And one more thing...

There might be some personal nonsense in here, too...

Monday, May 4, 2015

Whither the Next Note?  Whither?  WHITHER?!

It's hard to make a revolution when, two revolutions ago, they already said anything goes.

Freedom is just Chaos, with better lighting.

For 25+ years I've struggled to frame an artistic conundrum, to phrase a particular question in such a way as to get a meaningful answer from professors, mentors, and fellow artists.  I'm no closer now than I've been.  The problem, I think, lies largely in the nebulous nature of the subject, which is almost purely subjective, dovetails (or nosedives) into philosophy, is steeped in cultural biases, and has no "right" answer: aesthetics.  Here's my latest attempt:
When rules, boundaries, and expectations are no longer imposed on art, what guides the artist's choices?  What defines the quality and value of a choice or work when assessments like "good", "bad", "right", and "wrong" are rejected as outdated, belonging to a more restrained and constrained mode of thought?
Here's the same, disguised as a conversation from Woody Allen's Love and Death.  I've replaced the words "God" with "Universal Aesthetic Truth", "people" with "artists", "life" with "art", "immoral" with "bad", and both "murder" and "suicide" with "bad art".  I even upped the pee-cee quotient:

Boris:Sonja, what if there is no Universal Aesthetic Truth?
Sonja:Boris Dmitrovitch, are you joking?
Boris:What if we're just a bunch of absurd artists who are running around with no rhyme or reason?
Sonja:But, if there is no Universal Aesthetic Truth, then art has no meaning.  Why go on arting?  Why not just commit bad art?
Boris:Well, let's not get hysterical.  I could be wrong.  I'd hate to blow my brains out and then read in the paper that they found something.
Sonja:Boris, let me show you how absurd your position is.  Alright, let's say there is no Universal Aesthetic Truth, and each [person] is free to do exactly as s/he chooses.  Well, what prevents you from bad art-ing somebody?
Boris:Well, bad art's bad.
Sonja:Badness is subjective.
Boris:Yes, but subjectivity is objective.
Sonja:Not in a rational scheme of perception.
Boris:Perception is irrational.  It implies immanence.
Sonja:But judgment of any system or a priori relation of phenomena exists in any rational or metaphysical or at least epistemological contradiction to an abstracted empirical concept such as being, or to be, or to occur in the thing itself or of the thing itself.
Boris:Yeah, I've said that many times.

In a world of complete artistic permissiveness, how can any work of art be bad?  Or good?  What makes any angular, raucous vocal line qualitatively different from the next?  What puts one avant-garde piece into the repertoire, but not another?

Mozart was a hack.  There, I said it.  Someone had to.
 No, no, of course that's not true.  (I kid!  Or do I?  I'll spare you my well-rehearsed rant on Mozart-as-artist, for now.)
 But what is true is that rules governing the Western music of his day were very formal and restrictive, and virtually all works of the "Classical" period (1750 — 1820) are easily identified as such because of it.  Speaking as a "classically-trained" composer, I'll go out on a limb and say that I totally get it when folks say "it all sounds the same" — for the most part, it really kinda does, especially taking into account work from the dozens of then-popular composers largely forgotten by today's mainstream audience.  Mozart was inventive and ingenious within those rules, in ways that many others weren't, but let's face it: there were only so many ways to skin the Classical cat.
 Working within that rule set put the composer in what I see as an enviable position — the choices of which notes followed or could be stacked onto one another were relatively straight-forward, and some options were categorically wrong.  A composer's genius was rooted in how well one understood the rules and how best to exploit them, in how to write a catchy tune, and in knowing where the rules could be bent without breaking.  Ah, a sweeter, simpler life.  I would've killed back then.
 (Have I mentioned that I find Classical period music utterly mundane and boring, with fewer than two dozen exceptions?  I know, I know.  Don't write in.  There's no need.)

Fast-forward a mere 100 years (you know, past all the good stuff) to serialism.  WTF.  Then to indeterminism/aleatoricism, music concrète, microtonality, spectralism, New Simplicity, New Complexity, on and on...  Let's look at some chronology:

The evolution of harmony, function, and form in the first 150 years is virtually nothing compared to the change in artistic perception and definition in the last 50.  Clearly, the 20th Century avant-garde opened every possible door, if not explicitly, at least indirectly by being totally permissive — and it passed those savings onto you, the consumer.  When listening to fellow audience members cough or fart becomes as valid a musical/artistic experience as attending the giant puppet takeover of Die Zauberflöte, there's really nowhere else to go.
 The good news?  Variety, to suit every taste.  Here are three keyboard works from 2001 or so:

...and some orchestral works from this century:

No limits.  Comlpete individuality.  Total freedom for the artist.  That's a good thing, yes?  But... but...

In this excellent post (sadly with some broken links), composer and writer Jan Swafford offers this:

The archetypal avant-garde sensibility was captured in the dictum, "Make it good or make it bad, but make it new."  I suggest that it's time to take that attitude out behind the barn and shoot it.  Standing in the middle of the sometimes interesting chaos and anarchy that is the scene in all the arts, I suggest in its place: Make it old or make it new, but for chrissake make it good.

Hear, hear.  Unfortunately, Mr. Swafford offers no guidelines on what "good" is or how it can be recognized, only that it is the product of "wisdom, skill, talent, and judgment".  And for the most part these seem as objectively subjective as "good".
 Innovation, accessibility, energy, simplicity, complexity, depth, sincerity, volatility, impact — words found in many critical reviews, and also about as concrete as "good".  Andrew Norman's Play, for example, has been very well received and lauded for its use of orchestra, its juxtaposition of ascending and descending lines, and an almost narrative structure.  There's obviously something deeper going on there than the chaos of throwing the entire orchestra down a flight of stairs to see what survives, a message coming in under or over the roar and rumble of that hundred-headed beast.  And while that message may not hinge on any single note, phrase, or timbre, Mr. Norman's choices of each note, phrase, and timbre have made something more than the sum of the parts, have embedded something in that cacophony that demands respect if not devotion, acknowledgement if not appreciation.  No one walks away from its performance thinking Mr. Norman didn't know exactly what he was doing, and that he did so as an artist, not as a fumbling amateur or trend-sucking dilettante.
 Not every artist garners commissions, wins awards, or gets airplay.  Not every artist is or will be remembered.  Not all contemporary "serious" music is created equal.  There does seem to be something out there, some ethereal meta-conscious recognition of work that is in some way important, meaningful, good.  Is good art like porn?  Obviously there's no consensus piece by piece, or even artist by artist, on what will last.  Yet there's something hovering, however tenuous, that whispers to our inner ear: this piece is worthwhile, that one isn't.  What guides that voice, and how can I tune into it as a composer?  How can I improve in or excel at a craft that accepts every possible paradigm as valid and authentic?

My primary goal as a composer isn't just to express myself, but to do so well, which I define as creating something with which I'm happy and in which others find integrity, artistry, and merit.  Certainly my music will not satisfy all tastes, and likely a whole lot less than "not all", nor I am likely to be spoken of in reverent tones by the next generation of listeners.  And I'm content with that; it's not a popularity contest I'm entering.  Integrity: no problem, as I'll be true to myself and the work.  No, it's the newfangled definitions of "artistry" and "merit" I'm baffled by, and I'll continue to be so baffled until I can grok what they mean to the anarchic contemporary musical arts community.
 My secondary goal as a composer is to be a working composer.  Failure to prove the "worth" of my output isn't going to earn me commissions or stagings.  So my question — the one way back at the top there — isn't merely academic or artistic, but pragmatic.

Or maybe I'm completely missing the boat on what making art is all about.  Maybe there isn't some intuitive, subconscious appreciation of a work as "good", and what I sense is more about aggregated opinion, statistically-driven media-propagated hype and prejudice, name recognition, divisiveness of the influential and would-be influential arbiters of policy and patronage, the chase of profit and fame, the championing of popular knowns or trying to catch the forefront of the next big thing.  Perhaps my concern, my fear of creating bad art or non-art, reflects chains of traditionalism and shaky self-esteem.  Maybe I'm tapping into the zeitgeist that is every modern artist's existential crisis.  Maybe ANY notes I put down are as good as any OTHER notes I put down.
 But I would probably need to be convinced of that.  Please, in the name of all that's good and holy, convince me of that.
 In the meantime, choosing each note (and each word — stupid libretto!) is like looking for Waldo when he's dressed in street clothes: I'm pretty sure he's there somewhere, but which choice is the best one?
 The right one?