Thursday, August 03, 2006


Moday evening, after dinner with friends at a local Italian restaurant, some of our party treated themselves to Sambucco, served in the usual fashion: with a couple of coffee beans floating in the flaming anise-flavored liquor. The flames toast the beans a bit and add just a bit of coffee taste to the drink. That added bit was an ornament -- foreign to the underlying form, but still an elegant accent, and one that I'd regret leaving out, even if I'd be hard pressed to explain why it should be essential.

Exclusion of ornament became, in the 20th century, a central emblem of modernity in all the arts. Economy of means, and an absolute identification of form with function became virtues. In music, erasing the distinction between surface feature and deep structure, and being able to account for every single detail became important to composers as well as to those analyzing the music of the past (Schenker would absorb details of surface into a series of Matryoshka dolls containing ever deeper layers of melodic diminutions; Schoenberg would absorb melodic passing tones into the harmony, so that each vertical structure could be duly named and reproduced.) Such analysis was duly associated with notions of value.

In being able to explain away every ornament, each detail, what has been gained and what has been lost? And what about the music that resists that encompassing and economizing impulse to identify, catalog, and explain all? Is it necessary to evaluate or to compare music which is illuminated by the analytic impulse with music which is not?

1 comment:

M. Keiser said...

FL Wright believed that ornament was necesisary to "humanize" a building and kept a degree of ornament in all his designs up until his death. but modernism didnt follow him, but a much easier path of imitation, mies and le corbu who seemed to set a simplier, non idiosyncratic meathod of design (with the exception of corbu's rochamp chapel) and Mies found a language and basically repeated the same thing for nearly 30 years (even though his pavillions and towers are gorgeous, they've been imitated to the point of banality) Ornament is still such a taboo in contemporary design, its funny, and goofy. Venturi and other post-modernists havent helped ornament's cause (even though they've used it) they've just made it seem all the more banal to more sophiticated designers.

But the problem is, i think, that architecture is still relying on a platonic assumption of "form beyond experience" that is, the form of something, and that its "pure geometry" is of value and that ornament is always just slapped on and not part of the buildings transcendental form. This is, of course, bullshit. Ornament defines the shape and actuality of a building, how we experience it and all that. The form IS dependent on ornament, there is no deeper form beyond it.

and sad to hear about the two cowells.. i was really hoping it was named for the composer. It'd show a little bit of character that way.