After several drafts, I completed “On the Nature and Purpose of Art”. The essay explains what I understand art to be and proposes a working definition: Art is the stylisation of essential elements from reality in Literature, Music, Painting and Sculpture to create an eloquent representational or abstract work that is not merely a reproduction, recording, documentation, illustration or decoration of reality but a transformation of it, imbued with meaning.
I intend to demystify the subject of art in a series of informal essays. Next, I want to investigate what informs an artist’s work. I want to answer, for example, what draws an artist to a certain theme and subject, and to a certain medium and technique. Why does the musician choose one genre over another? Why does the painter paint in this style and not that? I want, in fine, to discover “Why Artists Create What They Create” (my working title).
I completed “Zephyros”
Finding the perfect words with which to clearly and concisely express an idea in rhyming iambic verse is no easy task. The four verses of “The Robin-chat” took a considerable amount of time to complete for that very reason, as did the two verses of “Zephyros”. Its original title was “The Pines”, a lyrical ballad about trees moving in the wind; but the more I worked on the poem, the more its focus shifted from the trees to the wind itself.
Eventually, it was clear that the wind must be the subject, and so I drew inspiration from an earlier work: the couplet I composed for The Zephyr and the Swallow. The zephyr is, of course, the literary description of a gentle breeze. It comes from the Greek Ζεφυρος (transliterated as “Zephyros”), the personification of the west wind (and also of spring), which prompted a new approach to the subject (and from which I took the new title).
Unsurprisingly, this significantly altered the nature of the poem. Most challenging was the task of matching the second verse to the first (with which I was pleased early on) to satisfactorily conclude the composition. I came, at last, to two versions of the second verse. The first had an expansive quality (first line: “His ballad blows across the land…”), whereas the second felt more intimate (first line: “A sonnet sounding sweetly…”).
My chief difficulty was that both of these worked. I would eventually choose the latter, only to change my mind shortly thereafter. At the time I tweeted “[T]he verse I have rejected is, in fact, the one I must choose!” (27 July 2018). I am now confident in my decision, and the poem has become one of my favourites—but then, so are they all. I am now revising the first of three poems dedicated to swallows, a subject of which I shall never tire.
I revised my artist statement
The goal of my work is to extol the beauty of nature—the fleeting and near insignificant moments that seem to affect me most. The familiarly beautiful in my rural surroundings evoke within me a sense of awe that I must endeavour to capture in poetry and music. This is the essence of my artistic vision, a subject I consider in the “Context Matters” blog post. In its closing paragraph, I restate my artistic vision and adopt a new caption.
Previously “Ambient idylls”, I now describe my work as “Idylls in music and poetry”. I elaborate upon my meaning in a social media post dedicated to the matter thus: “It is my view that Man should not be silent when moved by the grandeur of Nature, that he should burst out in adoration, if his disposition allows it, and extol what he observes in art! This is what Forgotten Fields has become—an act of adoration!” (26 July 2018).
Like all art, music relies on its context to be fully appreciated, whether it is the position of a track on an album or how a listener hears it. This is a challenge for musicians because it is all but impossible for them to control, on any grand scale, how an audience encounters or consumes their work. For many artists in the ambient genre, this is problematic. Ambient music is designed to blend into the acoustic environment1. It is often used in situations where the focus is not the music, but the absorbing, distracting or tedious activity it is meant to facilitate. There is a great number of ambient artists who do not intend their music to be experienced in this way, but in defining themselves as “ambient” (perhaps out of necessity or for want of a better alternative), they necessarily (though inadvertently) endorse a perception of their work in direct conflict with their artistic intentions.
When surveying playlists that include ambient music, descriptions like “Clear your head with these soothing soundscapes”2 are common—innocuous introductions to collections of typically soporific, repetitive and undemanding pieces conducive to a listener’s occupation. The definition of the genre by Brian Eno makes the inclusion of ambient music in such playlists perfectly logical. For Eno, “Ambient Music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.”3 Wikipedia states duly that ambient music is intended to relax through its atmospheric, visual and unobtrusive quality1. Whilst these definitions fit the early experiments of Eno, they are woefully inadequate when applied to the work of many among his artistic progeny whose music falls into the genre technically, but not essentially.
The artist’s intent
Classification matters because it is linked to definition. We cannot think meaningfully about what we cannot or do not define (in this instance, musicians about their music). In the realm of the experimental, this is challenging because the unorthodox nature of experimentation makes the categorisation of a musical work difficult. This leaves artists at a loss as to how to describe their work—“xperimental electronic / dark-ambient / dronez / soundscapez / weird low freq humming” (sic) is one such attempt by Krzyzis, an experimental musician from Canada4. Some delve no deeper than “ambient”5, others avoid doing so altogether6. They are blameless in my view. Artists like Krzyzis, Alaskan Tapes, Astoria Sound, Last Days, 36 and a multitude of others create experimental music7. “Calm”, “relaxing”, “peaceful”, “serene”, et cetera are often appropriate terms with which to describe their predominantly slow-moving work. However, their compositions do not take these forms for the purpose of background accompaniment; they employ these qualities for different reasons entirely.
What reasons are determined by the artist, but the underlying intent is the creation of music for active and sustained listening, for immersion and contemplation; the compositions are conceived to engage the mind in a subject and theme, not to make more pleasant or bearable some other task—be it working, socialising, studying or sleeping. Yet this is how the music is frequently used, added to playlists dedicated to these scenarios8 by curators who do not for a moment consider the artist’s objectives. (The classical genre suffers a similar fate when a Bruch adagio ends up in a Classical Chill playlist9.) This is, of course, inevitable—perhaps even excusable. Much of what the music of these artists expresses is suited to such use. But this is not their primary motivation in composing such music. In the words of Dennis Huddleston (36): “People see a lot of ambient music as something to help them sleep, but I’m trying my hardest to keep them awake!”10 Brian Eno may have intended to produce “sonic wallpaper”1 but these artists have a higher goal, namely art11.
Concept, context and clarity
Where does this leave artists who welcome an appreciation of their intent—especially those who have ventured into the unknown in search of the New, only to find their phenomenal efforts relegated to office backgrounds? (There is, of course, the view that artists need not concern themselves with categorisation, but I hold that some form of classification is necessary, 1.) to explain the nature of the work, 2.) to orient the audience and 3.) to help them interpret what they hear.) In a reality where musicians do not, cannot (and perhaps should not) control how their music is experienced, must they resign themselves to the unavoidable and be consoled that at the very least, the undiscerning playlist creator will introduce their music to people who would otherwise never have heard it (however unsatisfactorily)? Is this not, after all, an opportunity to grow a following?
Not considering the quality of such a following, the trade-off is that the music will not be appreciated as intended. When presented to a listener in this way, the compositions lose their context—and every artist understands that context is a vital component of a work because it preserves its conceptual substance. Concept and context are inextricably linked—a fact brilliantly demonstrated by Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII construction12. Unlike Andre’s neatly arranged firebricks, however, the best examples of experimental music have intrinsic value by virtue of the artistic labour they embody. This makes the music worthy of a listener’s full attention, something beyond the artist’s control. Though little can be done to guarantee a proper regard for art, especially in a form as ubiquitous as music, the least artists can do is themselves be explicit about their intent.
It is this I wish to do briefly here. I have previously described my work as “ambient idylls”, by which I meant to convey a Romantic perspective13. The word “idyll”14 was ideal because it embraced my theme (the admiration of Nature), my subject (scenes of rural beauty) and my means of expression (compositions in music and poetry). Having long wrestled with the “ambient” descriptor, I have at last decided to distance myself from the genre proper. I compose music to consciously engage the listener. If my work encourages contemplation, I intend this to be on the images and emotions I endeavour to evoke. Although some of my compositions have an “ambient” aesthetic15, I no longer consider my music Ambient; and so I adopt a new caption to summarise my vision, which is to create: Idylls in music and poetry.
Briefly, the sole purpose of art is to make an abstraction concrete. In the case of music, this involves expressing the emotions evoked by a theme (the abstraction) into a musical composition (the concrete): musical artists embody in a melodious composition (in its instrumentation and ultimately its performance and recording) a fundamental emotion or group of emotions (e.g. “anger”, “excitement”, “joy”, “awe”, “serenity”, “surprise”, “distress” or “fear”) inspired by a theme (e.g. “injustice”, “celebration”, “love”, “nature”, “introspection”, “conflict”, “loss” or “dystopia”) consistent with their worldview. I elaborate upon my definition of art in “On the Nature and Purpose of Art”.
“The essential difference between any sculpture from the past and Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII [a rectangular arrangement of 120 firebricks] . . . is that Andre’s work depends entirely on the museum. A Rodin in a parking lot is still a misplaced Rodin; Equivalent VIII in the same lot is just bricks.” – Robert Hughes, The Shock of the New: Art and the century of change, McGraw-Hill Education, 1990, p. 369. See also Equivalent VIII at the Tate
“The nature of Romanticism may be approached from the primary importance of the free expression of the feelings of the artist. The importance the Romantics placed on emotion is summed up in the remark of the German painter Caspar David Friedrich, ‘the artist’s feeling is his law’. To William Wordsworth, poetry should begin as ‘the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’, which the poet then ‘recollect[s] in tranquility (sic)’, evoking a new but corresponding emotion the poet can then mould into art.” – “Romanticism”, Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia
“An extremely happy, peaceful, or picturesque period or situation… A short description in verse or prose of a picturesque scene or incident, especially in rustic life… [From] Greek eidullion [“little picture”]…” – Idyll, Oxford University Press: English: Oxford Living Dictionaries
To express my theme, I must compose in a genre that lends itself to the expression of the ideas contained within that theme. The genres best suited for this are Classical and Electronic Music. I chose the latter for reasons of pragmatism and the genre’s near limitless capacity for expression. That some of my music will be “ambient” is unavoidable.
When we look at a painting, it evokes within us a combination of thought and emotion, a reaction that wells up almost involuntarily. It happens when we read a novel, recite a poem, view a sculpture, or hear a piece of music. Our response feels so natural—so correct—that it informs our judgement of the work, the artist and our companions. The source of these judgements is our view of the world, that is to say, our concept of the way things are (our reality) and our concept of the way they ought to be (our values). Through these concepts, we interpret our experiences. They are a vast collection of ideas about the human condition that comes sharply into view whenever we encounter a work of art.
These concepts exist in the mind: they are complex, often speculative, dis-integrated, ill-defined and confused. They are, moreover, by their very nature inaccessible to our senses and our conscious minds. We cannot examine them as we might any object in the physical world to gain insight into their nature and determine their implications. As such, they lie beyond the reach of the tools through which we best comprehend reality. Nonetheless, it is vital to our course in life that we think deeply and at length about the concepts that form our worldview, for they encapsulate our life philosophy and determine who we become. But to contemplate so great a subject in the realm of the imperceivable is no easy task.
The Creation of the Concrete
We need, therefore, some way to experience these concepts directly, as if they were real: a mechanism by which we can render the invisible visible, the silent audible and the abstract concrete; a process that embodies in a perceptible work what is inherently imperceptible. This process must provide a means by which we may perceive a thought as an entity, and must, therefore, re-create what is real to express what is not real. Such a process must make accessible to our minds and senses a view of the world and deliver to us a work that captures fully and succinctly, in both its substance and execution, the concepts within that view.
Art is the purest form of this process. Its media are melody, language, colour and solid form, and it produces works through which invisible concepts can be directly perceived by the mind as abstractions (e.g. a theme) and the senses as attributes (e.g. a melody). The creators of art—artists—express in music, literature, painting and sculpture a set of values (their view of the world) and present it to us for contemplation. They do this through the application of creative skill, which they assiduously develop to create works that are valued not only for their aesthetic and technical excellence but also their emotional and conceptual power.
The Work of the Artist
The artist does this work of expression through the stylisation of essential elements from reality, producing an eloquent representational or abstract work that is not merely a reproduction, recording, documentation, illustration or decoration of reality but a transformation of it, imbued with meaning. Only such a work is a work of art. In music, this is done through composition in sound; in literature, through composition in language; in painting, through composition in pigment; and in sculpture, through composition in solid form. In these primary media, the artist enshrines the human psyche in distinct, directly experienceable manifestations that have, by virtue of their elements, the capacity to make a concept real¹.
Our experience of these works brings us face to face with concepts, engineering an interaction that is otherwise impossible. Suddenly, we are able to hear, see or think about our worldview as never before: through the realised worldview of another, the artist. Art shows us the values of the artist (its primary function) and in doing so, helps us discern and evaluate our own (a secondary function). When we react to a work of art, it is not a matter of mere taste: we react because, by its very existence, the artwork pronounces a judgement on us—on our view of the world. The better the artwork, the more exquisite the creative expression of that judgement and the more intense our declarations of admiration or revulsion.
The Function of Art
This reaction has little or nothing to do with correctness or objectivity. What we are saying is some variation of: “Yes, this is how I see the world” or “No, this is not how I see the world.” We rely on artists to make comprehensible and perceivable to us their view of the world, thereby illuminating our own. Without art, we would experience these concepts exclusively in the mind—as something nebulous, fragmented and remote. It is the sole purpose of art to make them accessible and fathomable. Artists create mirrors for the mind, giving us a glimpse of who we are, allowing us a moment to reflect on what we see.
The process of integrating a concept into an artwork—the artist’s choice of medium, genre, theme, subject, inspiration, style, technique, composition and so forth—is beyond the scope of this essay.