Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Dancing about Architecture

I've been recently wrestling with the idea of how to write about music. It is the subject of the seminar I am teaching, and a good part of my blog and my academic writings are attempts to communicate ideas about an aural artform without using any sound. The difficulties lie in the assumptions that must be made about the knowledge of the audience. Throwing out solf├Ęge syllables or Roman numerals can evoke aural images in some people, but not others. Mentioning composers to represent a specific sound relies upon the audience's familiarity with the oeuvres of those composers. Metaphors assume the audience has similar associations between aural and visual stimuli, or that certain images signify universal emotions.

Kyle Gann has been critiquing composer's bios, complaining that Uptown composers are too focused on awards, not enough on what the music sounds like. As a contrast, he cites a Downtown composer's website that gets to the music immediately.
Lukas Ligeti's music is a unique fusion of acoustic and electronic, traditional and avantgarde, Occidental, African, and other influences. [Immediately he tells you what kind of music he writes. What a great idea!]

This description does assume a knowledge of how acoustic and electronic music can fuse, what the difference is between traditional and avantgarde music, and is still very incomplete ("and other influences").

Swinging on the other side is A.C. Douglas, who believes that music should be heard, not written about:

It makes no bloody difference how and why the music was composed, and no-one but a fellow composer, a specialist, or an intellectual poseur looking to add to his store of esoteric or inside information, gives a rat's ass about any of that of-no-consequence tripe. All that matters -- the only thing that matters -- is the music itself. If the music doesn't itself, by itself, say what needs to be said about it, it's ipso facto crap, and no amount of verbiage by its composer will serve to make it anything other.

What is strange about this criticism is that two posts below in the same blog, ACD is describing technical aspects of the Prelude to Wagner's Das Rheingold as part of his series on the Ring for the neophyte. And in posts below that he describes aspects of how the whole opera series was composed, with a focus on the philosophical issues that influenced Wagner's decisions. I see no difference between ACD's description of Wagner and Lukas Ligeti's description of his own music, beyond the assumptions that are made about the audience's knowledge.

If we rely only upon the music to speak for itself, then the only valid review of a performance is a recording of that performance, and the only valid description of a composition is the score. But where then is the opportunity for communication about musical ideas, the chances to change minds and increase beauty? ACD feels that the struggles of the composer are not important to the music, but why should that be? The beauty of any work of art is the fact that it was created by a human being (or animal if you want to push the definition). Some sort of material was rearranged by a person to create something of aesthetic value. If the rearrangement was done by natural forces, such as a windswept cliff, beauty was created but not art. After all, "art" is short for "artifice." So if the value of art lies in its creation by a person, surely the story of that person, especially the story of that person's struggle to create the artwork, contributes to the aesthetic value of that art. I do not think knowledge of biographical or technical information about an artwork is a necessary or sufficient condition for the appreciation of that work, but it is foolish to think that such knowledge could not contribute to said appreciation.

No comments: