a different sound – a different registration – probably on a different keyboard from the rest of the fugue.

We were debating about what that other registration should be like. I remember well that I was advocating a kind of clear, bright sound, while my friend/colleague was advocating a more reedy (quintadena-based) sound. We each had various reasons that we brought forward: some of them kind of artistically highfalutin or philosophical, some of them more just plain aesthetic or, in an artistic sense, practical: how would the kind of sound that we were advocating influence what kind of passage this passage seemed to the listeners to be. A good – completely friendly – debate.

Later on a thought – a suspicion – occurred to me. I did the necessary research, which amounted to listening to a couple of  records, and I figured out that 1) I was advocating the exact kind of sound that the performer had used in the recording of this piece that I had grown up with, and 2) he was advocating the exact kind of sound that the performer had used in the recording of the piece that he had grown up with. Regardless of anything about our reasons or arguments – or reasoned arguments – each of us was simply advocating what he was used to: used to for essentially random reasons.

That doesn’t mean that we were charlatans or that any of our reasoning was wrong. My guess is that all of the statements that we made about what the effects would be of the registrations that we were advocating were probably pretty accurate. Our claims that these approaches – a different one for each of us – were right or even just better were not accurate, or at least not universally so and not because of the reasons that we were giving. We were oblivious to the real reason that we were each advocating what we were – at least I know that I was and I suspect that he was too, or else he would have (should have?) said something about it up front. It also doesn’t mean that there is anything wrong with taste or ideas being formed by early experience, or by being used to something, or fond of something. It means that our tastes and preferences are formed by all sorts of things, some of which we don’t know about, or remember, or understand. These may include various sorts of rational analysis, but they won’t be limited to that or even necessarily feature it as the main component, and that seems to me to be perfectly OK.

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