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March Post: Embracing our Plurality

Plurality...what it means to you.

As my roots are in a style that I would call philosophical: there really isn't any way to avoid such a quality in these blog posts even if I was of the (for me) perverse inclination to want avoid a philosophical quality. As people often say t day,it is part of who I am.

I certainly was doing philosophical type work before I ever touched a piano.

To name but one example, I have been working on this magnum opus passion project for close to a decade now on the 1970s and filmed visual culture.

Because this is important to me it necessarily plays the role of a supporting character or figure in this podcast. And part of this involves the scholarly side of my nature which is considerable. (And which is as considerable as the non-scholarly or even frivolous and playful side of my nature).

I am always learning both more information for this book and information which applies to many things outside the book - that break the boundaries of any particular era or even art form, never mind the cinema. it is a kind of magical fact of life that any new information that comes into my nervous system also supports many things that reach far beyond any decade or even medium of art.

It is not just a bunch of data but enlarges my comprehension and compassion for works of art and their creators throughout time. Thus, I often see connections among, say, prose and painting and sculpture, while always being mindful of the necessary and important differences of what these mediums are suppose to do for their audiences.

In preparing for one of my guests, the concert pianist Beth Levin, I reacquainted myself with a book by Charles Rosen called The Classical Style which is a rather technical and musicological book but which goes so far beyond the technical and academic to become a beautiful work of non-fiction prose in its own right.

Of course when you read a book like that this performs a double service: you might learn details about Mozart or Beethoven and at the same time you are reading excellent prose.

My aim is that my 1970s book can be like that: both scholarly in its abundance of fact and most personal in its fearlessness about feeling.

Now Charles Rosen's book concerns one of the most common phenomenons in history: the consensus and agreement about the rules or language of a particular artistic form, in this case of a part of the eighteenth century.

Though there is great individuality among people who operated or worked in the form there were nevertheless enough common features that we can say, "well that is what (most) musicians did in 1781".

Indeed I am tempted to go so far as to say that in most ages of recorded history there were only very few styles that dominated within a given era, and in many instances there was really only a single conception of what a piece of music, a painting, or a novel was, what created its identity.

Now what is really interesting is that even within a common language and style there is the possibility for some difference, sometimes with the result of warring factions and camps.

So to the people involved in these competitions or struggles there is the real conviction that there is but one way artists should make art and, above all for this point of view, those rules something to do with destiny or the future that we should have.

Of course this is an incredibly moralistic way to look at art, but this assumption, however mistaken, is nevertheless behind some of the greatest art in all periods. (And we are not immune at all: to take but one example, the uniformity of the consensus of style in prose due to MFA programs).

This means that the "greatness" of the art in question is in tension with the flawed moralism of the domination of one style alone.

In doing a little research for the Beth Levin episode I brought back to my days studying western music history and I came across this entry in Wikipedia about debates among composers in the nineteenth century. Now you will note that that the very best musicians in this era were not immune to this singularity or I would call monism.

It might seem odd from the vantage of such great historical difference as the 2020s that the partisans of Lizst and Brahms were not able to appreciate, never mind celebrate, both men but rather had to pick some kind of a side and even that the composers themselves were involved with such ideas.

Now today somebody encountering the music of either Lizst or Brahms for the first time has absolutely no connection whatsoever with those debates, opinions or historical forces at work in the nineteenth century.

What they do have, thankfully, is the feeling and experience of the individual pieces of music that have remained today. And just as we can hear so many similarities between, say a Brahms Intermezzo and a Lizst Consolation - similarity of tonal musical language for example - we can see that they are both wholly individual and different in their piano music. (That is what our podcast is about).

But for most human history a large part of what art has been has the domination by an enforced "house style" - weather Classical Hollywood style of the 30s and 40s which was a good one, or the rejection of tonality in concert music in the fifties which is a mixed one.

It is the reason why we still discuss the furious riot at the premiere of Stravinsy's Le Sacre du Printemps

The negative response was owed chiefly to the fact that they had a narrow preconception not only of what ballet music was supposed to sound like but what the identity of music itself was, and Stravinsky was apparently in violation of this.

The fact that its musical language was most influential to the present author as well as countless others was not yet a phenomenon at its debut of course. I recently had the fortune of streaming a friend John Gianvito's film on Helen Keller, Her Socialist Smile.

Now back in the day of the early to middle 00s when I lived in Boston I would have been able to watch the film with John presenting it and go and hang out afterwards into the night.

Today of course I stream it at home and recognize all of the poetic features of this totally unique documentary on Helen Keller - the beauty of nature as well as lengthy texts by Keller to read on the screen.

Helen Keller

This is a form of documentary filmmaking so unlike anything you would ever seen on HBO or Netflix as to be from a different universe, almost as If John Gianvito lived on a planet in which it was forbidden for actors to play historical figures unless they were simply reading letters by said figures at a podium.

John Gianvito

I am well aware that the majority of the public would possibly prefer a more "'traditional" documentary with people talking to the camera for long periods, lots of reenactments.glitzy visual effects and booming electronic rock and avant-garde European music.

They would probably prefer still more a dramatic reenactment with their favorite actors performing "as" famous people in history. I should immediately add that though I do prefer the approach of Gianvito - it feels more interesting to me - I mean no disrespect towards the craft involved with traditional historical "reenactments" with major actors or even stars playing known historical people and so on.

I take the later to be essentially an offshoot classical dramatic art more generally, even though within this genre there are radical experiments going on.

My main point is that the "traditional" should not become the only or dominant style, as beloved as it is. And of course on this podcast you will recognize that I try and cover both so-called commercial works of art as well as those that are unknown or anti-commercial in sensibility).

Yet Gianvito forges his own path, true to the socialism of both himself and Helen Keller and the commitment to a kind of integrity that this allows.

What I really mean to say, to be a bit blunt about it, is that we remain divided creatures.

A part of us longs for an ideal that is unified and singular and that we then apply to all things; another smaller, more recent part of us pays begrudging acknowledgement to our plurality as human beings and concedes the inevitability of things other than an ideal.

So much is terrible about our internet age and I am the last person to argue that it is progressive in its essence because it is at least half bad as good, but one precious thing that it gets right is to hold a mirror to who we are as creative beings and that mirror reveals that there is never one correct way to write a book or photograph a movie. In a very real sense then, this is the first time in human history that with an instant click we can go from one style to a radically different one simultaneously and accordingly become at least partially literate concerning them.

We come face to face with our essential plurality, which was perhaps there all along, whatever single style dominated in any era and thus obscured the possibility for styles other than the dominant one.

Learning Links related to this post:

John Gianvito talk at Lincoln Center:

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