The World, Seen: On Beauty and A Cappella

The World, Seen: On Beauty and A Cappella

Some people watch the Olympics for the sports.

Don’t get me wrong: the sports are great. The Olympics offer unbelievable athletic performances; top-quality athletes achieve feats on the limit of physical possibility, overwhelming every proclaimed constraint and their display of human spirit is electrifying and internationally meaningful. Still, it was not national pride or individual strength that excited me for the Summer Olympic Games a few months ago. My excitement was derived from the opening act of the Opening Ceremonies.
Four years ago, Beijing provided a spellbinding history of Chinese civilization to open the Olympic Games with music, dance, and grand performance. This past summer, London answered with a history of the British Isles, the centerpiece of which was a transformation of a massive pastoral landscape filling Olympic Stadium into an industrial hotbed of water wheels, smokestacks, and ash-stained workingmen. The worker-actors symbolically forged a gigantic iron ring that soon formed the center of a large Olympic five-ring insignia hanging over the stadium.

Quality cinema and television, like their story-telling forebears, have the virtue of transporting their viewers into the world of their own artistic creation, but the Olympic opening ceremonies evoked emotion above mere transportation. Maybe the right word is “spectacular.” Maybe it’s “masterpiece.” One word is certainly “transcendent,” but I can’t identify what they transcended. Watching the deconstruction of the agrarian world, with hundreds of bodies destroying idyllic simplicity and bringing on the modern age, invoked awe of human potency and tremendous aesthetic feeling at the scene’s grandeur and complexity.

I was reminded of that tremendous feeling while listening to the Zumbyes’ rendition of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, performed at the Family Weekend A Cappella Show a few weeks ago. Led by senior Jake Samuels, the Zumbyes transported the listener into a musical space that not only juxtaposed eeriness with fantastic hilarity, but also evoked a loftiness rarely associated with collegiate performance, displaying artistry that, on a smaller stage, mirrored whatever it was that made the Olympics awe-inspiring. Despite the fact that the first minute of DQ’s rendition of Fun’s Some Nights, arranged by senior Jeremy Simon, was my favorite moment of the enjoyable show, something about Thriller stood beyond any comparison.

My goal, then, is to distinguish between these alternative experiences, with great a cappella on the one hand and masterpiece (theatrical masterpiece?) on the other. What qualitatively distinguishes one from the other?

Immanuel Kant answers this question by distinguishing between free and dependent beauty. Free beauty, Kant says, adheres to objects that are beautiful independent of what objects they are, or what function or role they serve; dependent beauty, on the other hand, adheres to objects that are beautiful in part because of what they are or what function or role they serve. In the case of a cappella, then, many of the performances were beautiful for a cappella songs, while Thriller was just beautiful, without the restriction to a cappella. The notion is that the artistic medium (a cappella in this case) limits the possibilities of works within its form, but the transcendence of those limits is not only possible, but also highly valuable, the result being a special sort of unconditioned beauty.

The distinction between free and dependent beauty may be surprising because of the strictness of the “freedom” required by free beauty. In order for a work to manifest free beauty, it must evoke aesthetic emotion completely independent of what it is. In fact, the evaluation of free beauty cannot rely on any factual knowledge about the artwork (the fact that it is a song, or that “something evil’s lurking in the dark,” or that you know some of the singers); such knowledge would restrict the object’s aesthetic to objects of those types. Free beauty, then, relies only on perception, not knowledge at all.

Three weeks ago in this newspaper, sophomore Owen Marschall wrote an article discussing the question of free and dependent beauty in classical music. Marschall argued that the only way to experience the “catchiness” of Mahler’s 5th Symphony is to build a knowledge base of that musical work; in particular, he asks his readers to “listen to it over and over again,” presumably because the possible payoffs of competent musical experience exceed the time-cost of listening in preparation.

Jerrold Levinson identifies this payoff differential as the distinction between “beautiful” works and what he calls “meautiful” works, or works that are “gratifying to a group of middling appreciators.” Think of Marschall’s example of Mahler’s 5th Symphony. I don’t know anything about Mahler or symphonies, but I’d probably enjoy listening to it if I attended it in concert. Still, I would only experience the song’s “meauty;” I’d be missing out on something fundamental and valuable in the music (namely, the music’s “beauty”) without first investing in a set of knowledge about the music.

For reasons outside of this column, Kant would reject Levinson’s notion of “meauty” as a mischaracterization of aesthetic experience, but for our purposes, the case of a cappella is helpfully explained by a combination of Kant’s and Levinson’s distinctions. After all, there is a lot of important information about a cappella that would have improved my experience of last month’s concert. I do not know anything about song arrangement or choreography, and in a room as big as Johnson Chapel, a significant degree of nuance was likely lost on me as an innocent listener. In other words, all I got was the meauty of a cappella.

But the case of the Zumbyes’ Thriller is different. Pure beauty is not conditioned on what the artwork is; my appreciation for Thriller was independent of the happenchance fact that Thriller was a cappella. As a result, I could not possibly have experienced the mere meauty of Thriller, because there is no knowledge that could have changed my experience. The Zumbyes’ performance, perhaps in its unified complexity or perhaps in its awe-inspiring grandeur, allowed its listeners access to an aesthetic experience otherwise available only to the a cappella “in crowd,” and established itself as an unparalleled artistic event, one that can be equaled but not superseded.

Previous articles from this column: On Beauty and Women, On Beauty and Advertising, On Beauty and Bedrooms, On Beauty and Big Bird