Tag Archives: Tchaikovsky

Nature’s Soundtrack

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Art is conventionally portrayed as a reflection of life. This is understood both in the inward sense of expressing an artist’s feelings, and in the outward sense of depicting the world in which the artist lives. No matter how abstract the design, art is thought to be an analog of reality. This conception has obvious limits. While it is true that the creative process is frequently sparked by life situations and environmental influences, momentary concerns and artistic output are not always in alignment.

In his 1937 essay, “Fictions That Have Shaped Musical History,” Alfred Einstein deconstructed the old canard that art must mirror life. Art, he reminded us, is just as likely to reflect the times as it is to flee from them. He proved the point with Renaissance music, which exudes an aura of balance and harmony without any trace of struggle or discord. It is easy to forget that this musical style developed against the backdrop of an agitated world—a Europe that saw feudalism give way to the middle class, religious reformations and counter-reformations, and political powers vying over the New World. Rather than record this unrest, Renaissance polyphony projected a mood of order and peaceful resolution. It was an artistic ideal fundamentally at odds with reality.

Einstein tied this phenomenon to painterly portrayals of the natural world, which typically imbue the environment with an idealized essence. Our view of nature is powerfully and unconsciously shaped by such art. Rembrandt’s attention to half-lit rooms heightens our focus on the half-lit rooms around us. Constable’s English landscapes inform how we see real-life countrysides. Einstein went so far as to claim, “We become aware of natural things only when a great artist has first seen them for us and has given them the form that we see” (emphasis added).

This observation is, one would hope, overstated. We assume we can appreciate nature without the guiding brushstrokes of the painter. Still, we cannot deny art’s potential to color our vision.

Musical examples of this are plentiful. Generally, nature-inspired pieces translate stereotyped features of the natural world into abstract sounds. Sometimes, the impressionistic tones become so ingrained that gazing upon a scene brings the music to mind. Sunrises stir the “morning” theme from Rossini’s William Tell Overture. Falling snowflakes evoke Tchaikovsky’s “Waltz of the Snowflakes.” The American wilderness conjures passages from Copland’s oeuvre. Flowing rivers call up Strauss’s “Blue Danube Waltz” (as do floating spaceships, thanks to 2001: A Space Odyssey). Likewise, hearing these pieces can immediately trigger the associated images.

Importantly, such music is, by definition, additive: it does not actually exist in the phenomenon it depicts. Thus, more than simply mirroring reality, it sways our perception of it. In this subtle (or perhaps not so subtle) way, our awareness of nature is at least partly in the hands of artists.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Sacred Trash

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Kitsch is an unavoidable topic in literature on the arts. Presented as the enemy of aesthetics, it typically receives the most derogatory terms an author can muster. Theodor Adorno, for instance, called it “sugary trash.” In contrast to the truly artistic, which possesses a sacred and transformative otherness, kitsch is dismissed as mechanical, superficial, and false. It sacrifices subtleties for watered-down textures, and avoids complex expression for one-dimensional emotionality. Its propagators are scorned as insincere profiteers, and its lack of nuance is condemned as borderline unethical.

Like most things in the experiential world of art, kitsch is more readily recognized than explained. What seems to define it is a combination of simplistic sentimentality and a concomitant reliance on clichés. These, the critics charge, are the ingredients of “poor taste.” However, in practice, candidates for the ignoble label are not cut and dried. The clearest examples are those that embrace their own kitschiness, like garden gnomes and the untold assortment of Hello Kitty products. There are also playful debasements of high culture, like the cottage industry of Shakespeare kitsch, and excessively agreeable religious art, like Precious Moments illustrations.

Things get hazier when artistic displays straddle the invisible line between authenticity and mass appeal. Classical music critics habitually look down on composers with populist tendencies, sometimes resorting to the “k” word. Their targets include such luminaries as Puccini, Meyerbeer, Telemann, Vivaldi, and even Tchaikovsky. In each case, the supposed kitsch quality stems from a perceived lack of depth: the music is passively received, easily digested, and built upon stereotyped emotions. In other words, it is penalized for its popularity. The extreme of this view is found in Clement Greenberg’s 1939 essay, “Avant-garde and Kitsch,” which declared that figurative painting had outgrown its expressive potential, and was doomed to repeat phony sentiments and hackneyed messages.

Whatever merit there is to Greenberg’s assessment, one thing is clear: a wide chasm exists between the cultural critic and the average person. In the decades since his essay, not only has figurative art retained its attraction, but there is also a movement to synthesize highbrow and lowbrow art. Museums have exhibits of comic book drawings, world-class orchestras play concerts of movie scores, “artsy” directors make blockbuster films, and easy listening records from the 1950s and 60s have found new audiences.

These increasingly common occurrences are eroding the very concept of kitsch. The acceptance of “lesser” art into “legitimate” spheres signals a reevaluation not only of the works themselves, but also of the sentiments they evoke. An intense response to a saccharine love song or a generic landscape painting need not be trivialized or bemoaned. From a functionalist standpoint, where the value of an artwork belongs to the beholder, the evaluations of cultural critics rarely matter. Instead, the fact that their opinions often contradict general feelings is, in a practical sense, evidence that they are wrong. What they call “sugary trash” can be someone else’s sacred treasure.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Walk Like a Composer

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Beethoven’s daily routine included vigorous walks with a pencil and sheets of music paper. Robert Schumann’s regular walks were punctuated with poetry writing and drawing sketches. Tchaikovsky took two walks per day: a brisk stroll in the morning and a two-hour hike after lunch. Benjamin Britten had company on his walks, during which he talked about music and after which he wrote it down. The list of strolling composers could go on and on. More than just mundane details of famous biographies, these examples give credence to Nietzsche’s overstated but still compelling aphorism: “All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking.”

The link between walking and creativity is apparent across disciplines. Celebrated cases include John Milton, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Immanuel Kant, Sigmund Freud, and Eric Hoffer. Again, the list could stretch on without end. A skeptic might note that walking is a natural human activity: it is something that creative and not-so-creative people share in common. But this is walking of an intentional and recreational kind, not the humdrum mode of moving the body from place to place.

Until now, connections between walking and novel idea generation have come from historical and personal anecdotes. Britten working out a musical passage on a leisurely jaunt has parallel in the average person working out an average problem on a stroll around the neighborhood. Perhaps the benefits are so apparent that scientific confirmation is not needed. Be that as it may, the emerging science provides intriguing confirmation.

A recent paper in the Journal of Experimental Psychology outlines preliminary findings of four walking experiments. “Give Your Ideas Some Legs: The Positive Effect of Walking on Creative Thinking” (a highly technical study with a deceptively inviting title) shows that walking not only increases formation of creative ideas in real-time, but also for a period afterward. Without going into depth here, the experiments, conducted by Marily Oppezzo and Daniel L. Schwartz of Stanford University, record thought processes of people in various combinations of seating and walking. Not surprisingly, walking resulted in substantial creative boosts, with outdoor walking producing thought patterns of the highest quality and novelty.

Without jumping to premature conclusions, the authors predict that the walk-thought mechanism “will eventually [be shown to] comprise a complex causal pathway that extends from the physical act of walking to physiological changes to the proximal processes.” This is something we could have learned from Brahms, who was often seen walking around Vienna with hands folded behind his back. He gave this advice to Gustav Jenner, his only formal composition student: “When ideas come to you, go for a walk; then you will discover that the thing you thought was a complete thought was actually only the beginning of one.”

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.