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music downtown: aesthetics

January 18, 2011
The aesthetics section of music downtown is really diverse, with only a few columns that approach similar themes.  A few of them really pushed my thinking on a few topics.  I’m beginning to see this book as something that’s really valuable to bridge the conversation gap between now and the end of music history texts.  Also, it’s really comfortable reading that can hopefully expand the perspective of musicians who are about to fall out of the Ivory Tower into the real world.
The first two pieces explore dichotomies, both with historical implications.  The first, exploring minimalism, serialism, and ‘other’ considers the idea that minimalism and serialism are in fact more like dancing partners than arch enemies.  Both are very concerned with processes and allowing the music to, in a way write itself.  Calling both a part of “objectivist mindset,” he suggests that well down the road, scholars may look at both serialism and minimalism will be grouped together as a single movement.  This perspective, if nothing else, helps to convince people it’s okay to listen to both and like it.  Contrasted with this is less process driven music, or as he calls it, the variable X.  Driven by intuition, I don’t think any other name could be more appropriate, as in “let X stand or anything you’d like.”
The second section is on the eternal struggle of Plato v. Aristotle, or the accurate reflection of the world versus a stylized depiction of the world.  Reading this reminded me of how strongly I standing in Team Aristotle (stylized group), and that I for the most part even reject the possibility of accurate representations of reality.  I generally think realism is Aristotlean because in order to paint a coherent picture, an artist must filter, shape, and frame his subject in order to bring it into clear focus.  The read is valuable because it makes you consider where you stand in the question, and then provides some interesting thoughts on how tastes swing from pole to pole in society.  It’s another one of the best columns by Gann in the book.
Gann’s column on left vs. right brain is interesting on its own, but it really got met thinking about a related topic, which is that our generation may be the first to calculate the level of complexity music can have and still be processed, and consider various balances of left and right processes within a piece of music.  While this may not be terribly useful in many situations, the 20th Century’s developing Psychology can fuel an understanding of how our brains function and their capacity, leading musicians to refine their art to  fully take advantage of it.
The recontextualization column raised one new idea in my mind (in addition to some that I had been familiar with).  What would it mean for a composer to write Symphonie Fantastique in today’s world?  What place does romanticism have in 2011, and if someone was pushing such music, would their intentions be different from in the 1800s?  I’ve always thought romanticism was a concept very much grounded in that time that fed off of ideas of the superiority of man’s emotions over all.  In a post World Wars world, I’ve always wondered how someone can cherish this world view absolutely.
Romanticism’s ‘death’ came because of a combination of world events and working out the musical problems to their end over time.  Movements have something of a life-cycle, which Gann addresses in response to the New York Times declaring the death of minimalism.  Gann discusses the idea of a movement’s life-cycle, which I think is all valid and true, but I wonder if, in our Information Age, we may be in a world where movement’s have abbreviated lives.  Ideas pass around so quickly that they can be realized and discover their full potential in years rather than decades.  More importantly, movements can possibly co-exist, considering the plurality of the Internet.  Most concerning, is that with the rush of ideas, perhaps concepts will be rashly discarded in favor of newer ones.  Will detail be sacrificed over variety?

Gann talks about his own personal music making with Vexations, and a performance of the Satie piece he participated in.  It’s the first time in the book he really talks personally about his creation of music, and I definitely appreciated its inclusion.  He also considers ideas of interpretation that, while not groundbreaking writing, is certainly interesting coming from a person who puts the dots on the page.

Speaking of dots on the page, Gann talks about the scarcity of scores of new music.  Compared to other generations, this is new.  He talks about the problems of scores, and he reiterates from an earlier section that scores are less significant in downtown music.  Even still, I’d really enjoy arriving at a performance of new music and having access with a score on occasion.  It would certainly be novel, and probably expensive, but at the same time, is granting further access of the music to the audience.

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