To visit the Tate Modern gallery in London is to be assaulted with a myriad of different ideas and theories about art, ranging from the garish pop art of Roy Lichtenstein, to the surrealism of Salvador Dali, to installations from Brazil commenting on culture and consumerism, to performance art from Central America that is savage political comment, to street art, to neon-light shows, to a painting that is pure white, to Mark Rothko’s abysms of colour, to a sculpted city made out of couscous.
Arnold Schoenberg: self-portrait in blue
Each of these “schools” of art creates an interplay between a set of ideas about the world and the sensory, visual experience for the observer (even when there is no explicit idea, the absence is itself a kind of idea). The aim, to the extent that it can be determined, is to help that observer “see things afresh”.
In music, any such interplay between an idea and the sensory experience is, for the most part, unavailable. This is just another way of saying that music does not refer to the world like other art forms, but it has implications, especially for how classical music and academia have developed over the last century.
The most influential theory of the 20th century was serialism, pioneered by Arnold Schoenberg. The idea there is that when one of the 12 notes in the chromatic scale is played, all the other notes have to be played before that note is repeated again.
This produces a highly chromatic, non-diatonic, style with no tone centre, and quite lacking harmonic tension and release. And how does it sound? Non-diatonic: that is, not recognisable.
The pioneers of serialism hoped it would lead listeners to “hear things afresh” by coming to an understanding of an entirely new way of arranging Western scales. But most listeners just hear something different from that to which they are accustomed; and that, for the most part, sounds like discordant bilge. This writer listened to serialism and its offshoots for hours in his university music studies and heard only, well, discordant bilge.
Another example of an influential theory in music is rap. This springs essentially from political and sociological roots. In a way, it is a bit like performance art, art that uses the rhythm and pulse of urban sounds rather than images.
Sociologically, rap is interesting and its proponents are sometimes insightful commentators. Their assertion of African-American culture is entirely understandable given that America is a country beset by structural racism with a grim history of slavery and segregation.
(Jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, who became a very rich man from record sales, in the 1960s had to advise the Los Angeles police in advance that he had made his wealth from music, otherwise they would have arrested him while driving his Ferraris or Lamborghinis because it would be assumed that any black man driving an expensive car must be a drug dealer.)
Interesting commentary it may be, but the trouble is that rap music is egregious, unforgivable rubbish suitable only for people who listen to music rather than hear it. The ideas are interesting; the music is not. In the visual arts, interesting ideas sustain the art to a much greater extent. In music, not so much. In rap, there is no invitation to greater reflection, except perhaps a slight sense of shock at the profusion of obscenities.
There are very few new ideas about music. At the Tate, there were dozens of new ideas about the visual arts in just a few rooms.
True, there have been “new ideas” and “trends” in pop music, but they are mostly derived from the theatre of the form: the lyrics, the costumes, the dance moves, the gestures.
The music itself remains firmly rooted in the blues and its variants. Even the Sex Pistols’ anti-music is pared back pentatonic scales and blues rhythms.
One consequence of the impotence of ideas in music is that beauty – not prettiness: beauty can come from harshness, such as in Beethoven’s late string quartets, or much of Shostakovich’s oeuvre – plays a far greater role than it does in the visual arts.
Ugliness in the visual arts can work well, because the artist can use it to comment on the ideas being explored. But ugly music is just not worth listening to. Music can also sound “wrong”, whereas modern visual art cannot really be “wrong” as long as what is done is deliberate.
Beauty remains an unanalysable mystery. We know when it exists, but we do not know why, or how we might come up with a way of doing it again.
Beauty is beyond theory – and academic verbiage.
David James is a Melbourne writer and musician.