Monday, April 20, 2009

Artistic Legitimacy

I always have a good time teaching the advanced 20th-Century compositional techniques class at work. This year especially seems really deep and enriching: I have a fairly full class (at 7 students, it's about as full as it ever gets) who actively follow the theoretical/philosophical/metaphysical strands of conversation that we all weave together, offering up their own opinions and respectfully disagreeing with others as appropriate. Like I said: nice.

All of this brings me around to ideas about artistic (in this case, mostly musical, but fill in your own art as needed) legitimacy. In other words: why are some things considered "legitimate," but other things of a seemingly equal nature (or talent level) are not?

I think some of it has to do with fame, and an "arrival" at legitimacy within your field. John Cage was known to use indeterminacy in his compositional process, and one of the ways he achieved this was by taking different formulations from the I-Ching and setting them to music. On its own, this is not a deep process. I see Miss Tessmacher doing the I-Ching on a regular basis, and it amounts to throwing 3 coins 8 times and recording the heads/tails outcomes; then, the outcomes correspond to "lines" that make up a "pattern," and you go into the book and read about your life via the "pattern" at the moment. It's kind of like a middle ground between existentialist philosophy and basing your life around your horoscope. Anyway. Not complicated. Now, Cage front-loaded his compositional process before setting about the piece proper, and there is certainly talent and craft involved in making those decisions; but, the process itself is as random as it sounds…which was his point. But, all the theory texts use this example as a "Gee, whiz!" moment, when in fact it's more like a "Well, duh!" process. Like, I could assign various musical attributes to Kiss lyrics and then, say, choose the first word of every Kiss song, and write my piece like that. Y'know what? It'd be a piece of shit, and no one would pay any attention. Why? 'Cause I haven't reached a Cage-ian level of musical legitimacy (roughly equavalent to "fame"). I'm nobody, so who cares? Cage is a famous composer, and so what he does matters, it has weight and gravitas and is, above all, inherently artistic.

Or, maybe not.

Getting beyond the creation of work to the philosophizing of work: we watched a PBS special on Philip Glass a couple of weeks ago, and it was extremely well done. Glass was portrayed by insiders and outsiders alike as kind of goofy, without a huge personal ego or any indefensible personality traits, other than a (not-uncommon) propensity for women half his age. What managed to irk me was that Glass' comments about music seemed so…so pithy and wise and considered and meaningful. And then I thought: "Who gives a shit what Phil Glass thinks?" Or rather, "Why should what Phil Glass thinks mean any more than what Phil Lewis thinks, or Phil O. Dendron?" In other words: Glass thinks what he thinks, but because of fame and/or notoriety, we make documentaries about him, in which his opinions come dangerously close to being regurgitated as facts. Gene Simmons says it pretty clearly when he refuses to answer reporters' questions about politics: to paraphrase, "Who cares what I think? I'm just a pop star!" Right. Exactly.

Milton Babbitt cared deeply about what people thought…maybe more so about how they thought. Especially about modern music. In a misrepresented article that's seen by many as arrogant and stand-offish, Babbitt once claimed that he didn't want folks coming to his concerts if they didn't know beans about the music in the first place. He likens the layperson's attitude of boredom and resentment of hyper-modern music to dense mathematics. To wit: no one would sit through an hour-long presentation on super-string theory and quantum mechanics without first understanding something about the math behind it all. To say "Shit, that was the most boring speech I've ever heard in my life! It didn't resonate with me at all!" would be ridiculous, because you didn't even understand the basic materials of the speech in the first place. Babbitt felt the same way about music; his approach is backed up by avant-garde pianist Cecil Taylor, who felt that audiences had to "prepare" for his concerts the same way HE prepared for them. Brandon Marsalis called that attitude "self-indulgent bullshit," claiming that a person doesn't have to field 100 grounders in order to enjoy a baseball game. Maybe not…but I haven't fielded a grounder since I'm 10. Maybe if I did field 100 grounders, I'd have a greater appreciation for the skill of the player on the field…

Sometimes the legitimacy of an artistic undertaking isn't even readily apparent, or doesn't seem to "fit" the medium at all. Yoko Ono was a frequent host of quasi-musical "events" in the '70s, "concerts" that played up the weirdness of extreme experimental composers like Takehisa Kosugi. One unperformed work by Kosugi, titled Music for a Revolution, is a text score, which reads: "Scoop out one of your eyes five years from now, and do the same to the other eye five years after that." Aside from a nearly-imperceptible wet squelching sound…how is this music? Or, maybe the point isn't that it's music in and of itself; maybe the point is a philosophical undertaking, meant to have the audience THINK about what is and what is not music. Thus, legitimacy is tied (apparently) not only to fame and notoriety, but to time as well. I could write a text-score like this every day and no one cares, not only because I'm not a famously weird eccentric experimentalist, but also because, ho-hum, been there, done that. The notoriety of Ono allowed her to host and participate in these events, and the drug-addled experimentation of the '60s and '70s made it groovy, man, like, far out.

There was a Python sketch once that ended with "the Pope" claiming "I may not know art…but I know what I like!" The legitimacy of Everyman to claim the equal authority of his opinions is seeminly woven into the fabric of our society. Sometimes, it seems like the less-informed the opinion, the greater the strength to which it is clung. "You can have my opinion when you pry it from my cold, dead hands."


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