Art and Technique

I’ve always wished that contemporary music generated the same kind of critical discourse that the visual arts do. In fact, I find that I need to read visual art criticism to get a sense of the real artistic movements that are at play today, and while there may be musicians whose work is along some of the lines the visual art world codifies, I find I need to extrapolate the connections on quite metaphorical terms. In the visual art world, there are writers such as Suzi Gablik and Lucy Lippard who assess new work on political, environmental, and economic levels. Of course, there are probably many more visual artists than composers who conceive their work on these terms, and as such, in the music world we mostly read critiques of technique.


John Kennedy
Daguerreotype by Robert Shlaer

Why is this? A painter friend of mine asked me why the music world is still rewarding composers who display certain kinds of technique. While he has a voracious curiosity for the new, much modern and new music bores him because he can’t get past what he finds to be overt displays of technique. He said that when painters look at painting and only see technique, they dismiss it. When you notice an actor’s technique, the art is over because you are aware the person is an actor. But in the music world, or so my friend suggests, technique reigns as content, and that work so obsessed will never have any lasting relevance because of its distance from culture. Can you help me with reasons or examples to prove him wrong?

Morton Feldman would certainly offer some thoughts here. More than any other composer, he explored the techniques of painting and related them to his own work. Feldman explored color, texture, surface, depth, and shadow in very new and painterly ways. And as he took pleasure pointing out, his scores “looked dull”, but when played and made alive, they occupied a different dimension which he described as “Between categories. Between Time and Space. Between painting and music. Between the music’s construction, and its surface.”

A discussion here of the problem of musical technique might be served by the following from Feldman:

Music is not painting, but it can learn from this more perceptive temperament that waits and observes the inherent mystery of its materials, as opposed to the composer’s vested interest in his craft. Since music has never had a Rembrandt, we have remained nothing more than musicians.

The painter achieves mastery by allowing what he is doing to be itself. In a way, he must step aside in order to be in control. The composer is just learning to do this. He is just beginning to learn that controls can be thought of as nothing more than accepted practice.
How do you look at art and how does it influence your music and your technique? Are we as composers progressing on the terms Feldman describes? Can we generate the kind of lively and provocative discourse that visual artists do?