Friday, May 27, 2005

The Importance of Being Beautiful

Kids are never afraid to speak their minds, as a group of eight-year-old choristers will remind you: "The Debussy is not a fun song! Why don't we sing fun songs?" "It has too many weird notes. I don't like it." "Yeah, we don't really like accidentals; they're not pretty." Such bold comments give their conductor reason to smile and say constructively, "This is the great thing about music. Everyone has different likes and dislikes, which is one reason why there are so many different kinds of music! The fact that some people think the Debussy is a fun song, while others don't, gives us something interesting to talk about, right?"

Right, and as certain philosophs have recently mused, one's personal biases and preferences lie at the heart of all this interesting talk.

Having spent a few days mulling these ideas over, I ventured to the Hemlock Wednesday night (finally meeting the enchanting M.C-) and put my ears, and my aesthetic criteria, to the test with two sets of electronic music. Surprise! My main tenet--for all its arbitrary vagueness--was confirmed: what I want from performance, whether music, theatre, dance or art, is something...beautiful. Listening to Blevin Blechdom's piece, for example, was like opening box of beautiful sounds: multi-toned metallic bell sounds, birds screeching, emphatic rhythmic beats, and even the occasional chatter of white static. Bevin (she of many monikers) built a horizontally moving collage from a varied sonic palette, full of contrasts, and she gave each soundscape time to develop in the mind before colliding in something new. The block-like structure (one foot, then the other) of so much electronic music usually fails to hold my interest--I long for the contrapuntal subtlety of Renaissance vocal music which, as layer-upon-layer of fiercely independent lines, seems a plausible (if odd) parallel to what people today are creating on their laptops--but Bevin's sense of timing and pacing made the focused linear motion somehow satisfying. Led like a child through her land of samples, I could (for the most part) appreciate this electronic music--from the sounds to the structure--as beautiful, captivating.

In contrast, as I listened to the next performer, I fell into my usual electronic music mode, the one where I swear a voice is whispering to me, "you are starting to get very sleepy..." Nearly devoid of contrasts, the limited tonal palette forced my attention to details I might not have noticed otherwise. Where was the beauty? I could not find it in the way he manipulated the computer, nor in the way he strummed the guitar or angled it in for feedback. With Bevin, I journeyed without question, rode along as a wide-eyed passenger; with Chris, I got fidgety. I needed "something beautiful" to obsess over; I needed to wonder if a certain sound might return, to wonder at its transformation, to mourn it as a memory. Instead, I found myself wondering if M.C- and I could sneak away and gossip.

Post-Hemlock I attempted to attribute some specific criteria to the "it was beautiful; it was good" theory, just in case I ever become pinned on my aesthetic premise. Like the young girls assessing their Debussy song, I can tend to behave simply. I am swayed by the superficial (accidentals in music, a change of lighting in a theatre production, the unbelievable photo-realism of a Bechtle) and often prefer design over meaning. Holding tight to the first impressions, I know I can always savor meaning in the morning. My interests and prejudices thus become clear retrospectively, after I've seen a show or heard a concert. It's time, though, to grow up, and so I shall put together "a list." Look for the post Monday or Tuesday.


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