23 February 2005

...an intuitive shudder...

Alex Ross is musing over the dread inherent in the key Eb minor. He suggests that, after string players emphasized to him the physical difficulty of performing pieces in Eb minor, the physical stress felt by the performer and heard by the listener produces an intuitive shudder even in listeners who do not think they know the difference. This is important.

One thought I had when listening to the Nancarrow pieces for player piano recently was that he was struggling with the concept of MIDI and sequencers before they existed. One major theme in modern Art is that of removal of the artists' influence. From the Dadaist automatic writing [Wikipedia] to Pollack's Abstract Expressionism to Cage's compositions using the I Ching [Wikipedia] or the Fluxus art boxes--Artists compressed to greater and greater degrees the time spent planning and "composing" until they eliminated that time completely and ultimately eliminated the artist. Composing insinuates the artist into the artwork. Much of modern art was a move towards the high degree of abdication that Cage perfected (love it or hate it).

Although Nancarrow's pieces are not intended primarily to obviate the need for performer, the result is related to the processes defined by Cage. Automatic writing and Fluxus happenings eliminate the artist and replace them with process. Music for player piano eliminates the performer. (Related-but-different: Tim Rutherford-Johnson recently, and justifiably, decried the idea of eliminating the performer in performance. He was following up on another post by Alex Ross whose research found that the conductor Leopold Stokowski [Wikipedia] had aspirations to create concerts where, I shit you not, [e]ach of the audience would sit alone in a stall-like seat. No one would see his neighbor....)

Alex Ross was emphasizing the immediate and historical connection between listener and performer. We respond to the physicality that we are seeing and have seen--even when we're not viewing it currently. The subtlety of a "difficult" key signature translates to the untrained ear.

I was watching the Westminster Dog Show last week. One of the commentators pointed out that the judge had been involved with the show for over 40 years and that she notices aspects of a dog or handler that others could not. I immediately wondered whether those aspects even mattered if they were indiscernible to others. Almost as immediately, I turned the question over to Art. I've often been asked something along the lines: if I can't hear the key change or cross relation or inverted theme, why does it even matter? My reply has always been that you do hear it on some level (depending on how closely you are listening). Can I tell if the dog missteps or has an inattentive handler? At what point is the key of Eb minor an effective tool to communicate anguish?

An old co-worker had suggested that I stop struggling with trying to perform demanding piano pieces and use MIDI to create and immediately realize what I want. No more technique limitations or delays in learning the difficult sections along with the vocals.

Writing for MIDI is a different art, just as writing for player piano is a different art. Stravinsky once said that he'd be terrified if he had no limitations. MIDI does not equate to "no limitations," but it does redistribute the limitations to other areas. How aesthetically different are those endless prestissimo runs when done on MIDI? How does absence of performer change the role of listener? During the recent interview of Brian Eno (a follower of Cage) by Allan Moore, Eno commented that creating most pop music is very simple with the tools available today. He declared that he could take anyone from the audience and teach them to make a pop song in a few hours. I agree. The interesting question is: how does that change the direction of our (pop) art? That video by Pay TV I posted recently was created with the intent of mocking this ease.

The advent of photography, ease of creation, caused a reevaluation of the visual arts. Disco begat punk and pop alternative begat grunge. What're we looking at here?

[ posted by sstrader on 23 February 2005 at 4:34:33 PM in Music ]