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drjjpdc
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John Marks Comments on Great Composers

Mr. Marks some clarification if you have time. Your recent column was hard for me to separate what you called likes/dislikes and standards in art. Are you saying that there is no way to determine greatness in art? It seems you are saying if someone likes Hummel better than LVB, that is his business. True and I believe that as well. But what if said person wanted to say that he thought Hummel was a better composer than LVB? Surely you would try to help him and show how misinformed he was, no?

I have a feeling that what defines greatness in an artist is how he handles the material he uses. I agree with Charles Rosen when he is discussing LVB greatness. What really made LVB great is how he handled the notes and themes that he used. No one in the classical period or maybe ever created masterpieces with so little. Staying within the rules of the tonic he created masterpieces in an era where others were trying to be freer harmonically but whose skills in composition did not measure up to LVB (say von Weber).

This also touches on your art example with Dali. There is a difference between likes and greatness but surely some artists are objectively better than others, much like some baseball players are better than others. Just some thoughts for discussion.

jazzfan
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High School English

Along similar lines I had an English teacher in high school who repeatedly stated that while it was okay to say that one did not like Shakespeare, it was a sure sign of ignorance to say that Shakespeare was bad.

Glotz
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Your subjective bias...
drjjpdc wrote:

This also touches on your art example with Dali. There is a difference between likes and greatness but surely some artists are objectively better than others, much like some baseball players are better than others. Just some thoughts for discussion.

Analogies are pretty much worthless (from an argument standpoint).  Baseball players are 'judged' on their stats in competition with other athletes, despite many other skill factors that aren't quantifiable. Leadership, clutch performance, etc...

Art and music are also poor analogies to mesh together, despite the desire.  Music composition can be concrete, yet judgement of a performance (even from technically proficient musicians) is personal.

Art is utterly wide open, as there is very little to define what makes up prowress (proficient brush work, etc).  If one artist is a better painter, but the another communicates more meaning, who is 'better'? 

Take Warhol- Did he suck because he didn't possess the same brush mastery of Dali? He communicated some things about the modern world that Dali cannot touch upon. (Or can he?) Reducing skill to mere technical ability is assinine, and overall quality very hard to pin down. 

The same can apply to musicians, but perhaps our brains are less inclined to believe it. It's more of a question of degrees as the form of art changes.  After all, the definitions of quality change as the art form changes. Do the best guitar players always write the best songs?  There's Frank Zappa, and then there's Steve Vai, for example.  Sometimes it holds true, sometimes it doesn't. Does Rock convey more about the time we live in more than Classical? That's up to you.

As time pushes on, more criteria for quality arise. A better question might have been-  What makes up your objective criteria for an artist? 

drjjpdc
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Art and Feelings

Maybe I get my perspective because I am not a musician or an artist. I guess that is why I feel that an artist is judged by what he does and not whether viewers/listeners get what he is trying to do. As a matter of fact an argument can be made that if the public easily grasps what the artist is trying to say, he is doing the same old thing and is not a leading edge artist. How many people actually thoughy LVB was a great composer in his time or how many of the average art public thought Picasso, Braque or Dali were fabulous? By definition the public always lags behind in appreciation of originators. Of course over time the originators will communicate more meaning as soon as the public catches up.

Glotz,

As to your last paragraph if you want a quick answer, I would be inclined to say Vai may be better technically but Frank a far better composer. Or how about the Kinks, Ray's brother was a far more incendiary guitarist, but it was Ray who wrote the better songs. My objective criteria of an artist has to include technique as well as inspiration. Czerny was a great technician but he never combined it with inspiration. Lots of writers wrote grammatically correct sentences, but how many had the depth of feeling of a Hemingway, Melville or Hugo? The publicist Diabelli asked all the leading composers of his day for 1 variation to his waltz theme but LVB composed 50 and wrote a 50+ minute work for piano when most solo piano works othe day were more like 15-20 minutes max.  

Another testament to his greatness was his ability to use and combine older forms that had been largely discarded. Take the use of variations and fugues. As the Classical period advanced LVB was virtually alone in still being able to use these forms in the framework of sonata form. The last movement of the 3rd, the double variations of the second movement of the 5th and even as late as the 9th finale. Of course the old joke has an element of truth in it. In his 5th symphony, LVB composed 35 minutes of music with only 4 notes and 3 of them were the same!

Thanks for the input on a nice discussion.

Glotz
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Thank you for a nice response as well..

and for not inferring any negative comments either, in response to your post.  You bring up the very nature of the argument here; the complexities are astounding, even in the example you bring up above!

You do bring up one of the most important points as well- What is musical quality to an artist, and to one that listens? Who can say, as many great musicians have turned me on to many, many other great, (but musically crappy) musicians!  Sometimes the best listeners are those that don't play! And if that's true, where does the objective criteria for technical proficiency fit in?  Hmm...

In the Zappa and Vai example, I was thinking of the Shut Up & Play Yr Guitar LP.  While it is adventurous work on many of the cuts, the overall volume is less affecting than what one would think of a 3-lp set by these revolutionary guitarists. Are they automatically great, because of their greatness?  Very few artists are.  But then again, the ones that are consistently 'great' do get my deepest respect and consideration.  But that's only one facet I look at (as I'm sure many other listeners have mulitiple criteria as well).

Bob Dylan is a great example of an artist that re-invents his live performance every few years to keep his enjoyment of playing live fresh, despite the contempt of many diehard fans who may not like his given style during a given tour.  I respect his newfound delivery each time, though I may just want him to sing straight sometimes.  On the other hand, when Costello changes his performance year over year, I love it every time.  It is completely fresh and utterly thrilling, every time. Pinning down even my objective heirarchy is elusive!

It's very hard to draw conclusions about what is 'best' quality, even when objective criteria is in place for scrutiny. Then, emotion (and recording quality) could take precedence for one person's most important qualifiers.  And can't we agree, once emotion takes over, staying objective is pretty freakin hard?  In fact, it seems they are inexorably intertwined forever. 

Coltrane's 'Love Supreme' is a good example for me.  25 years ago, it was 'out there' and I understood little.  I understood how he was growing into free jazz, and how it was different from 'Ballads' let say, but a lot eluded me.  But now, and while I may not understand everything about the composition and performance, I can dig more of the meaning and emotion he was sending us.  When I listen as a Christian (let's not infer anything), I 'get' even more what Saint John was trying to convey.  My question is, can another, like a Jew (which I am also of the faith) fully understand what Trane was puttin' down?  It's a question that can ask many other questions...

Like Rollins says in August's issue on how he would take a Hawkwind LP over the greats of the Rennaissance.  One person's objective criteria for greatness is different than anothers! (I've felt the same way about Rollins Band's 'Weight' 18 years ago! )

Thanks for bring up the philosophical value of this forum up a notch! (It needs balance.)

PS- And to Henry- Thanks man- for the spoken words, the writing, and the SONGS!  You rock eternally, man.  Thanks for being the most real mouth on the planet. 

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