Saturday, July 10, 2010

Brief Moments in Time

Brushy Bayou at Tallulah, Louisiana (1989)
Every time that I stop to think of History, human history, and that part of it that I most value, it is not the likelihood (even if it were knowable) of other intelligence in other solar systems that fascinates me so much as the peculiarity of certain human traditions commonly regarded as age-old. Certainly picture making and the likelihood of simple musical instruments in the last ice age seem very old indeed, say as much as 50,000 years ago, and I do not doubt that language came with them. The astonishing phenomenon of bonobos acquiring human languages far beyond the set of symbols deliberately taught them, simply by living with homo sapiens primates, and seeming to relate to the latter in terms of personality, whether one approves of the experiments or not, must show deeper and older likenesses among these apes and ourselves than we have typically considered.
Yet wonderful as these considerations are, and all the rest of natural sciences, they are not what makes me gasp, at least inwardly. It is not even what, manifestly, I share with most of my species today, that provokes awe. I am as easily touched as anybody by a National Geographic Special showing small forest people (i.e., Congolese pygmies—it was an old film that I'm recalling) welcoming a new infant into the family and making sure that the toddler that had been the Baby is made confident of his new rôle and his continued importance. Wisdom and tenderness. Former students of mine with advanced degrees, however, do know and care how to raise children with wisdom and tenderness. Generally, it is the warm-blooded thing to do. The simplest song and dance, with the simplest wind and percussion instruments, likewise is universal, shared with the latest popular music, music that resonates with what almost everyone feels, expresses loves and hates, whether generated on a computer or a harmonica. A picture representing growing children or leaping animals or corn as high as an elephant's eye strikes a chord, provided it is capable of evoking its original. All these manifestations demand skill, but no amount of skill alone will make them what a few of us live and die for.
What is not universally shared is a reverence and awe before, and unfailing joy in, art for art's sake and, concomitantly, the need and drive to use every skill one can muster to realize a vision. In other words, the artist and the dilettante share a peculiar gift, one that must be cultivated, even if it entails real sacrifice, but cannot be given, much less induced, or taught: the skills, the techniques, can be taught.
To pursue that line of thought wants more than a blog post, but what I have in mind is what distinguishes a great dancer or a great choreographer (cf. Frederick Wiseman's film, La Danse and the significance of a dancer's being musical, as Brigitte Lefèvre is recorded saying of one the the Paris Opera's best). Why own several sets of Beethoven quartets or three dozen of Schubert's Winterreise? Here I want to consider it only historically.
What I am considering historically as the subject of this post is not simply Classical art (visual, dramatic, literary, or any other). Nor is it the superiority of one kind or another of expression. It is an art, in whatever form, that responds to the closest attention and repeated scrutiny, that one comes to understand more fully only as one comes to understand oneself and one's civilization as both grow older. I mean, much of Shakespeare and of Greek drama can be appreciated in early adolescence, but ultimately, when all the tragedy and comedy have been grown into, when the meter and other formal traits have been understood, there remains the irreducible work itself. Sophocles' Electra can even be converted by Hoffmansthal and Richard Strauss, then performed in film shot in an abandoned industrial setting and, given the performance, take nothing away from Sophocles. Schubert's music for Rosamunde, on the other hand, is not diminished by the work that occasioned it. All of the settings of Goethe's Wanderers Nachtlied (certainly inspired by the great poem) also stand on their own, not quite destroyed by some voice that just sings them through. All of these are valued primarily as art for art's sake.
Not only have a few persons, when they could, preserved art that is not dependent on any message or creed but rather is valued in its own right, they have also written about it and in its own terms. On the whole, by creating fame and canons, they have fostered preservation, even when as critics they were unsubtle. Yet it is not fame that makes or breaks art for art's sake.
We have the impression, from reading History of Music books, that music as its own raison d'être began much later than literature and the visual arts. That is, though dancing music and tavern songs and church music can be wonderful, they serve entertainment and worship. But what about the lyrical? Weren't Greek lyrics written to be sung? Were they also valued for awesome performances? We don't really know. The criticism that is preserved is largely Hellenistic and later, by which time great singing and lyre playing contemporary with those lyric poets were long forgotten.
On the other hand, the counterpoint and harmony (which make the well tempered what it is),** that are fundamental to the music we treasure most, together with the forms that they enabled, such as sonata form, emerged in the 18th century. And it cannot have been that the works demanded new listening, or even new performing, really. Rather, perhaps, new demands were put on composition and performance and, even in dance, court balleti became ballets, remarkable more for the composition of choreography and for the dancers' ability rather to dance the music than to do gymnastics in time to it. One hesitates to revert to Marxist history of the arts! Increasingly, however, there were urban audiences and wealthy salons supporting, and sometimes appreciating, breathtakingly fine performers of small works of towering importance as well as increasingly profound and memorable operas and (when Lent demanded) oratorios just as great.
Once again, our own lifetimes with recorded performances and wonderfully illustrated books, are the frosting on the cake, so to speak. At the same time, though, more and more groups of our own western civilization dismiss exactly that demanding, rewarding art that is its own reward that I have taken for granted. The epithet 'elitist' sometimes expresses hatred. Even as, teaching the history of art, I was forced to realize eventually that not only photographs but paintings and sculptures, not only documentaries but films that surpass the documentary form only to be more truthful, not less, mean to most people only their "message", be it political, social, sentimental, or religious. In the 1950s we deplored a Soviet use of art that we thought meretricious; in the 1930s most of our parents deplored the destruction of modern art that Hitler's advisers thought entartete, degenerate. Both sneered at "formalism" (any -ism is indeed likely to be only a secondary exploitation).
If everything I care for belongs to only one brief moment in time, I am happy to have lived in it. But how brief it has been in a modern homo sapiens of some 50,000 years.
I have omitted China and Japan from this post, because I know their cultural history just well enough to realize what I don't know. China is rather awe-inspiring, however, as having almost no "middle ages".
The photograph at the head of this post, though only one of my own and on Tri-X 35mm film, is simply an image good for nothing but looking at.
** In borrowing the term 'well tempered' from Bach's Well Tempered Clavier, I only meant to emphasize what J. S. Bach had done that proved to be fundamental to the future of European music. Of course, the circle of fifths strictly considered and all the questions concerning absolute pitch or concert pitch in different times and places (not to mention in different scholarly circles) did not of itself predetermine anything in music when published in 1679. It was what composers did creatively with scientific work that mattered (and wouldn't we love to hear what Chinese musicians did with the 32 bells tuned to 1/4 intervals: the tuning is astonishing, but it is not to be confused with what it was wanted for).