Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Revolutionary, Reactionary, Or?

I may have mentioned at one point that some while back I became an apostate as regards avant-garde music. I simply decided to reject the basic assumptions of that aesthetic. I'm free to do that, as an artist, right? Just as for generations artists and musicians were free to accept the principles of the avant-garde. Oh, except that after a while, they were the only ones that were allowed, that were respectable, that were acceptable from serious composers. You see, that's the funny thing about art and ideology: once the ideology takes over, there isn't much art left. Or so I think.

This is inspired by an essay in New Music Box, a good place to look for thoughtful discussion of new music. That essay was prompted by this one, in the Independent on an exhibit of new British artists. I found nothing surprising in the idea that:
One has grown so used to the idea of young artists being revolutionary that it comes as something of a surprise to find that most of them are quite conventional in their concerns with craft and their ambitions to become professional. And why not?
I think the idea or ideology, rather, that artists must be revolutionary and progressive is one with a history. That history, like that of ideology itself, starts in the French Revolution and mushrooms throughout the 19th century. As we have seen with Shostakovich, aesthetics in the Soviet Union was tightly controlled by ideology. You might argue that it was an oppressive, reactionary ideology and so it may have been in comparison with the ideology of Western artists. But the point is simply that it was an ideology, a political ideology, that attempted to control art. Personally, I think that which ideology you pick is less important than the fact that it exists. I like my art ideology-free as much as possible. And it is one of the most subtle ideological positions that ideology-free art is simply not possible. Sure it is, just as ideology-laden art is possible.

I find it interesting that my reactions to the article in New Music Box were diametrically opposed to those of the writer, Frank J. Oteri. For example, he says:
determining whether something is “revolutionary” or “reactionary” at this juncture is as subjective an undertaking as determining whether something is “beautiful.”
Yes, there are certainly subjective aspects to all aesthetic judgment, but the context helps to determine if something is revolutionary or reactionary, does it not? Cage 4'33 is revolutionary and Brahms Symphony No. 1 is reactionary. Or pick your own examples. He seems to be saying that we just can't say if something is revolutionary or reactionary--which makes the existence of those ideas rather pointless, doesn't it? Also, we can argue about whether something is beautiful because we share certain concepts of beauty, just like we share a certain sense of what is meant by 'red' or 'kind' or 'deferred taxes'.

This passage is rather telling (he is quoting from the Independent article):
But the comment that gnawed at me the most was his explanation for why these artists did not meet his standards for progressive brilliance:
[T]here is really no reason why you should find your voice in your early twenties. It’s a 20th-century assumption that creativity comes before the craft rather than the other way round. Nobody in previous centuries would have signed up to that.
I’m now in my late 40s and every time I begin composing a new piece of music, I hope that a new idea emerges. The last thing I ever want is to be forced into patterns dictated by a voice that I was supposed to have found upon “maturing.” It is my hope that none of these artists “find their voices” but rather continue to explore in this wonderful environment where anything and everything is possible.
It is not quite clear what is meant by 'voice' or "finding your voice" but let's say that it has to do with the stage after you have absorbed the basic techniques of the craft and studied the works of other composers. Then you settle into one or more stages of composition where your music takes on a specific quality, a specific nature. It becomes identifiable as music by so-and-so. Bach found his 'voice' based on that of many other composers, early on, though he continued to refine and develop it throughout his life. Beethoven took much longer to find his 'voice', and he made radical changes to it at least twice in later life, resulting in the styles we call 'early', 'middle' and 'late' Beethoven. Many composers in the last hundred years have tried, as Frank Oteri suggests above, to find a new voice for every piece. This is, I think, a consequence of the avant-garde degrading into a kind of pursuit of fashion. Every season you have to reveal a new color, a new cut. This probably started with Picasso.

But yes, young composers seem to be, some of them, returning to a sense of craft and style that seems conservative compared to the avant-garde. I find a lot of their music more listenable as a result.

I wrote on a related issue here.

Now, what shall we listen to, to top off this discussion? How about that classic by Don Ellis, Pussywiggle Stomp which is in, I believe, 7/4.

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