Friday, April 11, 2008

Should art imitate nature?

OK, I know this is too big a question to settle on a blog at 1:30AM. But today I was coaching students playing the Carnival of the Animals for me, and the question came up of how to play two notes (two notes! We spent a good 10 minutes considering the philosophical implications of those two notes) in the "Cuckoo" movement. Basically the question is whether the two note "cuckoo" call should sound exactly as Saint-Saens notated it in the score or whether the performers should *slightly* alter the rhythm to more accurately imitate the sound of a bird. (Saint-Saens' notation is slightly "square," you could say). I felt in this case (my students agreed with me) that the more "natural" version sounded better than the more "strict" performance of the rhythm.

But is art always supposed to do this? If Saint-saens really wanted to have the sound of a cuckoo, why not have an MP3 recording of a cuckoo to play instead of asking the clarinet to play that figure? OK, it's obvious that that would be no fun (aside from the fact that the technology didn't exist in 1886) - part of the pleasure in hearing the piece is seeing how (and if) a clarinet can sound like a bird. It's exactly what's enjoyable about hearing "Peter and the Wolf" - hearing the oboe pretending to be a duck is much more entertaining than listening to an actual duck. (Is this also the appeal of hearing transcriptions, e.g. a pianist playing the Liszt "Rigoletto" paraphrase or the Kronos Quartet playing "Purple Haze"?)

Art is, well, artificial. In America I know I have inherited certain biases (going back to Ralph Waldo Emerson, maybe?) that what nature produces (the Grand Canyon) is superior to what man produces (the Well-Tempered Clavier). But I don't know that this opinion is universally shared. I try to make my own playing sound natural, as if improvised, "artless" so to speak. But many great performers seem to be unashamed of doing something clearly "unnatural." Is one approach more valid than another?

by the way, here is the Kronos Qt playing Purple Haze...

and here is a video I found of a group doing the Cuckoo movement ... in my opinion, this performance the cuckoo is too "correct" and not "natural" enough


Stan said...

First, Purple Haze. I had never heard Kronos do it before, It's really quite exciting. However, I did get to see Jimi Hendrix perform live 3x, and when he performed, it was really a kind of 'medium is the message', and his performance transcended the songs themselves. The Kronos version kind of gave me that impression as well.
The Cuckoo rendition you attached was, indeed, boring. And while what I know about Saint-Saens can be comfortably put on the head of a pin without taking up any angel-space, just on general principles don't we need to transcend the limitations of the written transcription in performing music? I mean, the score is not the music. And isn't the difference in Horowitz's interpretation of a given piece vs., say, some cute little 8 year old prodigy, a matter of how one brings the score to life?
I would think that when the clarinet plays the cuckoo, it would be disappointing if it sounded just like a cuckoo (cf.oboe duck). But it's still subject to being interpreted by the clarinettist and made to fit in the ensemble's performance..
And to say the works of nature are greater than the works of man is kind of needlessly dualistic, no? I mean, aren't we part of nature? Just on a different scale. Can art do other than imitate nature? Again, it's scale... a Rembrandt portrait is a far cry from a 20th century canvas with a rectangle of color on a solid background. But clearly they must be representational of something in some one, otherwise where is th ehuman connection?

ckoh71 said...

I think you're absolutely right about art being artificial - so it's duty isn't simply to imitate nature. But what I think great art can and should do is extract what is most beautiful about nature with as much precision as possible and then poetically imagine a new invented reality (whether through words, images, or sounds). I was thinking about this when I was expounding on the greatness of Ratatouille & one critic complained that it was pointles to digitally recreate reality. I didn't think that's all that Pixar and company was doing - they were destroying reality to recreate it in a more poetic fashion to give the impression of actual life to an invented reality. Sorry if that has nothing to do with your point abuot Saint-Saens...

gretchenosis said...

Wow, that is one very uninspired performance of Saint-Saens....
It seems to me that a large part of the difficulty that lies in interpretation is how to 'bring the score to life', as the previous commenter put it, without sacrificing the composer's indications in any way. I've always thought, with this Cuckoo problem in particular, that it is certainly possible to sound more natural without altering the rhythm at all. To me it has a lot more to do with the nuance of articulation.

by the way, welcome to blogspot. You and I use the same layout! You may find my blog a lot less intellectually...anything. Right now, it's just about pregnancy/identity.

Max Levinson said...

I think all of us agree that musical notation is limited - sometimes it can be quite precise, but it isn't always *exactly* what the composer had in his head. (And we are assuming for the moment that we as performers are TRYING to re-create the composer's ideas - that is not always what performers have in mind, for better or for worse).

"Stan" is right in saying that art cannot help but reflect nature (or the world it is a part of) but I think there is a difference between a composer or other artist who is trying to imitate nature (e.g. Rembrandt) and one who is trying to create another world, which will end up inevitable reflecting the real world, though perhaps less obviously (e.g. Mark Rothko who painted in the style you described). This was the question I had initially about the two notes by Saint-Saens - does he want us to imitate nature (you're probably right, Gretchen, that you can do so in ways other than altering the rhythm, but *I* would alter the rhythm) or it meant to be a stylized, deliberately abstract "cuckoo" - like the "golden bird" the speaker in Yeats' "Sailing to Byzantium" becomes:

THAT is no country for old men. The young
In one another's arms, birds in the trees
- Those dying generations - at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

O sages standing in God's holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.