Saturday, 5 December 2015

“if purpose is present in art, it must also be present in nature”

Plato and Aristotle

Aristotle once wrote “if purpose is present in art, it must also be present in nature”. But before we can begin discussing art, we need to address the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle. Their doctrines have been profoundly influential in western culture. These two great minds have pervaded our society, our way of life, and still influence how we create art. Artists through the ages have been, and continue to be divided along this philosophical line. Aristotle wrote many centuries ago “if purpose is present in art, it must also be present in nature”. Artists of Platonic and Aristotelean influence have each explored this question through a discovery of their art by building bridges in different directions to answer questions about meaning and purpose. Plato and Aristotle’s respective theories of ultimate reality are polarized, yet in some ways they share similarities. Art too share this polarization and similarity in its different approaches. Plato holds that there is a world of abstract forms which are more real than the world of our experience. His pupil, Aristotle, rejected this notion and argued that the individual and the world of our experience are the most real. Both philosophers share a hierarchical structure of ultimate reality, but they differ with respect to what is at the top of said hierarchy. 

Plato was concerned with the concept of the "eidos" or the forms. ( He believed that behind everything we perceive, there exists a world of perfect forms hidden within mathematical structures. Theses mathematical structures then become a window for us to perceive the forms which, as far as Plato was concerned, are the only representation of true beauty. This philosophy in many ways has an important impact on christian theology. (Solomon 70) And as a result, in a general sense, the art associated with the western christian theological tradition places great importance on symmetry and form. Plato held that it was this world of the forms which is the most real, and that the world we live in is a kind of illusion. His greatest critic, and pupil, Aristotle, felt that he was entirely wrong about this notion. 

Aristotle was interested in this world we exist in. He felt that the true beauty was in every individual because we they are capable of thinking about ourselves. This idea of a purposeful universe was central to Aristotle’s philosophy, and the ultimate goal called “the prime mover” ( is the reason for existence and change. He interprets us as true beings, who are embodiments of this principal. Aristotle did not feel that the forms were separate from the things themselves. He understood them as substances which influenced change, and also maintained stability. For him, these substances, the species, and other abstract categories were far less real than the individual capable of pure thought. We will see from artists in the 20th century, that this emphasis on simultaneous change and stability becomes very influential. 

Art and Greek Philosophy

Artists have always required something in their work that unifies it. In music, painting, and literature, one way of achieving this is through motifs that remain constant. It is the variation and recombination of these motifs in new and beautiful ways that creates the masterpiece, but there must always be a seed from which it grows. In musical composition, arguably the most abstract of the arts, there is even greater need for this in pieces without a text or narrative. Fragments of musical line are sewn together from an initial small idea with increasing complexity, as in Beethoven’s famous Fifth Symphony.  The result is a magnificent cloth that retains the imprint of the initial idea, but now the resulting fabric is fully developed and realized. 

Artists create using different philosophical approaches. Some composers, as we see with Arnold Schoenberg, believed that incorporating the integrity of the initial idea throughout the piece (perhaps, even if it is imperceptible to the ears) is of the highest importance to the art. In many of his pieces there is mathematical symmetry and motivic unity that was unparalleled before his time. His development of the technique of musical serialism brought about a new approach that could safeguard the motivic unity of a piece of music. From this axiom, other composers continued to carry the torch until a point that music became more like an experiment in mathematical organization of sound. The serialist organization of sound was so rigorous by the early 1950’s that the structure and organization of some of this music was almost incomprehensible by human ears. With composers like Milton Babbitt, and Pierre Boulez, there was no compromise to motivic integrity. It needed to be as sound as a complex math equation. And in many cases, it was just that. Every element of the music was serialized, form the dynamics, to the rests, note duration and timbre. The performer in type of music becomes almost an inconvenience to the purity of the idea. This led to many composers of this period being interested in electronic composition. Much like Plato’s philosophy, this sort of music creates a similar problem—what is the purpose of this abstract form if we cannot interact with it meaningfully? And what is it’s relationship to influencing change?  This philosophy about art is similar to Plato’s idea that it is the abstract form which is the most beautiful, and the most real.  But as Plato had his Aristotle, the serialist composers had others pushing back from another metaphysical idea. 

Around the same time, the American composer John Cage was emphasizing that most real and the most beautiful came not from an abstract form buried within the art. For him it is the resulting sound of the performance, and the influence of chance and change that are the most real and beautiful.  Much like Aristotle, Cage began his education in the schooling of his predecessors. He learned the techniques of serialism and other cutting edge musical innovations. He then rejected this, and went on to adopt a musical philosophy which he called aleatoric music. This music was based on chance. The composer relinquished control of the music, and merely created circumstances by which beautiful musical events and change could take place. His famous (or infamous) piece “4′33′′” is considered the peak of this philosophy. The performer sits at the piano for exactly 4 minutes and 33 seconds and does nothing. This piece is s statement that it is not always about the performer with access to some other-worldly realm of abstract beauty; beauty exists around us constantly in the sounds and changing environment we exist in. The sound of an old lady coughing, someone dropping their cup in the room, or the angry muffled conversation about how ridiculous it is so call sitting in silence for 4 and a half minutes art are all beautiful and more real according to John Cage. It is important to mention that these events in the development of western art, are just that. They are not the only examples of this dichotomy. Similar parallels exist in other cultural movements, but the chosen example illustrates the point very clearly. 

Obviously not all art is so polarized. Many composers have swung back and forth from hard serialism to post-romantic tonality. The beauty of art is that it is able to have it’s cake and eat it too. It can share qualities of organized abstract form, but also be expressive in ways that involve chance and development, whilst maintaining it’s essence of stability. 

The philosophical positions of the ancient greeks does not seem so ancient when we consider how influential it has been in our modern cultural society. Not only in art, but in the many ways we seek to answer questions about existence. Both interpretations of ultimate reality are beautiful in their own way, but I remain fascinated by the concept of being. There is something in the music and art over the centuries that has not changed. I can listen to J.S. Bach’s Chaconne, and be profoundly moved without understanding anything of it’s structure, symmetry, or mathematical proportions. There is something in this art that connects these elements to my human experience. Thus, I am compelled to believe that change is illusory. The same elements can exist in a piece written in my own time. The music seems indistinguishable from a piece written 400 years prior, but my emotional response is the same. Yet when this bridge extends too far into the world of forms that it becomes unrecognizable to me, I am no longer moved. So I am forced to conclude that it is me who changes, and that my knowledge and experience creates beauty. For me, art is about finding the place that exists in the middle of these two philosophies.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Performing and Listening

Yesterday I played hockey. In case you are wondering, I'm a goaltender, and not a very good one. But one thing I observed from our game was that I perform much better when I am in a state of unbroken concentration. Big whoop, you might be saying. But this was a pretty big revelation for me. I was suddenly aware that being "in the zone" as a goaltender means I need to be completely and utterly focused on every bounce of the puck, especially when the puck is not in my end. Don't worry, this comes back to music composition I promise.

The thing is, that if other thoughts enter my mind (which they frequently do while playing hockey) I quickly lose the intensity and desire to win. Once this is gone, I find that goals are let in, and my concentration and focus both suffer. Halfway through yesterday's game, I decided that I wasn't going to let my mind wander after the puck left my end. I did my damnedest to focus intensely on the play every second, and I felt as though I was moving with every player. From that moment until the end of the game, I only let in one more goal. And to be honest, there wasn't much I could have done about it (it was a three on one). I had a greater emotional connection to the game; I had a much greater desire to win. Everything about the game, including my energy and stamina, seemed to be enhanced from that simple change in attitude.

If you haven't guessed already, this experience is perfectly analogous to performing and listening to music. It is very easy as a listener (and sometimes as a performer) to allow your focus and energy to drag. Sometimes your energy is low, or you begin to start thinking about meaningless things while the music is playing. The music then becomes a backdrop to what you are preoccupied with (certain types of music lend themselves to this function, but western classical art music is not one of them). As with goaltending, even if you are removed from the play of the game, you must remain focused and follow every action intensely. The listener of a piece of music is challenged this way. If they are to feel emotion and be engaged with the music, they must make a conscious decision to banish mundane thoughts while the music is happening. They must witness and absorb every event meaningfully! You don't need to be an expert to do this, but you do need the commitment.

Another observation that I had was how much more tuned in I become as a goalie when I observe the whole play vs. only observing the lone player. Similar to music, if you find yourself only focusing on one aspect, or instrument, you will lose sight of context and direction of play. This usually results in a goal being scored. If you are a composer of music, this same skill of awareness applies, and not being aware of the piece as a whole could result in bad music. With every decision you make, you must maintain that awareness and concentration if your piece is to be successful. Attention to detail is obviously important, but there still must be a constant awareness of the play in motion, and how the energy is moving. It is not out of reach of the average athlete, performer, composer, I promise. But you do have to decide to concentrate on both the player and the play. After a few tries, you will enter the zen state of active listening, or have a shut-out with 40+ shots against. Either way, you will get more out of what you are doing.

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Is "New Music" a Loaded Term?

In the community of classical musicians that I exist in there is a phrase that gets thrown around perhaps too often: "New Music". I love to listen to music written by living composers. It is so exciting to be invigorated by new sounds, and to be completely baffled by the endless possibilities of music composition.

But not everyone feels this way about music written in our lifetime. For many, the words "New Music" automatically draws an image of something altogether unpleasant. They are unsure what exactly it will sound like, but surely it cannot be considered music, nor will it sound anything like it. These people must think that 'New Music' is much like New Coke. It was obviously a mistake and eventually people will realize it is bad, and going back to regular coke will solve everything. 

Why does this prejudice exist? I think the simple answer is a lack of education and understanding. If you are never exposed to this type of music, or give it a chance, how can you expect to assess its value? But too many people make that assessment before they have allowed themselves to listen without prejudice, or to listen without having made a decision that it is inaccessible. The standard of what is accessible is really based on how closely the form and harmonic structure resembles that of the majority of music played in concert halls and on radio waves everywhere. Of course this is considered accessible, it's just more familiar. 

The words, New Music, are toted by the community of composers and performers who promote it. To them, this phrase is a flag that represents hope and progress for the future of art in the genre of western classical art music. But this push for better representation in the concert hall has been met with eye rolling and resentment from others with more conservative tastes. As was pointed out to me by a fellow I met in the airport, some people think "programming a Canada Council piece is just a funding requirement that has to be met." (I should mention that was not the opinion he held, and that he was very enthusiastic about new compositions!)

So what is to be done about this divide? As I mentioned before, I think the best way to combat prejudice is education. We need more representation of music in schools, and not just representation of common practice period classical music. We also need to dismiss the notion that modern music is inaccessible to broader audiences. This is simply not true. 

There are all kinds of festivals and events that are solely devoted to promoting new music. These go a long way towards broadening the audience for this type of music, and with their continued existence, "New Music" may not be such a loaded term in the future. 

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Thoughts on the "Integrity" of a Composition

When I begin the process of a new composition, I try to find a way to organize my material and derive everything that I possibly can from the smallest compositional seed. The other process that happens somewhat simultaneously, is that I use my ear to pick out sonorities and elements that I find pleasing. This process is not a revelation by any means, but I find that balancing what I like to hear and what I can justify intellectually is not as simple as I often hope it will be. 

Before I elaborate, I will clarify that I strongly believe that your ears and your heart should be the final judges. I don't see composition as an emotionally disengaged, intellectual process. Let me assure you that my favourite music is the kind that stirs my soul and makes me feel genuine human emotion (perhaps my insecurity of being perceived as a dispassionate theory nerd is showing just a tad). 

Even though my ears guide me to what I want to hear, a curiosity I have about music is that there is a strong relationship between the degree of organization of compositional elements, and our emotional reaction to the composition. I don't think that organization on its own creates beauty, but definitely it is an element that exists in many beautiful things. And sometimes my ears will guide me to something that does not seem like it can be intellectually justified within the framework I have created. So what then?

Let's create a hypothetical scenario — I have just derived several scales and sonorities that I quite like. I understand there is an interval pattern that is consistent in deriving all these materials, and that interval pattern is what I have been using to create my motives, melodies, harmonic structure and even to generate the form of the piece. I reach a pivotal moment that is supposed to be very dramatic, but I realize that if I use the chord that I thought would sound good and also have intellectual significance does not turn out to be as stirring and beautiful as I hoped. For some reason that I can't understand or explain, a plain c major chord works incredibly well and sounds perfect for this moment. Why? It doesn't seem like it is incongruous with the rest of the material, yet I am still unable to make sense of why it sounds so much better. This can be alarming for me. I like to understand the significance of things in my music, and when I don't, I feel sometimes like the piece is running away from me. This is the battle I undergo to safeguard the "integrity" of the piece. Or at least I think that's what I'm doing. 

Maybe what I can take from an experience like this is that it is futile to try controlling everything in your music. My compositional process is far from what could be considered serialism, but I still have a compulsion to seek things that are organically derived. I guess I have a foot in each camp. A little on the side of Mr. Spock, and a little on the side of Captain Kirk. 

As a mentor recently told me, the audience doesn't care if your piece is organically derived from a (014) prime form set, or if there is a rhythmic canon. They came to hear the goods, and you're expected to deliver them. My initial hypothesis when I set out to write a piece is that these imperceptible elements cause the listener to have a greater emotional reaction. But if something sounds better to my ears, and I can't justify why, I'm still going to use it. I see writing as a process of discovering a piece that already exists, and revealing it in its optimal form. And the optimal form needs to satisfy my ears and my soul, not my analytical reasoning. I suppose if someone gives me a commission, or an assignment, the piece already exists in the future, but it is up to me to shape and guide its creation to the best of my abilities, keeping Mr. Spock on one shoulder, and Captain Kirk on the other. 

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

First Post — Schedules Are Fun!

It's about time I finally got around to writing this damn blog. And for the first post, I think I'd like to tackle the important topic of self-motivation and scheduling. I hope this is helpful to anyone who also struggles with this, but this post happens to be self-serving in a way. I find that writing on the subject always gives me the boost I need to adhere to my own schedule. By the way, I'll be the first to say I'm no expert on the topic, but I can honestly say I've lived and experienced both ends of the reality and here is what I've learned...

  1. Schedules are important. Very, VERY important. Even if you are failing to use your schedule, making it will at least give you perspective on how much time you really have (which is not very much at all!). 
  2. Drafting a schedule and following it will make you happier. If you are the type of person who gets immense satisfaction and a surge of dopamine from being productive, a detailed hourly breakdown of your day will bring you joy. If you are not this type of person (I'm not going to say you're lying to yourself, but you probably are), then bully for you and enjoy the Netflix account. [I feel strongly that mental health and productivity are closely related. If I think back to my lowest yielding months in terms of compositional output, they are have been my most unhappy times. Although this is obviously not true for everyone, I think in general that the idea of the depressed artist yielding their greatest work is a fallacy. I understand that being happy 100% of the time is impossible, but perhaps many of these artists achieved their greatest work as a means to combat depression, not to perpetuate existing in its state. Even if a piece I am writing has a solemn tone, my most stimulating creative outbursts seem to happen when I am well rested, and happy.] 
  3. Schedule leisure and you will enjoy it more. When you set out to make your schedule, don't make an impossible commitment of endless work days that you cannot fulfill. It turns out even honey bees respect this rule!
  4. It will increase your creative output, and you have nothing to lose by trying. And I mean really trying. In fact, I'm willing to bet that anyone who has ever uttered the words "schedules don't really work for me" has never created and followed one rigorously for any longer than two days. I say this because I was this person. I used to think I didn't need a strict schedule; I thought I knew exactly what I needed to do at any given time. "A schedule will stunt my creativity." Wow, was I ever wrong. What inevitably happens for someone who uses their creative faculties and doesn't schedule time to do it is that this person waits for inspiration in order to work. If you are anything like me, and I bet you are if you're reading this blog, your moments of inspiration won't arrive nearly as often unless you routinely force yourself into the chair each day and work—inspired or not. If you try this method for one full week, and find that you are less productive than you were before, please write a blog and tell us what your secret is. But really, I implore you to take this challenge if you haven't before. 
  5. Find out when you work best.  I'm more creative and productive in the mornings, so I've devised a schedule that prioritizes those precious few morning hours for creative work. I feel this kind of work comes more easily in the morning because you still have an entire day to complete things, and since you're not yet bogged down with other diversions. This sensation is far more conducive to a creative process. When I work in the evenings, I can sit at the piano with my manuscript for hours on end and get nothing done. My mind is too full of diversions to be truly focused. If you are the type of person to say "I work best under pressure," I doubt you'll still be convinced of that after one week of structured time. 
  6. Don't Give up. Scheduling is a learned skill. Before I found a system that worked (such as it does), I failed many times in sticking to a schedule, and continue to fail to this day. For example, I am using my morning block of composition time to write this blog. But, even though I've found my groove, I've noticed two things that cause it to break down: 1) I push my schedule too far. 2) I don't break up my tasks into small enough chunks. Fortunately, both these problems are easily fixed. Your problems will surely differ, and I'm sure it will take some trial and error to identify those particular roadblocks. But don't give up!
Well it looks like I should be breaking for lunch soon. I really need to respect point #3, so I will conclude this first entry. I assume that many of the points I listed are no-brainers for a lot of people, but hopefully reading this post has reinforced some things you already knew, and has inspired you to stay on schedule. :)