Thursday, January 12, 2012

Getting out of the Shadow of History

Recently, while reading Milan Kundera’s extended essay, The Curtain (in Linda Asher’s translation from the French), I came across the following remark:

The novelist’s ambition is not to do something better than his predecessors but to see what they did not see, say what they did not say.  Flaubert’s poetics does not devalue Balzac’s, any more than the discovery of the North Pole renders obsolete the discovery of America.

It occurred to me that this observation applies to more than literature.  It provides a useful framework for thinking about innovation in our culture, which seems obsessed with prioritizing it above all other values.  It also provides a lens through which to examine the processes by which a composer or performer of music can find his/her own “voice” without necessarily engaging in games of abstruse abstraction.

Perhaps these thoughts were influenced by my listening to Igor Stravinsky’s 1924 piano sonata while reading the above text.  Some thought that Stravinsky’s neoclassicism amounted to assigning some dignity to his ridicule of those classics of the past.  Stravinsky was once even coarser about the matter, suggesting that rape may carry the “benefit” of bringing a new life into the world and that, within this metaphor, his music for Pulcinella amounted to a “rape” of Pergolesi.  (Did he ever find out, before his death, that most of the music he had appropriated was actually counterfeit Pergolesi?)

Personally, I find Stravinsky’s metaphor to be in bad taste.  However, I also appreciate that there are those who resort to abusive rhetoric as a way to get attention.  I think that, even though he was writing about literature, Kundera was both more polite and more accurate in capturing what Stravinsky’s neoclassicism brought to musical discourse.

Using Kundera’s language one might say that Pergolesi’s vision was constrained by what we would now call a worldview.  (The same could be said of those composers paid by his publisher to write more “Pergolesi music” after the composer himself had died.)  Furthermore, just as the worldview constrains what one sees, it also constrains what one can express.  Stravinsky’s worldview in 1924 was clearly radically different from Pergolesi’s, and those differences influenced his approach to expression.  One might say the same about Ludwig van Beethoven when he serves up a minuet movement instead of his more characteristic preference for a scherzo.  He is “seeing things,” so to speak, in this now-obsolete dance that those who danced it could not possibly have seen.

The issue is not whether or not any of us can say “something new” and then label it as our own “intellectual property.”  The issue is whether we are capable of saying anything (in whatever text modality is suitable) that others can accept as worth saying.  It is easy to overlook this little point, which is why most of those who evangelize innovation almost always do so.  Perhaps that is also why we have a world overflowing in innovations that still feels depressingly impoverished.

1 comment:

jones said...

Marketing teaches us to think of the latest invention as always replacing what came before: the present continually amputates the past.

Of course, neither Gutenberg nor typewriters, nor computers rendered pen and paper obsolete, but this is harder to see where planned obsolescence frequently renders functional hardware or software unusable (i.e., engineered incompatibilities used to force upgrades).

The growth imperative of modern industry cannot be separated from the Cold War permanent war economy. Planned obsolescence under growth capitalism serves the same function of the battlefield attrition that made WWII so profitable for so many industrialists.