Saturday, November 5, 2011

Almost Music

This is a phenomenon not much talked about. At any given time there are a cluster of artists working in a particular genre: landscape painters, watercolorists, cubists--all working with similar materials to similar ends. Then a hundred years later only one or two names survive, because these were the ones that were doing something significant and lasting. Of the rest some just lacked talent. But others may have been very well known, perhaps even the most popular at the time. What were they up to? Whether knowingly or not, they were copying what the creative ones were doing, but without any creativity themselves. They were not making art, they were aping art. To the general public this may often be not only acceptable, but preferable!

But let me give credit where credit is due: successful aping of creativity is not easy. Only a few do it well. How to do it depends on understanding the basic aesthetic challenge of the field. Not meeting it, of course, but faking what it might look like to meet it. Difficult, but still easier than actual creativity. I think we are ready for an example so let me propose the British artist Damien Hirst and from the classical avant-garde Karlheinz Stockhausen. One good indicator of fakery is a flashy presentation. By flashy I mean anything that instantly draws attention, like a 14 foot shark suspended in a tank:

Or a string quartet where each member is in a different helicopter. Here is how Wikipedia describes that piece:
Stockhausen had dreams of flying throughout his life, and these dreams are reflected in the Helikopter-Streichquartett (the third scene of Mittwoch aus Licht), completed in 1993. In it, the four members of a string quartet perform in four helicopters flying independent flight paths over the countryside near the concert hall. The sounds they play are mixed together with the sounds of the helicopters and played through speakers to the audience in the hall. Videos of the performers are also transmitted back to the concert hall. The performers are synchronized with the aid of a click track, transmitted to them and heard over headphones.
And here is an excerpt:

In the context of this kind of avant-garde modernism traditional aesthetic values are hilariously inappropriate. In the past, the joke has been on the traditional aesthetic value. But I think that time is over. The joke is really on us. We fell for it. Especially someone who paid nearly ten million pounds for a shark in a tank. Or the music festivals who rented those helicopters. Not to mention the audience who thought they were hearing something of some significance. Well, I don't think so.

A different genre requires a different kind of fakery, though. In pop music, you need to look around, see what is fashionable, or perhaps not quite fashionable yet, or something that was fashionable and due for a revival. That bring us to pop music and this article in today's Globe and Mail about the 20th anniversary of this album. Here is a song from the album:

And another:

What's wrong with them? This is professional music-making, of course. Just like Damien Hirst and Karlheinz Stockhausen, U2 know what they are doing. But on the aesthetic level, this is merely perfunctory. All the gestures and execution are predictable, merely reproducing what has been done a thousand times. None of the irregularities and quirks that signal genuine creation. As the band-members themselves tell us, they felt creatively empty and searched for inspiration in many genres. The resulting album was hugely successful commercially, but still just a mishmash of generic music. Four bars of this, four bars of that, typical guitar lick, voice with the calculated right amount of roughness to suggest sincerity. But no real quality, no real individuality...

I think if you read the interview in the Globe and Mail you can pick up from the BS and posturing that these guys know perfectly well what they got away with and are hoping to keep getting away with...

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