A Glass of Chianti

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Passions and art, part 1 (of 3)

So, I've been working through this particular piece of music for a while now. I've been trying to square how I can understand it, be enthusiastic with regard to the intended message and still not be able to engage the piece. Quartet for the End of Time goes into a fairly large group of works that I recognize are great, but I just can't seem to embrace. (Also in this class for me: a good deal of Italian Mannerist paintings, bitonal music and fanatical devotion to Texas A&M, in general.)
When it was first suggested that I study the piece, I was given a list of recordings, a couple of photocopied pages from the score and a ringing endorsement from my teacher who said that it was the perfect piece for me. I quickly skipped on over to the music library to check out the recordings, anxious to hear (and see) what this whole thing was about. I checked out the first recording and went (complete score now in hand) to the carrel to listen. I became very puzzled. Surely this wasn't what I radiated as my taste. After the composition was done, I sat back for a while and just looked at the score. At first, It thought it might be a bad recording. But no, the score was pretty clear and the performers were more than sensitive to the markings I saw. It seemed as they really "got" the piece, even if I didn't. Undeterred, I went back to check out the next CD. I listened to it while reading the score. Afterward, I just couldn't shake the thought that it seemed to be lacking something. I was still pretty underwhelmed and really wondering what my professor was thinking about me. I put my stuff away and went home, leaving the other three or four performances in the library to be listened to on another day.
The next week, I went into my lesson and asked my professor what he thought would appeal to me about this piece. He told me, basically, that he thought story of the composition of the piece would inspire me and that I would identify with the super Catholic composer. With the new (to me) information surrounding the composition and this knowledge of the piety of the composer, I set out to the library again to tackle the work. I wasn't any more successful that time, or the times in the five years since that I've listened to the piece, struggling with my ears. I do think that Oliver Messiaen is a great composer. I've heard other compositions of his that I really, actively respect and I do think that the Quartet quite worthy of all of the performances it gets. The story is inspiring, even if the music doesn't affect me.
This problem of the Quartet has really bothered me ever since. Related, of course, is the fact that some music (and other art, of course) that really moves me was produced by people who I disagree with their aims on a fundamental level. So, how does knowing about the lives and aims of the artists affect my evaluation of their art? It doesn't. It is important to know about the creator of a work but for reasons that I'll detail in a post later tonight.
Here's the thing: Art transcends the artist - it makes things that are real but invisible, understandable. Art is great when it tells a truth that causes a movement of the soul. The art that is created is bigger than the person who creates it and, as such, reveals something even bigger still. ("What?" my militant friends are saying, "Something bigger and more majestic than man himself?! Impossible." See, there's something my "socialist" friends and my Objectivist friends* can agree that I'm wrong about. I'm a builder of bridges!)
Basically, I'm just not into the whole, you're a conservative so you have to love X's work, since he's a conservative, too. Or, you are a fan of Robert Motherwell so you must love Mr. Crazy Abstractionist XXVII.
I don't love all Catholic authors. The work may be pious and very sincere but if it's not good, I can't make myself love it just because it's created by a Catholic. I don't hate everything created by a Chomsky devotee. The work may be incredibly shrill but if it's good, I can't make myself hate it just because it's created by a follower of a linguist.

*You go study music and economics and try to come home with normal friends.