Well-Tempered Art

Sony NEX-5N with Industar 61 L/D 55mm f/2.8 converted to E-mount. Lanthanum (LaK) high refraction glass

I first thought about it when I read Richard Feyman’s story of a gate in Neiko. But it was Bernstein’s lectures that helped me approach it in a more systematic way.

Composer Leonard Bernstein in his 1973 series of lectures “The Unanswered Question” donned the gown he had no business to wear. He was talking about musical grammar in a linguistic sense quoting Chomsky’s theories and what not, but he presented them as an overarching metaphor that explained (at least to him) the way music comes across as an art form. These lectures are unbelievably brilliant as was the person who gave them, one of the 20th century’s most intelligent and insightful artists.

Not aspiring to stand anywhere near the work of a titan, I present this essay as an attempt to connect the dots in the opposite direction, to build a nonverbal metaphor for the realm of the verbal, cutting across three art forms: music, photography and poetry. I can clearly see one common feature in all three of them, a feature that the present day’s de-aestheticisation of art has made all but invisible. In its elemental form, true art is a product of the perennial opposition of the perfect and the imperfect, it is a search for a new balance between the two in the fabric of an artistic expression.


As a child, I was mesmerised by the title of Bach’s famous two-volume collection of 48 preludes and 48 fugues: the Well-Tempered Clavier. The word tempered evoked the false connotation of temperament as a human’s emotional agility, whereas it was supposed to point to the sense of moderation and balance, cf. ‘idealism tempered with realism’. Later, when I learned about an equally spaced assignment of musical notes to frequencies according to powers of the semitone, 21/12, I mistakenly believed that the equal spacing, or equal temperament (ET) as we should say, was Bach’s glorious discovery. I thought that the 96 magnificent pieces in all 24 keys were to celebrate that discovery, for it is ET that uniquely makes it possible to write music in any key at all.

Why do composers bother to write music in different keys if it sounds the same in all of them under ET? This question has haunted me ever since (and I still have no good answer). Why did Samuel Barber (to choose a random example) settle for B-flat minor for his famous string Adagio? Why not A-minor, the favourite key of all of us who struggle to sight-read? The difference in pitch seems minuscule: a mere 6% if we are talking the lowly sound frequency rather than the lofty sharps and flats. Would it really sound any different a semitone lower for anyone without absolute pitch?

Fast forward to present time, and I have finally got to the bottom of it. No. Bach did not invent ET, it had been known before Bach. Nor did he even like it, as it turns out. Music sounds best in so called just intonation, when all notes are harmonics (overtones) of a single fundamental, not some scaled roots of 2. You can choose that fundamental low enough, and select high enough overtones, and you will get perfect do, re, mi fa, sol and la. And a very good ti and some sharps/flats. And your chords will sound wonderful. But… and here comes the crunch, you will be limited to just a few keys and if you try to move further away from the simple-minded A minor (or C major, which is almost the same) you will discover that the same piece of music sounds more and more false as you keep piling up those pesky sharps/flats. And if you compose it in far-away keys, certain intervals would have to be avoided. Suffice it to say Mozart never wrote a whole piece in B-flat minor.

Imperfections of musical notes are to do with a mathematical impossibility: no combination of powers of 3 and 5 can be exactly equal to a power of 2. As a direct consequence, an octave is fundamentally harmonically incomplete. A series of intervals in just intonation cannot return to the same note modulo octave. Ever. Four perfect fifths modulo octave do not a major third make. The difference is one between 81 and 80. Close, but no cigar. (Incidentally, the ratio 81/80 is known as syntonic comma and has to be distributed by detuning notes a tiny bit to close that devilish circle of fifth.)

Surprisingly, the matter of temperament is receiving a publication crescendo now, almost exactly 300 years since the Leipzig genius wrote his magnum opus. And musicologists still argue how exactly the notes and frequencies paired up. What they are not arguing about is the fact that Bach’s temperament ain’t no ET. When the temperament is equal, you see, all notes are ever so slightly false to the point that any key is possible since its notes are false exactly to the same extent. It comes as no surprise that the Baroque Master did not like it one bit. In fact ET only became the dominant temperament around the end of the 19th century.

ET is a sterile imperfection aspiring to epitomise perfect harmony. Bach’s notes were not equally tempered, but they were tempered well enough so as to make all keys playable, albeit different at that. The keys had a character, each its own, not just the base note higher or lower than another. Some had a flatter third, some a sharper fifth, you get the idea. I read it somewhere that when many years later Beethoven wrote his quasi una fantasia, it was written in C-sharp minor to achieve an acceptable dissonant 9th between B and C-natural, notes belonging to the most basic C major scale. That plaintive flourish defines the sombre melancholy of the Adagio sostenuto almost by itself.

They’re all different, those well-tempered musical keys, each having its own character, not just the pitch. The imperfections inherent in the artistic choice of notes — music building blocks — create character. Hold this thought.


Photography is an art of visual image. While musical notes have a pitch, timbre and duration, photographic elements have brightness and colour. Musical and photographic compositions are unlikely bedfellows, yet they share one aspect, and it is the aspect that music calls temperament.

A lens can be sharp if it is a finely compensated optical device which turns a collimated beam of light into a very small circle on the sensor, a photographic dot. The smallness of the dot is referred to as the lens’s resolution. The resolution is a number, i.e. so many dots per mm. It is an objective number requiring neither creativity nor taste. It is perfect for convincing a buyer to part with a large sum of their hard-earned cash. High resolution means ‘sharp’, or so they say.

The trouble is that to achieve a high-res image in a photographic ‘lens’ the manufacturers glue and stack together many individual lenses so that they may compensate each other’s imperfections for the sake of sharpness. As a result, light is reflected, dispersed and scattered by glass interfaces (tens of them), causing the contrast in fine details to drop. Those details are sharp, but are made vapid by light pollution, a phenomenon known as poor micro-contrast. It is similar to the temperament of musical notes. You will have either good micro-contrast and diminished sharpness (and also worsened chromatic aberrations and distortion), or excellent sharpness in a sterile, laboratory sense, but the micro-contrast will suffer. The latter image won’t have that amazing 3d look. So either your fifths sound perfect but your major thirds suck, or your thirds are OK, but some of the fifths are buggered.

The photo at the top is taken with a vintage lanthanum lens. A different temperament. Because of the high refractivity of the lanthanum-doped glass and also because of a simple optical scheme of the lens (Zeiss Tessar, 4 components in 3 groups only), the lens has a much higher micro-contrast than most modern optical marvels. Not for all colours, only around the middle of the spectrum, in the greenish-yellow range. That particular “fifth” is perfect, the rest aren’t the same quality.

Another story about photographic temperament is one of the 1939 Carl Zeiss Jena Biotar 75mm f/1.5. Due to its idiosyncratic optical scheme the out-of-focus background (the bokeh) has a swirly circular shape. It is clearly an impairment, a kind of spherical aberration, while the in-focus area is sharp and contrasty (well nigh perfect). The result? Here is a good example I found. The lens’s temperament is why photographers are happy to part with a four digit (!) sum to obtain an 80+ year old optic and attach it to their bleeding edge all singing, all dancing digital camera.

It is not just lenses that exhibit a temperament. Fujifilm cameras are enjoying a continued success due, in part, to the availability of “film-simulation modes”. What is a film simulation? Chemical photography, especially colour one, is quite imperfect. Photographers of my generation can instantly recognise the gorgeous “Fuji Velvia” temperament looking at a landscape shot: this emulsion makes the reds warm and the rest of the colours incredibly vivid. Of course it is the wrong temperament for portraiture. But then there is Fuji Astia…


So far we have deliberately steered clear of the issues of composition, which are implicitly present in any thought about artistic elements, such as musical notes or photographic dots. After all, the purpose of tempering the gamut is to give the composer of the art adequate expressive tools. But what are the elements of a verbal art? Is there a good temperament for poetry? Recall that notes and dots show temperament collectively as musical sonorities and visual distributions, respectively. It is not the elements per se but the relations (intervals, gradients/contrasts, etc) between them that give rise to the notion of temperament. On the elemental level, where meaning is not in the game yet, the art of poetry has syllables in significant positions. It is relations between them that create a character of the piece. Of those relations, the ones between neighbouring syllables matter the most.

In music, sonorities can manifest themselves vertically (in a chord) and horizontally (in a voice line). In poetry, similarly, there exist horizontal structures, called alliterations, and vertical ones, called rhymes.

Few outside the philology community know that alliteration, now relegated to a poet’s secondary toolkit and rarely paid attention to by the readership, was once the governing principle of poetry in the medium of Old English, Old Norse and Old German (both High and Low). In those Old-Germanic languages alliteration was as important as rhyme became for the medieval Latin hymns and the post-11th century verses in the Romance languages, which took after them. Alliterartive verse persisted until the early 16th century, and then rhyme won, only to be defeated by the mid-20th century dominance of vers libre.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson was fascinated by the Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse, in fact so much so that he left us his translation of Battle of Brunanburh, based on the original verse form. Here is a small excerpt:

56 Then the Norse leader,
57  Dire was his need of it,
58 Few were his following,
59 Fled to his warship;
60 Fleeted his vessel to sea with the king in it,
61 Saving his life on the fallow flood.

As befits the Anglo-Saxon original, the verses are structured into pairs of half-lines (which are conventionally placed on two consecutive lines of text, but it is a single verse-line), separated by a caesura. Тhe first half-line introduces one or two occurrences of a certain consonant in stressed syllables which must match the consonant of the first stressed syllable of the second half-line. Number 56 introduces an ‘r’ in a strong position (‘Norse’) and Number 57 starts with an ‘r’ in a stressed syllable (Dire), creating alliteration. In verse-line 58, 59 the alliteration of ‘f’ is unmistakable, ditto 60,61 (ignoring the distinction between the voiceless and voiced versions of a consonant).

Turning to rhyme, it is customary to dismiss it in the classical period, as its Roman and Greek poetry is believed to be unrhymed. In fact rhyme entered the European poetic corpus well into the medieval times. This is true of systematic rhyme as it manifests itself in stanzaic forms. There is also the question of rhyme quality, just as there is one of alliteration intensity. Researcher W.M. Clark found back in 1972 that Ovid and Vergil made frequent use of rhyme as a rhetorical tool, which is also in keeping with Aristotle’s position on rhyme in poetry (and interestingly prose as well). Most scholars would maintain that such examples are merely fortuitous. And yet internal rhymes around the caesura (the same principle as alliterated consonants in Anglo-Saxon poetry) are quite frequent, if not systematic in these texts.

Fast forward to the post-Renaissance period, and the balance between the perfect and imperfect is tipped again: a large proportion of significant poetry is not only rhymed, but fully rhymed, and in the case of the Romance languages perfectly rhymed. Until the French in the 1880s decided that it was passé, and outmoded all rhyme together with all their (purely syllabic) meters. French revolutionary examples have invariably proven contagious in the course of history. Here in England, Ezra Pound disparagingly called the meter “a metronome” and promised to compose “in the sequence of a musical phrase” instead, paradoxically choosing a rigidly metric art, music, as the basis for his metaphor. Needless to say, that at the end of the 20th century the unstoppable vacuum cleaner of postmodernism sucked the rest of the poetic form out, leaving often inarticulate and pretentious prose in its wake. We call it “poetry” now, but are unable and unwilling to define it in any positive way. The Formalist movement of the aughts (noughties, if you are on this side of the Atlantic) has withered away, though some claim that it was simply absorbed into the mainstream. I will believe it when I see a Nobel prize awarded for something that does not look like prose broken down into lines of roughly the same length.

If Poetry wants to come back, she should temper her lyre. The balance between the perfect and the imperfect must be redressed to let the beauty of a sound back in. Rather than raging against the shackles of form in favour of lived experience, Poetry should develop new aesthetics. The French revolutionary zeal for cancelling the past should be moderated, tempered, to achieve a harmonious blend of the new and the old. Alliterations should be paid attention to, and rhyme does not have to be perfect. Sonorities of a lesser kind: half-rhymes, consonances and assonances, imperfect feminine rhymes should be brought to bear on the artistic expression. A stanzaic form could be treated the same as the much maligned metronome: it should be allowed to govern, rather than dictate, for the verse to sit at the right point between “perfect” monotony and amorphous mumbling. Neither the dry unleavened bread of Imagism, nor the all-round florid sterility of a “perfect form” can address the aesthetic needs of what lies ahead.

Temper all art elements, and temper them well. Then let the artist do their job. Even T.S.Eliot, putatively one of the founding fathers of the English free verse, was dubious about the destruction of poetry’s formal fabric. I will finish my story with the quotation from his excellent 1917 essay “Reflections on vers libre”:

And this liberation from rhyme might be as well a liberation of rhyme. Freed from its exacting task of supporting lame verse, it could be applied with greater effect where it is most needed. There are often passages in an unrhymed poem where rhyme is wanted for some special effect, for a sudden tightening-up, for a cumulative insistence, or for an abrupt change of mood. But formal rhymed verse will certainly not lose its place. We only need the coming of a Satirist–no man of genius is rarer–to prove that the heroic couplet has lost none of its edge since Dryden and Pope laid it down. As for the sonnet I am not so sure. But the decay of intricate formal patterns has nothing to do with the advent of vers libre. It had set in long before. Only in a closely-knit and homogeneous society, where many men are at work on the same problems, such a society as those which produced the Greek chorus, the Elizabethan lyric, and the Troubadour canzone, will the development of such forms ever be carried to perfection. And as for vers libre, we conclude that it is not defined by absence of pattern or absence of rhyme, for other verse is without these; that it is not defined by non-existence of metre, since even the worst verse can be scanned; and we conclude that the division between Conservative Verse and vers libre does not exist, for there is only good verse, bad verse, and chaos.

He did not know at the time that the correct word for chaos was “postmodernism”.

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