Untitled by Mark Rothko. 1948
Philip Ball’s recent article, Who’s afraid of the avant-garde, provoked much thought. Why do we seem to “get” modern art, but not modern, experimental music? I think the author nears the core of the issue here:
There are certainly parallels in the way we make sense of acoustic and visual information. Chief among these rules are the “Gestalt principles” identified by a group of German-based psychologists in the early 20th century. These are a series of implicit mental rules that help people to make good guesses at how to interpret complex sensory stimuli by grouping them together. We make assumptions about continuity, for example: the aeroplane that flies into a cloud is the same one that flies out the other side. We group objects that look similar, or that are close together. Although the Gestalt principles are not foolproof, they make the world more comprehensible. Both in sound and in vision, the ability to interpret sensory data this way must have had evolutionary benefits.
Our brain naturally organizes often disparate things, but can do so much more easily if there are visible and aural likenesses to work with, parallels, connections, logical continuations …
One difference between the avant-garde in classical music and in visual art, however, is that late 20th-century music was apt to defy these organising principles, while visual art did not. Although some viewers may fret that they cannot understand what is in front of them, it takes no more cognitive effort to “see” a painting by Mark Rothko than it does to look at wallpaper. The fact we can see the painting at all as a coherent object gives our interpretive mind something to work on, even if we come up with nothing more than a vague sense of beauty, serenity or absurdity. Music can defy even this basic sort of cognitive parsing: it can refute our efforts to find coherence, rather as if a video artist were to present us with unstructured static. Even Jackson Pollock’s chaos is contained — but sound is at once everywhere and constantly shifting.
When we listen to music, we assume what comes next and link to it, run with it in our minds. The greatest classical music has an order, a logic, a mathematical logic, in fact, of notes harmonizing with each other, taking us deeper into the abstract realms of our brain. Not into chaos. Not into dead ends or blind alleys. Nor do we feel lost and alone, unable to follow or lead. Even though the best classical music can often surprise us, that surprise is not the kind that seems divorced from any knowable map. It’s a surprise primarily of re-cognition, of renewal and a return to something we may have forgotten about.
With a painting, or a sculpture, or a building, the work itself is already organized to some degree. It has a beginning and an end. We can see that. Boundaries are visible. Even obvious. Though the best visual art breaks beyond its borders, and forces us to pursue what is left unsaid, we do not typically feel a sense of blindness, of chaotic disorientation. Experimental music, on the other hand, can leave us in just such a quandary.
Here’s an interesting collage of recent experimental works in auditory sensations. Moving beyond the subject of the article above, it provides a palpable stream of disorientating sound, and makes me want to pursue some of the works mentioned:
From Ubuweb’s Avant-garde, All the Time