Thursday, March 17, 2016

New Old Masters

Long time readers of this blog know that I have something of a radical, not to say reactionary, approach to aesthetics. I simply don't accept a lot of the fundamental principles of modernism and am constantly seeking another path. I think that a lot of the clues to that path lie in the great artistic traditions of Western art. But I am not the only person with this view. I just ran across a visual artist, New Yorker Jacob Collins, who has been teaching from this point of view for decades:
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.”
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.

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:


David said...

Bryan, another great post. I am an adherent to your "radical" aesthetic school. As a confession, I must admit that I have little to no skill as a creator of art. With that said, it occurred to me that it seems easier to produce modern as opposed to aesthetically "classic" art: Rothco (and his colour fields) vs. Jacob Collins and his appealing realism; modern music's droning repetitions vs. Haydn's inventive sound world.

If rectangles of colour like Rothco's "Orange, Red, Yellow" can sell at auction for over $86 million, why take the time and trouble to produce the realistic light and shadow, form and movement of a Collins canvas? The modern painter can "explain" the work to the public ala Rothco: "Rothko believed that the rectangles merely offered a new way of representing the presences or spirits that he tried to capture in those earlier works. "It was not that the figure had been removed," he once said, "..but the symbols for the figures... These new shapes say.. what the figures said." In this way, Rothko imagined a kind of direct communion between himself and the viewer, one which might touch the viewer with a higher spirituality." [quote from:]

Jacob Collins' work doesn't need explanation. What you see is the sum total of what the artist offers for your aesthetic appreciation.

Sorry, I have rambled on. But my basic point is that from the outside of the "creator world" it seems that much more effort, time and skill (or genius) is needed to create successfully in the steps of the old masters.

Jeph said...

Oy Bryan, now you've got me wondering about all those cadences I put in my piece...Collapse? Aren't you overstating it? Is the cadence truly "over" in art music? How are we defining cadence? ii-V-I ? To my mind, even modern music requires some moments of repose and relief from ambiguity to be truly satisfying.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, David!

Oh yes, there is definitely what seems to be a "technique deficit" in the creation of a lot of the iconic works of modernism such as canvases by Rothko or works by Damien Hirst etc. When the latter tried to do a show in which he reverted to more traditional representational pieces he was heavily criticized for not having the technique.

But there are also examples of artists who offer highly developed technical devices within a modernist framework such as, perhaps, Ai Weiwei or Francis Bacon. And in music we have people like Pierre Boulez or Eliot Carter or Brian Ferneyhough who seem to have a great technical command.

This is why I feel there is a need to distinguish between the technique or craft and the aesthetic. I think that the aesthetic goal is primary and it in turn suggests the necessary technical means.

Bryan Townsend said...

Hey Jeph, if you can make them work, more power to ya! They just don't sound right in my music, so I have to find other ways of punctuating or structuring the flow.

Jeph said...

I think that's quite a radical statement you make about cadence, more Modernist than I would have thought. And that's cool, I'm just trying to work out your aesthetic point of view. So, for you personally, the cadence has been drained of significance, and you avoid its use in your own music. why? Why don't they sound right to you?

btw I love your blog, there's nobody else to talk about this stuff with.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, so much Jeph! I am very glad that composers read my blog.

Your comment makes me rethink what I said and I think you are right--I did overstate the case. In fact, I just recalled one piece I wrote, a song, in which each section does end with a, more-or-less, conventional cadence. I think the reason is that the song, while hovering between D major and B minor, is less ambiguously tonal than is usual in my music.

It is difficult, I suspect, to use a traditional cadence in a non-ironic way. As an example, we might look at the String Quartet #6 of Shostakovich, where each movement ends with the same cadence--but it is clearly meant to be sardonic. It has the effect of a mock bow or genuflection. The avoidance of a traditional cadence has led to what we might call the "Gallipoli" close after the movie by Peter Weir. That ends with the protagonist being shot and, at the very moment he is hit, the film stops, frozen. It is a very powerful and dramatic ending. The identical kind of ending is found in the song "I Want You" from Abbey Road by the Beatles where the tape is simply cut with no warning. A cadence, in a lot of recent music, is a kind of denouement that is often avoided. Look at virtually every piece by Steve Reich which also end by simply stopping suddenly.

We can hear the cadence being deconstructed, as it were, in the way Sibelius finds to end each of his symphonies. Finding the traditional cadence too anticlimactic, he strives in each piece to find a new solution to the problem. I wrote several posts on this here:

There are also three follow-up posts.

Todd Fletcher said...

Perhaps a return to the symbolic meaning of the cadence in early music can be clarifying:

Think of it not as ending in a state of rest but rather as a return to the singularity of the infinite, and then: a new beginning. This symbolizes the origin of all things from the infinite singularity of God, and it's return, just as the soul is born into the body and then returns on death. And the also infinite possibilities between are illustrated by transformation and evolution, which is what all living things experience.

This is certainly an idea that can always have currency, when stated in a form congruent to our time (whatever that is!)

Bryan Townsend said...

That is a very interesting suggestion, Todd. I can think of a couple of pieces where a cadence is handled in rather a symbolic manner: the Symphony No. 7 of Sibelius and Thus Spake Zarathustra by Richard Strauss. But for the Classical era at least, the cadence has a very concrete harmonic function with nothing symbolic about it.