Monthly Archives: September 2016

Fruits of tradition

An interesting article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about the fruits of tradition, if correctly understood:

Quote: “You simply cannot transform tradition (a creative ideal) without first knowing it (a conserving ideal).” The article confirms the common sense insight that any achievement in any field is based upon mastering the rules by immersion in tradition, which is: the available body of works and their meaning. But what are these rules, and where are they for? Paradoxically, rules require discipline, concentration, learning, repetition, all restricting activities with clear limitations, but when gone through this stage, rules offer freedom. The British art nun Sister Wendy, a most brilliant mind in the field of art history, once said in one of her famous BBC documentaries: ‘I like rules… because you can move so freely within them’. One could go further and conclude, that mastering rules offers the possibility of transcending them and creating new things: not merely following rules but playing inventively with them, so that new forms can blossom; in this way, an artistic tradition develops in a lively balance between order and re-invention. In music, rules are the result of the discovery of innate laws, but these laws are flexible, like living things. The 20C explosion of multifarious possibilities in terms of musical language and the accompanying erosion of artistic quality and value, are related….. and a renewed interest in the concept of tradition (well-understood) may help to revert the decline in creative thinking in the field of contemporary music.

Poetics of order

The well-known architect Leon Krier, the great inspirator and theorist of a new, humane architecture and urban planning, based upon an interpretation of classical architecture, has said: ‘Classical architecture is atemporal, like mathematics’:

Further elaborations by Krier makes clear, that this transcendental quality is due not to the invention of proportions, but of their discovery. Both mathematics and classical architecture, and we can say: all classical art, demonstrates what the architect Steven Semes calls ‘the holistic nature of human perception’.

These are not wildly-groundbreaking opinions, but common sense, based upon empirical evidence and experience. In our time, such statements have taken-on the quality of revolutionary pronouncements because these common sense insights have become extremely rare and contested by the idea, that cultural achievements are mere human constructs, i.e. products of the conscious will and for that reason, as valuable as any other human construct. So, we can reject the idea of tonality in music and construct a very different system of coherence, as we can build glass-and-steel skyscrapers and assume we will live and work as happily in them as in a Viennese or Parisian city centre appartment. These 20C misconceptions are born from the idea that nature is something we observe from a distance and should be subdued to our will, without taking into account its nature, the nature of nature, so to speak. This misconception can also be streched to the territory of ethics, psychology, sociology, sexuality, you name it. It is the idea that there is no authority above the human mind, and even reality as such is often contested as something to be taken into account.

But the reality of nature, as human nature, is the basis of all we hope to create and achieve, in any field. That some proportions in architecture we recognize as better, more pleasing, closer to our innermost being and its longing for harmony, is not a human construct but a discovery of an already existing reality, of which we are an organic part. Hence the ‘holistic nature of human perception’.

Our inbuilt perceptive capacities of recognizing order and harmony makes it possible to recognize aesthetic qualities in works from other than Western cultures, because these capacities are universal in humans. This also explains the ease with which Chinese and Japanese musicians master Western classical music, in spite of the great differences in culture and history, and the enthusiasm with which African masks were incorporated, at the beginning of the last century, into European modern art – the attraction of the ‘pure primitive’ for the jaded tastes of an eroding urban cultural elite.

Walking through a classical architectural monument, which happens in time, is comparable to listening to a classical symphony, which gradually builds-up in the subconscious mind an image of interrelated spaces, masses, proportions and ornaments; Steven Semes has written about this comparison in this essay:

Wholeheartedly recommended…. because these thoughts teach us much about how to contribute to a renaissance of classical music.

But what do we mean by the term ‘classical’? Not the restricted historical period of ca. 1770 – 1827, but any music, which is based upon ‘the holistic nature of human perception’, and which contributes its individual version of the average language which offers so many different interpretations.

In ‘Classical Architecture, the Poetics of Order’ (MIT Press 1986), Alexander Tzonis and Liane Lefaivre explore classical architecture not as a cultural history in a linear narrative, but as a mental space where numerous different designs and applications are considered from a couple of fundamental aesthetic points of departure. For music, this exploration is very instructive, since it demonstrates comparable efforts by the creative mind to invent designs where conflicts and contradictions are solved in an overarching integrated whole, which is specifically stimulating because such designs reflect the instinctive drive in humans to arrive at some balance during the often conflicting and volatile trajectory of life, and to find something of durability and continuity that may glue together the broken bits of experience as they may be met. Especially in our time of confusion and cultural erosion, such explorations have become of the greatest importance.