Imagine I suggest we go to the museum together to look at some art.
What do you first imagine we’ll be looking at.
If you’re like most people, you’ll first assume that we’re going to look at paintings. And maybe a few sculptures?
Paintings have been very much on my mind of late. The ESO just premiered an incredible new violin concerto by Deborah Pritchard based on the astonishing series of paintings, “Walls of Water” by Maggi Hambling. Not only was Deborah’s concerto written in response to Maggi’s images, those images were projected (on a grand scale) behind the orchestra during the performance. I’ve always believed that great music can and must succeed as music, without needing any sort of visual crutch, and Deb’s piece does more than work as pure music. However, this carefully calibrated integration of musical and visual works of art made a huge, positive impression on nearly everyone there.
The next morning, I had a bit of free time in London- a rare treat- and so decided to make my way to the Tate Modern. The Tate’s curation has had its highs and lows over the year, but it’s always an inspiring place to go. I’d been exploring the galleries for a good 45 minutes before I came into a space that was primarily devoted to painting. Having come there with paintings on the brain, this really struck me- how much eclectic, diverse and varied the visual art world is that we realize. Imagine a trip to a museum, and you think you’ll be looking at paintings, just as you imagine going to a concert and imagine you’ll be hearing a symphony. I went to the museum and saw sculptures, installations, videos, photographs, collages and more before I’d really seen a single good-old painting.
What a tribute to our colleagues in the visual art world that on a perfect, sunny Sunday in October, this vast facility was packed, literally packed, with thousands of people coming to look at this eclectic collection of art that is so experimental, so radical, so varied that seeing a painting really seemed like a blast from the past.
Again I was struck, as I so often am, by the astonishing divergence of fortune between contemporary music and contemporary art. Contemporary art is POPULAR. People come out in the thousands to see all kinds of weird, wacky, challenging, dark, twisted, radical and uncomfortable stuff. People also spend a lot of money on it- contemporary art is big business. Not so in contemporary music- it remains a tough sell. Most people coming to the Tate seem to want to be challenged. A high percentage of people coming to a classical concert don’t. They crave more of what they know- familiar works, familiar genres, familiar forms, familiar languages.
But is visual art really as free from familiar forms, gestures and genres as we assume? However diverse the works were that I saw that Sunday morning, 99% of them shared one obvious formal device- they were all enclosed in squares or rectangles. Sculptures, paintings, collages, videos- all surrounded by parallel lines and right angles.
Physics makes a powerful argument for parallel lines and right angles- buildings constructed in this way tend to stay standing. Those with diagonal weight-bearing walls tend to have a harder time. Right angles and parallel lines are a primarily human construct. Nature does not produce many rectangles.
But even in more radically shaped spaces (the Tate, itself a former power station, is a study in right angles), art tends to exist in rectangles. Everywhere you look, you see parallel lines and right angels. Even when the art is chaotic and irrational, the context is, almost always, the simplest and most rational one can imagine.
Does the simplicity and clarity of the frame or the framing device account, in part, for the mass popularity of contemporary visual art? Does the lack of such clarity of context account for the lack of a mass audience for so much music written in the last 80 years?
Penderecki once said of Classical forms: ‘Logic. You must have exposition, you must have development … nobody can do anything better.’ Is the tonic-dominant relationship our right angle? Is the ABA form, or its big brother, the Sonata Allegro form our parallel lines? Surely such an analogue is too simplistic, but it’s one worth thinking about.
It’s been mostly bad news for music since 2008 or so, but I do seem to be having a run of concerts and projects where more and more of the time, the work making the biggest impact on much of the audience has been the newest one. I’ve seen players and audience members deeply moved by brand-new or nearly-new works by John McCabe, Schnittke, Deborah Pritchard, Robert Saxton, Philip Sawyers, Andrew Keeling and James Francis Brown to name but a few. Don’t forget Mr Penderecki, either. Some of these works have been written in wildy dissonant and experimental languages, using tons of extended techniques, others have stuck to traditional genres and a tonally-informed musical harmonic language. All those which have made a strong impact possessed a powerful originality of thought and a keen mastery of the fundamentals of compositional technique. Charlatans are not hard to spot in contemporary music.
On the other hand, I’ve done two new works by composers I really admire in the last couple of years that I, sadly, felt just didn’t work in the end. Both composers where just as technically accomplished as any of the musicians listed above- both have written other pieces I adore. However, neither piece seemed to work- the audience could sense it, we felt it on stage. Somehow theses pieces didn’t arrive, didn’t cohere, didn’t deliver- they just didn’t work.
Is Sonata form the parallel lines of music? Of course not, but, as listeners and performers, we sense that the beginning and ending of a musical work represent the most powerful relationship in a piece of music. It’s more than a hunger to return to the tonic key- Mahler, with his progressive tonality, showed us that sometimes a piece finds closure without returning to home, and yet he, of all composers, also understood the deep, instinctive relationship between the beginning of a journey and it’s fulfillment. When a piece works, the line at the beginning finds its parallel in the line at the end- the ideas of the piece, their working out, and the shape of the piece find a satisfying and logical relationship.
“Logic,” said Maestro Penderecki. “Nobody can do anything better.” Exposition and recapitulation forming parallel lines, development lying at a right angle? What I find more and more with audiences (if you can get them to the venue in the first place) is that they can happily grapple with any musical language if they can perceive the structure of a work with the kind of clarity of function we perceive in the rectangle that frames a painting, a video, a sculpture or a new visual idiom, yet to be defined and realized, but, more likely than not, one to be found lovingly bracketed in parallel lines and right angles. The simpler and clearer the form, the more powerful the impact of the content. The more radical you can be.
That’s not conservatism- that’s finding a framework for originality that works.