Determinism in Experimental Art

“Everything changes except the avant garde”

Our new place is walking distance from Libbey Bowl, so we sauntered over last night to hear some world-class contemporary classical as the kickoff to the 2007 Ojai Music Festival. The evening was predominantly focused on works for two piano performed by Helena Bugallo and Amy Williams. The most accessible piece was probably the two-piano arrangement of Stravinsky‘s Dumbarton Oaks. Other works ranged from a piece composed exclusively of decorations (glissandi, trills and the like) to an electronic piece made from cricket chirps. The finale was this:

Symphonic Poem For 100 Metronomes
by György Ligeti

Though I am tempted to spend the rest of this tirade denouncing the attribution of the word “poem” to any piece of art in which the artist wants to convey a quality of elegance, I actually want to talk about something more important to me: when the avant garde fails for me, and why.

In short, it is not that the avant garde pushes out the boundaries of convention that irks me–but rather when it does not go far enough. Doing something no-one has done before to cash in on the novelty is cheap and lazy. Only slightly less lazy is doing it in such a way that critics (often including the artist as prime interpreter) can concoct interesting-sounding but ultimately impractical theories of aesthetics.

There is an old adage that if you are going to break a rule, what you gain in doing so should at least compensate, if not thoroughly make up for, the distraction/confusion/disorientation caused by breaking that rule. Likewise, it seems to me that once the artist does something radically new and original, they are then obligated to explore that space in a deterministic way toward some ultimately valuable new outcome.

For example, the metronomes: set at different intervals and tipped off by a bunch of stage hands in a haphazard way. The end result? An interesting sonic experience, but one ultimately less valuable for anything but the novelty than, say, a Bach concerto. But suppose the artist worked in a determined way, setting each metronome to tick according to a series of prime numbers and their multiples, so that at various points throughout the piece the metronomes came together to form interesting, predetermined textures and patterns–a kind of baroque domino exhibit that, once tipped off precisely right, cascades of its own volition into a truly unique, interesting, non-random kind of “music.” That is what I kept hoping for–from the first time I saw and heard this piece: something more from the creator than just a clever idea.

And what about that stuff made all out of trills? What if you really used those decorational elements as your fundamental materials to make a new but recognizable kind of music–rather than what can only be called a kind of sonic gibberish? The avant garde so often gets so pleased with itself for discovering something new–in the sense of never having been done before–that it forgets the obligation to do something not only unique but meaningful. Combining the new with a deep, determined exploration of that space–building toward a coherent artistic experience rather than simply reacting to what has already been done–is, to me, the stuff of genius.

Coming out of a John Cage experience to hear the street noise in a totally new way–that is art, and perhaps a kind of genius as well. It is deterministic, precise and meaningful in its way. So much of contemporary classical music, like so much experimental poetry, seems to get complacent and even smug; to simply not go far enough.