Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Kandinsky's Theories (2)

(For part 1 on Kandinsky's theories, see previous entry)

Let's examine Kandinsky's three "mystical necessities" that define artwork of lasting value.
The first is a concept that I suspect most would agree with: An artist must express something personal through their art. Kandinsky goes even further, however, by writing that what the artist expresses must not only be personal, but "peculiar to oneself."
But what is unique to any of us? I don't know about you, but I'm pretty sure that there is absolutely no attribute that I possess that is not also possessed by other people. We (or at least most people I know) like to think of ourselves as unique, but I would suggest that it is the combination of traits we possess that makes us and others feel that we are, and it is this combination of traits that makes up our personality.
I'm fine with the idea that there is a connection between one's personality and one's artistic creations, but I'm proposing that it is impossible to "express what is peculiar to oneself," because nothing is.
Just for fun, I'm going to flip Kandinsky's first 'mystical necessity' to:
1. Every artist, as creator, must express what is universal.
I'm not sure I agree with it 100%, but it seems to me that it is true of much artwork of lasting value. I recall reading at some point that most songs are love songs. If true, the reason for this would seem to be obvious; love is something that we've all experienced, and something that affects us profoundly. It is as close to a universal experience as there is.
But so are basic bodily functions, and you don't hear too many songs about being hungry, or needing to pee. You may conclude from this that there is a vast, untapped market for songs relating to bladder control (the "I had to pee but the teacher wouldn't let me" blues, for instance?), but my own take is that a quality in addition to universality must be present for my above statement to have some validity.
What to name this quality? Perhaps 'poetry,' or 'mystery,' or simply 'something that causes us to reflect on the subject in a different way.' And perhaps this quality, whatever you wish to call it, is tied in with the personal, which would bring it back to the territory covered by Kandinsky's first 'mystical necessity.'
Speaking of which, I don't know about you, but whenever someone says you "must" do something, my natural inclination is to refuse and/or do the opposite. I am not a fan of imperatives, I guess, which is probably part of the reason I became a composer. So when I read Kandinsky's three 'mystical necessities,' I notice they are all 'must' statements and right off the bat there is a part of me that bristles at being told what I must do.
My amended wording of #1 would be something like this:
1. Art of lasting value tends to have qualities that are both personal and universal.
And perhaps mysterious too, but this is getting long, so I think I'll leave it at that for today.
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7 comments:

Kate Bevan-Baker said...
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Kate Bevan-Baker said...

"An artist must express something personal through their art. Kandinsky goes even further, however, by writing that what the artist expresses must not only be personal, but "peculiar to oneself." But what is unique to any of us? I don't know about you, but I'm pretty sure that there is absolutely no attribute that I possess that is not also possessed by other people. We (or at least most people I know) like to think of ourselves as unique, but I would suggest that it is the combination of traits we possess that makes us and others feel that we are, and it is this combination of traits that makes up our personality."

I find it really fascinating to think about how nobody is truly unique. I've never thought about it before, and it's pretty neat to realize that, no matter how hard you try, there's always somebody else who has done something you have or looked the way you do.

I play in a traditional band, and we call ourselves 'unique'. We like to think that nobody else has taken traditional folk melodies and changed them, added beats, dropped beats, accompanied with unusual harmonies, etc. I'm sure that there are other groups and artists who have done the same kind of thing, so we shouldn't say we're the only 'young trad band around'.

Also, in our master class last week, we were having a discussion on practice techniques. People were sharing certain methods that worked well for them when learning new music or memorizing. Many people said that they listened to different recordings to get ideas and gain inspiration, but our teacher said that we shouldn't listen to recordings when we're learning a piece, and we should come up with our own musical ideas. She said that musicians have to be able to express themselves in their own way, and 'stealing' other performers' ideas isn't a good way to learn something. I respect this advice, and agree that we shouldn't rely on other people's ideas, but composers have put specific directions in their music that we as performers are meant to follow. Isn't our duty as performers to follow these instructions?

I guess my questions is how closely are we supposed to follow markings in the music, and how 'free' and 'personalized' are we allowed to be in our interpretations? I guess it depends on a lot of different things.

James Bulgin said...

I like your rephrasing of Kandinsky's first rule, and I can definitely agree with it more wholeheartedly than the original, although I'm not really sure they're making quite the same point.


Kate, what you said about your masters class is interesting, although I must respectfully disagree with your teacher's point of view. I don't consider drawing inspiration from other's interpretations of a song to be stealing in any negative sense. In fact, I think it can be quite valuable. The aim of this, of course, is not to produce a mirror of someone else's performance, but as a place to mine ideas, and see or hear things which spark one's own creativity.

I suppose there is the possibility of thinking more 'outside the box' if you've never heard anyone else play a particular song, but given how much exposure one has had to similar music and the general ways of going about such things, I'm not sure even this is too important.

Other musicians didn't develop their techniques in a vacuum. No one ever does. We each develop our creative selves from what we see and hear around us, drawing upon different facets of the same shared history.

I'm not even sure that one has to make a deliberate effort to be 'different' (although experimentation never hurts). I think it tends to happen on its own. Everyone has their own tastes and inclinations, and even with exposure to the exact same material are likely to come away with something different, simply because we ARE different.


The issue of originality comes up in other creative disciplines as well, and I've seen many heated debates in some of the other areas I'm involved in. Yet, I've often found that some of the most 'innovative' works are rarely the most beloved or enduring. There's a reason that people keep coming back to some of the same fundamentals, and it's not just that they've run out of ideas and can't come up with anything else. It's because there's something in these fundamentals which appeals to people and continues to do so.

And I think this ties neatly back into the statement that "Art of lasting value tends to have qualities that are both personal and universal." In fact, the more I think about that statement, the more I like it. These recurring concepts, or figures, or plotlines ARE the universals. But even working from these universals, if people just let their ideas come from themselves, from their own tastes and creative inclinations, there will always be something personal in it; something that makes the work unique amongst all the others that it shares lineage with.


I think I'll end on a quote which I find both humorous and pertinent:

"Bad artists copy. Great artists steal." ~ Pablo Picasso

Heidi said...

I think for most of my adolescent life i was trying to escape the fact that I was so different from everybody else. Of course, I have learned to embrace the fact, but reading this blog may have helped my historical insecure fourteen year old self. It's true that I often view myself and music in terms of uniqueness. I would have been totally on board with Kandinsky had i not read your thoughts.
I made some similar comments to the 'universality' of music after another blog...I think about repetition and variation. I will once again argue that music is not quite as universal as we percieve. For instance, in Shoshone music (Wyoming Native merican ethnic group) sung melodies and drumming are the main elements of music. There are vast repertoires of monophonic songs. Many old songs are recomposed into new songs, however, with differences we would only slightly be able to percieve. An extra note here or interval there and you have a new song hot off the market. To become new, a song needs so little variation. When we think of being 'peculiar to ourselves' when creating, we often think there has to be some ground shattering, profound character or progression that demonstrates our essence in an unprecedented way. However, as the blog states, it is the singular combination of universal elements that make me unlike any other human being on earth (even my twin sister! although we are pretty similar). In this light, it's easy to be different, even if only slightly so.
This mightn't make any sense. As usual, I may not necessarily be arguing against anything anyone has said-just trying to add another dimension to the conversation.

Dylan V-H said...
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Dylan V-H said...

Now, I'm sure you all expected someone to say this but...

No matter how hard you try, what you create is 100% personal. Not personal in Kadinsky's sense but in a way that evrything we take in (music we listen to, books we have read, food we have eaten) affects the outcome of our creations.

To go back to the "listening to other performers' interpretations" analogy; I don't think listening to other performers' will be detrimental at all, as that interpretation will only be one small brick in the HUGE WALL that is our own musical output. No matter how many cool ideas I get from listening to martha argerich, I will NEVER sound like her, or even sound like I am imitating her.

Same goes for composition. I listen to and play alot of Nick Drake songs on guitar so naturally it has affected my compositions on guitar. When I was a wee young un' I listened to alot of metallica and taught myself how to play guitar by learning their songs. Even though no fraction of my songs sound remotely like anything metallica would produce, they're in there somewhere. And everything I create is unique.

Joshua White said...

I agree with Dylan. I beleive now more than ever (which I guess can be said for each new time period throughout history) we have access to art and music from all around the world and from all different time periods right at our fingertips. In Kandinsky's day I'm sure that there was a lot of music available to them as well, of different styles and music that has transcended through time.

My point is, with all of the musical influences today (and of Kandinsky's time) it is harder not to be original. We hear soo much music, and when we go to recreate it, I like to think of it in a way, as a large musical mosaic of everything we love/appreciate combined into our own composition/style.

This being said however, I do think that it is possible to become too involved in a particular proccess or into one person's music and start to imitate that. The avoidance of this is what I beleive that Kandinsky means when he says to be original, to take a collection of all of your influences.

Since I'm approaching composition this way, it also explains how music will be universal. The influences for a lot of music through history has transcended in a very senseible order, so everyone will understand where the music is coming from, and understand possibly the language that is used.