27 April 2008

Art (Music) and the Daily Grind

Are sublime listening experiences commonplace, or are they rare occurrences? Are these experiences lurking behind every corner just waiting to be discovered, or are they elusive, rare commodities that must sometimes be actively sought out rather than passively received?

The notion of "the best" is, by its very nature, highly exclusive. Everything cannot be "the best," or else there would be no "best." Whatever your preferences, these exalted moments are, by definition, rare.

If such moments are not commonplace, can we reasonably expect that our commonplace states of mind and commonplace daily routines are in any way well-suited towards either (1) identifying opportunities to have such experiences, or (2) receiving such experiences in the way that they demand we receive them? Such experiences defy the daily grind, both logistically and perceptually, and they demand that we defy it with them.


For the performing musician, is performance preparation inherently disruptive to or compatible with one's extramusical daily life? If artistic success requires great logistical contortions such as canceling all social and leisure activities for a period of time, has the artist truly succeeded?

Due to the physical nature of their craft, it is not unusual for instrumentalists to make special accommodations for a particularly important upcoming performance. These accommodations may include "clearing out" one's schedule in the days leading up to the event, sleeping more, eating better, drinking more water, etc. etc. But what does it say about that instrumentalist that their usual daily grind is not conducive to the artistry they aspire to? Either the daily grind ought to change, or they should.

Though exalted artworks are, by definition, rare, the artist must operate on the assumption that it is possible to succeed often in their attempts to create such works. This cannot be accomplished by making adjustments to one's routine when exaltation is demanded, but only by finding a healthy balance of work and play that is conducive to maximizing one's chances for success all of the time.

Great art by definition does not fit comfortably into everyday life, but rather than merely "making time" for artistic success, great artists are those for whom great art does indeed fit into their daily grind, and to whom it becomes commonplace.

06 April 2008

Takes One to Know One

Everyone wants to be the victim, but no one wants to be the fascist. Don't believe me? Read on...

(1)Composer Jorge Martin posted this in a comment to Greg Sandow:

Atonality, but more so dodecaphony and serialsm, -- I would argue -- relies more purely on the intellect and only incidentally, if much at all, on the sensorium. In other words, you can talk up a good game for the stuff, but mostly it just sounds awful. Mostly, as the music is a-tonal, i.e., works against tonality or a tonal center, that music also works against all tonal forms of melos and harmony, and equally against rhythm. Please do not tell me what is commonly argued: of course there is melody and harmony and rhythm in this music -- yes, but the melodic, harmonic and rhythmic shapes are all fashioned to go precisely against anything we can relate to normally. I consider this an essentially anti-humanist enterprise or intellectual movement. All cultures we have ever known have melodic and rhythmic shapes that a community can participate in. Atonality is asocial: it endeavors to exclude and resist participation, despite any protestations to the contrary. I don't think this is a judgment so much as a description of fact. Now, one can indeed like the music, and some do, and some atonal music can be quite attractive, but in those cases, I believe the composer has used other musical means to mitigate the extreme nature of the tone-language. Or: the music is part of a narrative, usually telling of extreme or deranged psychological states, in the theater, opera or movie-house, in which case many an audience finds nothing objectionable in the music, insofar as it is part of a greater whole.

When Taruskin mentions Zhdanov and the Nazis he does not imply that Boulez was a Nazi or a Stalinist: he suggests that the impulse behind the utterance is the same, namely a dangerous, aggressive hostility toward his opposition, which impulse had already shown itself -- and continues to show itself -- destructive. And let's not kid ourselves that because Boulez "was in his 20's" ("just a kid"?? -- tell that to Alexander, Mendelssohn, Keats, quite a few great mathematicians and military heroes and villains!) his youthfulness is any excuse: at that age any number of men (men, mostly) can wreak quite a lot of damage and wield quite a bit of brute power, and historically always have, in gangs or as leaders. The destruction Boulez wrought was not physical but, as you yourself suggest, spiritual and psychological, in making it seem that anyone daring to work in any other medium was beyond the pale, excommunicated, excrement. Your vignette about Boulez and the older Stravinsky, which I had not heard, confirms in my mind that the man is, whatever other merits he may possess, a brute. Boulez -- mid-20th-century Frenchman, as you remind us -- was prey, as so many avant-gardistes were, to a continued utopian mindset, which brought us the horrors of nazism, communism, Maoism, Stalinism, and continues to bring us its religious forms. I consider utopianism the very worst of all possible forms of intellectual failure, even if at its core it comes from a (yes, youthful) urge to create a better, ideal world. But this urge can be easily and quickly perverted by other urges (e.g., to power), has never succeeded, and flies in the face of history and everything we know about human nature. True Utopian, of course, Boulez and his ilk cannot tolerate diversion from their program -- to my mind a rather joyless one, intellectual asceticism to the nth.

(2)The following is part of composer Gordon Downie's response to the question "Is Modernism Still Modern?" as posed by conductor and blogger Kenneth Woods:

We should be in no doubt about the revolutionary nature of the high modernist programme, in terms of how it redefines creative activity, in terms of how it repositions power relations between cultural producers (or artists) and forms of management and power, and in how it redefines the function of aesthetic objects. Once initiated, within our current regressive cultural and political climate, simply sustaining and defending it from counter-revolutionary attacks is enough of a problem. I always notice a strong reluctance to discuss music or culture in these terms, but I make no apology for invoking political language to describe these processes. They are political processes and we can only understand their real dynamic if we view them in such terms.

...the conditions that require the kinds of processes associated with high modernism...haven’t changed. This being the case, neither should the response. It’s no coincidence that the rise of so-called aesthetic postmodernism and associated tendencies over the last 20 years or so is coterminous with neo-con triumphalism and the re-assertion of various forms of neo-liberalist ideologies that have celebrated “the end of history.”

Internal failure has its source in the abandonment, deviation from, or selective adoption of, those principles that define the modernist programme at its most authentic and astringent, and thus at its most effective and, for me, most interesting. Deviationism and eclecticism, having their routes in reformist and coalition politics, are essentially opportunistic, and weaken the aims of the programme as a whole. And as aesthetic modernism is merely the cultural expression of a wider socio-political process, having its origins in projects of enlightenment and associated historical programmes of cultural maturation and advancement, its appropriation for individual acts of opportunism has implications that go beyond mere art making and cultural production. Such action becomes an aesthetic-behavioural correlation of that hyper-individualism that characterises market society as a whole. A large body of critical scaffolding has now been erected around these two forms of opportunism that legitimate such actions by giving them a purely aesthetic, and thus non-political, interpretation. These frequently take the form of a purely subject-centred, coarse biographical reductionism.

But in any artistic revolution, there is frequently a counter-revolution, in which elements representative of the former make various forms of opportunistic accommodation with the rear-garde. This has given rise to the formation of a legal modernism that, though retaining features of the original, is more or less a simulation of it, with a more palatable user- and marketing-friendly complexion. In such conditions, although various forms of neo-conservatism might constitute the immediate and most obvious opposition to modernist aspirations, the greater threat can be sourced in those tendencies that have occupied, distorted, and colonised its territory.

So, peanut gallery, who are the fascists after all? Is it the "anti-humanist" "anti-social" "utopian" composers, or is it the "eclectic" "post-modern" "opportunistic" composers? I think I know the answer, but I want to know what you think...