Tag Archives: Romanticism

like it or not

“what is art today? […] the decent impotence of those who scorn to cloak the general sickness under colour of a dignified mummery.”

all art and patrons of art, throughout history, have faced an ongoing challenge: why do we like what we like? more importantly, whose opinion really matters? does my “like” trump your “like”? and, of course, do we like things because they are good?

what is good?

as someone who does a fair amount of study & reading on the philosophies and aesthetics of music, i come across this fairly often. i got hit with the reality, very bluntly, of what happens when you start asking these questions at a later age. there is no turning back once you realize that your concept of music, what it is and what it does, can be challenged. it can shake your entire foundation. this was tested last week in one of my classes. we devoted a whole class to postmodern aesthetics of music (with a little dash of Adorno) and i found myself in the position of preaching to the deaf. i could cite Pluto, Adorno, Derrida, and Lyotard till the cows came home but they were not having it. words like “good”, “undefinable”, and “beautiful” keep appearing and i kept cringing.

and what saddens me the most about all of this is that it’s not the fault of my peers. they’ve been indoctrinated and they don’t even know it. many of us come out of our musical academic experience thinking the only composers who have ever mattered are Bach, Mozart, (maybe) Haydn, Beethoven, Wagner and Mahler. god help you if you don’t like those composers because you are obviously not a real classical musician. how have we let it get to this point? this is canon formation in overdrive. are you really gonna like Beethoven because someone told you to and pointed out in all of his works what a genius he was? why wouldn’t you?

i had this experience with Bach. Bach was in my life from a very early age for, you see, he and i have the same birthday. not only that, but i was born 299 years to the day after the Master himself. (yes, if you can do math, i have just dated myself. whatever…) growing up, my favorite classical radio station would play nothing but Bach all day on my birthday and it drove me crazy! this led to a most likely irrational hatred of Bach and his music. but how could anyone hate Bach? did i not understand his genius? well, after years of rejecting common thought, i decided to really check Bach out on my own. and, amazingly, i had a moment. i liked Bach. from that moment on Bach and i have had an increasingly personal relationship. Bach became important to me because i found something relevant, relatable. Does common academic study tend to bolster those feelings? possibly, which, of course, i hate. but i never let myself take any composer at face value — if someone is going to tell me that someone is “great”, i need to know why.

as we all know, schools are intent on teaching the Austro-German Classical/Romantic legacy. it’s just easier. but in doing so, we produce a generation of musicians who are content with not taking risks, whether in programming or education, and it has real effects. in the Northeast, where i was educated, the “orchestra” was the only relevant and important music-making body. the wind band genre, which i grew up with was “less than”, “undesirable”, and not real art music. says who? says those who were educated within this system.

this reeks of bad things to come and i feel it’s my duty to curb it as much as possible. i will admit, i get a little overzealous (i know many people who are German Romanticists and it’s just my general feeling to loathe them, which is not fair — there’s just so damn many of them!) but i believe what i’ve subscribed myself to. don’t like Mozart? fine. but if you’re going to rebel against the institutionalized canon, be educated about it. and stay away from “good”, “better”, “best”. that trap is lethal — unless you’re Plato.

i saw this again on a much smaller scale (and i mean MUCH smaller) with the release of Christina Aguilera’s new video, “Not Myself Tonight” — there’s a lot of vitriol out there about what’s “good” and what”s not and i found myself asking the above questions in regards to this…and feeling badly that the same sort of institutionalized aesthetics happens on every level, from pop music to art music and everywhere else. i think part of the reason why it can be more inflammatory in music as opposed to other arts is because of the very deep connections we make with artists and their work. i’ll be the first person to admit it — to me, Bach’s Goldberg Variations feels like a warm breeze blowing through my hair and sounds like the silence of unconquered lands. and if you come up to me and tell me that Bach is shit, i’ll punch you in the mouth. but then i have to take a step back and analyze all of those feelings.

i’m not saying that we can’t like music just because and place value judgements because, let’s face it, that’s impossible. but if you haven’t before, take a look at why you like the things you do and think the way you do about certain musics. is it because of your own personal decisions or because you haven’t heard otherwise?

side notes: 1) i’ve decided to get my Britten tattoo & a new Bach tattoo to complement it on my right arm. i’m totally swagga jacking the lovely Ms. Lindsey Falbo, but let’s face it, Bach was a fucking baller who designed his own family crest. you can find the Britten here: http://drp.ly/V9Ifu (which i designed myself) and the Bach here: http://drp.ly/V9K1 (however the Bach will not be filled in but only outlines that i will design)
2) i’m sorry Christina, and i mean no disrespect but go away, again, figure out the artist you want to be, and then come back. when you do that, i will be happy. don’t pander to the lowest denominator with this video/song…you don’t need to be Madonna or Gaga, trust me.

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oh i forgot, i am a romantic.

…well, fancy that.

so yesterday, in Berlioz class, we spent a great deal of it talking about Romantic aesthetics and music as a Romantic art. from previous posts, you all know how i feel about Romanticism but i have found myself in a bit of a quandary. what is it, you might ask? well, it’s that i love Hegel. yep, there, i’ve said it. i’m a big, big fan. not only that, but i kinda love his views on music and art. what is a neo-everything-ist like me to do?

it all started in my sophomore year of college. i had just started at a new university and didn’t know any better. didn’t know enough to know that taking a class entitled “Philosophy 303: Phenomenology and Transcendentalism” might be something from which to stay away. well, i was in it to win it so myself and eight other philosophy majors trudged our way through Heidigger, Kojève, Strauss and Hegel. after we spent the first two weeks trying to grasp the concepts of “chair” and “triangle” (those were our metaphysical examples) we got to the meat of the class and i made my best attempts at relating it to my own musical life. it was here that i realized that i was deeply and truly interested in the philosophy and aesthetics of music in which Hegel plays a huge part.

yes, i could go into the rise of German-based musicology alongside the rise of Germanic philosophical thought blah blah blah but i wont. that’s what google is for.

well in class, my brain suddenly remembered why i loved all of that in the first place. the idea of abstractness making something more tangible than not, concept and form embodying an ideal, hearing versus seeing — all brilliant things to play with and think about for days, if you have that kind of time. so with all of this in mind, can i still feel the way i do about the artists who tried to reflect these ideas in their works? to that, i’m not sure. all i know is, if Lélio is an example of Hegelian aesthetics, i’ll just pretend that Hegel never existed.

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the elitist within us all

i hate the Romantic period. aside from philosophy and poetry (which i’ll love in any period), the notion of the Romantic aesthetic bothers me. the great genius that is the soul of the artist which allows for creativity on a massive scale that MUST be released? and of course, the later concept of artist as hero. save it.

but there is one aspect that intrigues me. the notion of universality is a cumbersome one but one that is bandied about in regards to music on a regular basis. in the 19th century, this universality acts as double edged rapier. while all of us are able to appreciate art, not all of us are able to create. how indulgent! i can create but you can’t? this is the backbone of the Romantic aesthetic. but is this true? and is it important to think so?

i wasn’t sure to write about this because, at the time, i was in my Berlioz class talking directly about this subject. so, big deal, of course we mention it when dealing with Berlioz and his ilk. but then this idea of music as universal, shared but not created collectively, came up two more times during my day: once during my Mahler 4 rehearsal and again during colloquium. and what was central to both those utterances is the idea of elitism. the best music is created by elitists that, therein, creates its own elitist class of composers. now don’t get me wrong, this is not classism in the sense of the rungs found within today’s classical music audience. this is the separation of gods from mortals, to put it Romantically.

if you don’t think your music is special, so special that it speaks to the whole of humanity but could only do so through the imbuing of your vision, why would anyone listen to it? why do we listen to music in the first place? we give music monikers and adjectives like ‘transcendental’, placing upon the genre of music a burden, albeit an abstract one, to connect us to something. the best music does so. (note, that qualitative term is to prove a point. i’m not here to start an argument about what “best” means.) now this idea about what music should do has existed for as long as music has. but it was not until the Romantic era that people decided to do something about it. the composer moves from the role of craftsman (like Bach) to genius (like Wagner). the plight of the composer/artist is the plight of mankind focused. the way to survive through the miasma is to create and reflect. and as mankind is blessed with the gift of imagination, so is the artist.

here’s the rub. music acts as universal exactly because the spark to create, the ability to imagine lies within every person. we understand music because it is our own plight being reflected through the light of the Romantic lamp, the vision of the artist, who can do so like no other.

i do not like this. i especially do not like the word “universal”. i have been taught, as of recently, that “universal” is a four-letter word (just like if i say “the composer’s intentions”, i’ll get my hand chopped off). that and the idea of owning creativity, hoarding it, just doesn’t seem kosher. doesn’t seem fair. but let’s face it, those who had the ability to be elitist in the 19th century, either financially or artistically, did. wouldn’t you? i don’t blame Berlioz. he was a hyper-everything, a product of his time. but i’m glad the artistic hero has gone the way of the dodo. granted, it took two world wars to do it but, hey, we are dealing with the whole universe.

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