Waking up with Donny

(Or: Towards a Recontextualisation of Art based on a Sliding Scale of Badly Drawn Monsters)

Donny

Donny Hathaway – Love, Love, Love
From Extensions of a Man [Buy] [iTunes]

The morning after a fun Friday night out in London, dodging raindrops between pubs and engaging in some good conversations with people I don’t see enough of, the iPod alarm clock woke me with a randomly selected tune, which just happened to be Donny Hathaway’s Love,Love,Love. Normally waking up is not particularly fun, especially on Saturdays, but this was one of those moments when the tune completely fitted with the good memories of the previous evening.

Which got me thinking – was the appreciation of that particular moment and that particular song enhanced by knowledge of Donny Hathaway’s career and his tragically short life?

Does enjoyment of art increase with familiarity? Or can our engagement with art be inhibited by too much knowledge about the context of its creation? And how does our knowledge interact with the specificity of the moment in which the art is consumed/observed/heard?

A music geek or an academic might argue that one’s enjoyment and appreciation of any given musical performance is enhanced by extensive study or obsessive fandom. When this relationship is expressed in a graph, the Appreciation Curve rises proportionally as one’s knowledge (Ka) of an artist/artform/genre increases, and as a function of specificity of the moment in which the music is heard (Sc).

One Bullshit Diagram

Fig. 1

For example – in Figure 1, the anonymous elevator music heard on the way to work would lie near the bottom left side of the Appreciation Curve, whereas for a jazz fan, hearing Coltrane’s A Love Supreme at the funeral of a close friend or family member might rank very high to the right hand side on the curve.

However, this neat Unified Theory falls down rapidly when tested against real world experience. For example, Maurice Ravel‘s String Quartet in F Major can hit you between the ears with the same force of beauty, whether you’re hearing Ravel for the first time or for the 1,000th. And speaking personally, my irrational love of Senorita by Justin Timberlake is completely out of proportion to any instinct for good taste or indeed my knowledge of Mr Timberlake’s career, which is rather limited.

So knowledge and context interact in far more intricate ways than we might expect. Therefore the graph must be modified somewhat to illustrate a rather more complex reality, as in Figure 2:

Fig. 2

The implications of this revised model of music appreciation, which we might call the “Ball of String Theory” are quite startling, and are twofold:

1. Sometimes you really should stay in bed on Saturday mornings

2. Clever theories will come back and bite you on the arse, as demonstrated in Figure 3:

Fig. 3