Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Art rules

Vis-à-vis yesterday's post about the Times music review that began "classical music has too many rules for its own good"- I assume the critic was referring to the often fusty style of fine art music presentation, with performers on stage in formalwear and ball gowns circa 1897 Vienna, regardless of the tone of the event or its repertoire; hushed audiences sweating it out until the end of pieces, never but never clapping between movements; the obligatory "edgy" work quickly followed by a warm, squishy Romantic masterpiece to appease the donor base. And the list goes on.

But of course there are just the same kinds of silly rules at work today within other music genres. Popular music maintains a rigid devotion to juvenile emotional expressions and simplistic harmony (tonic/dominant + love + backbeat). The commercial success of pop artists is almost without exception reliant on slavish observance of current musical fashions. Much of of jazz performance consists of reinterpreting past styles and repertoire, called in rule-like fashion "standards."  Opera, dance, chamber music festivals, all have their blind allegiances to customs that in my eyes and ears have far outlived their supposed usefulness. I'm all for jettisoning the silliest of these traditions, and in fact that is already happening across the board in many arts organizations. Sometimes the results can be gimmicky and market-driven (Beer and Beethoven!) but at least they seem to be trying. 

To me, the best artists take rules and stand them on their head. I am currently captivated by Paul Hindemith's 1942 piano masterpiece "Ludus tonalis" - good thing, too, since I am recording it this fall for Bridge Records- and I see it as a perfect example of this ethos. Nothing could be more traditional in Western classical music than the fugue, and here Hindemith writes 12 of them with inspired and effortless virtuosity. Instead of maintaining this rather heady level throughout the work, he alternates each fugue with an interlude of complete, almost unrelated fancy, as if to say "Stop taking yourself so seriously! Music is just music!" In a bigger gesture of rule-breaking, Hindemith constructs the whole work to support the basic tenets of his own system of composition- a system that sometimes sounds like conventional Western harmony, but then again really doesn't. It just speaks, pure and simple. Without rules this work wouldn't exist, and yet it is a completely individual and uncompromising statement. That's what art is about, and I suspect the foolish mores rampant in current music presentation will be gone long before this sort of genius is extinguished.

The challenge remains to find innovative ways to present works like "Ludus" to an increasingly distracted and impatient public. What rules can we sweep away, what new traditions can we create? To be continued...

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