Wednesday, April 14, 2010


I mistakenly attributed the quote in my previous blog post to the painter Wassily Kandinsky.  Thank you to my friend Alan Fletcher for pointing out that this was in fact said by the 19th century art critic and essayist, Walter Pater ("all art constantly aspires towards the condition of music."  (From a book entitled, "The Renaissance."  You can see it in context here - it is about 4 or 5 paragraphs down).

I think I remembered it as Kandinsky because it seems to fit him: his paintings aim for a level of abstraction that is typical of music (except for program music, like the "Pastoral" Symphony or "Peter and the Wolf," or music with a text, i.e. vocal music).

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

love by association

The painter Kandinsky said "All the arts aspire to the condition of music."  My understanding of this is that he saw music (particularly "absolute" music, i.e. music without a story attached to it, or words) as the most pure of the arts, one which is focused only on beauty and proportion and aesthetics, that does not rely on or refer to the outside world for its worth or comprehension.  That is, a Bach Brandenburg Concerto is beautiful and worthy without having to know a single thing about its context in history or J.S. Bach's biography or the role of 18th century composers in society.  Many of Kandinsky's paintings were completely abstract, as music often is (or can be).  In other words, a painting such as the one pictured above (this one is entitled, "Transverse Line" from 1923) is not "about" something (unlike, say "Washington Crossing the Delaware," below:)
Ideally, I suppose that music is supposed to be beautiful, regardless of our background, our experience, our knowledge.  If Aliens encounter the Voyager spacecraft that NASA launched in 1977, they can hear a recording of various musical creations from Earth, including Glenn Gould playing some Bach, some Indonesian Gamelan music, and the "Cavatina" from Beethoven's op. 130 Quartet.  (The complete list of what is on the record carried on the spacecraft is here).  Will they appreciate it?  (Will they even have ears?)

I don't think people should need (or want) a lecture before hearing a Beethoven Symphony.  But it is naive to think that we only understand or appreciate music for its intrinsic musical qualities.  Much of what we love about certain pieces of music (or dislike about other pieces of music) has to do with what we associate with them.  For example, when we hear songs that were popular in our childhood, it can put us in a good mood simply by bringing us back to that time.  Recently my children were in an ice-skating show where they skated to music by various current pop musicians.  When I hear these songs, it brings a smile to my face not because the music is particularly good, but because I immediately recall the fun they had.

In college, a friend of mine from India recounted a story where an experiment was done in a class he was taking.  Students were played various types of music, and asked to write down their associations with the music.  Heavy metal might evoke responses like "bikers" or "leather and spikes."  When they played some Indian classical music,

his associated emotions were things like "summer in Bengal", but his non-Indian friends were writing things like, "hippies," "drugs," and "the 60's."  Similarly, when I hear Mexican Ranchera music, I cannot help but start to taste freshly fried tortilla chips and pico de gallo, since many of the restaurants I loved going to as a kid would have a jukebox playing this kind of music.

I wonder what people "associate" with classical music. I of course have my own associations, created over a years of living with this great music, playing concerts, going to concerts, etc. But just as Mexican music makes me think of food and Indian music made my friend's schoolmates think of drugs, perhaps many people have strange associations with classical music which are not really based in the actual "meaning" of the music. Do they associate it with stuffiness, or boredom? Do they associate it with the wealthy, or the elderly? I have the feeling that many people do, and this is unfortunate because it really has little to do with the music.

If in fact people have these unconscious reactions the classical music, what can we do to help them "see the light"? Some presenters have tried ad campaigns along the lines of "Classical is Cool" or have presented concerts where the performers are dressed somewhat casually, rather than in tuxedos and evening gowns. Does this work? Does it have an unintended negative effect? (One of my college roommates, not a musician, said that formal dress from the performers helped him to understand that this was something important and special, and deserved close attention, whereas a piano recital given in jeans and a t-shirt would make him listen less carefully.).

Any ideas?  (Facebook readers: please visit the blog, to post a comment).