A View from the West: Take an Artist to Lunch!



Dean Suzuki
Photo by Ryan Suzuki

Morton Feldman once said to a group of student composers and their teachers at Darmstadt, "If you don’t have a friend who’s a painter, you’re in trouble." A more cogent, profound, and brilliant truism would be hard to find. The arts are always a reflection of their culture, their zeitgeist, and the composer who isolates him or herself from their culture risks becoming irrelevant. In the twentieth century, we can see over and over the importance, value, and strength of a diverse but unified arts community. One can also observe the dangers and pitfalls of the secluded composer.

A kind of profound absurdity was resident in the work of Satie and the Dadaists at the same moment in time; the angst and despair of Schoenberg‘s Pierrot lunaire is also found in Robert Wiene‘s classic expressionist film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari; the controlled chaos of Cage‘s chance operations is analogous to Pollock‘s action drip paintings; the minimalist techniques and processes of Riley, Reich and Glass parallel those of conceptual artists Sol LeWitt and Richard Serra, minimal artists Frank Stella and Donald Judd, structuralist filmmaker Michael Snow, and minimalist choreographer Lucinda Childs. That the confluence of aesthetics for artists working in different disciplines occurred at roughly the same time was no mere coincidence. These individuals were part of a larger arts community. They discussed ideas and their works with each other, as well as the politics, sports and the weather. In other words, they were part of a dynamic culture. They worked together, supporting one another by going to each other’s openings, concerts, and performances. Perhaps LeWitt might design a poster for a performance by one of his friends or Judd would host a concert in his loft. Sometimes they collaborated with one another. John Cage drove a car while Robert Rauschenberg inked the tire which passed over a long strip of paper to make a new kind of painting. Even when they did not work together, they served as a foil or sounding board for each other’s ideas, perhaps acting as a catalyst for a new work or a new concept. What is clear is that these artists were all a part of a larger and vibrant cultural milieu and their work benefited from their involvement in it.

On the other hand, when composers isolate themselves in the world of music, the results can be self-indulgent, self-absorbed, and irrelevant. One can make an argument that ultra-rationalist composers such as Babbitt, Boulez, and Carter cloistered themselves away, missing the riches of a larger artistic environment that might have informed and enhanced their vision and work. While the influence of Cage and Duchamp seems to grow and spread, total serialism is increasingly viewed as mannerist and arcane. Will Babbitt’s All Set ever be embraced? It is difficult to say with certainty, but the likelihood is slim. On the other hand, Debussy, whose work is informed by his engagement with the symbolists and impressionists, never lacks for a following.

Also, too often composers think it is enough to work in a modernist idiom. That may not be the point. A setting of a "modern" poem by Garcia Lorca or Lawrence Ferlinghetti by a young composer today may be no more contemporary than a setting of a sonnet by Shakespeare by the same composer. And while neither may be wrong headed, there is a logic and relevance in working within a truly contemporary idiom or with one’s contemporaries. Feldman set the work of his peers and friends Samuel Beckett and Frank O’Hara, and many of his works were dedicated to artists in his social circle, including painters Philip Guston, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, and Franz Kline, as well as Beckett and O’Hara, among others. Stravinsky worked with Dylan Thomas, Satie collaborated with Picabia, Picasso, Duchamp, Man Ray, René Clair, and others. Virgil Thomson‘s two great operas were the result of collaborating with Gertrude Stein. The results capture, even define their era, culture, philosophy, and moment, and such works could not have been created were it not for the dialogue that these artists had with one another.

I teach in a music department that is part of a larger college of creative arts. The reality is that each department is an independent entity unto itself while the larger college is an organizational artifice which serves to organize, to house, to create budget limitations. There is almost no incentive to work across disciplines as budgetary constraints, not to mention territorialism, create barriers. Students see such isolation and may assume that it is good and right, especially when they are pushed to hole up in the practice room, studio, or library to practice, compose, research and write. I constantly hear how little time they have to hear concert music, much less make a trip to the museum, see an experimental film, or catch a new play. In truth, they will probably never have as much free time as they do while they are students. We need to encourage them (and each other) to rub shoulders with their contemporaries in other artistic disciplines.

It is up to the artists to be a part of a community and maintain dialogues with those engaged in different disciplines. Of course, certain opportunities make themselves available to composers. Dancers need music which leads to numerous commissions and films require musical scores. Even then, composers think that film work is beneath contempt, a genre which requires the prostituting of one’s art for the sake of the dollar. Even as I write, the Philip Glass Ensemble is on tour performing soundtracks to films scored by the composer. One could hardly accuse Glass of selling out when he produced the score to Koyaanisqatsi. Even as they were wrapping up the mixing of the music to the film just prior to its release, director Godfrey Reggio was convinced that the film would never reach an even modest audience, so experimental was his work.

Glass has devoted much of his career to collaborative efforts in the area of theater, opera, and dance in addition to film. In some instances, as in Koyaanisqatsi, the collaboration was rich and deep. Director Reggio, composer Glass, and director of photography Ron Fricke all made important contributions or suggestions in all areas: music, cinematography, and content. Similarly, when Glass has collaborated with Robert Wilson, the dialogue and exchange has been one of a complete partnership. While such rich and far-reaching collaborations are rare and not always desirable, composers would do well to seek out more such alliances.

Paul Dresher began his career as the music director for George Coates which gave birth to a whole series of experimental music theater pieces with Coates and later operas and other music theater works on his own. Harold Budd has worked with numerous rock musicians, most notably Brian Eno, himself an artist whose work and other collaborations across disciplines including video art. Budd collaborations range from his work with the rock artists such as Cocteau Twins, Bill Nelson, and Jah Wobble, to a fashion show at the post-punk Mudd Club for which he created and performed music, to an installation created with artist Lita Albuquerque and architect Robert Kramer. In each case, the resultant music was informed by the collaborative effort and would not be the same were it not for the partnership with other artists.

So put down your pencil or drag yourself away from your computer, go to an opening at a gallery, and get to know the artist before it’s too late.