Phew! Hybrids at high speed

Visible Deeds of Music
May 16, 2003

Multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, cross-disciplinary: three educational buzzwords that probably fill most of us with gloom, as typifying everything in contemporary academe that smacks of trendiness and the erosion of traditional subject boundaries. But, like all such words misappropriated by those who misunderstand them, and misplaced in new contexts, this particular trio has another - and rather more useful - set of meanings. For as Simon Shaw-Miller demonstrates in this thought-provoking and closely argued volume, the terms have far greater relevance in the context of hybrid art forms.

Starting from the original Greek meaning of the word mousike ("art of the Muses"), Shaw-Miller quickly brings us to Jerrold Levinson's mid-1980s view that "the notion of a thoroughbred art form is logically secondary to that of a hybrid" and - in Shaw-Miller's extrapolation - that "notions of media purity in modernism are the historical exception". (The American composer Lou Harrison, who died earlier this year, put it another way: "Don't underrate hybrid musics BECAUSE THAT'S ALL THERE IS.") Levinson's three categories of hybrid - juxtaposition, synthesis and transformation - are then neatly linked by Shaw-Miller to their respective "appropriate forms of analysis": multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary.

Much of the rest of the book explores the ways in which hybridity has permeated western culture since the mid-19th century. Successive chapters consider the work of artists such as Wagner, Baudelaire and Scriabin; Picasso; Cage and the Fluxus group; and so on. In among these worthies we find scattered equally detailed discussions of lesser-known figures, including the painter Frantis  k Kupka (1871-1957) and the composer Josef Matthias Hauer (1883-1959). Shaw-Miller is almost always convincing in his readings of both visual art and music, and impresses hugely in his ability to juxtapose, and juggle with, text and context, past and present, concrete description and abstract discussion. A not-untypical four-page passage, "The avoidance of aleatoricism", moves effortlessly (though slightly breathlessly) from Mauricio Kagel to Terry Riley, Arnold Schoenberg to J. M. Hauer, and Jackson Pollock to Robert Morris. Shaw-Miller also alludes to the Habsburg empire and the Vietnam war, and to the I Ching and Riley's seminal In C ; for light relief, he reminds us of his earlier discussion of Hauer's compositional techniques, in which "the choice of 'melic' motif or 'trope' is the starting point, and one that (like key) is open to choice". Phew.

There is, though, a perhaps inevitable paradox that partly undermines this bravely (and genuinely) interdisciplinary book, in that its author, being an expert more in one discipline (art history) than in the other, is on occasion less than totally convincing when discussing music. This manifests itself in various ways: musicologists would not (one hopes) leave music examples without their clefs or Edgard Varèse without his diacritical; nor would they render incorrectly the titles of several Cage works or misread a V13 chord as a "V7 (with suspended G)".

More important, there are flawed understandings of Schoenberg's 12-note method, of the same composer's musical ancestry, and of Cage's use of serialism. Elsewhere, Shaw-Miller makes the mistake of discussing Cage's highly indeterminate work Variations IV mainly in terms of its recorded premiere, which is only one among an infinite number of (different) possible performances. Such gripes notwithstanding, there is a great deal in Visible Deeds of Music to entertain, illuminate and excite anyone interested in art, music, and the many fascinating connections between them.

David Nicholls is professor of music, University of Southampton.

Visible Deeds of Music: Art and Music from Wagner to Cage

Author - Simon Shaw-Miller
ISBN - 0 300 08374 2
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £35.00
Pages - 290

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