Sunday, November 22, 2009

Examining the Relationship Between Art and Society

As I have become increasing aware of the state of the world in my college years, I have become overwhelmed by the multitude of crises and problems that we as humans and a global society have created for ourselves and the deep pits we need to dig ourselves out of. I decided early on that my passion for music and the Arts was strong enough that that is what I wanted to spend my life doing, but in light of all these global problems, I have gained a huge feeling of guilt because of my chosen career path. How can I be spending my life in so esoteric a field as contemporary, and often abstract, concert music when in a hundred years (or less) the world may not even exist, never mind my music, if we do not do all we can to solve problems of climate change, nuclear weapons disputes, racism, genocide, finite energy and water resources, etc.? Maybe I should become a scientist, or social worker, or engineer, because what good is an artist in solving these problems? The Arts are just a luxury that we can do without, or at least that is often what seems to be the case, as in public schools, when the budget is tight, it inevitably seems to be the first thing cut.
Obviously this is not what I believe. The Arts would not have survived for hundreds of years if this were the case. On one level, Art has the power to make people feel good, which fits right into the hedonistic society we live. There is nothing like listening to and enjoying a beautiful piece of music that makes me feel wonderful (The problem is that many people feel that this is it's only purpose or are upset when this potential aspect of Art is missing, but that is a topic for another blog post...) But Art has most definitely been a force in the progression of history. The composer and pianist Frederic Rzewski talks of the power and force of music in society,

"Of course music is a political force. It’s a very powerful political force. Music influences millions of people. If a composer comes to grips with this fact, this tremendous potential force that is in this form of art, then there is a possibility of really doing something to change the situation, perhaps on a small level at first, but nonetheless important. I think it’s very necessary today to begin to think of music as not simply a form of art for art’s sake but a form of spiritual expression that potentially influences masses of people." (Joe Goldberg, “The Art of Political Process, Frederic Rzewski,” WaxPaper, 5/7 (1979) 21.)

But Rzewski also realizes the challenges and limitations of this potential,

"The important thing is to get past the notion that an individual can, with his own resources, make any significant progress on solving a problem which is social in nature. This is one of the biggest hurdles that artists have to overcome, the idea that art alone can solve problems that really need other forms of action. Art can help: it can be useful in solving human problems. It always has been and it always will be, but only as long as it recognizes its own limitations.” (Ken Terry, “Frederic Rzewski and the Improvising Avant-Garde.” Downbeat (Jan. 11, 1979) )

When I try think of what artist(s) have had the greatest positive impact on the world, I have to say that it probably has been the Beatles, and more specifically John Lennon. The most popular band of the 60's, and probably of all time, took their fame and wide appeal and decided to do what they could to bring peace and love to the world, and probably has had, and continues to have as each generation discovers their songs, an incredible impact in many people's lives in a positive way. How they did this was to send very clear and direct messages to the world (“Give Peace A Chance”, “All You Need Is Love” etc.), but these messages were essentially inartistic. Their music was tied to this message, but didn't necessarily express it in musical or poetic terms. So as a composer of classical music, must I always set texts and attach programs to my works if I want to express and contribute to bettering the world (after all, even Beethoven felt the need to use a choir and set a poem in his ninth symphony)?

I turn again to Frederic Rzewski. This is a composer who I have been deeply fascinated with in the past couple years, both for his concern of creating social change through his art and for his actual music. In fact, I first fell in love with the music of his hour-long set of variations on The People United Will Never Be Defeated! before I knew anything about the extra-musical elements (although, I have to admit, I sought out and listened to the piece because I was intrigued by the title). The theme he uses is a Chilean revolutionary song from the 1970's, whose text says exactly what the title says, that when diverse peoples are united by a common cause, they will succeed against all odds. The history of the Chilean coup of the 70's, the text of the song, the conditions of premiere of Rzewski's work, the many allusions and connotations in the music; these are all extra-musical elements that are wonderful and contribute much to the understanding and power of the work, but before all of these Rzewski's piece works on a purely abstract musical level. Even more than this, it displays, in purely musical means, the ideological theme of the song it uses, that of the power of unification.

He does this by creating 36 variations that stylistically range across the history of western music, using styles reminiscent of composers such as Boulez, Cage, Glass, Chopin, Liszt, and Art Tatum. In some of these variations, the theme is obviously present, yet in others it seems to disappear completely. Then every sixth variation is a recapitulation of the previous five, allotting a phrase for each in the new variation, bringing the styles temporarily closer together. In the final group of six variations, there is no new material, instead all of these variations are recapitulations, the first of which recapitulates every sixth variation, the next recapitulates every sixth beginning with variation no.2, etc. This pattern continues so that the 36th and final variation is both a recapitulation of the recapitulations. In other words, the result is that, contained in this single variation of twenty-seven measures is a condensed version of all variations into one single variation. The entire hour-long work is now, in a way, played in approximately less than a minute, a shrinking in size of approximately fifty times. The result is that the bulk of the original theme is heard twisting and turning through twenty-five different and widely contrasting guises. One moment the theme is clearly recognizable and the variation procedure is obvious and immediately apparently, but literally a second later the theme may be lost completely, only to return seconds later. It is as if looking at an object through twenty-five extremely different lenses, from extreme zooming to different tints to out-of-focus distortions and supernatural dimension alterations. The amazing effect this has is to make “sense” of the previous aurally confusing variations, where the theme seemed to be absent altogether. When these variations were a minute or so long, they were quite temporally detached from the other variations that were “closer” to the theme. As the temporal distance between these variations decreases, so does their apparently wide musical and stylistic distance. No matter from what angle this work is seen, its purpose is to show that neither angle, neither compositional style, neither culture, neither race, etc., is correct or incorrect, but that they are all connected in a deep and profound way and capable of creating beautiful and great things while increasing the understanding amongst all. When any of these contrasting elements, aspects, people, cultures, etc., come closer together, their similarities transcend their differences and enhance and strengthen each other, and this is shown completely through the arrangement of sound and pitches in time and space! Rzewski himself says,

"I feel a bit uncomfortable being put in this, or any kind of box. I don’t like feeling obliged to make a political statement with every piece of music. First and foremost as music; and then if one can enrich this musical discourse with extra musical ideas, then so much the better.” (Richard Steinitz, “Imperialist Piano-Thumping Was One Avant-Gardiste Description of Frederic Rzewski This Week Because of His New Accessible Style.” Guardian. November 2, 1979.)

Of course the question must now be asked, how much of an impact has this piece had on the world? (You may even be saying, “I am a fan of contemporary classical music, and even I've never heard of this guy!”) That, of course, is impossible to determine, but what I know is that I have personally been deeply transformed by this music, and it inspires me to know that it is possible to uses pure abstract music to spread messages of most the sincere, powerful, and inspiring thoughts and dreams of a better existence for all, and that keeps me going as an artist in this world today.
Keane Southard
October 2009

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