Rhythm and the New
Change occurs in as many ways as nature works. In this 'infinite variety' (as Bernstein describes music) there are two highly profiled types of change, the subtle and the drastic. Subtle change is similar to up-beat motion in music. An accumulation and an intensification lead to a culmination - the down-beat - which forcefully continues that which has led to it. Drastic change is on the order of a down-beat with no precursory up-beat material, or precursory material that is vastly different and essentially un-related. Everything spills out of the newness of the down-beat. Subtle change continually anticipates the next hurdle. Drastic change fires the gun that starts the race.
Music and art history exhibit both of these types of change. Subtle continuous change led to the High Baroque and Bach's 'Die Kunst der Fuge.' Likewise subtle changes across the Classical Period and Mozart's career led to 'Die Zauberflöte.' These works were each an accumulation of an extraordinary life in a particular time. They are brilliant works, but they are works essentially rooted in their times, though they also point in other directions. The Bach looks lovingly backwards and not to the already existent pre-classical methods with which his sons were becoming increasingly involved. The Mozart may be seen as 'radical' for its use of German rather than the Italian language, and as such looks forward to the Nationalism that was beginning to sweep through Europe. Still, the changes that Bach and Mozart put forward, subtle stylistic innovations, harmonic explorations, formal intricacies, were all within the expected frameworks of their day.
Beethoven, Debussy and Stravinsky set stock in the shock of the absolutely new. The 'Eroica,' 'Prélude à l'après midi d'un faune' and 'Le Sacre du printemps' aimed at expression amid bewilderment in radically new contexts. Similarly Picasso and Jackson Pollack broke radically from tradition by inventing entirely new concepts of painting which eventually became known as Cubism and Abstract Expressionism. The seminal break-throughs of these composers and painters were like gunshots heard round the world.
Copyright © 6 May 2000 Jeff Talman, New York City, USA