Gordon Downie Inverview- part four: “modernism- love the paintings, hate the music?”

 In Part Four, Gordon and I turned to a rather well-worn topic, the thorny question of why visual modernism has generally been so much more popular than musical modernism. I have my own ideas about why this is the case, but I was curious to get Gordon’s. You may find it odd that I have ended the interview with a response of mine to a question of Gordon’s, but this is where we got to, and seems like an honest reflection of the unfinishable nature of these conversations, so, like a good performance of the Art of the Fugue (hah!- there’s an unearned comparison) we will simply stop where the author lay down his pen….  KW: I think a lot of people are more comfortable with the visual language of Modernism than the musical one. I think this is partly because it is easy for someone to see the beauty in the simplicity of a glass, steel and concrete box well executed. It is easy for the uninitiated to see the complexity in modern music, but is there a simplicity in this music as well?

I think a lot of people are more comfortable with the visual language of Modernism than the musical one. I think this is partly because it is easy for someone to see the beauty in the simplicity of a glass, steel and concrete box well executed. It is easy for the uninitiated to see the complexity in modern music, but is there a simplicity in this music as well?

GD: Few will agree on a meaning for the term modernism, or on what is denoted by modernist. I find the majority of definitions, in terms of what aesthetic or ideological tendencies they delimit, far too broad and inclusive, to the point of making the label virtually useless. So when you speak of the “visual language of modernism”, we need to be clear about what visual objects you’re referring to. But your reference to “glass, steel and concrete” boxes pushes the definition, in architectural terms, towards that delimited by the aesthetic tenets of the International Style and subsequent developments, most readily exemplified in the work of Le Corbusier or Mies van der Rohe.

If that’s the case, certainly within architectural high modernism, I’m not convinced that significantly more people are “comfortable” in the way you describe, if you consider the extent to which much of the architecture from this period and of this orientation has been publicly denounced and literally bulldozed. To take a couple of anecdotal examples, we should note the confrontational arguments that have plagued the histories of the South Bank Centre and Barbican in London, and only extensive campaigns have prevented key buildings of this type being demolished or significantly compromised by unsympathetic refurbishment or redesign. Similar arguments are associated with constructivist and systems art as practiced by Kobro and Lohse or Anthony Hill, to name but three. This visual art has a public presence hardly any greater than high modernist music.

One could reply that, if progress or change is a fundamental tenet of high modernism, such artefacts should not be assigned the status of museum pieces by conservation of this kind. In coarse terms, that’s true, but such an analysis doesn’t take into account that the destruction or (tacit) censorship of such art is also politically motivated, in terms of neo-conservative attempts to counter aesthetic modernisation, notions of the post-modern being the most well known example. So conservation in this context is merely a defensive measure. After all, some of the most interesting architectural theories from the 1960s, emanating from Archigram and the like, openly developed and embraced notions of impermanency.

But I find your use of the term “simplicity” problematic. I’d say properly reading the grid structures of a Piet Mondrian for example, or accurately analysing the formal tensions in the concrete boxes you mentioned, is not a simple process, if by simple you mean the ability of the art object to enable a more or less immediate assimilation of its formal and structural content.  No art that interests me speaks for itself, partly because non-referential art doesn’t “say” anything. Indeed, we should be unsurprised that, given  self-referentiality (surely the fundamental principle of aesthetic high modernism) functions to short-circuit the art object’s signifying capacity, explanatory frameworks are essential in order to properly determine the object’s aesthetic and/or structural intentions.

I think I’m also concerned by your terms of reference that are implicit in your question. The distance that frequently exists between cultural producers (or artists and composers) and potential audiences (or the public) is not necessarily of their making. Rather, this results from the contradictions that are an inherent part of capitalist societies.

KW: I agree with your last sentence, but I’d like to come back to the the question of what I would call the paradox of simplicity. Just because a work manifests a perceptible degree of simplicity, or perhaps aesthetic clarity is a better way of describing it, it is not necessarily constructed using simple means, more often the oppposite. I’m not talking about familiarity of subject matter.  One could say that the simplicity of a work of art is in our ability to perceive it as a whole, where the complexity of a work is our in our ability to perceive its parts.

Perhaps in visual art, the audience has the advantage of being able to see the whole and the parts simultaneously, after all, a box is a box and a painting is a rectangle or a square, while in music, the listener is initially only hearing the parts and has to assemble the whole in their head. Look at a Mondrian, and the first thing you see is the overall structure, the shape, the boundaries. Look at any painting or sculpture or building and the first thing you see is where it isn’t or where it ceases to be- you see the frame, and this defines what it is you are then going to take in.  Study it in more detail and the complexity and sophistication reveals itself to the viewer in a way that is quite intoxicating.

In music the listener is forced to do the reverse- when we hear a piece for the first time, we start with the details and have to gradually pull the temporal camera back until we can perceive the whole. I suppose part of my question is, are there tools that can help the listener who wants to perceive and understand the whole of a modernist piece of music who is struggling to get past absorbing the parts? I think there is a whole generation of musicians out there who do love Rothko, Mondrian, Pollock and on and on, who are desperate to make that same connection with with Stockhausen, Berio and Downie, but they haven’t yet been able to. The other part of my question relates to my own curiosity about how one express the shape of a whole using hetararchical materials and techniques. Can it be done? Surely, as soon as you put one note first and another second, you have created a hierarchy?


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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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  1. Pingback: Kenneth Woods- a view from the podium » Gordon Downie Interview- part three: is modernism still modern?

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