This is exactly the way I have characterized the way I look at it: "going to the origins". One of the posts where I laid this approach out was this one: "Progressivism vs..." In that post I coin a new word "racinative" to describe the action of going back to or rediscovering the roots of art.Collins explains: “My general feeling in terms of art making is the train got off the rails in the 1860s and 1870s, and my practical instinct is to go back to where it was, try to put it back, fix it up, and start going again.”“Our culture,” he continued, “has inherited the idea that if artists are not avant-garde they cannot have a significant role. That’s a fallacy we’ve inherited from some Parisian nut-job radicals. The rejection of beauty is so accepted. It’s high time that we as a culture attend to our beauty position.” To much of the New York art world, Collins’s “beauty position,” which he applies to his own paintings of nudes, still lifes, and landscapes, might look embarrassingly retrograde. He enjoys the support of a small minority of critics and writers—most of whom, like him, regard modern art with skepticism. Novelist Tom Wolfe has called Collins “certainly in terms of skill, one of the most brilliant artists in the entire country.” But you would never find the Collins style in a commercial gallery in Chelsea, say, or in a museum survey of contemporary painting. Morley Safer of 60 Minutes, another Collins admirer, told me that he believed that the “current art establishment, the so-called gatekeepers, hate the kind of skill and craft and vision that an artist like Collins has.” Even among representational painters, Collins is a world away from fashionable realists like John Currin or Elizabeth Peyton, portraitists whom he sees as steeped in the ideology of detachment. Yet to a growing number of young students, Collins clearly satisfies a deep urge to reconnect with tradition. To them, he’s a radical artist in the true meaning of the word—“going to the origins.”
In music the situation is different from the visual arts and this comes largely from the fact that music is a performing art. The arts departments in most universities were able to easily toss aside the whole traditional curriculum in the 70s because they could. It was very much harder for music departments because most of their students were not composers, but performers and people majoring in history, theory and music education. All of these students, the great majority, had to be taught all the traditional skills: ear training, harmonic analysis, counterpoint, history and, of course, performance with its emphasis on technique and repertoire--and that repertoire was largely the established canon of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and so on. Therefore, unlike in the visual arts, the historic traditions in music never went away, no matter how much the 20th century modernists tried to erase them. Our "nut-job radicals" just didn't have the clout they had in the visual arts.
But here is the problem: perhaps because the Classical traditions are still very much alive in music, when you try to emulate them it causes a kind of aesthetic short circuit. I think I have mentioned that as soon as you try to use one of the fundamental structural devices of classicism in a contemporary composition--I am thinking here of the cadence--it just collapses the whole piece. It sounds so jarringly wrong that you can't use it. Philip Glass has commented that the secret to harmony these days is to be ambiguous and that is what a cadence is not--ambiguous. It's entire purpose is to define and clarify the harmonic center. Perhaps we have Wagner to thank for draining the cadence of its useful identity, leaving it as nothing more than a hackneyed cliché.
So I look around and the composer who seems to have mastered this challenge is Steve Reich. He has indeed gone back to the origins--a long, long way back, to a kind of primeval state of music. Starting with the simple idea of a repeated pulse, he has, over the last forty-some years, worked to elaborate that single idea into an entirely new approach to musical structure. And one that sounds fresh and full of energy. It seems as if the continued presence of not only the Classical traditions, but also the Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque ones in music means that in order to go back to the origins you have to go a long, long way back. A couple of other influences on Steve Reich are non-Western musics like the Balinese gamelan and the drum music of Ghana as well as 12th century organa.
But in the visual arts, the traditional methods of painting were so thoroughly killed off in the last one hundred years that painters now seem to be able to revive them by, as Collins says, going back to the 1860s and 70s. In music we have to go a lot further back--or away...
Here is a sample of drum music from Ghana: