Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Music of Picasso


Mary and I finally made it to the current big show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, "Picasso and the Avant-Garde in Paris." At $20 a ticket for non-members it wasn't cheap, but I rather enjoyed it. Most of the works are from the museum's own permanent collection, but Philadelphia is remarkably strong in this area. In addition to Picasso's Three Musicians, pictured above, it owns Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2, Fernand Léger's The City, and more. The organizing theme was the development of modern art in Paris from early cubism up until World War II. It resulted in a show that was less Picasso-heavy than you might expect, and organized rather pedagogically according to the major trends in Paris (analytic cubism to synthetic cubism to salon cubism to post-war retrenchment to surrealism, and so on.) Having just lectured last week in my American Music survey about the importance of the Stieglitz circle in bringing Leo Ornstein to broader attention in the United States (in which I drew heavily upon Michael Broyles and Denise von Glahn's JSAM article), I particularly enjoyed the "Americans in Paris" gallery that showcased that group, including a number of fun Carl Van Vechten photographs. Taylor Green over at Modern Art Notes has a review of the show, if you're interested.

As a musicologist, however, I would be remiss if I did not point out a major problem with the exhibit: a striking amount of musical misinformation. One example is a concert by the Philadelphia Orchestra that is linked to the exhibit, titled "Cubism and Classics," and performed in the museum's auditorium. A great idea to link the city's two major high art organizations, especially when the musical repertoire for this period is so rich. But what, you might ask, is the program for this upcoming concert? Well, I can't find out; the brochure only lists "works by Stravinsky, Britten, and Prokofiev." The Orchestra is playing The Rite of Spring that same weekend in their regular program, and that would be an appropriate work to connect with the Parisian avant-garde, of course. And although I don't know what the Prokofiev is, one could certainly make an argument for his inclusion, even if it makes the concert a little Russian-heavy. But....Benjamin Britten? Not only was Britten only born in 1917, I can't think of a twentieth-century composer stylistically less in tune with the pre-WWII avant-garde in Paris. And think of the amazing array of great music from this period that could have been chosen instead, from Ravel to Satie to Milhaud to...well, the list is endless. Heck, Four Saints in Three Acts was written in the late 1920s by Americans in Paris, and premiered in a similar art museum venue in 1934; that could have been fun.

I have no doubt that programming these concerts involves a great number of factors beyond stylistic choice, so I should cut everyone some slack. Let me therefore retain my main venom for whoever it was that chose the music to accompany the audio guide for the show. What was that?! Now, I'm not a big fan of audio guides to begin with; I find they distract me from looking at the art, and encourage a weird sort of multimedia approach to viewing paintings that I'm not sure is appropriate. However, given that the galleries were extremely crowded I had no choice but to listen to some of selections rather than elbow my way through to the wall texts. The information, excerpted from lectures by some local art historians, seemed fine. But the music that introduced each lecture...well, although it is part of my profession to be able to describe music, I find myself somewhat at a loss for words. Let's just that it seemed to involve lots of synth strings and heavily reverberant modal piano music. I typically don't like the adjective "New Agey" because it doesn't really tell you much (there's lots of different kinds of New Age music) but if I say "New Agey" you will get a bit of a sense of what it was like.

And talk about a missed opportunity! I realize that these musical selections probably need to be chosen so that they don't distract too much from the lectures, but you know, one of the most important composers in Paris in this period, a certain Mr. Satie, spent a chunk of his career writing music expressly for the purpose of being non-distracting. Or what about some James Reese Europe? Or Ravel? or...again, the list is endless. I should say that I did not listen to every single audio selection, so maybe some actual modernist music did pop up. But no matter what, there was no excuse for synthesized strings on the audio tour.

1 comment:

Glenn said...

"Sounds" like a cool exhibit; thanks for the write-up. My guess to explain the odd intro music: licensing? Your $20 ticket may have been $25 if they'd licensed an existing recording or paid for their own. Instead they may have just used some royalty free stuff. Maybe they use the same music for all of their audio tours. Still, a missed opportunity, I agree!

Just a guess.