Monday, February 26, 2007


Artistic Creativity vs History

I had an odd interaction with a couple of (classical) music professionals recently during a chamber music concert. I commented on the group's playing style and said that it was of a late 20th Century type. I wondered whether it would have been more appropriate for them to be playing in an earlier 20th Century style since that was when the music had been written.

The difference is that earlier the style was more schmaltzy, with lots of slides between notes and vibrato. Now the style is much more vigorous and the attacks are sharper. The contrasts between loud and soft are also more pronounced.

I gathered from what they said that they had no idea what I was talking about. To hear the earlier style one would need to dig up old records made no later than the 1940's. This means 78rpm records, or re-issues on CD, if available.

So I started to consider whether teaching the history of a specific branch of art is a good thing for future artists or not. Many musicians (not classical) these days know nothing abut earlier music styles. Most teenagers, for example, don't even know the Beetles. So the young base their styles on those who are current. Their window is, perhaps, ten years. Even classical musicians are taught the contemporary style of the day. The only exception has been the revival of the "early music" movement which started in the 1950's and has tried to recreate period appropriate performance practices. Most mainstream musicians ignore this specialty.

In other areas I think there may be more of a formal effort. I think that visual artists study the great masters and styles of the past. So do architects. I'm not sure about literature. I don't know what's taught in colleges these days. I guess there is a bit of Shakespeare and the like, but all the Greek and Roman authors that an English gentleman needed to study are gone. (This may actually be a good thing!) So is comparative literature Toni Morrison instead of Thackeray or Dreiser?

I can see that an overemphasis on the past might produce unimaginative future artists. Certainly groups like the French Academy of Art were so stifling that the Impressionists and others had to set up parallel structures to get their works noticed. On the other hand studying only the current milieu means one risks getting influenced only by the mediocre. I'm not saying that the current arts scenes are especially bad, just that in every period the majority of material produced is second rate. Looking through history allows one to see the best of every period.

So where is the balance? Learn from the past or mostly ignore it? One could ask the same question about studying the history of civilization. Of what present value is it to know about the Rape of Nanking or the Armenian genocide? (I mention those because they are causing current political friction between China and Japan on one hand and Turkey and Armenia on the other.) Is bringing up the past just a way to keep old injustices fresh and prevent people from moving on?

Perhaps teaching history is a form of social control. Leaders have an easier time of it when they can focus the populace away from today's problems and onto those from the past or those which deal with a traditional adversary.
I recall that a few years ago some folks ran into an old drunk who had been a child prodigy but rebelled and was pretty much a drunk for most of his life.

They managed to sober him up, and get him in front of a good Piano (his prodigy instrument) and were amazed at all the techniques that even the old recordings did not make clear.

In all he seemed to be more coelacanth than Dead Sea Scrolls however, or so I gathered. My own musical knowledge is abysmal, but I would expect thoughtful study to reinvent what was lost, but that diversity would produce a much richer tapestry than something less so.

The recent attempt to crush online radio (so far successful)will have a larger effect I think, and greater injury to music generally than could be reversed if we could magically time travel and record the Viennese Renaissance.
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