The Metaphysics of Monk

OK, kids, time for some more pretentious half-baked pop culture analysis. But we want to move on now from the grotesqueries of Gaga to the good stuff. So, put on that bop beret and let’s get to it.

Why is the music of Thelonious Monk so beautiful? (Let’s not waste time arguing about whether it is. It is. So there.) Consider a few well-known representative samples. First, that classic piece of driving bebop, “Straight, No Chaser”:

Then, for something softer and more contemplative, “’Round Midnight”:

Finally, perhaps the mother of all Monk tunes, “Brilliant Corners,” a piece so difficult to play that twenty-five incomplete takes had to be stitched together in order to produce a version for the album of the same name. (See Robin Kelley’s account of the sessions in his recent book Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original.) I prefer the big band version myself, but since I can’t find it online, here’s the original:

That will give you a sense, if you weren’t familiar with it already, of the famous odd angularity and discordance of Monk’s music. And yet it works. But why? And why is it beautiful in a way that the notoriously even more discordant music of (say) Ornette Coleman is not?

The answer might be found in the work of G. W. Leibniz (of all people); or, to be more precise, in a set of principles that long pre-date Leibniz but which he adapted for his own philosophical use, viz. the principle of plenitude and the principle of economy. The principle of plenitude tells us that a world with more variety in it is better than a world with less; the principle of economy tells us that a world governed by simple and elegant principles is better than a world governed by needlessly complex ones. For Leibniz, the best of all possible worlds would be one that exhibited the perfect balance between plenitude and economy. A universe comprised only of a single metallic sphere might score extremely high on the economy scale but extremely low in the plenitude scale; a world comprised of an incalculably large number of different objects so diverse that no two of them fell under the same categories or laws would score extremely high on the plenitude scale but extremely low on the economy scale. Famously, Leibniz held that the actual world must be one which strikes the right balance, since in his view God must create the best of all possible worlds. Now, I don’t endorse Leibniz’s theological application of these principles. (We Thomists reject the claim that God has to create the best of all possible worlds.) But we can agree with him that there is goodness, and thus (if we factor in the doctrine of the transcendentals) beauty, in the balancing of plenitude and economy.

Consider that among the kinds of variety in which we seem naturally to take pleasure, and thus which possess a kind of beauty, is the kind that involves some element of the unexpected. This seems to be one reason why we enjoy stories with twist endings, jokes, roller coasters, dreams, surrealist art, science fiction and fantasy, and other artworks, activities, and experiences in which routine is departed from and ordinary expectations are upended, sometimes even suddenly. Their “plenitude” makes them good and beautiful, and a lack of plenitude or variety makes watching paint dry (say) or standing in a long queue unpleasant, despite the high score such activities have on the scale of economy or order. But there are limits to how much of this sort of variety we can stand. Obviously, we do not (always) find the unexpected pleasant when it poses a danger to us. More to the present point, we also find it unpleasant when the ordinary is departed from too radically – when it is hard to detect even a minimal or abstract level of order, so that making sense of what it is we are doing or experiencing becomes not only challenging, but impossible.

It seems to me that this helps to make sense of much of our aesthetic experience. For example, it accounts for something about the history of modern art that might otherwise seem puzzling: that while at least some of the early stuff manifests an aesthetically pleasant “shock of the new” (to borrow Robert Hughes’ phrase) the work of contemporary artists who have pushed the novel themes of the modernists to their limits is uniformly hideous. It explains why Christopher Nolan movies deserve the hype they get, while David Lynch movies are tiresome crap. And it explains why Monk’s music is beautiful while the “free jazz” of Coleman is often downright ugly. (Check out this further example. Yikes.) Both take you in directions you do not expect to go, but Monk’s tangents invariably resolve themselves into an order and economy which is, however complex, still clearly perceptible.

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