Thursday 30 April 2009

Fear of Music: Visual Art vs Music

Perhaps an interesting book here (I haven't added it to the now world famous Complement.Inversion.Etc shop because it might not be that interesting, I haven't read it, I might do at some point)

Writer/Composer David Stubbs wonders why people 'get' Modern Art like Mark Rothko's but don't 'get' contemporary, avant-garde music like Stockhausen's and Feldman's, listen here on the BBC's Today programme site, including some audio from the programme and some extracts to listen to of pieces Stubbs recommends.

I sort of agree with Stubbs, that contemporary music should be appreciated in the same way as modern art, however, there would be a downside, one thing that is valuable about contemporary music is its resistance to commercial appropriation (commerce being arguably, the most dominant force on the planet, for better or worse.)

I don't want to draw out some extended Adorno like argument about how great it is to resist popular paradigms and so on but I think it's worth mentioning that having some forms of music or art which don't appear in TV commercials or as background music in hotel bars and so on is a good thing.

It's like a musical wilderness or green belt land, somewhere you can go without seeing a Macdonalds or a Barrett home or a billboard advert for underwear or car insurance. In this sense contemporary music is certainly not elitist as it is sometimes claimed, it's our music, not something that can be co-opted and sold back to us as a cliché (perhaps I have tempted fate, expect to see a new iPod advert featuring one of Berio's sequenzas or something)

By the way I am not suggesting commerical music is bad or immoral by comparison (that would be silly), just that there is a place for music that is outside of mainstream discourse, we don't have to feel sorry for contemporary music or seek to change the situation.

While being at the cultural margins relative to the mainstream has its problems - e.g lack of resources, scores going out of print, lack of performances and so on - the plus side is more than a compensation arguably.

Either way, it's a win-win situation in my opinion, if contemporary music suddenly becomes the new pop, fine, if it stays in the margins, fine. I don't see any reason to complain. Foucault said it far more elegantly some time ago (I've quoted this before on this blog, I'll probably do so again.)

'..Painting in those days was something to be talked about; at any rate, aesthetics, philosophy, reflection, taste - and politics, as I recall - felt they had a right to say something about the matter, and they applied themselves to it as if it were a duty: Piero della Francesca, Venice, Cezanne, or Braque. Silence protected music, however, preserving its insolence.'

Michel Foucault: 'Pierre Boulez, passing through the screen'; Aesthetics Vol 2, Essential works of Foucault 1954-1984.


Babette said...

This looks like a really interesting book. I read or heard something about it recently (can't remember where) and there were some positive comments made. I thought about getting it but then promptly forgot! The music teacher played some Stockhausen at school today and the kids instantly screeched for it to be turned off. Mind you it was Pierrot Lunaire which in my opinion is not a good piece to chose to introduce kids to this sort of modern music. Anyway, thanks for the post I'll make a note to read it soon.

E.L. said...

Let me know what you think of the book if you get a chance to read it, i would be interested to see what angle/s it takes.

Re Stockhausen, you mean Schoenberg?, Pierrot was one of his pieces, a better one to choose for school kids would have been his 5 orchestral pieces, the first movement is quite full on and dynamic, I liked it when I was a kid anyway (went to see Rattle and the CBSO perform it with some Webern and Berg, I was about 13 or 14 I think)

Dan said...

Well, I finally read it today. I can't say it really answered the question of the title, and didn't even deal with it until the last few pages. Most of the book is a summary of contemporary music since the 60s, and an oddly personal one at that.

Hard to sum up his conclusion... visual art is more "contained"? .. takes less of your time effort, not as emotionally invasive?

And there's the "original object" fetish aspect of visual art, which doesn't really exist in music. Stubbs reckons this awe even uneducated tourists feel viewing an 'original' is hard to reproduce in any other art. As he points out, all CDs cost the same no matter what music is on them.

A fun read overall, no big revelations tho.

E.L. said...

Thanks for the mini-review Dan, I agree about the original object fetish and can see how you can 'get' modern art with less effort than contemporary music (e.g. you don't have to look at a painting for 20 minutes)

As I said in the post the relative obscurity of contemporary music is not something worth worrying about, the situation has certain benefits. Interesting to think about it though I suppose.

Dmitri Tymoczko at Princeton has something to say on the matter, suggesting sounds are somewhat similar to smells, check page 5 in this article about The End of Jazz..

However, if sound is more arresting than sight (lets say) how does it follow that sounds ought to be more soothing or simplistic or more formally arranged? (less 'random'.)

I don't think his argument about 'random' sounds and smells being equivalent is substantial enough to take seriously, too many holes in it, I would be interested to see him expand it though.

Dan said...

Interesting, although I'm also not convinced the smell analogy is a very strong one. I guess they're similar in that you can't close your ears or nose, but you can close your eyes.

Stubbs quotes David Toop on the subject of visual vs aural: "You walk into Heathrow, for example. It's a visual nightmare but people aren't troubled by it. You create an aural equivalent of that and people would run screaming for the exits.."

Why they'd be screaming, adding to the cacophony, I'm not sure. But we do filter our vision constantly. It's harder to not listen.

I also don't mind the obscurity of a lot of music I enjoy, and I think we're moving into an age that will be even more pluralistic than ever before.

E.L. said...

What troubles me about the tenor of Tymoczko's argument and those of its ilk is the universal or transcultural/historical implications contained therein.

As if all people everywhere, forever, prefer 'consonant' intervals and dominant tonic resolutions over microtonal tunings or dissonant clusters of harmonies (so many problems with such a claim, for instance what does 'prefer' mean and what is the context?, what function is music to play for these hypothetical humans?.)

This issue appears to a mainly cultural one (though it seems impossible to separate nature/nurture), look at all the music in other parts of the world which are by western terms highly dissonant (african flute music, tibetan buddist chants, japanese zen chants, some Gagaku, Gamelan, Ainu singing and so on.)

Not only that but our specific Western attitude to music, the functions it plays in our society are limited and specific, not universal and 'natural' (we shouldn't mistake history for nature to paraphrase Foucault.)

I don't see how one can ever know human 'nature' in such detail, how can we account for all possible cultures past, present and future? (even just looking at current world cultures is enough of a minefield.)

It seems those who argue for these absolutes do so with their own musical tastes in mind, trying to justify their approach in lieu of any aesthetic norms/rules they attempt to find a physical or evolutionary basis for their predelictions.

I for one, have no idea what music is or is not pleasing to human beings in any general sense, without context it's meaningless (even if there are 'universals', we cannot prove they exist without all the evidence, human society past, present and future, to the end.)