Thoughts on aesthetics and new classical music in the UK
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Sentimentality is often defined as ‘an over-reliance on or over-use of emotion’. That isn’t quite the whole picture, since it suggests that emotion is a bad thing and that the less there is of it, the better, which is obviously not true in any society that values things like empathy and generosity. What sentimentality really is is an … Continue reading Sentimentality in...
Sentimentality is often defined as ‘an over-reliance on or over-use of emotion’. That isn’t quite the whole picture, since it suggests that emotion is a bad thing and that the less there is of it, the better, which is obviously not true in any society that values things like empathy and generosity. What sentimentality really is is an abuse of emotional thought, a subconsciously deceitful way of getting hold of certain emotions without investing any real effort in feeling them, which in turn devalues the emotions felt and makes the sentimental person hungry for more. Like all shortcuts, it can tempt us when we are at our most vulnerable, which makes it a particularly dangerous condition for those who make art.
We see cheap appeals to our sentiments throughout popular culture, in trashy romantic novels that consist entirely of clichés, in Hollywood films that recycle familiar, cosy stories, and so on. Sentimentality has become especially effective in the medium of pop music, where it is increasingly employed alongside the physical force of a dance beat, essentially holding its listeners in place while drowning them in the emotional equivalent of golden syrup. We see it in those gushy poems on greeting cards, that neither the purchaser nor recipient bothers to read, content that the card itself saves them from having to express a real emotion that has perhaps waned over the years.
Roger Scruton explains the phenomenon, and the fact that selfish people are the most susceptible to it, quite well:
“Real love focuses on another individual; it is saddened by his pain and gladdened by his pleasure. The unreal love of the sentimentalist reaches no further than the self. It says, ‘Look at me feeling this, and see how noble, tragic and grand I am!’ It may seem to grieve at another’s sorrow, but it does not really grieve. For secretly the sentimentalist welcomes the sorrow which prompts his tears. He sees in it another excuse for the noble gesture, another occasion to contemplate the image which truly moves him: the image of his great-hearted self.”
When it comes to art, then, sentimentality is visible in two different manifestations. The first is kitsch, i.e. the use and re-use of familiar clichés to achieve a particularly pretty landscape painting, or an overly romantic symphony, or an especially pleasing building, all of which provoke a safe, ‘Awww, isn’t that nice’ response from their audience (we British are particularly keen on this, precisely because it doesn’t involve having to express a real emotion or opinion). Kitsch cannot be created intentionally and most artists fear it. Those who produce kitsch usually posses a small of amount of talent but are undisturbed by technical skill or emotional effort. They may be sincere but never profound.
The other way sentimentality contaminates art is more subtle; I call it the ‘originality fallacy’. It is the mistaken assumption that art is about artists, and that the more original, unique and ‘different’ an artist is, the better their art must be. This comes about partly because of the fear of creating the kitsch described above. We see this in huge, brutalist architecture, whose ugliness is a monument to the architect’s ‘genius’, his ‘vision’, his sense of ‘innovation’ (i.e. an ability to create something that everybody either hates or pretends to love). We see it in hipster culture and in experimental art and music, where ‘anything goes’ and therefore the only measure of quality is how interesting the artist himself is, and how eloquently he can ‘explain’ his formaldehyde shark or the cello hanging from his ceiling. These sentimentalists use art as a means to an end, the end presumably being their own personality cult. They are both insincere and unprofound.
In other species, sentimentality doesn’t seem to exist. Plants are a particularly good example; they grow in an entirely functional way and their beauty, or ugliness, is tied to how well-formed they are, or aren’t. Is this proof that beauty has no relationship to emotion? Not necessarily but it reminds us that emotion is not the only tool we need to make beautiful things. People who posses artistic talent but never work it (e.g. I can sing, therefore whatever comes out of my mouth is art) can be likened to those yellow patches of grass that are just about alive but have seen far too much sun and not enough rain. On the other end of the scale, the sentimental artists are those overgrown, sprawling weeds that desperately require pruning, not that they know it. Japanese gardens are particularly beautiful because their gardeners favour form over prettiness, and they execute this preference in a very strict way.
It is interesting that the kitsch artist’s reliance on clichés and the cult artist’s reliance on pure originality are seemingly opposite ideals, yet they result from the same error of thought; sentimentality. Both want a fast-track to meaningful art; one gets there by misunderstanding tradition and the other by shunning tradition altogether. Neither succeeds because neither appreciates that good art is very, very difficult to create. It requires a thorough understanding of the history of one’s craft, it requires as much (or more) technical ability than one’s predecessors, and it requires the will and sincerity to express something that isn’t only meaningful to the artist himself.
To create good art is to be strict like a Japanese gardener and avoid the shortcut of sentimentality. Then, the emotion you inspire in people is far more likely to be real. And if they are used to having purely sentimental responses to art, this very ‘realness’ may shock them, for they will have been granted access to a part of their soul that they’ve never visited before. It requires effort, both for the artist and the audience, to be moved by a painting or a book or a song. It may uncover painful truths, it may even shame the individual with feelings of guilt. But guilt is a true emotion that makes people behave better and right their wrongs. It is a far-cry from sentimental self-pity, which says, ‘I am not responsible for my wrongdoings, the world around me is.’
As an artist, you can’t heal the wounds of others if you are still living in your own.
Emotion: So, we’ve spent four hours on this passage, perhaps we should look at something else and return to it later. Reason: Fine, but the problem won’t solve itself. This melody here can’t carry on as it is, it needs to unfold and take us somewhere else. Emotion: I know, but the things you’ve suggested … Continue reading Inside The Composer’s...
Emotion: So, we’ve spent four hours on this passage, perhaps we should look at something else and return to it later.
Reason: Fine, but the problem won’t solve itself. This melody here can’t carry on as it is, it needs to unfold and take us somewhere else.
Emotion: I know, but the things you’ve suggested just don’t feel right.
Reason: Well, what would feel right?
Emotion: Maybe if we just repeated it a few times?
Reason: That would be boring.
Emotion: But it’s a good melody! Why spoil it with “development”?
Instinct: Morning chaps! Sorry to interrupt but I have an idea!
Reason: We’re actually in the middle of something.
Instinct: Yes but… my idea!
Emotion: Go on, what is it?
Instinct: Well, while you two were arguing about that melody, I was poking around with it and flipped it upside-down. Then I completely changed its rhythm, and all of the notes, and added some harmony that bears no relation to the rest of the piece.
Reason: Why did you do that?
Instinct: I don’t know. Sorry.
Emotion: Let’s have a look…. Hmmm, this is good. This really resonates with me. We should use this in the piece. What do you think?
Reason: Well, it is good but we need to consider the context.
Emotion: It would make a great climax.
Reason: Yes but is it necessary? There’s enough material here that we can work with. An abundance of ‘good ideas’ does not equal coherence. If you’re cooking a gourmet meal, you don’t add custard to the main course just because it is ‘good’.
Emotion: I see your point but… there’s no way we can’t use this now that I’ve heard it. I’m just too attached to it.
Reason: Very well… Now, how are we going to get from our problematic passage, let’s call it ‘A’, to this new climax, ‘B’?
Emotion: Well, we could gradually mould A into B by introducing those new harmonies, thickening the texture, increasing the dynamics and so on.
Reason: Over how many bars?
Emotion: However many it takes.
[One hour later]
Emotion: I don’t like it.
Reason: Well, it was your idea.
Emotion: It just feels contrived. It doesn’t sound natural at all.
Reason: [Sighs] That’s because A and B don’t really have anything to do with each other musically and neither of them benefit whatsoever from being part of the same piece.
Emotion: We need to make it work somehow.
Reason: No, we need to discard either A or B from the piece.
Emotion: No! We put so much effort into both of them. This was a labour of love!
Reason: So was Queen + Paul Rodgers.
Emotion: Point taken.
Reason: We can always use B in a different piece of music.
Emotion: Instinct, what do you make of all this?
Instinct: Well, I’ve got this new idea, it goes, ‘dum de dum de dah…’ and a big chord and then some sizzling noises and then it all dies down into this murky, deep rumble.
Reason: Is this in the brass?
Instinct: No, clarinets with strings accompanying, duh!
Reason: How do we arrive at this point from A?
Instinct: Like this…
[Five minutes later]
Reason: Oh, I see. Actually, this looks very organic. It flows perfectly.
Emotion: It’s beautiful! Let’s repeat it seven times!
I haven’t had the pleasure of hearing any Henri Dutilleux, until now. His output is small and spans from the 1950s up to 2013, when he passed away. In Dutilleux’s early orchestral works, such as the Second Symphony in the clip below, he seems to occupy similar territory to Lutoslawski during that time, only a little more French. The … Continue reading Discovering...
I haven’t had the pleasure of hearing any Henri Dutilleux, until now. His output is small and spans from the 1950s up to 2013, when he passed away. In Dutilleux’s early orchestral works, such as the Second Symphony in the clip below, he seems to occupy similar territory to Lutoslawski during that time, only a little more French.
The little piano piece below is also nice but I am looking forward to delving into some of his meatier works.
It looks like Dutilleux caught neither the serialism nor the spectralism bug, so that could be interesting. Another ‘outsider’ like Messiaen.
Conservatoires, under increasing pressure from the government, are beginning to follow the road that some other academic institutions have unfortunately already gone down, which is to tailor their courses around ’employability’ rather than knowledge. Music graduates are right to be concerned about jobs, given the current, depressing statistics of the industry, but education is about … Continue reading Is YOUR music RELEVANT? (Dispelling a...
Conservatoires, under increasing pressure from the government, are beginning to follow the road that some other academic institutions have unfortunately already gone down, which is to tailor their courses around ’employability’ rather than knowledge. Music graduates are right to be concerned about jobs, given the current, depressing statistics of the industry, but education is about learning things, learning how to think and how to do. All jobs, conveniently, require thinking or doing or both. There is no job out there that can become yours through employability alone. The nuances in your CV-writing technique become rather obsolete if your CV is otherwise empty.
One of the more ridiculous outcomes of this top-down agenda is the pressure on composers and other artists to “be relevant”. Whether ‘relevance’ refers to an engagement with ‘real-life issues’ (as opposed to fictional issues?) or simply being on-trend, depends on which expert you ask.
An interesting cliché thrown at some composers, often retrospectively, is that they are ‘out of touch with reality’. If you write a symphony, especially an abstract one, you are contributing to an out-of-date art form. But… hang on, composers are real people. They live in real places and, excluding those who have mastered the science of time travel, they always write their music in the present. Even composers who live in solitude, in fortified castles miles away from the rest of civilisation (there must be so many of those) are as validly part of ‘reality’ as everybody else. The music they write will always reflect human experience, i.e. their own, at a bare minimum. To suggest that these theoretical hermits should instead be writing about topical events occurring in far away lands…. doesn’t seem any more ‘real’.
Is there really such a thing as being out of touch, artistically speaking? Art is essentially transcendental. The reason we do art is because it seems to give us access to a different plane of reality, one that we don’t really understand but whose mystery is part of its allure. When art deals with real life, it does so almost incidentally. We create beautiful, or chaotic, objects and situations for their own sake, and we learn about ourselves in the process. It is for this reason that there is nothing wrong with writing music that has no thematic connection to current events. The degree to which the composer has simply experienced those current events will determine the degree to which they are subsumed into that piece of music, whether he knows it or not.
Of the so-called out of touch and ‘lofty’ composers, Elgar is an oft-cited example. But if we are are brash enough to reduce the intellectual and emotional span of Elgar’s entire musical output to ‘lofty’, which is a hell of a reduction, then we must similarly reduce the sensibilities of Victorian and Edwardian England down to the same scale. A good catch-all word for the refined, aloof air of Victorianism might as well be ‘lofty’. So Elgar was perfectly ‘in touch’.
This is not to say that John Adams writing a piece like On the Transmigration of Souls for the victims of 9/11 is a bad thing. Only that it doesn’t (or at least shouldn’t) give the composer an excuse to be musically lazy under a protective banner of ‘relevance’. In Adams’ case, the music is good anyway and, in his own words, “I hope that the piece will summon human experience that goes beyond this particular event.”
Which of the two pieces above is more relevant to the society receiving them? I’d say that both are equally relevant, yet one of them is hardly trying to be. See Lennon and McCartney for a similar duality. If you are good at what you do, society is not going to pretend otherwise. There is no such thing as irrelevant music, only good and bad music.
Increasingly, here in London, the work of a composer involves more than just writing music. Primarily for financial reasons, composers often end up having multiple part-time jobs, which may or may not be music-related. That is a topic discussed frequently enough but there also seems to have been a slight artistic shift that has contributed … Continue reading Audience...
Increasingly, here in London, the work of a composer involves more than just writing music. Primarily for financial reasons, composers often end up having multiple part-time jobs, which may or may not be music-related. That is a topic discussed frequently enough but there also seems to have been a slight artistic shift that has contributed to the rather young idea of ‘composer-curators’, who write music and also manage performances of it.
This is one phrase, among many, that aptly describes the now common phenomenon of composers organising their own events to fill the commission void, becoming DIY performers, directors, designers and promoters in the process. These events are going on all the time, often run on a low budget and with minimal returns, but providing complete artistic dominion for the composers and whoever else they’ve roped in to help. Audiences are small but loyal and the whole system is kind of self-perpetuating.
What interests me is that there is no special format for these kinds of events and yet the same aesthetic considerations seem to keep cropping up. Why is it that, when creative people are free to explore literally anything they want within their particular practical boundaries, many produce works that are scarily consistent with each other, both in style and content. This is particularly the case with the concept of ‘audience immersion’, by which I mean the idea of giving audiences not just a musical experience but a visual one, a physical one, and so on.
In contrast to any typical evening at a concert hall, few of these DIY events will be content to have people sit on chairs and listen to music. Audiences often end up walking around and exploring a carefully designed ‘space’, with both aural and visual stimulations, perhaps being invited to hold, wear, smell or eat things, or to interact with performers and shape the content of the piece in some way.
Having attended plenty of such events, I am confused as to why the immersion approach is so prevalent, which is not to discourage it since, sometimes, it results in a fantastic artistic experience. But other times it really doesn’t and I would hate to think that some composers are only doing it because it is a current trend. As with any art, the content, rather than the format, is what makes a piece work or not. So why are we obsessed, at the moment, with a particular format? So obsessed that the content can cease to matter (I have seen this happen).
Here, I am on well-trodden ground. I mentioned in a previous post the strangeness of the ‘pro-amateur-performer phenomenon’, part of a list that includes the ‘pro-community-driven-music phenomenon’ and ‘pro-unconventional-performance-space phenomenon’. These are not really pro- anything, they are simply anti-tradition, as you will find out when you ask a particular composer why they have used a singer who isn’t a professional. Their answer won’t even be about the singer’s voice, but they will take the opportunity to spew out some anti-opera or anti-concert hall stance that they have spent about two minutes thinking about.
I hope I don’t have to add ‘audience immersion’ to this list. It is a format that could be used for great things, so I would hate to see it become another weapon for those whose interests lie not in creating good art but in arbitrarily rebelling against the past, and using art as a means to that end.
I feel compelled to write a small plug for John Adams’ recent oratorio, The Gospel According To The Other Mary, which has been newly staged as an opera by ENO (directed by Peter Sellars) and is rightfully receiving 5-star reviews across the board. Not knowing much of Adams’ previous output, I was expecting something repetitive and wholly American, … Continue reading John Adams’ The Gospel According To The...
I feel compelled to write a small plug for John Adams’ recent oratorio, The Gospel According To The Other Mary, which has been newly staged as an opera by ENO (directed by Peter Sellars) and is rightfully receiving 5-star reviews across the board.
Not knowing much of Adams’ previous output, I was expecting something repetitive and wholly American, but the music in fact seems to draw from the East as much as the West, with European elements too (some orchestration that would give Messiaen a seizure, and syncopations to put Louis Andriessen to shame). Yet, it manages to be cohesive and not get lost, probably thanks to the rather straightforward (though abundantly symbolic) libretto, a twist on the passion of Christ as seen from Mary Magdalene’s point of view.
Along with some mesmerising choreography and unsubtle lighting, the opera succeeds where others often fail; it is a multi-faceted, well-paced work of dramatic art that concertgoers can really get their teeth into. I am considering going to see it a second time.
Watch the mad Mr Sellars talk about the staging here:
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