Milton Glaser: "Art and Propaganda"

Milton Glaser is a graphic designer. His talk on "Art and Propaganda" was delivered at a symposium at the City University of New York Graduate Center on 15February. I'm generally uncomfortable with statements about the "purpose" of art, because I think that thinking of art in those terms can lead to some pretty uncomfortable places, but this quote from Glaser's talk is worth holding on to:

It's from Horace, the Roman philosopher and critic, who wrote, "The purpose of art is to inform and delight." I've been thinking about the purpose of art all my life and Horace helped me to arrive at an understanding. Art is a survival mechanism for the human species. Otherwise, it never would have lasted so long.

Glaser goes on to illuminate and expand on the implications of Horace's dictum and how dangerous it is when "inform" is changed to "persuade". Good stuff, and well worth a few minutes of your time.


Komei Abe: Orchestra Music

CD review, Sequenza21.

Where Credit is Due

I've criticized New York Times music critic Bernard Holland before for, among other things, being dismissive of new pieces without giving us enough about the music to know how seriously to take his dismissal, as well as occasional glibness, but his review of a Chicago Symphony concert conducted by Pierre Boulez includes this telling insight:

Mr. Boulez, now well into his 80s, commands by getting things right. I don’t think I have ever heard the “Petrouchka” played so vividly yet so precisely. He is not the inspirational conductor exhorting players to great things, but rather a man so in control of every detail, and so reliable in matters of gesture at critical junctures, that players enjoy a confidence that lets them be themselves.

That's a formula for exciting music-making.

I would like to have more details on the Quatre dédicaces of Luciano Berio than Mr. Holland gives--"short and intense, punctuated by sudden explosions and great splashes of color". Happily, blogger Bruce Hodges provides a little more:

. . . four miniatures written between 1978 and 1989, for orchestras in San Francisco, Dallas and Rotterdam. This performance (and the ones in Chicago) are the first time they have been performed as a set. All four are extroverted, brilliantly written squibs that show off what a large orchestra can do.

Mr. Hodges concludes with a wish for a recording of Quatre dédicaces from M. Boulez and the CSO sooner rather than later. Add it to the list!


George Rochberg: Symphony 1

CD review, Sequenza21.

A Hit by Varèse

Greg Sandow has a series of posts up about popular vs high culture. (Nothing new about that.) Several times he (or someone he is quoting) refers to Joel and Ethan Coen's No Country for Old Men and Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood as works of popular culture, and this brings up what I think is an interesting issue.

The project of postmodernism to remove the taxonomic wall between "popular" and "high" culture has been remarkably succesful. In fact, it has been so succesful that there are signs that it is being rebuilt, this time with "popular" culture occupying the "superior" turf, with its "authenticity" and "audience ownersdhip" tropes carrying the rhetorical day.

It looks from here as though this new wall is as artificial as the old one, and the seemingly automatic classification of There Will Be Blood as a product/artifact of "popular" culture is an example of its arbitrariness. Under what criteria is Mr. Anderson's film on the same side of a defining line as, say, Blades of Glory, and on the opposite side of that line as Edgard Varèse's Amériques or Elliott Carter's Piano Concerto or Symphony of Three Orchestras (not to mention Wagner's Ring cycle), all of which have much in common with There Will Be Blood?

I have some ideas about this, but I am interested in reading your thoughts and reactions first. Please leave a comment if you are so inclined, and I promise not to drink your milkshake.


The Dawn of Man, or The Future Isn't What It Used to Be

Some thoughts on seeing Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) yet again.

--As anyone who has seen the film knows, 2001 is full of moments of tremendous power and beauty. Some of these are directly tied to music (all of which is pre-existant, a trademark of Kubrick's mature work), others, like the sudden cut from a bone floating in the air to a part of a space station in space, are not. One of my favorites is very close to the end. Astronaut Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) has just been transformed into a fetus on a bed, with the black monolith standing near the foot of the bed. Kubrick shoots the monolith from the bed--it's a classic Kubrick visual composition, with the 'lith in the center of the shot, and the other objects in the room symetrically on either side. The camera begins to move slowly towards the monolith as we hear the fanfare from Richard Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra begin. The camera accelerates and at the first orchestral entrance following the trumpet's rising figure, the camera seems to enter the monolith and suddenly we are looking at earth from space. It's a stunning gesture in a film full of them.

--Stanley Kubrick is often thought of as a cold, cerebral, and misanthropic artist. He may well have been all of these things, but the man had a sense of humor as well. 2001 has several instances of Kubrick's disdain for bureaucratic functions, two of which involve momentous occasions being delayed for the taking of photographs. Then there's the close study of the instructions for a zero-gravity toilet. And I've always found the synchronization of the opening credits with the fanfare at least a little humorous.

--2001 was released forty years ago. At that time, no one had been to the moon, let alone walked on it. That happened the next year. Until 20 July 1969 no person had visited another celestial body. After that day it was, for a long time, unthinkable that once again no living person will have walked on a celestial body. Yet, we are approaching that day--all of the 9 surviving (of 12) astronauts who walked on the surface of the Moon are over 70. What does this mean for our race? (I don't know, and I'm not convinced it necessarily means anything.) What is our future?


Corporatism and Art

Kyle Gann has posted about a musicology class he spoke to at the University of Kentucky. He begins by describing the way the class' usual teacher structured the session:

The group had been reading my book American Music in the 20th Century, and he had each person prepare a question, the questions all asked in turn without being immediately answered; after which discussion could proceed with all the questions in mind.

I agree with Kyle that this sounds like a great way to structure an appearance by a guest scholar. It forces (or rather guides) the lecturer to relate the questions to each other and to answer them as a whole. The questions Kyle got led him to think about our current situation, which can be described as "music under corporatism":

We used to think the state was the government, but it's now become obvious that the state, in the U.S. at least, is the corporations that own and control the government, and the state's only interest, musically speaking, is in providing mass distribution to the music that can make the most exorbitant short-term profit, and squelching any musical outlet that threatens to pose competition to that profit.

I think this is a spot-on and very creative response. Corporatism dominates public life in the United States these days, and its effect on the arts is far from salutary. I don't have much to add to Kyle's analysis, I really just wanted to make sure you didn't miss it.

If I were to quibble, I would only object to the use of "populist" and "elitist" in this:

An elitist and a populist would certainly choose different paths through the socio-musical pinball machine, and there's little reason one might not be as successful as the other.

I know what he means, or rather what he means to mean, but I think it's a little sloppy, but not enough so as to undercut his very important argument.