Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Aesthetics of Novelty

I've been reading Carl Dahlhaus' Esthetics of Music. While a short book, it certainly provides a lot of food for thought. In the last chapter, "Standards of Criticism" he summarizes a lot of the aesthetic assumptions of modernism:
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]
I certainly recognize this aesthetic model as one that underlies the work of many contemporary composers such as John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez, also the earlier generations of Schoenberg, Bartók and Stravinsky. In fact, I am strongly reminded of a book I read many years ago that captures the essence of this view: Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees by Lawrence Weschler, which is a monograph on the artist Robert Irwin.

But here is the odd thing: while I am very intent on discovering something new in every piece I write, I have never really shared the above aesthetic viewpoint. I think my generation (and later), born in the 1950s, has a different sense of things. For me, mere innovation can be empty tinkering. I have listened to hundreds of pieces written with the above aesthetic and found them to be remarkably similar and predictable from an expressive point of view! In other words, the jagged atonality of composers as different as Luigi Nono, Earle Brown, John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen sounds to me expressively very similar. And hence, to me, aesthetically irrelevant. What I am interested in is what is aesthetically expressive to the listener, something that takes the listener somewhere and preferably somewhere new. That this be an expressively authentic experience is more important than that it be novel or revolutionary.

I know I have used some words that are troubling: "authentic" for one. But this is crucial for me. The problem I have with a lot of modernism (and probably some postmodernism as well) is that it is technically novel and expressively uninteresting. The music of Edgar Varèse is importantly novel, but to me it often sounds like the soundtrack to a horror movie--and notice how many of these ominous devices have been stolen by the composers of horror movie soundtracks. Is this the authentic expressive content of Varèse's music? Or is it just that these sounds were new and therefore necessary to his aesthetic?

The procedure I prefer to follow is to take musical structures that may not be new, may be "archaic" perhaps and rediscover them, tilt them, turn them so that they regain their expressive charge. I acknowledge the point that Dahlhaus makes about the need to short circuit familiarity, but I can't buy the whole perceptual theory that underlies it. By juxtaposing things that might have been familiar with things that are not familiar, the whole work becomes a new expressive landscape. At least, that is my conviction.

Here are a couple of pieces, one by Edgar Varèse and one by Luigi Nono, by way of example:

I don't want to alienate my audience, I want to move them...

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