Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Is music an art form?

In the last few years of his life, Morton Feldman asked himself whether music was an art form or just a music form. Music poses a specific problem similar to that of science. Both, if we can call them languages, are peculiar at that. Whatever is manifested through them is supposed to be right, whether it is or not; the only difference being that a scientific proposition can cancel another one, music cannot do that.

Music, being so close to language as it has been, offers a beautiful paradox by being so distant from it. Music can state something, but it can't deny anything.

So, is music an art form? For now I choose Feldman's doubt. But let us suppose it can be. If so, then music should originate outside of music, for music that comes from music itself is only craft.

Cormac McCarthy's Music Lesson

I recently read Cormac McCarthy's The Road. One thing seemed very important and, more than interesting, essential to the novel: its form. I refuse to call it "structure", it's a very stiff concept. This work is very telling of non-european art. Its narrative doesn't push, it's not propelled towards something, to the inevitable conclusion/resolution/return. It is not your customary introduction to a well-balanced situation that turns into a conflict that finally dissipates into tranquility (or even not the customary tragedy that builds up and explodes at the end).

It dwells. No tranquil world is presented at the beginning. Instead, it submerges the reader into an apocalyptic world that father and son roam, and that world doesn't change. Actually, they do have a destination, south. That's all we know, and it's not much more than what they know. We can't be sure what happened, why is the world in such condition. We don't even know their names. But none of it is important, and that's the beauty of it (or at least part of it). It dwells in the human condition, in the bare elements of our existence.

It might not have an evident structure (the edifice that sustains a plot or in which a plot develops), but there is form, of course. Sometimes confusion may arise when structure and content aren't distinctly presented, which is the case here. There's a naughty habit of dividing things abstractly (some think that's being professional). We see ourselves as mind and body (and sometimes soul). Supposedly, a work of art has form and substance. By now we should know that, just like time and space aren't two separate things, these divisions are mainly abstract ideas. Sure, sometimes it's helpful to do it so one can better understand something. But the problem is that, when this happens, things are seldom put back together. This mind-set has taken artists, for instance, to automatically approach their activities in such a manner.

McCarthy gives us a novel whose form is its depth. Although there is always a sense of urgency due to the context, he creates long periods of stability, but you know it can't go on like that forever. And it doesn't. Sudden changes erupt, making your heart pump blood faster.

But what happens when stability reigns supreme? Are we just bored to death waiting for something interesting to happen? No. And here McCarthy takes us into a different dimension. Imagine being asked to draw the way in which a play or a piece of music evolves. We might try to do it in a cartesian way: left to right, up and down. That's not the way The Road evolves. Remember, it dwells. And when something dwells, it either starts going somewhere else or it dies. Here a new dimension appears, depth. The way he approaches details, smells, materials, sounds, desolation, love, it's sometimes breathtaking. But to make way into a different dimension has the implicit responsibility of affecting the whole, not just a part. As I mentioned, there's an immersion into detail, and to immerse also means to change the temporal scheme. The new motion determines different rates and graduations of change, as if straight lines began to reshape themselves into complex curves, accelerating and decelerating more subtly. So the traditional juxtaposition of contrasting parts does not determine the form of this work (that I would call structure). There's a beautiful cohesion of form and content in The Road.

Which came first, the chicken or the egg, form or substance? Unlike the chicken problem, I'm glad to know that in art, while either can exist first, they can be one and the same, interacting simultaneously, like life.

In music this has been very hard to do, or so it seems. Academies tend to present music in a fragmented way. They seldom say that, for instance, harmony, form and orchestration are closely related. They fail to bring it all back together, so what's left is just an autopsy. Music often dies on their desks, and they seem satisfied to manipulate its remains.

Poetry 2

If we can agree that poetry is that which transcends language by means of language itself, then we can argue that poetry might be anything that transcends its own medium. So, in those terms, music can be poetry. I believe some music achieves this level, but not all, even if it's great music.


If you call yourself a poet, don't just sit there. Poetry is not a sedentary occupation, not a "take your seat" practice. Stand up and let them have it.

-- From Poetry as Insurgent Art by Lawrence Ferlinghetti 

Debussy and beyond

One gets the feeling, after listening and reading about music in the 20th century, that there were only two important seeds that started the whole thing: Stravinsky and Schoenberg. But buried beneath the the roar of the Rite and the hallucinatory and demential Pierrot was Debussy's flux of light, which passed unnoticed among the racket caused by his contemporaries' music. I'm not bashing the other's music, I'm just acknowledging the whisper among the talking crowd.

The music we know from the last century would be unthinkable without Debussy. He continued and greatly expanded what Schubert and Chopin did before, while starting what artists like Varèse and Messiaen continued after him. Then the list continues to grow: Xenakis, Scelsi, Feldman, Grisey, Estrada, even Cage. The so-called emancipation of sound, wrongly credited to Schoenberg, was Debussy's gift.

Of course I'm oversimplifying this part of musical history. For instance, Varèse, like Messiaen, not only continues what Debussy sets out, but also what Stravinsky does rhythmically. Also, while we can find a link from Schubert to Estrada, going of course through Debussy and Xenakis, Estrada goes further back to Mozart, integrating the two most powerful aspects of music, timbre and movement, seldom unified so strongly. Another such case is (can you guess?) Debussy.

On a different level, or should I say niche (just being cynical), Pink Floyd, The Beatles, and Radiohead, among many others, should also be thanking him.

Why am I circling so much around good ol' Claude lately? Well, we're analyzing a piece of his in one of my classes. Can't help thinking about all this. 

By the way, isn't it funny to think there's a link between Chopin and Xenakis?