December 7th, 2006

strategizing in the shadow of a giant

Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending a colloquium @ Monmouth College given by Ian Moschenross, concerning the romantic style traits of composer Robert Schumann (1810-1856). What I learned applied fairly directly to painting (and many other things, no doubt!) so I'm sharing. (This is if I can get my fingers warm enough to type. It is really, really cold in my part of Illinois today.)

R. Schumann's problem was a familiar one. He was working in the shadow of a giant, Beethoven.

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Beethoven's suffocating dominance meant that everyone unfortunate enough to be working after he did was born into one primary and overwhelming problem-- how not to be derivative.

So. I identify, and not because I'm wilting in the shade of some modernist painter. (I was born into a complex art world late enough to be free of that.)

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Anyway, back to R. Schumann and how he coped/worked in the shadow. This is what R. Schumann did.

1) He used quotes. R. Schumann directly acknowledged Beethoven by quoting him. He imported brief motifs from Beethoven that would have been instantly recognized by the audience, and developed larger works around them.

2) Made use of literary references. R. Schumann read deeply and created musical works based on literature of the time that impacted him. He found ways to express literary characters and structures in music.

3) Multiple personalities. As was not unheard of at the time, R. Schumann recognized and named different aspects of himself. He allowed these different aspects to compose (and signed the movements with their names). He wrote movements that served primarily to introduce these alternate personalities, and titled the movements with their names. He kept a journal in which the differing personalities made individual entries.

4) Deployed the Esoteric. R. Schumann used secret codes in his work, assigning particular notes to reference meaningful things/people/places. These secret coded references, inaudible to an audience, are noted in the musical scores for the performers and the scholars. He used these codes to drive compositions. The esoteric elements created distance between the artist and the audience. (The distance creates room for an enthusiast to be active, to grow in appreciation via learning.)

5) Technical innovation. Schumann was quick to make use of technological improvements and aggressively explored the limits and quirks of musical instruments (eg. the generation of harmonics with pianos). The limits and quirks of the available materials revealed opportunities.

6) Rhythmic ambiguity and obsessiveness. Schumann liked to put his audience off-center with rhythms that first present as deeply familiar and then morph or uncloak. He also liked to work a simple rhythm for pages and pages and pages, allowing it to provide coherence through the piece across time.

7) Self-quotation. R. Schumann quoted himself within and across his own works. These self-quotes were inside jokes or rewards for his inner circle. Fragmentary reminiscences of his own work within his own work create richness and layers, as the audience listens and is simultaneously reminded of previous listening.

It isn't hard to look around and find people in all kinds of mediums and disciplines who use one or some of these strategies. Most of these strategies weren't entirely new to me, and some few of them I've worked and worked and worked. I'd like a couple more!

It's good to learn how people in the past working in different mediums strategized similarly, yet with such diverse creative outcomes. We are all across time rowing by ourselves in the same boat. Or something. :)