Friday, October 10, 2008


The shock of the old. The Liebieghaus, the sculpture museum here in Frankfurt, is now housing an exhibit of reconstructions by Vinzenz Brinkmann of classical Greek sculpture with the original painted surfaces restored. The familiar, 19th century, view of white marble antiquity just vanished for me with these pieces. At first they appear garish, with the skin, lips, eyes too real and the costumes too bright and loud. But then they start to make too much sense: after all, if you are going to invest in a piece of marble sculpture, you want to put it in the Sunday best.

One of my favorite late-night party topics has been my defense of David Lynch's Dune as the best movie we've never seen. No, not that deadened and incoherent heap that showed up in cinemas, and even less those that ended up on TV, video cassettes, or DVDs. No, the best film you've never seen was an over-stylized and baroque space opera, with sets of palaces and spaceships constructed of massive wood (and sandworms with skin made of thousands of prophylactics), all of it covered with ornaments befitting the representation of a decadent culture that had been spacebound for a very long time. (Ideally, the film would have moved at a glacial pace — slower than gagaku, as slow as Ernie Gehr's Eureka — so that every detail could be considered and absorbed, and the whole accompanied by a film score with similar temporal sympathies).

It was largly the ornamentation in that universe represented in the film which made the film shocking and exotic to us (then-)20th century moderns. There are many explanations for our modern horror of ornament. These are primarily practical and economic reasons which we have come to identify as aesthetic: mass-production favors simplicity, first-world labor costs rose to the point in which hand-made ornament was unaffordable, price trumps quality and variety. But the practical and economic rationale is soon forgotten and we come identify an aesthetic in necessity. Sleek and slick, bare and aerodynamic is modern, weighty ornamentation is not.

It needn't have turned out this way, of course. The ornaments of the steam age could have left us with a more permanent steam punk aesthetic. And there were early signs of concern, for example, those of William Morris, who insisted, in an age of industrialization on a place for ornament in everyday life (and, within the same project, a more equal footing for crafts with the "pure" arts). Some postmodernists have attempted to recover, if somewhat modestly, a place for the decorative.

In serious music, the ornament lost out early. It was Schönberg's Harmonielehre and not Schenker's that had a decisive influence on subsequent music making; while Schenker's theory describes music in terms of hiearchical layers of deep structure, elaboration, detail and ornament, Schönberg's theory is an account for every possible item as a citizen of more-or-less equal stature in the society of a score, which is perhaps a historical irony given the stylistic richness of the tradition in which his music emerged as well as his own ultra-expressionistic tendencies. Thus we end up with the grace notes in Webern's Variationen (which, ultimately, become the grace notes in Stravinsky's Movements or in any number of works by Barraqué or Boulez) which are no longer ornaments, details of the surface, but elements that go as far down deep into the structure of the composition as one can go. They are neither optional nor conventional, like Baroque agréments, they are essential features.

To some extent, we modern musicians should be envious of those practitioners of ethnic, vernacular and early music traditions in which ornamentation, and especially the extemporaneous application of ornament, is a vital part of performance. While it's reasonable to shy away from the over-application of ornaments — as in the required and tired melismas in popular singing competitions — it is, perhaps, worth considering the implications of a more ornamental compositional and performance style for new music.

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