Sunday, February 21, 2010

I is for Invention

John Cage — this is from memory, so this is a paraphrase — said that "we need an avant-garde, otherwise nothing would be invented."  His tone was urgent,  it was for him a question of human survival,  and for Cage there was no meaningful distinction between physical and aesthetic survival, concerns that are made articulate in writings from his series of Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse) to the late Overpopulation and Art.  

Cage well knew inventors focused on physical survival: his father and Buckminster Fuller, for example, and he cheerfully accepted his teacher, Schoenberg's, identification of Cage as an inventor in the field of music; likewise, he was always enthusiastic about the musical inventions of his colleagues.   In Houston, many years ago, I was supposed to do a radio interview with Cage about his Ryoanji; instead, we spent an hour in his hotel room discussing the frequency response of PZM microphones and the Piano Mechanics of the Canadian composer Gordon Monahan: topics connected by an enthusiasm for invention.


Invention, musical and otherwise, is often equated with novelty, but just as often, the more important quality is utility.  The distinction here is important as novelty is not an inherently stable identification.  Novelty can fade and the invention can become familiar, or even escape further notice.   I don't wish to discount this transient value of novelty: music is an art of the moment and sometimes we need works of art that belong to one moment and no other, that are here and then gone.   But we can't be naive about this.*  Moreover, novelty is not attached to the invention itself but rather to the perception and — ultimately — memory of the invention.  

Utility, in contrast, does not necessarily imply a connection to a single, particular work or its perception, but rather to facilitating the production of work in general.  Tools. Techniques.  Processes.  With the right set of tools, the production of merely novel results may be trivial. With the right set of tools, once can build whole repertoires, not just single works.  


Some inventions are incremental, others represent leaps of imagination.  Sometimes successive inventions seem to make such narrative sense that in hindsight we forget the large gaps (consider the progression from Cowell's String Piano to Cage's Prepared Piano and then to Monahan's Piano Mechanics.)   Leaps can be elegant, but sometimes all the magic is in an incremental approach: someone — again this is my fragile memory at work — once noted that most mathematicians, when faced with the task of crossing a valley between two mountains, will suspend a bride over the valley but, in contrast, the method of the great mathematician Alexandre Groethendieck** was fill in the valley, stone for stone, until the two mountains met.  It is probably next to impossible to convey to my younger musical friends the excitement, in my minimalist youth,  that accompanied the news of each development in the music of Young or Reich or Glass or Lucier or Ashley, composers who built their music up from scratch or first principles.   (Perhaps you can still get a glimpse of this narrative of discovery and yes, invention, from Reich's Writings on Music or Lucier's Chambers.   The same goes for Cowell's New Musical Resources, Lou Harrison's Music Primer, Jo Kondo's essay on The Art of Being Ambiguous or even the first book of Stockhausen's Texte; texts by non-musicians that I find equally useful are the Pedagogical Sketchbook of Paul Klee and Lawrence Wechsler's Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees: A Life of Contemporary Artist Robert Irwin.)     

In a critical, even pessimistic tone, I have sometimes characterized our present musical moment as being one of consolidation rather than invention.  I may well be wrong.  I hope I am wrong. It may well be that my perception of a lack of useful inventiveness is more a function of my habits and memories than an honest assessment.  But the idea of invention does seem to be less valued these days than a kind of polish, just as the appearance of having an attitude is somehow more important than actually having one.   


* Note the name of this blog.

** Groethendieck ought to be the subject of an opera.  But I digress.



Anonymous said...

Daniel, thank you for another excellent post!

Re: quality control

Two random observations:

1) Aristotle's concept of rhetorical invention.

Don't really know much about it other than it may be relevant to music-making. And it's certainly relevant to how we "invent" speech.

All I can say is that Aristotle may have given us the tools to think about art in a more general sense, to rise about technicality and de-de-humanize some areas of music that may have gotten de-humanized.

The world has become a super-fast, technical gadgets are all around us (much like in Ray Bradbery's 451).

This puts various experiments in academic music - called "damned formalism" in the Soviet Union - ironically, some of it seems to have made sense - in a slightly different light.

The audience needs a counterpoint, as it were, to what's going on around us. Too much technology, too much Twitter, too much CNBC, too many so called "friends" on Facebook etc etc etc

2) Patent law. Patent law has its own system of filters.

The two most important criteria, for an invention to get a patent, are, interestingly enough, BOTH novelty and utility.

Certainly, this type of approach CANNOT be applied to the arts, because IN A DEMOCRACY, who is to judge an artistic work ("speech") on its merits?

Freedom of speech overrides everything else, and any attempts to the control quality of art - by law - are unthinkable.

(In visual arts, this is done, I guess, by reputable museums and auction houses.)

Yet it's an interesting reference point ("filtering out the crap"? - for lack of a better phrase) for looking at some aspects of music.

Daniel, we hope to see more of your posts soon!

All the best,

Charles Shere said...

Let me add two titles to the little bibliography late in this blog entry, both by Gianfranco Baruchello and Henry Martin: How to Imagine: A Narrative on Art and Architecture and Why Duchamp: An Essay on Aesthetic Impact, 1984 and 1985, respectively.

mrG said...

I think I may part company with Leonid on this, but to return to Bucky Fuller, the whole purpose of in-vention is to valve the gateway between the unknown flowing to the known, and since Euler's equation tells us the number of tunable points in the next (ie inknown) layer of our progressive sweep-out exploration of Universe goes as the square of our distance from our origin (plus two) it must needs be that (a) there is always and increasingly so more un-vented Universe that can, at any time, become in-vented by a suitably sensitive explorer.

And thus it is not at all about free speech, and to my mind the history of 20th Century Avant Guard more than proved that point. It is instead about our standing on the shoulders of giants, about our progressively expanding the collective sweep-out of humanity's understanding of its Universe and of itself through the progressive in-venting of the unknown outer space, the Universe beyond the dreary known.

Farting in a mud puddle is 'free speech'; creative invention surely has to be something more.