Monday, November 23, 2009

On Rock and Roll, John Cage, traditional painting and okra.

Motion Ensemble rehearsing John Cage Variations III on May 9 2007.John Milton Cage Jr. (September 5, 1912 – August 12, 1992) Piece from 1963

The Beatles This Boy first released 1963 B side of I want to hold your hand.

This evening I want to provoke those lovers of modern "classical" (?) music. I am not comfortable with calling music which I think is a rebellion against classical music ,classical music ,but I am reluctant to call it orchestral music, this piece anyway. Cage did write for a classical orchestra and I believe he is usually referred to as a classical composer. Roll over Beethoven!

I am an aficionado of Rock and Roll, most of you who follow this blog know that. I have nothing against classical music, its just not what I listen to. I make no claims to being an erudite scholar of music. When I do listen to "classical" music I like the late 19th century guys like Chopin, Ravel , and Debussy, I also like the piece Iberia by Albinez. All of that is actually romantic music I guess.......

I happen to dislike the Cage piece, I also dislike Webern and Schoenberg but that's not the point. I also dislike tofu, okra, and sports. That doesn't make em bad, I just don't like em. You might. Its a matter of opinion. I won't eat tofu because its good for me, nor will I listen to music because its good for me. I go to music for enjoyment. If I was a scholar of music, or a musician, I might need to study John Cage and Schoenberg, but I only listen for pleasure I have no interest in that which I find displeasing.
I want to point out what I think is the similarity of traditional painting to rock and roll and that in my opinion contemporary ("modern art") painting is more like modern music. John Cage is a good example for a couple of reasons here. He hung out with "modern" painters and I think his music drew upon the dada sensibility that drives most of modern art. Here, laid out as bullet points are my arguments for these comparisons.
  • Rock and Roll is (was?) a widely popular art form, easily understood and enjoyed by a great number of people, very few people listen to or enjoy modern classical music outside of rarefied academic or professional classical musicians circles.
  • Traditional painting is easily understood and is the "peoples" art of our world, the greatest number of people are attracted to traditional painting and very few outside of the art schools or academicia follow modern painting.The big money is there, for sure, but it is a small group of people mostly in the urban high rises of several large American cities who are actively collecting and following modern painting. It is not a "peoples" art.
  • It is relatively easy for millions of people to tell whether a rock band is "good" or not. Now the lines here are fuzzy you may like this band, and I another, but in general we judge rock bands on the strength of their instrumental abilities, showmanship, song writing etc. There are some rough standards the the average citizen can understand and debate. While I might disagree with your assessment of a band, I would have no trouble understanding the terms you were using or how you were arriving at your opinion.
  • A critic arguing for both this John Cage piece and a "modern" painting is usually speaking a language that the citizens can't understand. Open a copy of Art News and try to read the dense prose that describes the Art. I like to think of my self as bright enough and I know something about art, but I'll be damned if I can follow what the hell they are talking about most of the time. I think its mostly a stream of pretentious nonsense designed to snow me. Compare that with the prose in Rolling Stone which actually makes sense.
  • There is an amateur non urban movement in traditional painting today, there are fine painters coming out of the West and from all across the country,besides in New York and LA. That's like Rock and Roll too. Modern classical music is generally coming from academia and the cores of a few large cities, like modern painting.
  • Traditional painting has subject matter, so does Rock and Roll, whether it is about, your girl, your car or your pants it has subject. Most modern painting sees subject matter as sentimental and tends to be opaque and deliberately hard to understand. Often titles are cryptic and what the piece is about is only to be discovered by reading the little tag beside it.
  • The role of the critic is enormous in modern painting and music. Critic's proclamations define which artists are "good" and which are not. The critics largely ignore traditional painting and we are left with having to decide for ourselves what we value and don't.We are getting by without em. The listeners of Rock and Roll paid little attention to music critics either, they liked Led Zeppelin, they don't care that Rolling Stone dismissed them during their hey day.
  • Modern painting is nihilist and elitest. Rock and roll, and traditional painting are romantic and sentimental.
  • Rock and Roll has stood the test of time in the popular culture. How many people can identify a modern painting from 1960 compared to those who can recognize an Elvis Presley tune? Did you ever pass someone on the street who was whistling a Schoenberg tune? Christiana's world is instantly recognizable, can you hum me a few bars of the John Cage tune you just heard. I didn't think so.


Dot Courson said...

*High Five*, Stape! Love this posting. - Dot Courson

tom martino said...

... Stape, I think the real test of the relationship of music to traditional painting is the kind of music you find inspiring in your studio. Doing live oil portraiture or still life, for example, I find more "serious" and traditional music (Wagner, Bruckner, Debussy, and, of course, Rachmaninoff) really conducive to stoking the embers of inspiration.

Stapleton Kearns said...


Stapleton Kearns said...

I listen to Rock and Roll in the studio. I do have 19th century music on my i-pod though and so it gets played too.I listen to Rachmaninoff too. But This years hit has been the new ,live Jeff Beck album. Do you listen to 20th century classical? Like Schoenberg?

willek said...

Should we be considering the music that would accompany a viewing of the paintings we are working on? Should we be specifying that music on the back of the canvas, perhaps? As Tom implies, maybe the music the artist was listening to WHILE PAINTING should be the music that the viewer hears when walking by the work. It would not work for me, though... I used to be a musician and even built many musical instruments..but I am now all talk radio all the time. Maybe I should change my subject matter to more closely reflect the NPR I am listening too. Moreover, I do not think music written in other countries matches up well with American paintings. We have to use the likes of Charles Ives, Judy Collins, Scheonburg, Baez, Hindemeth, Muddy waters, Dillon, Parton, Horace Silver and Miles Davis. With the technology we have today there is no reason why a music chip can't be imbedded in every frame or stretcher.

Bob Carter said...

You are definitely the boy crying “The Emperor has no clothes!” here. There is a continuum, however. The most extreme forms of music and art (the “avant garde”) are, indeed, opaque to most rational humans (which, by definition, excludes most critics). The people who push Cage are saying, “If you were as smart as we are, you’d understand this, peon!” But there are artists who push the envelope a bit without being non-understandable. I recall attending a premier of a Lou Harrison piece (with the composer and his longtime companion in attendance), based on the five-tone oriental scale, which was scored (of necessity) for strings, trombone, and percussion (i.e., anything not keyed in Western tonality). While we did not leave the concert hall whistling the tune, it was thoroughly approachable and enjoyable. Likewise, I recall attending an organ recital of Olivier Messien’s “Icarus”, which was atonal but interesting. Of course, we did not know the piece had ended until the performer turned around on the bench and said, “He fell!”, at which point we knew to applaud. It was a fun experience. The unfortunate thing about art at the limits is that it conveys to aspiring artists the misprision that anything goes, and all that tedious learning of principles and techniques is just passé. It’s all about “personal expression”. And, yes, most academic art departments foster this narcissism.
There is, of course, the opposite extreme: thoroughly understandable work that is insipid. I would say the Beatles “That Boy” falls into this category. What makes the Beatles immortal in rock-and-roll is that they did not stay at that level. “Sargent Pepper” was a brilliant advance of the genre. Some of the later works are even structurally and harmonically innovative (e.g., “Elinore Rigby”). In art, the most insipid works are the most sentimental. As Pissarro said, sentimental art is the most corrupt. That has not stopped a certain contemporary artist (whose initials are T.K.) from becoming wildy popular, selling reproduction in beany-baby quantities to gullible customers who think they are buying real art. Somewhere in the middle is where, I suspect, most of us aspire to be in representational painting: understandable work that has an intellectually based visual and emotional content. T.K.’s customers are not looking for composition, values, counterchange, lost-and-found edges, etc. But I sure wish I could sell like T.K. (Alternately, maybe a good pair of fishnet stockings and a well placed street corner would do the trick, so to speak.)

Robert J. Simone said...

Points well made...I like what you said about subject matter. I listen to Rock or Folk. If I was forced to choose only one CD to listen to for the rest of my life I'd probably pick Lou Reed's Street Hassle, but who could argue with the Beatles. My parents, God rest there souls, are probably surprised that Lennon and McCartney are in elevators everywhere. Recently got turned on to an artist I never heard of before. His name is Antsy McClain. You Tube him. Great lyrics. Very funny and fresh.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I like that chip idea, perhaps it coud be the artist himself muttering about his intentions.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Glad to hear from you and that you are still out there. Particularly after my 12 foot long cesium filtered cobalt rods, I assumed you might have run for the exits.
My point is not, Avant garde bad, traditional good, although I am a partisan here. My point is that "modern painting is a lot like "modern classical music" traditional painting is more an "everymans " art form like rock and roll.
I LOVE the Beatles tune This Boy.Their close harmony singing is lovely and shimmers with class and grace.
The song is an elegant rethinking of the sort of tune that the black girl groups of the day were singing.At 1:03 John Lennon shows that he is the best male rock and roll voice of the day. It is cunningly simple, infectious and unpretentious.The Beatles found a startling new take on a musical form that seemed to have devolved into a predictable and formulaic dead end. I like Sergeant Peppers the least of all Beatles albums. I think the Revolver-Rubber soul twins are probably my favorites.


November 23, 2009 9:36 AM

Philip Koch said...

Critics play a role in promoting avant garde art to be sure. But keeping that scene going is the significant number of deep pocketed art collectors willing and able to plunk down 50-100 thousand, or more, for a piece of whatever contemporary work is most in fashion. Which is the cart and which is the horse is debatable, but I tend to see the power emanating from the wealthy collectors.

On another note, I attended a John Cage "concert" years ago while an undergraduate at Oberlin College. The guy got up on the stage and started speaking as his assistant turned on 7 vacuum cleaners, each amplified by a microphone. Cage's speech was completely inaudible. What got me though was he kept this up for the full 45 minutes of the scheduled lecture. Nobody I spoke to afterward had a kind word to say about the experience.

Robert J. Simone said...

Seems like an appropriate time to mention a book entitled, "The Painted Word" by Thomas Wolf. All about the modernist propaganda machine. Quick read and worth it.

Mike Thompson said...

Hi, Stape. Long time, no comment. But still lurkin'.

If you want to know what I think of most of this modern stuff, look up my comments I made months ago about one room in the De Young where people couldn't run out of there fast enough.

That said, I don't care that this stuff is made and sold. What bugs me is that everything else is disparaged - especially when most people would throw it in the trash if they found one leaning against the back wall of their storage shed during spring cleaning. When you walk into a field and the only thing you see is corn, you know you are on a farm. When you walk into a stand of large plants with 57 varieties of trees, you know you are in a forest. Never once have I paid good money to vacation in a farmer's field but I have spent a small fortune to vacation in the woods. AKA The Garden.

Sure T.K. and the little old ladies at the farmers' market who paint watercolors so thinly they are still using the same tube of ultramarine blue they bought back in 1972 produce sentimental pablum but let people buy what they want. It's their walls, their money, their choice.

What to make of this? I pulled MY little stack of abstracts out of storage the other day, thumbed through them, and thought to myself that I ought to mount and frame a couple of them. Make my walls a little less monocropped with traditionalism. More like a forest.

- - -

By the way, since your blog is about music today. I tried to find some Grateful Dead for my IPOD but when the time came to make a choice, I choked. Instead, I bought a CD from a local group I heard at the annual Sweet Corn Festival - Tree Thump - whose main schtick is digeridoo jazz avante garde whatever. Just another tree in my IPOD forest. Or some would call it a jungle.

Unknown said...

I can't help notice the amount of okra that modern artists ingest - it may be indeed a bad vegetable.

I am just catching up after a long work trip - awesome stuff as usual.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I would have split. No way I could have sat still that long. The those vacuum cleaners must have really sucked.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I love that book. I love Tom Wolfe.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I don't care either but I do dislike being told that smart people only like modern art.
Frank Ordaz said that he liked the record store model. A record store has different categories. You walk in and find the one you like.

You can bget all the free Grateful Dead concerts you want at archive . org. legal.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Welcome back.Do you think it may be an okra based art form. It would go a long way to taking some of the mystery out of it,

billspaintingmn said...

Growing up a kid in the 60's I cut my teeth on Rock-n-Roll
There was so much I took it for granted.
Now I pour it like fine wine.
Grew okra in the garden one year,
only for that beautiful flower it sends out.
Can't stomach opera,ever.
I know what I like, and I'd like to know more.
Guess that's why I'm here!

Deborah Paris said...

Love, love, love this post..and you are so right about This Boy. shimmering...what a lovely way to describe it! said...

I like jazz. Miles Davis, Kind of Blue. I make no excuses. First there was jazz, then Rock now I am back to jazz. Lookin' at my work I bet no one is surprised.

Richard J. Luschek II said...

Great post.
I usually like Rock and Roll that has many of the same qualities of classical music. While it can be loud and rebellious (I really should have used the f word as an adjective in front of loud and rebellious), good rock generally has melody and rhythm.
There is still a lot of amazing musicians creating great new music, even though it is no longer in the top 40 (I tried watching the American Music awards and it seemed as though I were watching an alien culture that loves things that suck. I almost had a panic attack, but luckily my wife changed the channel first)

For example, lately I am really enjoying the music of Andrew Bird- a classically trained violinist that plays "rock and roll". Lovely stuff.

I love some modern classical like Arvo Part, and Gorecki, or John Tavener, but John Cage is the Carrot Top of the classical music world.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Bill didn't know okra flowerd.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thank you . It is nice to know that people are enjoying what I am writing.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I too like Miles. I find my daughter is starting to listen to Miles too. She also is liking Sarah Vaughn.

jeff said...

I love Jeff Beck and the late great Stevie Ray Vaughn.

That young Australian bass player is pretty amazing and she's only what 22 years old. Tal Wilkenfeld

I listen to all kinds of music from early music, Baroque, to Jazz and rock when I'm working. It all depends on the energy I want.

My favorite Cage work is the one where the pianist just sits there and does nothing...

jeff said...

Here's some Beck at Ronnie Scotts...

and this is nice:
"A Day in the Life"

Bob Carter said...

Stape et al.-
OK, I give. "That Boy" does have good close harmony and precise execution. In fact, those were the qualities that first made me notice the Beatles way back then. But the lyrics? C'mon ...

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thanks for those. That is the Jeff Beck I have been listening to . I downloaded it from i-tunes.