Monday, April 16, 2007

Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and the Experience of Art (Musical and Visual)

I had the wonderful experience this past weekend of watching and hearing Robert Spano and the Atlanta Symphony perform Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. I have listened to recordings of this piece many, many times, but hearing and seeing it performed live for the first time, I began to understand some of the extreme reactions (including negative reactions) some have to the work, both at its premier in 1913 and subsequently. (I’m also aware that part of the initial reaction at the premier in 1913 was to the “scandalous” visual aspects of the ballet which the music accompanied – but I also suspect then and later, that the seemingly unusual qualities of the music had a lot to do with the violently negative reaction.) I’d like here to address two topics having to do with the experience of art musical and visual: (1) the differences in experience of live musical performance or original works of art versus the experience of reproductions (whether recordings of music or prints or photographs of visual art); and (2) a greater conservatism apparent with regard to audiences for music compared to audiences for visual art.

“Live” vs. Facsimile

There is a difference between the experience of music performed live and the experience of recorded music. (There is also music that blurs the difference, such as live performance which incorporates taped material – and there are both “high” and “low” art versions of this.) While it doesn’t seem quite right to refer to the experience of an original painting or sculpture as a “live” experience (though that description would certainly apply to visual performance art), there is a difference between seeing an original work and a reproduction (though here too, there is art that blurs the distinction, e.g. Warhol’s camouflage screen prints, or mass produced casts of Rodin’s sculptures).

In the case of both music and visual art, there are differences between individual pieces in the degree to which the experience of the live performance or original work is different from the experience of a facsimile. Large scale paintings or sculpture feel far different in person than in photographic reproduction in even the best art books, as do highly textured paintings, where the texture is not reproducible in the flat two dimensional page. On the program with The Rite of Spring were also Stravinsky’s “Dumbarton Oaks” concerto for chamber orchestra and Mozart’s piano concerto no. 17, with piano soloist Garrick Ohlsson. While I enjoyed the performance of these two pieces, the main difference in experiencing them live was in seeing what the musicians were physically doing at any moment, while my physical experience of The Rite of Spring was completely different from that I have ever experienced while listening to it on CD.

This brings me to a major difference in the experience of visual art and music. The difference between seeing an original painting and a reproduction is not the same as the difference between a live performance of music and a recording.

The difference between the visual experience of an original visual work and a facsimile is primarily a quantitative one. One sees more of the texture, the size, the other details indicating the skill of a painter or sculptor. The experience of live music also involves such quantitative differences, but a qualitative difference in experience as well. Looking at a painting and looking at a reproduction of it, while producing different specific sensations, are the same sorts of experiences. Listening to live and recorded music provide similar sorts of auditory experiences, but live music can also provide a distinct bodily experience rarely provided by recorded music played over speakers. This is especially so with high volume live music, or live performance involving especially deep, resonant pitches that are experienced in a literally visceral way, experienced bodily in the gut as much as in the ear.

Conservatism in Musical Experience

A few years ago, my local symphony orchestra, the Pensacola Symphony Orchestra, also performed The Rite of Spring. I’m ashamed to admit I missed the performance – I don’t even remember why any longer, but afterwards, according to one member of the orchestra I spoke with, the Pensacola symphony received several letters of complaint about the choice to program this piece of "cacophonous non-music." I was aghast at the time that anyone would have reacted this way – The Rite of Spring has been standard repertory for almost a century now. While tempting to pass this off as the backward taste of provincial rubes, I’ve also encountered similar musical conservatism in other places (for example, I’ve encountered numerous writings attempting to dismiss Schoenberg or Berg as “cacophonous” or “snarling dissonance” – a reaction I find both wrongheaded and simply inaccurate [dissonance sure, as in any interesting music, but no snarling or cacophony]), and as I said above, after hearing the piece live, while I find it even more than before one of the most profound pieces of 20th century music, I can begin to understand others’ visceral reactions against the piece (in part because it is a literally visceral reaction).

The experience of visual art or of music is different from the experience of literature. Literature also presents a unique object to be experienced (with this being especially a goal of poetry). But the experience of literature requires active participation of the reader in a way that visual art and music do not. One cannot simply pass by a book and experience anything of it the way one could with a painting or a musical performance. Instead it has to be intentionally picked up and read, and the experience of it is a distinctly interior one. Paintings, sculpture, and music are experienced as things more clearly exterior than literature, with the experience occurring somewhat more passively (one can actively look or listen, but one can’t easily not see something that passes through one’s field of vision and one can’t easily not hear something within auditory range), with the object impinging upon one’s senses from outside.

At the same time, there is a difference in this exterior, passive experience of visual art and music. Visual art is more exterior, and not at all visceral in any literal way. It is only seen, where live music is heard and felt, experienced as something distinctly exterior while also something distinctly resonating in one’s physical being. One can also more easily stop experiencing painting or sculpture – by closing one’s eyes or looking in another direction, while music cannot be tuned out so simply. It impinges on one’s ears and body, and it cannot be ignored. It can force itself upon a person in a way that visual art (much less literature) cannot. As a result, music can be physically delightful – or a physical shock and violation if the music is not to one’s liking.

Many were once shocked by modernist experiments in sculpture and painting. Some perhaps still are, but really only very few can still honestly profess to be shocked or disturbed by Duchamp, or Picasso, or Pollock (much less the impressionists). But The Rite of Spring remains physically exhilarating or frightening or both at once.


Steve Fellner said...


I would actually disagree with you very strongly that visual art requires less participation than literature. I think it actualyl requires so much more: a book announces to its partipants when its over: when you're done reading the last work. But visual art makes the pariticpant decide when to stop looking: there is no definite end: the end is when the particpator decides to stop looking, when she has seen all there is all to see. Because I am a weak man, that is why I do not like painting: it is too much responsibility to decide when to turn my back.

Steve Fellner said...

when you're done reading the last word i meant to say

NOT last work


Robert Philen said...

Thanks for the comments.

I do hope that I did not imply that visual art couldn't be actively experienced. As I said, one can look or listen actively. You're absolutely right that when actively looking, the work of visual art doesn't signal an end to experience. For myself, though, this isn't particularly different from literature. Most literature is linear, so there is a last word as you say, but to me that's not necessarily an end to experience (experience need not be linear just because the text is). I especially experience poetry in a non-linear fashion, where a good poem compels me to examine further, to re-read passages, to explore particular sounds, rhythms, and word-images, without the poem signalling when to stop any more than a painting does.

To my mind, there are at least two key differences between the experiences of reading a piece of literature and viewing a work of visual art. First, the text is experienced as much or more as an interior mental object as an external phenomenon, while visual art is viewed and experienced primarily as an object exterior to the mind and body.

Second, reading requires some active participation - I won't have any experience at all of the text if I don't actively pick it up and read it. (I suppose audio books are different -but would also fall under the heading of "listening" more than "reading.") Looking and Listening are different. If I simply pass through an art gallery, I'll experience something of the visual art if it so much as passes through my visual field. Now, if that's all I do, my experience will be superficial (and I might not have stressed that point enough in my post). I'll experience far more if I actively look (and as you point out, there's no clear end to the experience), but I'll experience something of it through nothing more than its enterring my visual field.

Steve Fellner said...


You absolutely did not imply that visual art does not require active participation. The fault I'm sure lies with me.

Perhaps what I'm trying to identify is more of an idiosyncratic anxiety. Or perhaps not.

In both visual art and literature, the experience extends beyong the actual reading (or physically looking at the existence.): the memory of it, the decoding of it, etc.

But for me there's much more anxiety (is this simply my own pathology regarding sight) when I stop looking at a painting, like O My god, did I take in everything as opposed to when I come to the end of reading a text where it's like I know I can come back to it later...perhaps I need to just think of a my relationship as a more sustained one than im intially thinking of it