I just finished the review of Manet: The Man Who Invented Modernity, an exhibition that just closed at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, which appeared in the latest issue of The New York Review. The reviewer was Julian Bell, who is both a painter and a writer and therefore well equipped to take on this particular kind of review. What struck me the most about his piece, however, was how his approach shifted in the final section to the article to a more general existential question that I had not anticipated:
Again and again this exhibition returns you to a simple but hard-to-answer question: When does the act of “painting” become “a painting”? You render something, you put some paint down in response to some object. But your act may not be coextensive with the canvas—which was, quite literally, the chief object of the exercise in nineteenth-century art. The act of painting is good and vital, and so, you feel, are the things you depict. You want to paint many things—everything in the world that interests you in fact—provided that each of these acts of painting can be equally vital. But how far can you extend your attention, and when does this work result in a picture?
I suppose this resonated with me because I read it shortly after hearing a performance by the sfSoundGroup here in San Francisco, an ensemble primarily committed to what we might call “chamber music instances of modernity” with a major commitment to improvisation. I have been following this group for several years; and I have long been drawn to their approach to making music, which may best be described as just the right blend of seriousness of purpose with an infectious sense of pleasure. They are the sorts of performers who can find the visceral in Karlheinz Stockhausen when the music theorists are looking for Fibonacci numbers.
They are thus a prime suspect to consider when confronting the musical analog of Bell’s question: When does the act of making music result in “music?” Indeed, an ensemble like sfSoundGroup may even push back on this question, forcing you to address whether it is even worth asking in the first place. Erik Satie may have had no objective other than “pour épater les bourgeois” (to shock the middle classes) when he declared that music is what happens as concerts; but, in doing so, he may have been the first to recognize that there is a strong social dimension to any existential question we ask about music. By the time we, as listeners, had progressed from the Age of Satie to the New York School of John Cage, it was no long so shocking to consider a proposition like, “It is music as longer as there are listeners willing to accept it as music.” Indeed, in analogy with the sparing of Sodom, one might reduce that plural to a singular. All you need is one listener willing to make that commitment, and that listener might be the person making the music! Welcome to the world of Wild Man Fischer!
Thus, considering music as an analogy may ultimately undermine the relevance of Bell’s approach to assessing an exhibition of canvases by Édouard Manet. Like narrative, music is an art form heavily grounded in time. Whatever it is, it becomes music through its impact on the listener’s sense of “how time passes” (which happens to be the title of an essay that Stockhausen once wrote); but time also “passes” when we walk past a canvas in a gallery and decide to stop in our tracks to examine it more intently. In other words any existential question is only peripherally related to the source of the stimuli, so to speak. Those stimuli become the performance of music (or “a painting,” scare quotes and all) only by virtue of our natural capacity for sensemaking that begins once those stimuli have been registered and set off along neural pathways to the brain.
Music is not necessarily “what happens at concerts;” but it is what we, with our capacity to inhabit objective, subjective, and social worlds simultaneously, choose to make it to be.