Why Should You Care About Art?

David Robertson gives the Stuart Challender Talk'We have been duped into thinking that looking at a picture of an artwork or listening to a recording of a piece of music will provide us with the essential elements of artistic nourishment; like some sort of fast food fix, we let the superb convenience lull us into a false sense that we are experiencing something equivalent to the live interaction.'

Why Should You Care About Art?


[ SSO quartet performs Haydn String Quartet Op.76 No.5, 1st movement and aString Quartet arrangement of Danse russe from Stravinsky's Petrushka (Russian Dance)]

The title of this talk - "Why should you care about art?" - was chosen to get your attention, as well as provoke a response. We began by listening to works for the same group of instruments. The works we heard are separated by around 120 years. The different sounds made by the musicians reflect cultural aesthetics obtained in the times and places where these works were conceived and performed. I could attempt a generalisation about all the aesthetic assumptions involved, those of the contemporary makers and listeners, as well as our own cultural baggage, but such a can of worms would make a meal even Neil Perry couldn't save.

What interests us, is what happened inside you while you were listening to those two works, one after another, in the same venue, performed by the same people. My hope is to convince you that what just happened within you is no less than the essence of humanity, our greatest hope for the future - and why you should care about art.

Speaking about art is a daunting task. I could spend the entire talk attempting to adequately define what we will all agree on as "art." While a dictionary definition will take us some way toward precision in our discussion, in the end, after any example I give, someone may quite rightly ask: "but is it art?" Perhaps the way to jump this hurdle is to paraphrase the US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart. In 1964, faced with the decision on whether or not a film was protected under the First Amendment's right to free speech as opposed to simply being "obscene", he took the practical route. Rather than become overly specific about what constitutes "hard-core pornography," Justice Stewart simply said: "I know it when I see it."

Not only does that display great candour, it is also terribly and endearingly quaint. There are probably those in the audience who remember a kinder, gentler time before the internet. And while I don't want to pursue the possible correspondences between the obscene and the artistic, the availability at present of both types of material on a personal device of some kind is astounding.

What this availability means for music is Janus-faced and stems from the arrival of recordings and radio when, for the first time in human experience, music could be heard without any music-making people present. Not only that, but the ability of a single musical artefact to be repeated over and over again with the precise same relationship between all of its elements was unprecedented. On the good side it gave us this recording of Louis Armstrong's Hot Five from 1927:

[Play recording: Hotter than that (1927)]

Gunther Schuller wrote about how Armstrong's remarkable ability to swing could be acquired by countless others, particularly through the ability to listen to that recording repeatedly. I would even hazard that all of us here have been raised to a level of discernment where we can tell that Louis and his guitarist, Lonnie Johnson, are displaying a rhythmic fluidity that none of the other players can match. On the bad side things are a bit more complex. When radio broadcasts of music first became widespread, someone remarked to composer Arnold Schoenberg how wonderful it was that now people could listen to music whenever they wanted to. His response was that they could also now listen to it whenever they didn't want to. Was he worried that the downside to constant musical stimulation was to acquire the ability to ignore it and "tune it out?" Is it possible that something as fragile and precious as a musical creation could be taken for granted?

I, for one, cannot complain about the benefits afforded by the arrival of recordings. I grew up in Southern California and was far away from live music performed at a professional level. There was plenty of music made in the home; whether the singing and piano of my mother or the guitar, banjo, clarinet and saxophone of my father. But because of a long drive into the part of town where you might hear live music of any style, I was brought up on recordings and to some extent radio. I can thank radio for introducing me to countless composers I might not have otherwise discovered.

Transistor radios came of age as I did and the Beatles, coincidentally, were no longer playing live concerts when I reached the age to attend them.

Recordings can be works of art in themselves and sustain repeated listening, revealing more details as one becomes aware of different aspects. But they are, however well they are put together, inert.

They will never change. There can be great comfort in this as I was made aware in a hospital, following an operation for peritonitis, when Glenn Gould's second Goldberg Variations recording was a pertinent part of the healing process.

But it is noticeable that when an artist produces a special recording of a piece, sayThe Sounds of Silence by Simon and Garfunkel, that when those same artists perform it live, it feels wrong for them to take liberties with the music, to depart from the way we have all grown used to hearing it. I worry that we mistake the artefact for the experience the art is hoping to produce.

Charlie Chaplin resisted sound films for a long time and in City Lights made fun of the talkies by having a moment near the beginning when several important people speak and we hear gibberish. I had read that he resisted sound on the grounds that suddenly a great deal of flexibility with the camera was lost and that the verbal language of different cultures would make the universality of film less apparent.

But it was only in repeatedly conducting Chaplin's musical score with a live orchestra, that I got a sense of his real reason. Silent films were never actually silent. There was always some music accompanying them and Chaplin was well aware, not only of the effect music would have on a movie, but also how, once the music became fixed to the film, some of cinema's vitality would be lost.

At the end of City Lights, just as the successful woman (who has regained her sight because of the Tramp's charity) puts a coin into the poor man's hand, her face, in a breathtaking shot, registers the rich memory of the touch of his hand and, colliding with the image arriving from her eye, comes to the incredible realisation that this penniless beggar is the one who made her capable of vision. The moment is accompanied by a Puccini- like score that is heartrendingly simple and effective. In the version you watch in the theater or on your phone, the music unfolds beautifully under the scene, creating a lump in your throat. But when you have multiple performances with a live orchestra and audience, you can play around with the exact timing of a particular chord or note change. You understand how the art and power of cinema for Chaplin was, through music, not something fixed and static but fluid and able to live and breathe in the moment.

You can see where I am going here and I am certainly preaching to the converted. I know all of you are waiting for the imminent moment when you can buy your maximum subscription packages to the SSO for next season! But what about everyone else? Why should they come? Marketing departments around the artistic world will answer you with some version of "because it is live." I had this discussion many times with my father, particularly before I could drive, about the effort and expense of going to the concert hall - in our case a 100 km round trip, plus the ticket and parking. For the same money, you could buy several recordings and compare them. That was in the early 70s. Now you can go on YouTube and listen for free!

It doesn't just have to do with sonic arts, the visual arts have the same problem. Everyone understands that to stand in Paris at l'Orangerie art museum and take in the otherworldly inspiration of Monet'sWater Lilies cannot be compared to the posters, however beautifully reproduced, at the gift shop.

What has always interested me, however, is how much time someone takes to look at the artwork once they meet it. In 2000 a paper published in Empirical Studies of the Arts found that, on average, people tend to spend 17 seconds in front of an artwork. It did not say whether that meant 5 seconds to look at the work, 10 to read the wall note and another 2 in order to confirm a detail just read about. When presented like that, we know that the observer is looking at an image in the same way they might flip through the pages of a magazine, or, if pressed for time, scroll through images on their phone. It could be that this represents a kind of critical judgment on the quality of the work, but I would wager that it has more to do with the ways in which we have been taught, in the age of mechanical reproduction, to take so much for granted.

For better or worse, in a gallery, you can decide the amount of time you wish to dedicate to a work of art. In my realm, someone has made that calculation for you. Your time is precious, you are very busy and want convenience. There are very few of us who can take a good deal of time and spend it on something like a bad experience at a concert. Plus, we want the experience to be a great one that is amazing, wonderful and unique. We want to buy an experience that stays with us forever. Our budget is limited and we don't have that much time, which is money, to spend.

The commercial society that we inhabit has influenced us in so many ways that it is difficult to retain a real grip on what is important for us as a species. We have been duped into thinking that looking at a picture of an artwork or listening to a recording of a piece of music will provide us with the essential elements of artistic nourishment; like some sort of fast food fix, we let the superb convenience lull us into a false sense that we are experiencing something equivalent to the live interaction.

I wish I could say that for every artistic performance, event or artwork, there would always be the revelatory moment that is transforming and is the reason to engage with art in the first place, but that is not always the case. Such a thing is hard to predict. It can arrive in works we don't know and it can surprise us in works we know well. Let me give you an example from my recent concert going.

Last year I was getting ready to conduct a concert with the SSO and I was also going to give the pre-concert talk. The music on the program was a combination of Dvořák, Smetana and the American composer, Steve Mackey. Before these two events there was an Utzon room concert of chamber music by the musicians of the SSO. Steve Mackey played electric guitar in a duet with cello, and then there was Brahms String Sextet No. 2 in G major. It is always a delight to hear Steve play; the way rock music informs his classical compositions is fascinating. I looked forward to hearing the Brahms, which I know well, played by our amazing musicians. All of this detail is to let you know the things that were already floating around in my mind. I was having a good time, listening and observing, watching the interplay between the six artists during the Brahms. Suddenly, there was a phrase in the third movement that seemed to reach out and grab me by the soul. It was violent, and as unstoppable as it was surprising. I began to weep and had to work hard to keep myself from sobbing (there were others in the rows right next to me, for heaven's sake!).

What was going on? Why had this familiar part suddenly become filled with a power so great that I was forced to surrender? What is it about the poem, the painting, the dance gesture, the spoken dramatic line, the musical phrase that can take us beyond ourselves in a way we cannot explain or adequately convey after the fact?

We are, each one of us, filled with so many experiences, fleeting impressions, memories, interior spaces that we barely know are there. Art has the power to unlock who you are.

I could play you an extract of that Sextet, pinpoint in sound the precise moment where I was caught in an emotional avalanche, but that would be to take it out of context and already, in our present day, so many things are taken out of context. Or perhaps, better expressed, new contexts are constantly being formed. You listen to Beethoven on your commute, past bedtime when everyone else is asleep, sitting in the cinema watching Geoffrey Rush and Colin Firth prepare to give an important speech.

Where was your mind at the beginning of this event while you were hearing the quartets? Our bodies and our minds are in a constant state of change and art can create connections is us we were not aware existed. The discovery of which sends out reverberating waves, lapping against the various shores that make up our conscious experience.

So my first concrete answer to this talk's title is "because you should be selfish!" You are the only one who can have a particular experience of a work of art. You alone bring a privileged combination of your past and your present state of being. The art, of whatever kind, acts as a catalyst in a neurochemical reaction that will not leave you where it found you. This may seem trite, but the philosopher Wittgenstein remarked that the only thing which pulled him back from going through with his plan for suicide was the slow movement of a Brahms String Quartet. So, yes, it may be selfish, but it can also be a life-preserver.

I would like to play you a piece of music you probably do not know. It is a fascinating early electronic composition by American composer Charles Dodge made up entirely of computer manipulations of a recording of his voice. Before we begin, I want to assure you that no hallucinogens were put into the refreshments here at the hall. It is from 1972 and called "He Destroyed her Image."

[Play recording: He Destroyed her Image]

In two minutes that piece takes you to any number of places: some humorous, some serious, some wistful, but what is intriguing is the way it transports you into a space nothing else creates in quite the same way. Although it is a recorded work that cannot be "performed," in the sense we have been talking about, the way we all just listened to in has given it a special context for us here. If you heard it for the first time, this is your introduction. But if it is a work you have heard before this is an extra fold in the fabric of your listening. We have all been bound together by our experience of it, which is somehow magical. The element of unity that an audience shares, particularly by being involved with an event at the same time, the potential contained in that intersection, is what makes me want to have singular programs.

When you are involved in setting your calendar as a conductor, you are often asked what you would like to conduct. I'm often asked about a particular week, two years from now. The only way I could possibly answer such a question would be to act as though I were curating a room in a gallery. What collection of pictures could I put in close proximity so that the conversation those works would spark would be something to look forward to, no matter what else might be happening in my life at that point?

This means for the coming weeks in Sydney, that although I have conducted the three early Stravinsky ballets many times, I have never before done them in the context of the programs we have for you this month.

We know that these works are popular, but the version of The Firebird most often played is the 1919 Suite for greatly slimmed down orchestra andPetrushka is frequently performed in the later 1947 version, which was both written to maintain the copyright royalties, as well as revised to be more in line with his neoclassical profile. When the troika are performed in close succession, they are often done in chronological order, which seems always to stress the goal orientation of simple to complex and supports a rather obvious view of modernism. So our programs here in Sydney, both in these weeks, across the rest of this season, as well as those of next season, are poised to tell many new stories about the works and reveal the magic that comes from a group of people experiencing a unique program as an unrepeatable event.

I have often given a talk before a concert to highlight certain ideas it might be helpful to think about before listening. There is a danger inherent in speaking about something as ungraspable as music. In crucial ways, the music and the program where it finds its local context have to speak for themselves.

What is fascinating is just how free the associations can be for each of us. It requires us to be receptive not only to the works at hand, but also to ourselves. For this, we often need quiet to really be in the moment. This is the same quiet the composers need to write a piece, the same one the performers need to convey its ineffable meaning. For, as with my Brahms example, the moment of greatest inspiration can suddenly surprise us, like a bird hidden in a thicket bursting out in flight. I spoke earlier of the way that a carefully crafted recording can be a work of art. Early in his career, Steve Reich, who turns 80 this year was recording sounds and making tape loops of those sounds.

Here is a passage from one of the most famous tape pieces, It's Gonna Rain from 1965:

[Play recording: It's Gonna Rain, example 1]

Brother Walter, a black Pentecostal preacher was recorded by Reich at Union Square in San Francisco.

Reich was drawn to his musical voice, floating between speech and song. He made two loops of a particular vocal pattern and found when he tried to get the two loops to line up that one gradually went slightly slower and out of phase with the other, pulling apart, as it were, the music in the voice while leaving emotion and text intact. This process turns the ancient question of "prima la musica et poi la parola" into something of a Zen koan. But the real surprise for Reich, was to discover when he chose the phrase "it's gonna rain", that a pigeon took flight with rhythmically beating wings just at that moment, so the loop contained its own drum track. And he heard the music in the sound.

[Play recording: It's Gonna Rain, example 2]

In the final movement of The Desert Music, Reich sets words of William Carlos Williams' poemAsphodel, That Greeny Flower "Inseparable from the fire/ its light/ takes precedence over it./ who most shall advance the light - call it what you may!"

In an interview from 1984 Steve Reich said: "I once had a vision where light became a metaphor for harmony, for tonality. You know, of course, that the notes on the piano aren't all there are - there's a continuity of vibration from the lowest to the highest sounds we can hear. Slowly, over more than a thousand years, out of this complete continuity of vibration from low to high, musicians in the West have evolved the selection and ordering of notes we find on the keyboard and in all our other instruments. These notes and the harmonic system we have used to order them, struck me as a light radiating out of the dark infinitude of available vibrations. And when listening in particular to two pieces - Handel'sThe Water Music and Stravinsky'sThe Rake's Progress - I used to get a vision of a kind of barge of light, floating down a river in very dark surroundings, in complete darkness. You see, I understood that human conventions are, in a sense, thelight - a kind of conveyance in which we ride, in which we live, and without which we die. And the human construct that we call our music is merely a convention - something we've all evolved together, and that rests on no final or ultimate laws. And it sails, in my mind, like a ship of light down an endlessly dark corridor, preserving itself as long as it can. And no more and no less."

Which brings me to my second and, I hope, more uplifting answer as to why you should care about art. Art is the thing that allows all of us to join the highest achievements of the human imagination. With so much evidence of how horrible man can behave, art is the counter balance which restores the soul, uplifts the spirit, inspires us to share what we love, and continues to remind us how lucky we are to be illumined by that light.

This is an edited version of the Stuart Challender talk delivered by David Robertson at the Sydney Opera House on 1 August 2016.


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