Tag: theory

On the Purpose of Art in 700 Words or Less

Moving to a new town has triggered something inside of me that makes me question everything I do. In trying to analyze the elements of music—Where does it take place? With whom? In what notation? With what instruments?—I’ve been pulled back to a central question: What is our music for? For that matter, what is our art for? There is a lot of pop-science writing these days focused on the inevitability of music—the human soul’s yearning to make art, to create, to play. However, I’m going to lean away from that and over the next, errrrr, 600 words, attempt to explain what ALL ART is for, really. This is not a holistic survey, but is representative of my own musings of late.

1. The writer Dorthe Nors put together this fantastic piece on Ingmar Bergman and his creative solitude for the Atlantic which articulates the core job of the artist. Bergman, reflecting on his relative isolation living on a rural island off Sweden, noted, “Here, in my solitude, I have the feeling that I contain too much humanity.”—literally too much human being inside of him, too much of the human experience. Nors goes on to give a clear and thoughtful analysis of generating and making work:

Everyone feels this, but artists try to capture the feeling through art, contain it within some permanent form of expression.  And when I read a good text or see a good movie or enjoy a good piece of art—it is the humanity, this poured-out human experience, that I detect.

You should really read the whole article. I’ll wait.

It’s an essential idea: a temporary feeling of humanness articulated and made permanent in an object or composition. This is where the value lies in a system of notation that prizes concrete elements of harmony and rhythm. Works can be performed and re-performed over time. This is why we can share Bach and revisit times long gone. This is our first job.
2. Marcel Duchamp characterized art as a “game played between all people of all periods.” This frees us from the obligation of manifesting a sensibility of greater humanity inside one of our permanent (or less-than-permanent) works. Our humanness becomes a characteristic imprinted on the action, the play, the game of making things. Cage took this to heart in his lecture “Experimental Music” (1957):

What is the purpose of writing music? One is, of course, not dealing with purposes but dealing with sounds. Or the answer must take the form of a paradox: a purposeful purposelessness or a purposeless play. This play, however, is an affirmation of life—not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply a way of waking up to the very life we’re living, which is so excellent once one gets one’s mind and one’s desires out of its way and lets it act of its own accord.

Our humanness is enough, and naturally imprints onto the work. All facets of our humanness are welcome, especially chance and indeterminacy, which I think are the core ethos of games (along with pleasure and failure). This is our second job: to play.
3. In his essay “Relational Aesthetics,” Nicolas Bourriaud vainly attempts to put all of Western art history into a production of relationships between humanity and art. His broad overview begins,  “Let us say that artworks were first situated in a transcendent world, within which art aimed at introducing ways of communicating with the deity….” All Western devotional music acted in this function for generations before art and music began exploring the relations between man and the physical world beginning around the Renaissance. Paraphrasing from Bourriaud, consider the anatomical realism that came about in visual art and the eventual rise of unnamed symphonies and pastoral music, which doesn’t explore the divine but relates music to the land itself. Bourriaud suggests that the third relationship is one that developed in the latter 20th century with the rise of relational art, or art that is “focused on the sphere of inter-human relations.” The funny thing is that music has always pointed to our social relationships as a collaborative activity taking place in real time and space. However, Bourriaud is talking about something quite different: art projects that exist as social works.

Francis Alÿs attempting to move a mountain outside Lima, Peru is a perfect example. The work invites hundreds of locals to move a mountain, to shovel and work. The group bands together, becoming a community through the work. When the piece is over, they disband and go back to Lima carrying with them the story and memory of that visceral experience. Music works this way in particularly memorable concerts—they live as stories we tell again and again. While visual art has just discovered relational work, music has been living it for generations. This might be our third call: to be social.

Conclusion I.
In searching for a source for our music, I only find more questions. How do these ideas become manifest in the work? Which archaic ideas resonate with our modes of composition, experimentation, and creation? From what future perspectives will we create from? How are old ideas made new, and new ideas made engaging? How will we use music to investigate these futures? How will these large answers impact the way that I make: my process, my everyday?

Conclusion II.
After reflecting on these thinkers and their personal answers, I see a collective call for humanness, play, and social delight. In determining the answer for yourself, it might point you to different tools, notations, instruments, or actions that lead you outside the traditional bounds of music making, but in attempting to answer such a large question we become more considered in our approach to making it.

Like They’ve Never Heard Before

As I’ve mentioned once or twice before on NewMusicBox, I’m getting ready to teach a month-long continuing education course on radical American music before World War II. To that end, I recently checked Carol Oja’s Making Music Modern: New York in the 1920s out of my university library (to which I’ll have access for only a few short months more). I haven’t finished it yet, but the first half held my interest ably during the flight from Minneapolis to BWI. Although the particulars of some of Oja’s attempts to situate and contextualize prewar music within the long 20th century will probably seem a little narrow to readers with a more robust knowledge of postwar and more recent musics, as a work of cultural history I recommend the book highly.

I found Oja’s writing on George Antheil especially noteworthy. The futuristic pseudoscience and chest-thumping self-aggrandizement that adorn Antheil’s hyper-rhetorical manifestos are leavened by impossibly forward-thinking observations about musical material and form. About the infamous Ballet Mécanique, Antheil wrote that “it was conceived in a new form, that form specifically being the filling out of a certain time canvas with musical abstractions and sound material composed and contrasted against one another with the thought of time values rather than tonal values.” Had anyone said things like this before the 1920s? It’s a revolutionarily explicit foregrounding of the linear category of time, which Antheil made explicit as “the space of our musical canvas.” Rather than understand musical experience as a symbolic or agonistic play of events, Antheil—probably, now that I think of it, drawing a conclusion or two from the music of Debussy and especially Satie—proposed a quantitative view of that which had previously been conceivable only qualitatively.

This isn’t a wholesale endorsement of everything Antheil ever wrote in words or in notes, but—as part of a larger argument about the creative agitations of American ultramodernism—I think this point is worth remarking on. The notion of musical clock-time’s independence from agogic time is almost as crucial to postwar modernism as the notion of breaking down musical sound as graduated parameters. It’s very possible that there are clear antecedents here that I’m failing to notice—it wouldn’t be the first time Henry Cowell beat someone to the prescient punch, for instance—and, if so, I hope someone will chime in and set us straight. In any case, as we charge into the New Year, do celebrate the possibility that—like Antheil—something you’re thinking about right now might be on everyone’s mind in a few decades.

Games Played: IV-V-I

With the holidays upon us, many of us musical types have been doing some last-minute shopping, racking our brains to think of any gift that is sufficiently cooler than a treble clef paperweight. So it seems like a good time to bring up IV-V-I, a new harmony-based card game created and designed by composer and educator Rafael Hernandez. The idea behind IV-V-I is easy to grasp: using their available cards, players compete to build the best phrase (where “best” means most daring and elaborate, not just technically correct), and then seal the deal with a cadence.

While one of IV-V-I’s strengths is how accurately the game captures the challenge of harmonic part writing exercises, the addition of several unique gameplay elements makes for a level of strategy and fun that far exceeds what can be derived from standard harmony exercises. Players compete with their opponents to score the most points with their phrases, yet they can also play “part writing error” cards to nullify an opponent’s points, or shake things up with “style cards” which have a global effect on gameplay; Beethoven, for example, doles out extra points for “special harmony” cards while that rascally Shostakovich makes part writing errors a virtue.

These details make for a rich and immersive experience that manages to teach and hone some of the most complex elements of music theory without becoming pedantic. Players are allowed to expand phrases from either the left or right, which provides for more playing options, as well as provoking a way of thinking seldom encouraged in classroom harmony exercises; and most importantly, the communal and interactive element of gameplay ensures that what might be many players’ first attempts at composing will be enjoyable and provocative.

In IV-V-I, it’s easy to change the game’s level of difficulty with a few house rules: the more complicated cards (augmented 6th chords, for example) can simply be pulled from a beginning deck and subsequently introduced at a later time, while more advanced players can ratchet up the intensity with additional restrictions. See below for a video clip of gameplay (other demonstration videos available at the IV-V-I website):

All in all, IV-V-I would be a welcome addition to most any music theory classroom while holding plenty of interest for music nerds of all skill levels. I hope that Rafael will turn his considerable game design talents to more projects; since IV-V-I targets a more advanced age group, I can’t help but think how a companion game targeted to even younger players—and one that readies them for the challenges of more advanced harmonic functions—would fill a comparable gaping hole in the K-6 bracket. The availability of more well-crafted games like IV-V-I to students and educators would go a long way to enrich and vitalize the appreciation of music in America—a country where it’s common for children 6 years old or even younger to study an instrument while rarely delving very deeply into how music is put together.