Cherwell

Old&New: Songs of displeasure

Vinyl cover for Einstein on the beach by Philip Glass.

Mathematical and objective music can often be devalued because it lacks emotion, but much like the definition of art and its ‘emotional power’, the image of the composer pouring their heart out onto the page is an overly romantic idea and often not the reality. Sometimes compositional processes are logical and mathematical, and this is impressive in its own way. For example, I was sitting at home watching Einstein on the Beach, an opera by Philip Glass which runs continuously for five hours. I was told to turn it off , because admittedly his extensive repetition and extreme durations can be difficult to endure, and my family were fed up with it. However I’ve been challenged by music teachers to alter my expectations and to explore new ways of listening. It is durational, repetitive music, but if you open your mind you can get into a zone when you listen, and you begin to notice the additive rhythms and subtle shifts in harmony, which weren’t immediately appreciated.

In the 60s and 70s, anti-art movement Fluxus aimed to challenge definitions and ideas about art and music. A number of composers raised questions in their work about the role of listening and imagining in music. Cornelius Cardew’s ‘Song of Pleasure’ could be likened to a poem, describing the sounds of someone rowing a boat: “The small creaking and thudding sounds of the oars…” I can understand why someone would be hesitant to label this as music, but like Einstein on the Beach, this work sparked important discussion about what constitutes music.

Believing that art and music must be detailed, beautiful and created by a skilled individual leads to both elitism and a hierarchy that excludes everyday people. “Even I could do that” is used as a criticism, when it should be used as motivation to actually get creative and give art a try. I believe that being optimistic and accepting when coming across new art and music leads to a more rewarding and positive experience. Perhaps instead of criticising art and music which we aren’t used to, we should challenge our own mode of listening and thinking. For example, if you come across a pile of bricks in an art gallery, instead of thinking, why the hell are these bricks in this gallery when I could barely scrape a B in art, you could challenge yourself to consider these questions: what are the colours, shapes and textures? What was the artist’s motivation in creating it? Is there more than meets the eye or am I overthinking it?

I believe it is far more refreshing to be open minded about the art that challenges your notions of what art should be. When I first visited the Tate Modern, I laughed at what I saw. I used to mock contemporary classical music, too. Now, I am mocked for my extreme inclusiveness when it comes to defining art and music. But I’m not complaining.