Monday, October 29, 2012

On Updated Musical Contexts

In a recent article published in ARTnews, "Old Masters of Our Domain," Robin Cembalest points out modern artists are making works by the old great masters relevant again: "Contemporary artists, quoting Old Masters is still an exercise, diversion, rite of passage, and vehicle for social and political commentary–showing that the great tradition of European painting still has its pull (or at least its uses) among the new avant-garde."(1) Among her examples is a conceptual artist named Braco Dimitrijevic, an artist whose philosophy revolves around the concept of 'post-history', "which he defines in his 1976 book, Tractatus Post Historicus, as the coexistence of differing values and multiple individual truths. In 1976, Dimitrijević initiated his series Triptychos Post Historicus, where original paintings by artists like Kandinsky, Mondrian, Picasso, Monet and Manet are presented alongside ordinary objects and fruit. Introducing organic matter into a museum setting, the artist juxtaposes the sacred (high art and the museum), and the secular (simple fruits of nature and objects of daily life and work). In so doing, he subverts traditional art-historical contexts and values, transforming one's perception of the art work and the language used to describe it."(2)

What would it mean to subvert traditional musical contexts and values to reflect the contexts and values of today? It would mean significantly updating our current performance practices to incorporate modern urban soundscapes.  Specifically, that might entail an allowance or even an encouragement of monotonous downbeats (a reflection of our current pop culture) or playing a piece from the classical canon using the sounds of a modern synthesizer;  juxtaposing the powerful arrangements of notes by the masters with the intensely familiar sounds of our everyday life.

Our current limitations as performers in terms of performance practice became obvious to me in the midst of preparing Chopin's F-minor fantasy for a masterclass.  I have been spending hours focused on carrying through one limitless line throughout the piece, seamless, growing and changing.  This intent is supported by traditional concepts of taste and technique focused on self-restraint, delaying the climax.  Unfortunately for the romantic sentimentality, we are living in a world where expressions are blunt and brutal.  No one is concerned about "airing their dirty laundry" as they once were.  Now we live in a society where divorces are posted on Facebook. We are less well-mannered, less prim and proper and much more apt to say what is on our minds.  Our poor and repressed are no longer filed away, unseen and unheard.  The performer is no longer necessarily male or solely an attraction for high society.  In my case, the performer is a single woman, a student trying to get by in a city hundreds of miles away from her family.  Sometimes I want to hear the Chopin fantasy played with reckless abandon, in an excruciatingly slow tempo, something that doesn't move (the way my progress sometimes doesn't seem to), in not so beautiful a timbre.  The seriousness of the fantasy can no longer be thoroughly  perceived by a modern audience when played on so beautiful an instrument.  The sound of moving traffic is more serious.  Perhaps we should accept cruder, less perfect interpretations into our concert halls.  



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