Nougaty Goodness

by Dwight Newton

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La Primavera

Meanderings on music and life, by Dwight Newton. Nougat Magazine, March, 2007

When I am working on a problem I never think about beauty. I only think about how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.
–Buckminster Fuller

While the chill of winter remains and we hold our breaths against the threat of ice, March also begins the hope of spring. La primavera, as the Italians say, from Latin roots meaning not only the first or primary time of year, but more literally, "first truth." Botticelli's famous image of "Venus on the Half Shell" (a nod to Kilgore Trout) is so powerful because it exemplifies the birth of beauty in the spring, made especially poignant after a long, hard winter. Spring is about beauty and, in my mind, illustrates the First Truth that existence is about creation and renewal, and that the creative act, whether by human, deity or nature, is the essential purpose of being and that the highest forms of creation are, by definition, beautiful.

There is a lot of warm fuzzy talk these days about how we attract that upon which we spend the most energy. If we worry about money, we will be haunted by money issues. If we concentrate on the positive things we want, then the resources to make them happen will tend to come to us. Whether one believes this sort of thing as an article of faith or not, there is a certain grain of plain truth to it. If we choose to seek out beauty rather than dwell on ugliness, will our lives not de facto be more filled with more beauty?

I am an unabashed fan of beauty. I wish to be surrounded by all things beautiful. I love the old Native American blessing that says in part:

With beauty I walk.
With beauty before me, I walk.
With beauty behind me, I walk.
With beauty above me, I walk.
With beauty below me, I walk.
With beauty all around me, I walk.
I walk with beauty.

Try chanting this as a mantra as you walk alone in the woods and tell me you aren't uplifted. Better yet, try it while sitting in heavy traffic.

Beauty is under-rated and over-sold. We should seek to experience beauty in all its depth and complexity. Often what is marketed to us as beauty is really ugliness painted over. Real beauty is as rare as a Seychelles sheath-tailed bat (coleura seychellensis – among the rarest mammals on Earth and, well, beauty is in the eye as they say) and as common as a sunset.

Segue: I don’t understand the attraction of ugliness. In particular, the popularity of horror or “slasher” films, or films about murder or war. Why do people watch this stuff? Isn’t there enough ugliness in the news to make you flee from such entertainments and cling to the merest shred of beauty? Certainly there can be beauty in suffering and even in death. There can be beauty in heroism in terrible circumstances. But most of these things are about the spectacle. Are we so unable to feel that we need such stimulus in our lives?

In music, the idea of beauty is a peculiar thing. At its simplest, it is merely the idea of consonance versus dissonance. In the 16th century the epitome of consonance is idealized in the choral polyphony of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (also one of my all time favorite names). The clarity and openness of his counterpoint is sensuous, though it is almost entirely sacred in function. In modern times, we study Palestrina as the perfect exemplar of modal counterpoint, with rules of parallel and contrary motion and the resolution of passing tones. But listening to Palestrina is like drifting on a glass-smooth, scenic river.

By contrast the counterpoint of Bach a century later is methodical and intricate, but transcends imagination in its sheer intellectual brilliance. It is said that the best musicians always eventually come to the realization of Bach as the highest order of what music can be. When the cellist Pablo Casals was very old and crippled with arthritis, he would be wheeled to the piano where his gnarled hands would relax and become supple again at the mere thought of playing Bach.

Over the centuries, music has become more sophisticated, rooted in passion, pain, politics, even sometimes in mathematics. But the essential nature of dissonance and consonance remains the bedrock upon which all music tends to embrace one or shun the other (not necessarily respectively).

If we address the beautiful in music today, I personally find much of the more popular kinds to be at best merely derivative and often unbeautiful, or at least unmusical. Exceptions are plentiful and might include the lush choral music of Eric Whitacre, the guitar stylings of the late Chet Atkins or Eric Clapton, or the cool urban songs of Vienna Teng. (Talk about dissonance, the strikingly sour notes in Teng’s song “I Don’t Feel So Well” knocked me off my feet the first time I heard it. There are few artists who understand how to use the intervals like the minor second or augmented fourth so effectively.)

I think it takes a more conscious effort today to seek out beauty, whether musical or otherwise. The good news is that it's not for lack of beauty that it's harder to find, but for the surfeit of noise that bombards all our senses every day, obscuring the subtleness and robbing us of the still moment to ponder and think, "I walk with beauty." These moments are not easily had, but are worthy of our attention and should be sought with diligence and gratitude.

-Dwight Newton is a musicologist and is the Public Information Coordinator for the UK School of Music. His personal websites are at and