Beauty is the New Wallflower
As the Stephen Sondheim lyric has it, “Art isn’t easy.” Nor, to paraphrase, is the achievement of beauty in music. But of all the revolutions of modernism, none was more complete than the ashcanning of beauty as the ultimate canon of art. Indeed, beauty of melody and of sound is still held in a kind of privileged contempt by some influential salons of the cutting edge.
Oh sure, there is trite and cheap beauty in art, and some postmodern neo-tonal music has come in for rightful criticism for this, for its “reaction formation” (in the Freudian sense) to the serialism that preceded it. But the fact that trite, cheaply “pretty” music exists cannot delude us into the fallacy that beauty is intrinsically simple. Beauty is complex, in art and in nature. The beauty of fractals or the harmonic series is complex; the beauty of Persian rugs or Dante’s Divine Comedy or the cathedral of Chartres is complex. And so is achieving beauty through orchestration. It is difficult to mix instrumental colors and registers, and to balance chords in the orchestra, so as to achieve a beauty that sounds artless. Even a master orchestrator like Mahler wrote of his uncertainties. Conversely, ugliness is easy to attain, requires less skill, and is not even something one can master. It is not any challenge to write for all instrumental parts at maximum volume and without regard to the “meat” of the instruments’ ranges.
At a recent concert at a prestigious Manhattan venue—an admirable place where many good things of aesthetic persuasions old and new regularly get done with enormous taste, smarts, and professionalism—I heard a newly commissioned concerto for an unusual instrument by a well-known and successful composer now on the faculty of a famous conservatory. The solo instrument could barely be heard because of the constant din of the orchestra. It was as if the composer had treated every instrument like a switch on a giant mixing console, moved the volume up to maximum on all switches, and kept it there. What was artful about this? The timbres didn’t blend, they just collided in a kind of auditory roller derby. The ear’s need to hear one instrument’s range balanced with another’s was cavalierly disregarded. It’s not that the tutti effects weren’t powerful densities; it’s that you had the feeling that these same densities could have been equally produced by combining any number of other sounds at the flip of a coin. All I could think of was Alexander Pope’s “True ease in writing comes from art, not chance/As those move easiest who have learned to dance…The sound must seem an echo to the sense.” Not here.
Was this all inspired creative deconstruction? Or just plain ineptitude masquerading as chic? I know from previous experience that howling mobs will now come for my head, labeling me an anti-pop/anti-downtown bigot for suggesting such heresy. Fie. Any four-year-old can turn up the volume dial. But no four-year-old could think up the unique sheen added to the strings and winds by the harp runs at measure 63 of Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, or the diaphanous string glissando harmonics seven bars before rehearsal number 1 in the Firebird.
What we’ve got here, folks, is the syllogism of solipsism often employed by baby boomers and Gen-Alphabetters: We enjoy it, and therefore it must be Great. It must be Art. Further, it must be Beautiful because it’s Ours. Right? No. To me, to claim that an orchestra used like a mixing board is heir to the tradition of well-wrought beauty in musical art would be like my claiming I’m fine aged Kobe beef because I dress up in an Oscar Mayer costume.
I know I’m stepping into turbulent waters here. Your definition of beauty may differ. But to me, modern and postmodern aesthetics have perversely turned beauty into the Wallflower of Art. It’s revenge of the nerds.