Monday, November 26, 2007

Nature and Art

Things are beautiful, the representations of art succeed, to the extent that,through the clarity and significance of their form, they direct our attention to the 'innermost being' of the world. They are the opposite when, through the proliferation of disorganised, irrelevant and distracting detail, they fail to communicate a coherent vision of the truth. In art, as Iris Murdoch puts it, beauty consists in 'the artful use of form to illuminate truth'.

Julian Young in his book on the philosophy of Schopenhauer

Schopenhauer, in his The World as Will and Representation, recognises that art fulfils a didactic purpose, and believes that through art's deliverance of an universal knowledge, beauty will manifest itself in the process. In this respect, the association of truth and beauty seems very similar to Plato, when the latter puts forth the concept that generally, truth, goodness and beauty are closely related to one another and when one starts with any of them, the other two will be attained in the process. Apparently, such an association does not apply to the arts for Plato, when he mentions that art does not contain type of ideal truth.

However, what interests me about Schopenhauer is when he differs from Plato in the type of didactic function which art fulfils. In the Republic, Plato mentions of the existence of a tense relationship between philosophy and the arts. Philosophy, to him, imparts a significant and universal knowledge while art, on the other hand, is similar to illusion and fantasy, seducing us away from the truth and reality. As such, Plato concludes that art is unable to deliver the kind of knowledge in question. But Schopenhauer believes that art actually contains 'an acknowledged treasure of profound wisdom'. (The World as Will and Representation I) Schopenhauer makes use of visual art in his examples to illustrate this fact, but here, I shall attempt to draw similar parallels in music. Take the music of Bach for example. His choral music often have biblical titles. However, the piece of music whose significance is exhausted with a biblical title is entirely trivial (in Young's words). The true significance is never in the fact that the title reminds us simply of the historical biblical event, but in the very fact that the core values of the biblical personality or biblical principles of that event manifest themselves in the music. Like in Bach, the structure and the order inherent within the music aren't just superficial foundations upon which the entire music is formed. It does have a spiritual meaning as well. The harmony, melodic lines, counterpoint do hold symbolic meaning beyond what we study in our theory classes.

This brings us to another important aspect of Schopenhauer's argument that art expresses ideas more clearly than nature. The artist 'can express clearly what nature only stammers'. (The World as Will and Representation I) Before Schopenhauer, I have always believed that nature embodies a more perfect form of beauty and truth more than what an artist can articulate through art. I still find that true essentially, as we have to always factor human imperfection and the limitations of the artistic medium into the picture. However, Schopenhauer brought out an important aspect of the arts which I have missed out all along. The artist is able to focalise on a specific idea which may not be distinctly evident in nature, with the multiple distractions in place. A more literal example I have would be a motif. A beautiful motif can be made by random sounds in nature, but when a composer makes use of that motif which was inspired through sounds of nature, he focalises on it and develops it. For that particular instant when one appreciates the artwork, that main idea shines forth and is exalted for that special moment. And that's beauty.

Both the arts and nature are not mutually exclusive and neither can be considered more superior than the other. Both are closely related in many aspects. Schopenhauer and Plato hold opposing viewpoints with regards to this, and I don't find that either of them is strictly right or wrong, but to get a view of the entire picture of the relationship between the arts and nature and the rightful role of each of them, it will be essential to consider the views of both parties.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

A Strangest Experience

I apologise for the long hiatus! Thanks to Janice's comment, which reminded me that I still have this blog! It has been decades since I've last updated this place. Things have been really busy ever since school started, with me trying to balance performance, teaching, schooling and of course, dancing. I'm taking a break from the dance floor for these couple of weeks though, since my schedule has been leaving me breathless even before the end of the day and tango parties only start near midnight! There'll be an upcoming International Guitar Festival held locally in Singapore early next month and the updates should come as I'll attempt to review the performances and progress of the festival.

I haven't gotten anything informative to add, but I am having a lot of thoughts and feelings with regards to the performance yesterday yesterday. I had an unusual experience on stage yesterday. I was invited by the National Library Board with give a couple of performances every weekend for the past 3 weeks, mainly to publicise for the upcoming guitar festival. It was totally weird yesterday, when I found myself in the improvisatory mood on stage yesterday. It all started out with a memory slip in the Spanish Serenata - Granada by Isaac Albéniz, which was surprising because that was supposed to be my firmest piece and I wasn't the least affected by nerves. And of course, I kept the rhythm and worked out some random shapes on the fingerboard, but I swore it came out like I had added a snippet of Schoenberg into this romantic piece. Thankfully, after-performance reviews were pretty favourable for the piece.

And of course, the improvisation streak didn't stop there. Since I had a couple of arrangements of pop songs and tracks from famous musicals later on (what kitsch!), I decided to jazz them up a little (note: that was my intention, whether my execution was convincing was a completely different matter), this time intentionally. J's fiancée came up to me first after my performance, eyes wide open with petrification. "What happened to your pop songs?!?!?" Well, apparently, it doesn't work when you jazz such pieces up in, well, let us put this this way, Schoenberg style.

I intended to conclude the light session with just something light and easy, so I did the overplayed Romance in conventional style. Well, I did start the piece that way and intended to play it through simply, but when it came to the final recapitulation, I decided to throw caution to the wind and gave a tremolo version of that section. I had heard a couple of variations on it, but it was essentially a novel attempt for me, not to mention the fact that I hadn't refined my tremolo technique for what seemed like a couple of centuries. It was all weird and so different from a conventional performance. I just thought that since I couldn't make it refined, might as well do it fast, rough and hard (no pun intended). I'm still recovering from the shock that such a idea actually occured to me (or even existed within me for that matter) within that milliseconds I had to decide on how to end the piece on the stage. That was probably some Freudian process at work there. I don't exactly have a word to describe my state of mind towards the end. Barbaric probably comes close. Thankfully again, it was well received, surprisingly. The audience that evening probably liked it rough! Analysing it in perspective though, it was probably because of the fact that there weren't many people within the audience who were purists last evening. With authenticity and some variations, I could please both groups of people with their respective preferences (which, of course, wasn't considered when I was deciding to do it that way).

Those were the strange moments in last evening's performance. Of course, I am essentially trained as a classical musician, so the rest of the classical pieces I played were conventional, with me entering that altered state as usual. In retrospect, in some of the weird moments during the performance last evening, I somehow caught a glimpse of the state of mind jazz musicians are in. And of course, the way I did it was a far cry from how Stephen Francis improvised a jazzed version of Elvis Presley's Can't Help Falling In Love in Bellini Room later in that evening. Sublime!

Note: Schoenberg's name is used figuratively and simply in this post to symbolise passages which are not within the confines of tonality. I do, essentially, have lots of respect for him and his works and in no way should the above mentions of him suggest a mockery of him, his style or compositions.