Monday, October 6, 2014

Postscript on Novelty

Yesterday I did a post on the aesthetics of novelty, taking my inspiration from a section of Dahlhaus' book on the Esthetics of Music. Today I want to take another look at it as several things have come to mind. Here is that quote again:
The commonplace fact that familiar things are not perceived but merely registered and that preconceptions get in the way of things themselves and hinder an impartial experience has been made the point of departure for a theory of art by formalistic estheticians, especially the Russians. The center of this theory is formed by the category of novelty. Only something that is so surprising and so off-putting as to escape habitual forms of reaction can have any prospect of being perceived esthetically... [Formalism can also] support an opposite extreme, the repossession of what is archaic. For a restoration of the remote past shares with an esthetic revolution the tendency to alienate. Both restoration and revolution, through the amazement they evoke, tend to cut loose perception from habits that prevent its being perception in the full sense of the word. [op. cit. p. 96]
This was the largely unexamined assumption behind a lot of modernist art. The artist had to keep moving the boundaries and coming up with entirely novel ideas and materials because "familiar things are not perceived but merely registered." But I think this assertion falls apart as soon as you dig into it. Yes, there is a superficial plausibility about it, but let's test that. One way is to perform a simple perceptual test with yourself. Simply take a word and repeat it. It doesn't matter what word you pick, but a short one is probably better than a long one. Take the word "lifespan" for example:

lifespan
lifespan 
lifespan 
lifespan 
lifespan 
lifespan 
lifespan 
lifespan 
lifespan 

If you say it over and over again, or even look at it over and over again, the more you do so, the weirder it appears until it doesn't seem to be a familiar word any more. This defamiliarization through repetition is the basic method of at least three very well-known composers. I'm sure you can name them? Philip Glass, of course:


And Steve Reich:


But also Domenico Scarlatti who is famous for repeating the same rhythm and motif many times. In this sonata, K. 231, the rhythm triplet sixteenths followed by two eighth notes appears some sixty times:


The genius of these composers is to use repetition to intensify the musical expression. Ironically, constant novelty in music is often tiresome while repetition is not! For many listeners, the lack of any repetition is a barrier to the enjoyment of a lot of modernist music. Let me hasten to say that this is not meant to be a blanket dismissal of all music that lacks repetition. But have a listen to this and see if you find it tiring for the ears:


Note that I am not critiquing the atonality or the harmony or motivic or rhythmic structure, just the non-repetitiveness. Every measure is fairly new, or at least sounds fairly new, compared to the one before.

Another point to note is that we are constantly renewing our perceptions of familiar pieces of music. There are pieces that you can listen to many times and each time you hear something new. There are pieces that can sound very different to you if you haven't listened to them for a while. The idea that, again quoting from Dahlhaus, "preconceptions get in the way of things themselves" is just another unfounded assumption. Sure, it can happen. But it can also happen that a listener can hear a piece of music afresh--or ignore it entirely. This is really in the hands, or ears, of the listener.

So one begins to suspect that the real foundation for the theory of aesthetics quoted above is not so much an objective search for the truth in these matters as an ideological position taken due to historical context. Possibly as yet another consequence of the horrors of World War I, many thinkers in the arts proposed beginning at square one or year zero as an echo of the ideas of the French Revolution. There is an obvious connection between wanting to wipe the slate clean and an aesthetic theory that proposes perpetual novelty.

Someone should write a really good book on the history of aesthetics from an empirical point of view. Who me? Like I don't have other things to do!!

Note: The theory that I am critiquing here is merely stated by Carl Dahlhaus. It is not proposed by him as being the or a definitive theory. On the very next page he goes on to talk about the relationship between fashion and aesthetics and later on to critique the notion of the "test of time". 

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