Sunday, September 25, 2005

Artistic Authority

What is "Authority"?
The dictionary has this as one of it’s definitions:
Confidence derived from experience or practice; firm self-assurance: played the sonata with authority
When a person speaking seems to know what they’re talking about, we tend to listen and are possibly swayed by their arguments because they have a certain sense of ‘authority’ about their statements. They make sense. And they make common sense. That type of authority is not assigned by someone – it is earned on the basis of merit. These people become leaders to some degree based on the credibility they build by offering that common sense, logic, and sense of truth and insight in their observations.
Similarly, when you listen to the music produced by various artists, there is sometimes that extra sense of each note being just the perfect note at the perfect time.
That is how I can judge a really good artist from one who is not yet as skilled in their craft, regardless of the genre of music. If they know how to put a song together in such a way that each note seems to always be the right note at the right moment. Then it has that sense of authority. It has power. Power to persuade others. Power to win over the hearts and minds of those who hear the message.
Eric’s music has that sense of authority. When I listen to his material, there is no doubt in my mind that each note, as it happens, is just the right note for that passing moment. Each chord progression is correct. It begins, runs, and resolves correctly. If there is no counter-melody, it is because none was needed, and had it been added, it would have diminished the effect of the piece. In fact, any change whatsoever would only serve to diminish the piece. That is authority.
When writing music, I wonder if Eric has to think much about it, or if it just comes naturally. I know that when I write music, I start with a blank page, and I have to begin somewhere, so I begin with a nugget of an idea and then build on that. As I build, I am always trying to think of what the next most logical move is. I look for not just the possible next chord or next note, but the *perfect* next note or chord.
Then the concept expands into the realm of production. When to add a voice, when not to. When to cut the entire band except one single guitar to do one run of notes - then crash the rest of the band right back in again. When to make it heavy, when should it be light. Is there a logical flow of ideas within the lyrics? Or is it one of those psychedelic non-sequitur ramblings of a drugged-out stoner typical of the late 60's/early 70's?
Does the sound of the music and melody match the topic of the lyrics? Do they combine to create and overall mood or emotional effect? Or are they fighting each other? How does it begin? With a single instrument, and then slowly add the others to build a band sound? Or do all the others suddenly come in with a colossal impact?
How many instruments? What to double, and when? What effects to apply?
There are so many elements to it, and any one of them being off or wrong destroys the credibility and the authority of the piece.
Then there is the whole issue of whether the piece is the brainchild of a single artist or a group of artists, each of which has their own vision, and each of which can pull the project in their direction. Sometimes, a mix of visions brings a stronger, blended vision of where it should go - if the 'chemistry' is compatible between artists. And yet many times, it doesn't work, and the ideas of one merely diminish the effects of the ideas from others.
Then there is also the concept of asking for help from people outside the creative process. People who are not themselves musicians.
There is a trade off when the artist asks for help from another.
Normally, when we, 'the audience', pick up a book and read it, or read a poem, or listen to a song, experience a painting, or a sculpture, etc., we usually have a sense of faith in the artist that what was intended to be there is there. We trust in their authority.
Just like when we get off the elevator on the 10th floor of an office building, we have unconsciously made an underlying assumption that the engineers and architects knew what they were doing when they designed the tensile strength and configuration of the steel girders for the building and that the floor is not going to collapse when you step onto it. We make these assumptions of simple faith everyday. We make many similar assumptions about the world around us on a daily basis.

We make similar assumptions of faith with art as well.
We may like the piece, or not like the piece, but, unless we are a professional critic, most of us simply assume that it is what it is. It is complete. And what the artist intended.
We don't take it upon ourselves to suggest that the chords to "Stairway to Heaven" are wrong.
We don't think the melody to 'Silent Night" needs work. Or that "The Last Supper" should have had one more disciple at the table.
As such, we imbue these pieces with a certain sense of what I will call, 'Artistic Authority'.
They speak with an authority of what they should be. Of how they should exist in the world.
When we buy a new CD and listen to it, we usually accept it as easily as we accept the classics in that we assume that the songs are complete and correct, and as the muse instructed the artist to create.
So when an artist asks for help, it changes the situation - at least for that person, doesn't it?
For THAT person, they now have a say in what the chord progression is.
Cliffs of Dover might have less impact on you if you had a deal of say in the exact melody. Perhaps it would lose it's authority - it's right to exist as it is now. Things are changed for the person that gets to suggest the exact tint for the leaves on those trees, the exact wording of this Haiku.
When they get to determine the plot twist in the movie at that crucial point.
No one doubts the fact that the Empire was allowed to blow up the planet Alderan in Star Wars. That film has the authority to simply state that that is what happened, and we take it at face value and trust that it makes sense in the grand design of events that are about to transpire.
But if you are given say over things, all that evaporates. If you determine that Princess Leia convinced Governor Tarkan and Darth Vader to let them live, then suddenly everything is up for grabs. For you, at least, the story has lost it's artistic authority, and has simply become a workpiece that you toiled over. To a degree, the magic is lost. Your ability to change the story makes the story meaningless in a sense.
It takes away from the sense of 'authority' of the piece. The piece of art is now no longer a fixed piece of the panorama of the universe around that person. Once it is open to change by that person it becomes something different. Something less, I should say.
It has lost it's 'authority', but on the other hand, that person has gained some power. They can change something they couldn't change before. So the authority of the work is diminished, but the authority of the person is enhanced. And that is the tradeoff.
So it becomes a bit of a quandary for the artist to ask for help, doesn't it?
The tradeoff for the artist there is that they must de-mystify the work for that person in exchange for help that may enhance the mystery of the piece for others. So the tradeoff is expanded.
In asking for help, you lose a fan, but gain an artistic aide. If you never ask for help or advice or feedback, you maintain the mystery for all others, but your impact is limited to only your own abilities, and senses. You are working in a vacuum. If your ego allows you to take criticism, advice or direction at all, you must decide whose experience you wish to ruin in exchange for their advice and input. An interesting choice.
As with all decisions, the more informed the better.
Another aspect to this is the concept of 'quality' in art. Art is very subjective. Taste is always personal and therefore indefensible. However not all 'art' is the highest of quality. People start at a low level of skill and then evolve to higher levels of skill as they learn new things. So their art improves. In my own case, my later songs are better than my earlier ones, because I know what I'm doing a little more now than I did when I started writing and recording 27 years ago. Each album is better than the ones before it. To some degree, even each song is usually a little better than the last.
So add this element into the mix and now we have a case where Artistic Authority is at risk if the quality is not high enough to provide a compelling suspension of disbelief for the audience.
In most cases, an artist is trying to convey a message to the audience. A story, a lesson, a feeling, a mood, a whatever. To do this, they must create an environment and a set of triggers to catch the audience's attention and engage their emotions. They must set a mood. They must touch on archetypes and symbols, similar experiences, and familiar points of the world that will trigger the emotional context that they are trying to build for the audience.
If their mastery of their art is insufficient to the task, then they will fail. The audience will experience nothing the artist has intended. They will simply get caught up in the form of the portrayal and lose the content.
The form, if rendered correctly, should disappear in the mind, as the content of the underlying message is revealed. To me, that is 'quality' in art. Just as a very skilled actor makes you forget the actor and believe the character to the point that their predicament seems real and engages your emotions. That is where the art is. That is quality performance, and artistic authority.
At least that's my feeling on it.


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