Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Difficulty of Liveness

Psychological factors also come into play when the music is set in
front of a crowd. Looking at a painting in a gallery is fundamentally different from listenting to a new work in a concert hall. Picture yourself in a room with, say, Kandinsky's
Impression III (Concert), painted in 1911. Kandinsky and Schoenberg knew each other, and shared common aims; Impression III was inspired by one of Schoenberg's concerts. If visual abstraction and musical dissonance were precisely equivalent, Impression III and the third of the Five Pieces for Orchestra would present the same degree of difficulty. But the Kandinsky is a different experience for the uninitiated. If at first you have trouble understanding it, you
can walk on and return to it later, or step back to give it another glance, or lean in for a close look (is that a piano in the foreground?). At a performance, listeners experience a new work collectively, at the same rate and approximately from the same distance. They cannot stop to consider the implications of a half-lovely chord or concealed waltz rythym. They are a a crowd, and crowds tend to align themselves as one mind.

- Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise; Listening to the Twentieth Century


Thomas Garvey said...

You've stepped on a favorite corn of mine, Art, with this post (I'm slightly irritated both by Schoenberg and Alex Ross). This excerpt from "The Rest is Noise" seems poorly argued to me in every way. The essential difference between looking at "Impressions III: Concert" and listening to "Summer Morning by a Lake" is, of course, the audience's engagement with time. What Ross ignores here is not the issue of the audience being able to return to the work because of its "difficulty," it's the usurpation of the audience's control over its own experience by Schoenberg. A central, unspoken tenet of tonalism is its connection to an intuitive sense of development, which is of necessity linked to the passage of time. In short, atonalism isn't merely a non-intuitive aural experience; it also shatters our sense of connection between art and the time allotted for that art. Indeed, the disruption of "audience-time" is all but an essential component of the avant-garde: "conventional" artists set up an unspoken agreement with the audience as to how long a work will last, how quickly it will move, when they can roughly expect a climax or resolution - avant-gardists stomp on all this. In fact, sometimes it seems the ONLY thing that makes a work 'avant' is willful, almost random, demands on the audience's time. Said demand is also, btw, rather clearly a political, rather than an aesthetic, act: there's no clear aesthetic reason why an atonal, or a minimalist, work should be as long (or as short) as it is; the artist has simply made his decision, and the audience must abide.

By comparison, "Impressions III: Concert" can be taken in at one fell swoop, or at leisure, if, after that first glance, the audience determines it's worth its time (I don't think, myself, it's all that difficult, or even all that good, or even much like Schoenberg - who made plenty of his own, more representational paintings, which I'd argue match the tenor of his music far more than Kandinsky does). It's also interesting to note that once this time element is resolved, audience resistance to atonalism tends to dissolve: for instance, atonalism successfully serves as "program music" for plenty of movies - because the movie action provides a sense of momentum, and the re-assurance the music won't be interminable. In short, if that sense of interminability, or of the artist's absolute control over the audience, is what Ross means by "difficulty," then I think he should simply say so.

Art said...

Thanks Thom,

I am, admittedly, an aspiring middlebrow when it comes to music. (And especially when it comes to the period Ross examines in his book, which I have recently read.)

Indeed, Ross would seem to be supporting your final paragraph when he kind of suggests that Bernard Herrman's movie scores are one of the areas where the modern movement found a great success. He mentions that horror and thriller movies make especially good use of the methods.