Monday, February 1, 2016

A Rebellious Mood

A longtime commentator sent me an interesting link on David Garrett, the violin virtuoso who presents himself a bit like a rock star and does what is usually called "crossover" (he also does a lot of the regular kind of concertizing, which you don't pick up from that link). The article says:
Clinging to David Garrett is the label of a rebel. For his appearance is not that of the classical musician, his concerts are no longer the kind his early audiences would expect, and his approach to music mixes up entrenched concepts, making them seem redundant.
It is interesting to see that, in the course of his life, he has found himself repeatedly in positions that cast him as a rebel; even though, as he has stated, his natural inclination is to live in harmony with those around him.
I want to just pick up on the core idea here: that an artist--a genuine artist--has to be, in some sense a rebel. This is an idea of some vintage, but not an age-old one. In fact, this is an idea that really only dates from around 1830 with a few precursors.

We have an image of Beethoven as a rebel and nearly every musical rebel since has followed that model. It is a constructed model, however, even though there is some substance to it. The "Beethoven as rebel" is only one side of him. Pieces like his solitary opera Fidelio about the freeing of a political prisoner, his last symphony and his Symphony No. 3 are offered as evidence of his revolutionary, rebellious nature, with good reason. But that leaves out the vast majority of his work which was, as was most 18th century music, designed to amuse and entertain a music-loving aristocracy. Indeed, a number of these noblemen banded together to provide Beethoven with an annual stipend in his later years.

But by the 1830s and the music of Berlioz, Schumann, Liszt, Chopin and others, the model of the solitary, rebellious artist was firmly entrenched as it has been ever since. This is a kind of costume that all musicians and artists are forced to wear, no matter their real character. If you are not in some way a revolutionary rebel, then your work is not "serious" art--this is the very deeply embedded narrative.

And I have a problem with it!

The problem is basically that I think that this narrative is no longer very relevant and certainly should not determine what artists are forced to do. I guess I want to rebel against the rebellion! All through the 19th century it had some real relevance as music, and art generally, was moving away from an "aristocratic patron" model to a middle-class model. The old social structures were being modified or replaced and art provided a kind of aesthetic chronicle. Then the 20th century saw music veer into an extreme modernism--at first as a harbinger of the two World Wars and then post-WWII as a kind of benumbed post-traumatic reaction to the horrors of the wars. I think that this explains a great deal of the extremism we see between 1914 and 1970.

But in the 1960s some entirely new influences began to be felt, partly inspired by non-Western sources and partly by the exhaustion of the avant-garde. The ideas of transcendence and even joy began to return to art. In music the work of Steve Reich and Philip Glass broke away from the modernist progressive narrative and we hear a new emotional landscape. This is Steve Reich's Eight Lines from 1979:


Frankly, I have very little interest in writing dreary, fragmentary, agonized "progressive" music! What I want to write is music with transcendence and joy. When I listen to a symphony of Joseph Haydn and hear the astonishing brilliance and sheer jubilance of it I think, yes, that is the kind of thing we need now. Not more existentialist anxiety!


16 comments:

Marc Puckett said...

That essay was hard to read-- I knew nothing about DG, nor had I ever read Fabienne Wolf; that sort of pseudo-psychoanalytic nonsense ('his bearing and all his movements are an image of complete liberation'), well, no thank you. But for all that he's evidently a talented artist ('Smells like teen spirit' notwithstanding), so good for him; I suspect that his personal history can be articulated without repetitive recourse to the devices of storms fraught with difficulties! battles! victories! let me catch my breath... but of course that may in fact be precisely how he himself views his relation to the world. I don't know. Joy and transcendence-- I didn't see any of that in Wolf's Garret, however.

Christine Lacroix said...

Hi Bryan

It's interesting, isn't it, how two people can look at the same thing and see something entirely different. You said : "I want to just pick up on the core idea here: that an artist--a genuine artist--has to be, in some sense a rebel." Where do you get that? That the article says that a genuine artist 'has to be a rebel'? Maybe I'm missing something? I'll have to read it again but honestly I didn't get that impression at all. If they said that David Garrett rebelled and then succeeded as an artist it doesn't mean they are saying that all artists need to rebel to be genuine artists, does it? Or even that rebelling has anything to do with art. My understanding is that they are simply describing his parcours in an effort to understand the man. But perhaps you're referring to a narrative that I know nothing about?

Marc Puckett said...

Discovered a couple of hours ago that I've been listening to Steve Reich's Music for 18 Musicians today (long story; a 'new music' playlist that Spotify pushes on Monday mornings), to which I contrast the three or four non-classical David Garrett tracks I sampled. Different worlds indeed.

Fabienne Wolf said...

Indeed, the situation so concisely outlined here concerning the need for a rebellious stance to prove that one is a serious artist who is not out to please (shame on Mozart!) also applied, and still applies, to literature, architecture and the visual arts. How to find a way of return from this rebellious stance to the joy and harmony of which our world has such great need may just be the next big thing.

Bryan Townsend said...

I can see that the only problem with my moderating comments is that you don't get to see what others have written until I clear the comments.

Christine, the quote from the first two paragraphs of the article shows that the label "rebel" has often attached itself to David Garrett and that situations seem to put him in that role. My post fills in some historical context, but this really isn't a controversial claim. For evidence, notice that the fourth comment is from the author of the essay and he seems to be agreeing with me.

Let me state it in slightly different terms: David Garrett presents himself in a way that might appear as if he is rebelling against some of the norms of classical soloists. Another quote:

"each time, his instinct sets him on a course that is in conflict with what older and supposedly wiser people express as their considered opinion. Their views are not at all foolish; they make good sense and could easily be accepted as sound advice. But David’s insight prompts him to disagree with them all and to contradict universally held opinions."

I'm just pointing out that this is a familiar stance for an artist since the early years of the 19th century. If you study the history of Romantic music you will see where the claim that this is the authentic stance for an artist comes from.

Marc Puckett said...

I read a bit more of Fabienne's writing-- her post on Salzburg is quite lovely, I thought-- and I think I ought to admit that my 'pseudo-psychoanalysis' was perhaps over-hasty, specially since there are a number of DG posts I didn't read.

Bryan Townsend said...

And I have to apologize for saying "he" when obviously I should have said "she"!

Christine Lacroix said...

So I really don't understand the reasoning behind "this is the authentic stance for an artist'. Does this mean that a Japanese poet who 'rebels' against the rules of Haiku and starts writing in a new form is a real poet/artist but one that writes brilliantly within the framework of Haiku isn't? By the way, remember, this is not David Garrett writing about himself. And hey, Marc, what's wrong with Smells Like Teen Spirit? The 2Cellos do a great cover of it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jS826PwLHdQ

Bryan Townsend said...

I have to rush out, and will say more later, but my comments were very much restricted to a particular historic context. In other words, this was a criteria that seems to have began in the early 19th century and, in my view, is fading from importance now.

Marc Puckett said...

Christine, Ha! I'm not surprised that they do. It would never occur to me, however, to listen to a cover when I can listen to the Beatles' original version.

Bryan Townsend said...

Tsk, tsk, Marc! You have to do a course in the musicology of pop music! "Smells Like Teen Spirit" is the best known song by Nirvana, a Seattle grunge band led by Kurt Cobain.

Christine, more on the above. I need to explicate a bit what I am trying to say. I am pointing out a certain kind of aesthetic stance, common between, say, 1830 and now, that largely attributes aesthetic authenticity to rebelling against conventionality. David Garrett, at least as described in the linked article, might be an example. But there are many other examples from Berlioz to Boulez. It was one aspect of what we might call the "Romantic" attitude that was taken into the modernist attitude. What I am trying to say is that I regard it as something that may now be of merely historic interest. In other words, I think it is time for a different attitude. And no, this wouldn't apply to a Japanese artist or any non-Western one as they are part of a different history.

Christine Lacroix said...

The Beatles? I think you meant to say Nirvana! But give it a listen. It's infinitely better than the original Nirvana.

Christine Lacroix said...

I was also referring to your blogger's comment: Indeed, the situation so concisely outlined here concerning the need for a rebellious stance to prove that one is a serious artist who is not out to please (shame on Mozart!) also applied, and still applies, to literature, architecture and the visual arts.
Do people still seriously believe this?

Bryan Townsend said...

Christine, yes, a lot of people do still seriously believe this. I think that the buzzword that evokes this idea is that art has to be "transgressive". A great deal of contemporary art, music and theatre does try pretty hard to be transgressive, don't you think?

Marc Puckett said...

All right you two, Bryan and Christine: I was joking, thanks very much. And I know SLTS wasn't the Beatles-- chose the B.s since I couldn't decide which of Pearl Jam or Nirvana was responsible for it. :-)

Bryan Townsend said...

Ok, all is forgiven!