The Social Contract

“A social contract attaches to words: if we don’t use them correctly, we may as well be talking to ourselves.”—James M. Keller, “Word Imperfect” (Opera News, December 2011, pp. 39-41)

“Always play the expected and the listener gets bored and leaves. Always play the unexpected and the listener gets lost and leaves. But combine the expected and the unexpected and a journey is created that the listener will want to join.”—Jonathan Segal, The Disharmonic Misadventures of David Stein (2011)

Accidental Abstract Expressionism

This seeming abstract expressionist painting, created probably unintentionally from the random tearing away of a series of superimposed advertisements that over time had been glued on a billboard, shows how normative the once radical but now iconic creations of artists like Pollock and Rauschenberg have become.

I’ve been fascinated by cultural artifacts that experiment with normative expectations ever since I learned that such things existed. There was no gradual curve to warming up to such things in my case; it was pretty much instantaneous. In fact, when I was much younger I didn’t really appreciate the standard repertoire of classical music and only acquired a taste for it after being totally enthralled by composers like Ives, Cage, Stockhausen, etc. Similarly with jazz, I came to folks like George Russell and Cecil Taylor long before I got excited about Louis Armstrong or Lester Young. To this day, despite my efforts at eschewing experiential limitations resulting from personal taste, I still much prefer psychedelic, prog, or post-punk to any kind of mainstream rock music. And so it normally goes for things other than music—I’m usually instantly attracted to early 20th-century abstraction, stream of consciousness prose, concrete poetry, and on and on.

Part of the appeal of things that defy expectation is their ability to surprise. The first encounter with such work is guaranteed to be somewhat disconcerting and can often result in total bewilderment. Rather than this being off-putting to me, I often feel a total adrenaline rush while attempting to mentally process something that seems either incomprehensible or otherwise disturbing. Of course, repeat exposure to these initially jolting experiences eventually makes them normative as well. But then the joy becomes figuring out how such things were put together and what precisely made them so unusual. Somehow it can feel less exhilarating to encounter things whose secrets can be gleaned in the first go round, but then again seemingly obvious things often reveal deeper layers on closer inspection, and discovering such can make the return exposure an even more satisfying engagement.

However, a full century has passed since the now seminal experimentation that seemed to have sprouted at the same time in all of the arts. Artistic efforts that continue along similar lines to any of those once ahead-of-their-time efforts or even subsequent experimental watersheds now can smack of somehow being normative themselves. Creating an abstract painting in the year 2012 is no longer revolutionary; neither is composing a 12-tone, indeterminate, minimalist, or microtonal musical composition. Also the hindsight of a post-modern view of the past eradicates a clear linear narrative for artistic evolution and reveals that throughout history there had always been avant-gardes, often coexisting with what was subsequently deemed to be any given era’s zeitgeist. Embracing such a perspective makes attempts at contemplating what could possibly be ahead of its time in our own time something of an exercise in futility. Indeed, in our post-history/post-“anything goes” aesthetic climate, it often feels like it’s impossible to be revolutionary. And so ironically, newer works can frequently seem less challenging than things created before almost all of us were born.

Yet it also seems—at least on a creative level—that despite the difficulty in creating something that’s “new,” it might be even harder to create something (no matter what its form or stylistic inclination) that is capable of communicating and making a real connection to whoever experiences it. As artists, might making something people will want to encounter again be even more imperative than making something new? It seems like the sweet spot, if indeed there can be one, is to make something that is simultaneously in a new language but which could also be a language that people will be able to, as well as want to, converse in immediately after exposure to it.

3 thoughts on “The Social Contract

  1. Alvaro Gallegos

    I showed the Segal quote to a composer friend of mine, and he said: “from the point of view of the listener is a very interesting phrase, but from the point of view of a composer, we should start to define what exactly is ‘expected’ or ‘unexpected'”.

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  2. Susan Scheid

    When you say, “Part of the appeal of things that defy expectation is their ability to surprise,” it puts me in mind of my fascination with John Ashbery’s poems. I have many poetry-loving friends, but few who are willing to go out on that limb. I had to figure out what it is I like so much, and what I determined is that he absolutely subverts the attempt to think in a straight line. You simply have to let go of what you think he’s doing and let him lead the way.

    In terms of music, and the quote from Segal, I’m not sure I agree with the first part. As to that, it often seems to me that many, if not most, listeners (and that is my “category” here, too—I’m neither a musician nor a composer) are quite satisfied staying with what is familiar, almost afraid to venture out.

    As to the second part of what he wrote, I do think that, from the listener’s end at least, there’s a “zone of proximal development” that can be helpful—that is, something in the music that’s familiar enough to give the listener something to grab on to, even if the piece takes him/her somewhere altogether new. The hope would be that, the next time, some of that “new” will now be within the listener’s ZPD, so that, bit by bit, the ear expands to let in more and more “new” musical ideas.

    I am thinking of this right now in relation to two new compositions, Judd Greenstein’s Acadia and Dylan Mattingly’s Atlas of Somewhere on the Way to Howland Island (the latter to be performed at the Tribeca New Music Festival this week). In both cases, at least for me, as a listener, there’s plenty to grab hold of, yet, at the same time, I feel these pieces both take me to entirely new listening ground. I’ve listened to each of them several times, and each time I hear something else new and exciting in them. In each case, this experience has led me to explore their work further, not to mention to look forward to what they come up with next—not because it will be familiar, but because I trust them both, musically, as guides into their own versions of the “new.”

    I don’t know how much sense this makes, but this post did resonate with me particularly, so I wanted at least to try and set something down in response.

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  3. Ratzo B. Harris

    Just like musicians, listeners come in all stripes. Some, like Frank, prefer listening to music that presents a dense landscape in both form and content, while others prefer something more obvious, such as Gregorian chants. There are so many factors that might contribute to these different perspectives and preferences; being raised in an urban setting might incline one to identify more with music that contains many seemingly disparate elements, one might also be conditioned by the philosophies of their pedagogical mentors. Some like to be surprised and some want to hear what they know. Probably the most obvious, yet most ignored, facet of whether or not one is attracted to the expected or the unexpected is that it changes all the time. Sometimes we want to hear something new, and sometimes not. Our tastes are, like the society they negotiate, unstable.

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