Saturday, March 31, 2007

The pros of constraints

This list of demands from the artist Christoph Büchel is hysterical. He's in the midst of an ongoing feud with MassMOCA about the completion of an enormous installation. The demands can best be summarized by this one: "There is NO negotiation about the scope of the project. It will be realized as proposed." Never mind that the scope of the project requires enormous expenses that he essentially wants to remain uncapped. For the purposes of this post, what interests me most about this is the idea that the creative artist's vision should be final. Note, by the way, that much as a composer depends on a performer to bring his work to life, Büchel is the type of artist who also relies on many others to do much of the physical work of putting his "artworks" together. He's not just painting a picture in his studio and then looking for someone to display it. He's involved in a highly collaborative enterprise, but he's insisting on complete control of the process and, effectively, the costs.

What interests me is the question of whether we should assume that "the creative customer is always right." Of course there's no simple answer to that, but it seems to me there's a pretty basic assumption out there that an artist must follow the old "to thine own self be true" principle. In a discussion about the ethics of pandering to an audience over at Sequenza21, the composer Galen H. Brown writes, ". . . how do I decide what kind of music to write, given the preferences of the audience, my desire to be loved, and my aesthetic preferences? The short, easy answer to that question is that you should write whatever the heck you want to write and be happy with what ever audience happens to like it."

Now it's much too simplistic to say he means he doesn't care about the audience, but both Brown's quote and Büchel's demands touch on another of my favorite Hofstadter-inspired topics: constraints. Le ton beau de Marot revolves around efforts to translate a tightly rhymed and metered French poem into English, and Hofstadter uses a host of solutions to show how creative and satisfying the artistic results can be, even when the artist is simply translating within a severe set of constraints (rhyme, meter, literal meaning, mellifluousness, etc.). Of course, the point is that translating like this isn't simple and that finding good solutions involves a special sort of creativity. Constraints come in all shapes and sizes. They can include such things as the size of a canvas, rules of counterpoint, principles of perspective, time signatures, budget for scenery, size of a stage, response of an audience, demands of a patron, union-specified rehearsal time, etc. Sometimes constraints are incredibly frustrating and annoying, but constraints also help to provide essential context for understanding most art.

Again, there are no hard and fast rules about when constraints are good or not, but I can't help but think there's something unhealthy about Büchel's attitude; Brown's quote also suggests a tendency for the modern composer to assume that he's writing much more for himself and art than for an audience. I suspect one advantage that contemporary theater has over music and the visual arts is the more natural understanding that the audience is part of the collaborative process. Out-of-town tryouts and rewrites are all about seeing how a show plays in front of a live audience; this isn't necessarily a question of pandering, which Brown is correct to be wary of, but of seeking out a real communication. Though every artist is constrained by budget to some degree, I'd guess that playwrights and directors accept that more naturally as part of their creative context than do composers and visual artists. I know I'm simplifying Büchel's situation, but his refusal to collaborate with MassMOCA makes me wonder how interested he is in collaborating with his audience.

It does seem counterintuitive that constraints might be a good thing for art, but the example of J. S. Bach provides ample evidence. Not only did he delight in problem-solving within the tight framework of counterpoint, but most of this career was spent writing music that he was told to write for specific purposes. Yes, he chafed against this to some degree and maybe we could wish he'd had more freedom at times, but you can't argue with the results. And, yes, someone like Beethoven fought against constraints to a great degree, but the struggle in his music is significantly defined by the tension we feel against those very constraints.

Now if I could just set myself tighter constraints when it comes to the length of these posts . . . (Fortunately, my daughter's Saturday morning orchestra rehearsal is coming to a close, so I shall surrender to that constraint and hit Publish.)

[UPDATE (later that night): As evidence of the modernist disdain for constraints, I submit some of the comments on this Sequenza21 thread. I don't believe that all contemporary composers think this way, but this discussion about Schoenberg's and Debussy's emancipation of dissonance and consonance pretty quickly descends into a lot of talk along the lines of "Music is free, so was dissonance. It was musicians who were in chains." Some of us feel like those "chains" made for some pretty nice music. Of course, Schoenberg pretty quickly replaced the tonality chains with his own 12-tone chains, so I guess he didn't have an issue with constraints in general; I guess the moment you don't need chains is when you've got a Cage.]

[UPDATE 2 (the next morning): The NY Times has an article about the modernist composer George Benjamin which includes the following bit of refreshing apropos-ness:
In recent years, Mr. Benjamin has been immersed in an exploration of contrapuntal writing, especially canons, in which a voice is imitated by one or more voices at a specific interval or pitch. . . .“I used to be allergic to the idea of canons,” Mr. Benjamin said, especially the “didactic element.” But then he was hooked by the challenge of liberating his imagination through the constraints of the technique. “Shadowlines” (2001) was one result.]

No comments: