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Music, unlike every other art form we’ve got, is about hearing rather than seeing. And yet seeing is such a dominant sense that it still plays a very conspicuous role in music-making, whether it be the created-through-and-for-the-eyes scores we disseminate to musicians who then turn it into music by looking at them, the silent visual cues of a conductor that keep an ensemble together, or even the less formal visual nods that members of jazz and rock bands signal each other with…

Back in 1983, I stopped writing down the music I was composing for nearly two years, transmitting it only through aural means. My slogan at the time was: “Divorce sight from sound, now!” In crazier moments, I even contemplated boycotts of organizations that I felt were too reliant on visual means to create sonic realities, e.g. orchestras, etc. I only half-jokingly attempted to get some friends to construct and carry picket signs to venerable performance institutions, but to no avail. They thought, alternately, that I was either completely joking or totally out of my mind. I was, perhaps, too zealous and possibly even more naïve.

For better or worse, we are living in a visually-dominant culture and for music to have meaning within our culture, it needs to be seen to some degree. And in that regard, music is not unique. While food is something that is supposedly experienced predominantly by the sense of taste, an amusing blindfold test in last week’s issue of Time Out New York actually proved how impossible it is to identify ingredients in a meal without seeing them, even for the most seasoned culinary savants (among them a prominent chef and a food critic who has worked for Gourmet magazine).

That said, to this day, I continue to eschew visual references when they refer to musical matters. For example, I’d never say: “What concert did you see last night?” And when people say they’re going to send me a recording, I always say that I’m “listening forward” to it. I’m also still somewhat suspect of musical matters which only make sense when you can see what they are. And actually, truth be told, this is probably why, though I voraciously attend concerts, my ideal mode of listening to music is on a recording with my eyes closed. Yet at the same time I confess that I love looking at record covers.

How reliant are you on your sense of sight when you create or experience music? How much do you feel you are losing from the experience of music when you are only able to listen to it, e.g. on the radio or a recording? And what exactly is it that you are losing?

Frank J. Oteri


Contrasting Sounds, by Wassily Kandinsky

It is tempting to see a connection between the breakdown of old styles in music and the visual arts from the mid-to-late 19th century onwards. Were the impressionistic works of Monet and Debussy both expressions of the same spirit? Were Matisse’s “jazz” cut-out pictures of the mid-20th century linked to the postwar bebop revolution? The answer is: only sometimes. However much Debussy may have disliked the term “impressionist”, the parallels between his compositional palette and the one used by the artistic school of the same name are obvious. In the case of Matisse, however, it would be quite wrong to suppose that his “jazz” series had anything to do with the explorations of Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk.

“Eye Music: Kandinsky, Klee and All That Jazz”, at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich, shows that the relationship between music and art is complex, and has often been quite contradictory. Artists and musicians who were contemporaries may have been similarly bold, and endured similar variations in fortune as a result. The Bauhaus school was condemned as “degenerate” by the Nazis and shut in 1933; at the same time in Russia, socialist realism imposed a dreary uniformity on art and classical music, while the “hot” music coming from America was banned. “Today he plays jazz,” went the Soviet line, “tomorrow he betrays his country.” The generality that anything “modern” had important experiences in common is true. The way those music and art forms influenced one another, however, was vastly different.

The most divergent example in “Eye Music” concerns the two artists in the show’s subtitle. Wassily Kandinsky was drawn to the radical musical avant-garde spearheaded by Arnold Schoenberg, the man who did most to develop the serialist and twelve-tone theories that shattered conventional harmony. The two were friends and admirers, writing frequently to each other…Kandinsky’s close colleague Paul Klee, on the other hand, regarded modern composers with contempt. The excellent accompanying catalogue quotes Klee’s deliciously tart remark after Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire had a mixed reception in 1912: “Perish, philistine, your last hour has struck!” Klee thought the musical answer to visual problems was to be found several centuries earlier, in the work of J S Bach.

This seeming dichotomy is explained by the stages of development the two art forms had reached. To visual artists moving beyond formal representation, music provided a guide because they considered it already to be in a state of pure abstraction. As Frances Guy, the curator of “Eye-Music”, puts it: “Its freedom from representation or narrative content, and its ability to communicate directly with the soul and evoke an emotional response, was an inspiration for artists who wished to do the same.”

Despite the large body of classical works with clear storytelling intentions…the point still holds. Music did and does belong on a different plane; but its abstraction did not mean that it had not developed a huge array of often quite rule-bound theory. So Kandinsky was attracted to Schoenberg’s controversial idea of a new relativity, that dissonances were merely more remote consonances (this, in layman’s terms, is what makes so much 20th-century classical music, up until the minimalist movement of Steve Reich and Philip Glass, so unmelodious and difficult to listen to). But Klee preferred the clearer lines and harmonies of the baroque and early classical period.

It is particularly interesting that although later artists such as Jackson Pollock were intrigued by what might loosely be referred to as “modern” jazz – from Parker, Monk and the bebop pioneers onwards – “Eye Music” shows how visual artists thought of as being equally “modern”, such as Piet Mondrian, were inspired by the pre-war, “hot” jazz and boogie-woogie styles that are generally considered to be basic and relatively unsophisticated today.

Too little time and space is devoted to whether separate art forms can genuinely communicate with each other. The answer suggested by this fascinating exhibition is a tentative “yes”. But whether that dialogue has developed beyond a form of signing into a deep and complex language is left unresolved – as the greatest questions in art perhaps should be.

Sholto Byrnes
New Statesman

Broadway Boogie Woogie, by Piet Mondrian

The refreshing lack of dogmatism among the new generation of composers seems to have spread to audiences as well. The brilliant pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard segues from Beethoven to Boulez, from Liszt to Ligeti on the same program, and today’s audiences just follow along, open to everything. As Elliott Carter, the dean of modernist composers, approaches his 99th birthday, he keeps challenging us with complex and ingenious new scores and is cheered by young and old at every premiere.

Anthony Tommasini
New York Times

The colonization of silence is complete. Its progress was so gradual that even those who watched it with alarm have only now begun to take stock of the losses. Reflection, discernment, a sustainable sense of tranquility, of knowing where and how to find oneself—these are only the most obvious casualties of marauding noise’s march to the sea. Much more insidious has been the loss of music itself.

But wait, this can’t be: Music is everywhere; we have more of it, available in more forms, more often, than at any time in human history. I can go to the web and find O King of Berio, Baksimba dances from Uganda, something really obscure like Why Are we Born (not to have a good time) of the young Buck Owens, even Pat Boone’s version of Tutti Frutti; I can find all of the same at the mall. Surely this is a good thing. I can find renewal of spirit in Sur Incises of Boulez or stand aghast at the toxic grandiloquence of Franz Schmidt’s Book of the Seven Seals. Music is everywhere. Long live it.

Just give me five minutes without it; that’s all I ask, perhaps all I’ll need to bring it back into being for myself. Imprisoned by it as I am now, assaulted in every store, elevator, voice-mail system, passing car, neighbor’s home, by it and its consequent immolation in the noise of the quotidian, it is lost to me as anything other than a kind of psychic rape, a forced intimacy with sonic partners not of my choosing. When music is everywhere, it is nowhere; when everything is music, nothing is. Silence is as crucial to the musical experience as any of its sounding parameters, and not merely as a kind of acoustical “negative space.” Silence births, nurtures, and eventually takes back the musical utterance; it shapes both the formation of its textures and the arc of its progress through time…

For us to be able to enter the world that music creates for us, we need a silence within which to listen. It will be said in response that in many cultures music is not presented as an object of veneration within a temple of adoring quietude, but rather as part of the rush and tumult of everyday life; thus we should not need the expectant hush of the concert hall ourselves in order to go into our music. These are valid points that do challenge the clear subject/object separation that classical music traditions have tended to enforce.

In many world societies, however, there are still spaces—if only interior, or metaphorical, or temporal—set aside for contemplation, for noiseless recalibration of the soul, and in contemporary American culture there are almost none. Our social rituals are constrained by the incessant soundtrack imposed in our public spaces, and our places of worship, by and large, have given themselves over to a muzak-based sense of liturgy that tells us at every step of the way what to feel and with what intensity. Many of us, turning away from both mainline- and mega-church, have sought peace in new-age bookstores, but these, even with their palmists and meditation rooms, surround their patrons with a noxious haze of synthesizers, pennywhistles, and Inuit drums. But beyond shopping, what primary experience are we having here? Are we listeners seeking an archetype of beauty or seekers listening for the godhead? It turns out we are neither—though we may have been duped into one or the other conviction. We are simply consumers. The hope is that, like dairy cattle, we will become more productive if encouraged in our purchases by this kind of marginal musical discourse.

Andrew Waggoner
New Music Box

Whenever people discuss the familiar plight of classical music in America — financial problems; aging audiences; above all, a loss of cultural authority — someone is sure to bring up the museum analogy. Classical music, we are told, may be old and valuable, but it is as remote from contemporary life as an old fiddle. Its culture is a museum culture. The public doesn’t care about new works, and the old ones have been worn out with reuse like antique coins with faded faces.

But the museum analogy shortchanges both the music and the museum. Good museums today are anything but chambers of solemn irrelevance, and if classical concerts had half the appeal of traveling exhibitions, the New Jersey Symphony would not be losing money. Perhaps it is time to stand the museum analogy on its head. The classical music world may have something to learn from the success of today’s museums, where the art of the present elicits fascination, and the art of the past impresses visitors as the very reverse of stifling, myopic or merely out of date…

The museum today offers a space for unhurried and indeed untimed reflection that is hard to find elsewhere; the museum has become a secular cloister. Classical music offers a similar opportunity. Listening to it, at least to its larger, paradigmatic works, is akin to such free reflection. Contrary to the cliché, the dwindling attention spans of contemporary life are no obstruction to this sort of experience. Movies last longer than string quartets; football games last longer than movies. The obstruction lies in the difference between the spectator’s power to loiter at will and the listener’s assumed powerlessness. We are supposed to hear what the music wills. The concert model asks for submission, while the museum model offers renewal.

Lawrence Kramer
New York Times


[John Adams] dismisses talk of the so-called “death of classical music” as pretty meaningless. “The world is full of people with creative ideas,” says Adams. “We could, to make things simpler, just forget about the term ‘classical.’ That might make things easier. But I still like to use it, because it reminds me that what I do aims at having a very long shelf-life.”

The composer finds it impossible to generalize about contemporary music right now. “There are composers, very young indeed, who absolutely love atonality and hard-edged “industrial”-strength dissonance, and they have found a significant following,” he observes. “And there are others who are making headlines writing the blandest, most carefully composed ‘audience-friendly’ orchestra pieces. They too have found a serious and grateful following. Some young composers are deeply influenced by rock and indie music, while others are combing the past to find what they construe to be the key to winning back the confidence of a lost public.”

Elena Park
American Composers Orchestra

New York painting from the late 1960s and early ’70s — when the medium supposedly was dead — is one of the biggest elephants in the room of recent art history. The nonpainting trends of those years have been relentlessly celebrated and valorized by museums, art historians and biennials. The multiple strands of Post-Minimalism that ended painting’s dominance — Conceptual, Process, Performance, Earth and video art — have coalesced into a canon and master narrative of their own. The king is dead, long live the king.

But painting? What happened to painting after the final big bangs of Pop and Minimalism, as Modernism wound down, is both exceedingly complicated and relatively unexamined. Enter “High Times, Hard Times: New York Painting, 1967-1975,” a brave if deficient exhibition organized by Independent Curators International…Sketchy as the final outcome often is, they…are to be commended for tackling a job that a flush New York museum should have taken on about 10 years ago. Whatever its problems, this exhibition demonstrates a central truth: far from being dead during the period in question, painting was in an uproar.

Roberta Smith
New York Times

Note: I arrived in New York City fresh from California the month Art Forum magazine sported a dour black cover with its red letter obituary: PAINTING IS DEAD. Funny thing, the body is still warm all these years later…

There have been so many comments on these and other pages about how our music would be more “fill in the blank” if only we were more like the art world, or what’s on the bestseller list this week, or TV, etc. Admittedly, I’ve been one of the ones commenting. Every time I go to a crowded art show, for weeks I’ll be on automatic pilot with: “They lined up around the block for Jackson Pollock; why don’t they line up the block for Roger Sessions,” or something of that sort.

The same thing was about to happen to me again last weekend when I attended MoMA’s Brice Marden retrospective, which was still packed with people after being on display for several months. To my thinking, Marden, born 1938, shares a lot of aesthetic common ground with composers as diverse as David Borden, Gloria Coates, Alvin Curran, Frederic Rzewski, and Charles Wuorinen—all of whom were also born in 1938 and whose works display a reasoned approach to abstractly permuting patterns through physical gestures. Yet, not to cast aspersions on any of the music these folks write (which I treasure), I doubt there’d be lines around the block to attend a concert assembling any of their lives’ work, which is ostensibly what the Marden show was.

That’s because such a concert would last days, and even a typical concert of roughly two hours is sadly beyond the attention span of most people nowadays. Music is just, well, too long. It takes too much time. And that time has to be focused and continuous. You can walk by a hundred paintings as fast as the crowds allow you to. You can read a book anywhere you want, put it down whenever you want, and pick it up again without losing the thread. (Well, most books—at least the ones that get on bestseller lists.) Admittedly, watching TV also requires time—everyone knows how much time it wastes, but very few people who watch TV are actually focused on it completely. If they were, they’d probably be able to quit the habit more easily.

Imagine how much time we could save, and how many more people you could attract to new music, if we could completely eliminate the time element in music. Isolate single events and just sustain them: chords, timbres, etc. Allow people to experience them for as long or as short as they care to, as art viewers do with paintings and sculptures. Well, there already are folks like La Monte Young and Max Neuhaus and generations of sound installation artists inspired by them who create work that does just that.

But music is ultimately about time. Even sound installation pieces attain their clarity from the cumulative effect of experiencing their sonic content in real time. But, of course, that’s true for works of visual art as well. So, maybe instead what we need to do is be better facilitators at helping cure our society of its collective attention deficit disorder by proving that there can be great rewards from spending more time on focused perception.

Frank J. Oteri
New Music Box

Observing 13 subjects who listened to classical music while in an M.R.I. machine, the scientists found a cascade of brain-chemical activity. First the music triggered the forebrain, as it analyzed the structure and meaning of the tune. Then the nucleus accumbus and ventral tegmental area activated to release dopamine, a chemical that triggers the brain’s sense of reward.

The cerebellum, an area normally associated with physical movement, reacted too, responding to what Dr. Levitin suspected was the brain’s predictions of where the song was going to go. As the brain internalizes the tempo, rhythm and emotional peaks of a song, the cerebellum begins reacting every time the song produces tension (that is, subtle deviations from its normal melody or tempo).

“When we saw all this activity going on precisely in sync, in this order, we knew we had the smoking gun,” he said. “We’ve always known that music is good for improving your mood. But this showed precisely how it happens.”

The subtlest reason that pop music is so flavorful to our brains is that it relies so strongly on timbre. Timbre is a peculiar blend of tones in any sound; it is why a tuba sounds so different from a flute even when they are playing the same melody in the same key. Popular performers or groups, Dr. Levitin argued, are pleasing not because of any particular virtuosity, but because they create an overall timbre that remains consistent from song to song. That quality explains why, for example, I could identify even a single note of Elton John’s “Benny and the Jets.”

“Nobody else’s piano sounds quite like that,” he said, referring to Mr. John. “Pop musicians compose with timbre. Pitch and harmony are becoming less important.”

Clive Thompson
New York Times

Could there be the equivalent of musical timbre in visual art?

Brian Eno’s music piece entitled Thursday Afternoon (1984) was originally recorded for a video of the same name. It is a representative example of Eno´s ambient music which the composer has once described as “music to swim in, to float in, to get lost inside.” Lasting 61 minutes Thursday Afternoon is a spacious, bright tapestry of sound created by layering several musical events that recur each within cycles of differing length.

On the inner sleeve of one of his first ambient records Music for Airports (1978) Eno described his intentions with this kind of music:

[I] have become interested in the use of music as ambience, and have come to believe that it is possible to produce material that can be used thus without being in any way compromised…An ambience is defined as an atmosphere, or a surrounding influence: a tint. My intention is to produce original pieces ostensibly (but not exclusively) for particular times and situations with a view to building up a small but versatile catalogue of environmental music suited to a wide variety of moods and atmospheres…Ambient Music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular: it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.

Ambient music, music as furniture, music to live in. Ambient music in Eno´s sense allows us but does not force us to listen. It creates a space in which to see our environment in a new enhanced calm. It gives us space to think and experience.

Marko Ahtisaari