Meditations on structure

I was at a jazz club yesterday listening to mediocre jazz. I have to confess up front that I don’t like modern jazz at all since I find it aimless and unstructured. It occurred to me that, over the past 500 years, there’s been a dramatic decline in structure in the world of arts. Here are a few examples, which I’ve put beneath the fold, because the images and videos take a lot of space.

In painting, we went from this:

To this:

To this:

We see exactly the same trend in classical music as we go from, say, Bach:

To Stravinsky:

To Phillip Glass:

And that decline in structure is mirrored in popular music, from the traditional melodies of the Civil War:

To the early years of the jazz/swing era:

To the kind of stuff I saw last night:

Still doubting?  Think about the parallel changes in popular dance, starting with the formal line dances that were the norm in England (and America) more than two hundred years ago:

Then we hit the jazz era:

And, of course, our own time:

I could go on and on.  There are also parallels in the literary world (from Gibbons, to Virginia Wolfe, to Alan Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac).  It’s obvious that the increasing lack of structure in our world is not a product of the modern era, but reflects a very, very slow change that has taken place over hundreds of years.  As someone who likes comfortable shoes and soft clothing, and who is very informal generally, I can’t say that I mind too much (at least if I’m not forced to listen to jazz or modern symphonies).  However, I can’t help but wonder what it portends.  Where do we go from here?  Is there even less formality possible in all these areas, or are we at the bottom of the pendulum’s 500 year fall, with our only societal option being to head back to more structure and formality?

I have no answers, of course, but these thoughts did keep me from lapsing into a painful coma induced by last night’s show.

16 Responses

  1. I’ve been concerned about this quite some time as well.
    In painting, we have moved from an appreciation of the SKILL involved, to the appreciation of merely either the emotive power of the artist, or of the emotive power expressed in the work of art itself. Skill has become meaningless. We now get the manic flingings of Pollack globs and strings of paint, whereas we used to get the careful placement of pixel by pixel hues, or the shadings of thousands of carefully placed strokes of brush.

    Sometimes I fear great art in the years to come will be the spraypainting to create a white surface, followed by the flinging of a soiled baby’s daiper upon the surface, and the exclamations of those present at any interesting fecal spray pattern upon the white surface.

    In photography, we used to get Ansel Adams, who would spend hours carefully finding the merging of light and shadow with scenery and with the capabilities of the camera itself; hours of study spent over days until at last, he would capture the picture that the will of his mind wished for.

    Now we hope for the accidental snapshot of interest: to be lucky to be there at the right place and time is all that is hoped for.

    The composition of orchestration is replaced by the smashing of rock instruments upon the stage, into splinters, as the crowd chants, in an orgy of destruction.

    And so on.

    An optimist will claim that this is merely a creative lull. I sincerely hope that optimist is right.

  2. I also used to think we were living in a “creative lull” (great turn of phrase, by the way), until it occurred to me last night that it’s not a lull, it’s a pattern, and the pattern goes way back. There have been a couple of times when the pattern accelerated a lot only to fall back briefly (the French Revolution and the 1920s spring to mind, simply because clothing went from structured to unstructured), but those were anomalous leaps. Mostly, it’s been a majestic downwards trend and I, like you, wonder where it will end up.

    And we can’t just blame the world of high art, which has already dropped in the realms of white panels and dung, because it’s part of popular culture too. Everything just seems to be becoming supine, where minimal effort is applauded as the real thing — which may explain people’s absolutely delight in sports, because it’s there that we still see humans giving their all.

  3. That jazz video is just a bunch of chaotic chords. Sequenced together of course in large discrete chunks that then repeat.

    I think art reflects the perception of a people. Back in feudalism and the classical period, people knew their place, as either aristocrats, poor, rich, and workers and then lived their life as such. Now a days, we have artificial classes, class warfare made up by the arms merchants and race peddlers that sell to both sides hoping to create an Eternal Conflict like the Palestinians.

    Now a days the norm is the creation of more and more chaos, precisely because things are so much better now. Precisely because societies are more harmonious and diverse. Now people need even “more diversity” cause the normal stuff is just normal. So their productions and artwork lose form more and more since it is attempting to create another reality on top of ours.

    Horrible music.

  4. I think this is only true if you dont view engineering as art. I would put a pentium chip up against 16th century castle or a 19th century bridge anyday.

  5. I’m afraid I have to be the odd man out here. I am a jazz musician.
    I started out in rock many decades ago, which led me to blues which led me to jazz. It was a slow process. I felt the way Bookworm and the commenters do for some time. Then I started to understand how the modern stuff evolved quite naturally from the earlier stuff. Still, I thought I’d never get my brain around the work of, say, McCoy Tyner or Wayne Shorter or Pat Martino well enough to play it. Finally I bought some chart books and started into it. I discovered, via learning to read charts for these progressive tunes, that they were actually quite structured: a melody with verse, refrain and bridge jut like any other kind of popular music, a certain number of bars, turns taken by the soloists. Once one understands that, it’s possible to see the richness and depth of texture in it.
    That said, I like some of it better than others. I do think some of these people try to sound as angular and inaccessible as they can, which certainly is a turn-off.
    Why jazz has become marginalized is a subject we players kick around endlessly. (Particularly since we’re trying to make some money at it.)
    But the performance in the video above is great, IMHO.

  6. I’ll accept as true everything you say, Barney. To those of us who are musical troglodytes, though, the structure is impenetrable. I can grasp the melody and structure right up until the big changes in the 1950s, which have accelerated to the present time, when I can’t make head or tail of the music. Also, it doesn’t seem very musical anymore — that is, structure, if such there is, is king over melody.

  7. Barney’s post points to one of the issues that, I think, leads to the perception , if not the reality, of a shift away from structure. In the past, the audience and the artists shared a much smaller community. Certainly, the artists (composers, painters, sculptors, etc.) were specialists but their immediate audience was much smaller. The conversation between artist and audience was almost at a personal level.
    Today, in many fields, the audience and practitioners are more widely separated and the conversation is much less intimate. One result is that the forms become much more directed toward the in-group. The outsider has a harder time following what is going on.
    Some of the people in my own field almost never have contact outside the field. The interaction has a tendency to become so esoteric that it’s not comprehensible (and I sometimes feel that it’s not really progressing). The results are harder to understand because the thought process isn’t shared.
    I, like Bookworm, still enjoy the more accessible forms whether in music or other areas because it is easier to understand.

  8. This is a subject that really hits close to home. If it isn’t the newer progressive stuff that sounds disjointed and random, it is the saccharine mediocrity of smooth jazz stations…right now I am listening to Bill Charlap. Older school, perhaps, but delicious as comfort food. Timeless. The timeless stuff will never go away.
    I tried to get into Taylor Egsti and Djangirov’s music, but as skilled technically as those boys are, I just can’t digest all those notes. Call me a minimalist…John Lewis and the MJQ kind of minimalist.

  9. Hello Bookworm,

    This is a topic I’ve thought about for quite a while. My friends and I have called it the “dumbing down” of America for over eight years now. In my grimmer moments when I think of the kinds of movies and shows we’re producing, I think that, like entropy, our civilization is winding down to where we won’t have the capacity to tell compelling stories. Every once in a while I run across a compelling show on tv or in the movies, but it’s getting farther and farther apart each time.

    In my more optimistic moments, I can see that the vignettes and the conceptions of some of the stories are as compelling as anything we’ve ever done.

    But there is no question that our arts are dwindling in quality, like infantile regression. Indeed, most of our major movies are junior high level conceptions. I think this degeneration is separate and apart from any politics. I think that our arts are a reflection of where we are at as a culture, and I don’t think there is any escaping that.

  10. Hello Bookworm,

    Well, I’m going to have to eat my words in my previous comment. I just went from writing that comment to watching a really excellent show, Stephen King’s Nightmares and Dreamscapes. The quality of these shows were just superb and the stories as or more compelling than the original Rod Serling Twilight Zone episodes. I just finished watching two of three DVD’s. I rented them so I couldn’t plow into the third one yet. That’s for later.

    Now, I’m going to have to swing in the other direction (but not too drastically, mind you). There is quality stories are art out there, little gems embedded in this cacophony of gibberish. But when you find them, boy, are they a treat.

  11. This conversation has really been on my mind. One of the biggest questions I grapple with is how we as Americans can regain a sense of a shared cultural experience.
    One of the things I’ve love most about jazz is the strong sense of heritage. The players love to wax reverently of the pioneers who came before them. They’re keenly aware of the heritage that made their own work possible. Even young students know who Louis Armstrong and Coleman Hawkins were, what New Orleans and Kansas City and Harlem were all about.
    But if, as Bookworm says, the music has become “impenetrable,” if, as Dann G. says, the audience feels like it’s listening to an in-group conversation of a bunch of specialists in an esoteric field, then maybe it’s time for us players to rethink whether we’re doing real justice to that heritage.
    That said, I do agree that the saccharine and insipid “smooth jazz” is NOT the way to go.

  12. Barney, if music can only be enjoyed or understood by learning to play and read the sheet music, then the musicality of the “jazz” so to speak is very low.

    Dumbing down music is one thing, but when things get so that actual musicians don’t get it just by hearing it, then you know something has gone out of whack.

  13. “Skill without imagination is craftsmanship and gives us many useful objects such as wickerwork picnic baskets. Imagination without skill gives us modern art.”
    Tom Stoppard

    My thoughts on this mostly involve our culture’s desire for instant gratification. The other factor is that arts and entertainment now exist to support, in large part, advertising.

    Most consumers of art, music, and entertainment don’t expect to spend much time thinking about the experience. They want to enjoy something and move on to another experience. They won’t sit around with their friends and deconstruct the experience over a meal, or during an evening’s socializing. They won’t sit and analyze the product, or ponder over hidden meanings.

    The same mindset permeates many who want to become artists – quickly. They don’t want to spend years developing the skills that everyone else labored over in the past. So they decide to express themselves using some sort of shocking (new) medium and technique. Negative emotions are the easy to portray, and bodily fluids are readily available.

    And besides, there isn’t much payoff in laboring over a TV script, or a 3 minute song. It only has to hold the audience’s attention long enough for the advertising to appear. The standard 3 minutes time limit is imposed by commercial advertising, and it shapes the attention spans’ of the masses. What motivation is there to develop one’s skills?

    In times past, before the obsession with speed, projects were expected to take much longer. During the renaissance a painting might take years, and a cathedral might take centuries. No one today would initiate a project lasting beyond their lifetime. Our marketing base economy wouldn’t support it.

  14. You might also want to consider Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper, Book, for your thesis.


    The perspective of that picture is specifically designed to center around Christ’s haloed head under the arch. The lines are so sharp and level that you might even think it was CGI generated.

  15. I tend to believe that any “modern art” aficionado demands that the WORTH of the modern work is derived from the author’s subconscious.

    Any deliberate expression of actual skill – or actual INTENT – is merely a distortional filter that hides true excellence.

    This is why Pollack works so well as modern art: His work consists usually of paint flingings, deliberately consciously out of control, with the intended idea that it is his *subconscious* that is directing the flingings, and therefore creating the great art.

  16. […] (of Bookworm Room) shares my disdain of modern art forms, some of which I express and explain here: “Speaking of Modern […]

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