Thursday, June 11, 2009

Evolving Music

Last night for the opening Gala of the World Science Festival, I was manic with ideas, dreams, and general excitement. Here was a room of some of the world’s greatest scientists, artists and musicians, all successfully blurring the lines of creativity and rigor, elegance and structure, and all the time being extremely entertaining. The second act was a new composition by Philip Glass with projections of stunning nature photographs by Frans Lanting. It would be difficult to imagine a better night for me, who spends so much time on the fringes of these worlds. It was a chance to be inside, and really experience ideas and art that relate to science. For some reason though there must be a devil on my shoulder, which acts as a grumpy cynic telling me to be overly critical. While in the taxi going home I told my wife Marine that I was disappointed by the Glass score. I felt it derivative of Copland, and essentially reactionary in style. Marine, rightly so, rather than rolling her eyes in the dark, put a stop to this musical elitist talk, by saying something like “isn’t beauty and symmetry through harmony a way of representing nature, whether it is “Appalachian Spring” years ago, or Philip Glass today?”

This was impossible to argue rationally. As James Watson said during his speech at the Gala, all we have is evolution. Brian Greene, in his presentation with Josh Bell gave a cosmological time line of the universe, and put the seconds of existence of humanity in prospective. Even evolution of organisms is so incredibly slow; that the time between 1944 when Copland composed “Appalachian Spring”, and Philip Glass composed his piece which was premiered last night is irrelevant in evolutionary terms. Certainly species have not changed so quickly. Why then do I make this analogy of evolution in nature to evolution in art? I expect progress. In my mind this means something unique which is representative of our present time. If the representation is nature, then isn’t our time basically the same as any other time that humans have been around? Of course it is, but for some reason I am brought back to the question of what makes humanity, this often destructive force in nature, unique and full of potential. Last night’s Gala actually gives me an answer I am content with. We are always working hard at understanding something about ourselves, and our universe. We are searching for something that we didn’t know before we read an important book, or before we took a class, or before we saw a dance concert. While evolution happens slowly, comprehension happens quickly. We experiment to understand, and are continually left with questions, and more experiments to do.

Coming back then to whether art, music in this case, needs to evolve rapidly, even when it is representing something that is evolving slowly. I think we are driven towards asking artistic questions the way we do scientific ones. That is we experiment, and find an answer, only to have another question and then do an experiment again. Like Newton, Darwin or Einstein who discovered amazing truths in their lives, it would not be enough to rediscover them now. In the same way, we need to push ourselves musically and artistically in general to see and hear something unique and new.