Barber's 'Knoxville' as Mixed Media

New technology makes possible new artistic creations. Musicians have long grown accustomed to mining the vein of other art works for material. Composers have adapted poems and plays to the causes of song and opera. Increasingly, we musicians are finding our own medium mined. Musical musical works--complete in themselves--drawn upon as material for dance, film and visual art.

Regardless of which direction we go--bringing art works into music or exporting music into other art works--the basic questions for art remain the same. The resulting works are new works in their own right. Each is simultaneously both more and less than the original work it draws upon--and equally valid as a creation.

For my money, 'valid' is a word that deserves more of a workout than it gets. Passions over personal likes and dislikes regarding beauty run high everywhere--and nowhere do they run higher than among those who have dedicated their lives to art. That's why validity is such a useful term.

The word says nothing of personal likes or dislikes (though some may mistake it for that). Validity just says that a thing has its place in the world. It has its integrity. It's a legitimate endeavour. Acknowledging as much is exactly that--acknowledgment. Personal affinities are another subject.

James Agee wrote a prose piece in 1938 entitled 'Knoxville: Summer of 1915'. In it, an adult narrator reflects on a memory from childhood. The art form is literature--a medium of written and spoken words.

Agee's piece stood on its own. It did not need anything from any other medium to help it makes its intended effect. Still, Samuel Barber set Agee's text to music in 1947. In doing so he created a new art work. His 'Knoxville' is an art song for a singer and chamber orchestra. The medium is mixed. It is music that incorporates literature.

We are each experts on what we like and dislike. There is nothing to debate on that subject, as each of us is already correct.

 The path of reasoned discussion, though, opens up some new possibilities. We may notice some things together and find that we can make some worthwhile general observations. That in turn may bring us real personal benefit and open us to new possibilities.


'A horse, drawing a buggy, breaking his hollow iron music on the asphalt: a loud auto: a quiet auto: people in pairs, not in a hurry, scuffling, switching their weight of aestival body, talking casually, the taste hovering over them of vanilla, strawberry, pasteboard, and starched milk...'

Agee's description is vivid. It's easy to understand how the imagination of a composer would find inspiration in words like this.

At the same time it's plain that Agee's text hardly requires 'enhancement' to make it come alive. We can enter the scene easily just from what Agee tells us. His work is complete. It doesn't need music. 

Barber added music anyway.


Q. How does Barber's 'Knoxville' offer more that Agee did?
A. By offering music as well as words.

That's an obvious statement, of course. And it just goes to show that not everything we say about art can ultimately be punted away as a matter of opinion. That in itself is worth observing.


Q. How does Barber's 'Knoxville' offer less that Agee did?
A. By limiting our experience of Agee's words to Barber's treatment of them.

Other readings are possible. Our own inward voices, as we read the words, will create their own take on the text. Actors reading Agee's words aloud would make different choices about pace, tone, and emphasis. Any number of composers could make their own settings of Agee's text. Agee's prose could inspire painters and sculptors or dancers. The same situation would apply: each artist would have choices to make. Each artist would make different choices.

Musicians are well acquainted with this phenomenon. The same situation obtains when different performers render a work of music. Each interpreter offers a perspective. And that's OK. Great works allow different perspectives. No single performance gets all angles.


Q. Is Barber giving us Agee's 'Knoxville'?
A. He's giving us a 'Knoxville' that is a combination of Agee's and his own.

The new art work is simultaneously more and less than what it was before.

Here's how Agee describes the family: 'One is an artist, he is living at home. One is a musician, she is living at home. One is my mother who is good to me. One is my father who is good to me.'

Straight exposition. Four people, four identifying statements. The rhythm is balanced, the tone matter-of-fact. Is that how Barber sets it? Not quite.

Barber follows Agee's straightforward approach for three family members but singles out one for special treatment. At the mention of that person, the pace lingers as a warm surge wells in the strings. A statement that was balanced with Agee is a bit lopsided with Barber. Barber no doubt tells it as he feels it. One could fairly decide, though (and Agee might), that his music at that moment works a bit against the text.

It's a detail that goes to show how an art work created by adaptation and combination becomes a new work in its own right. We find something of one creative mind and something of another. There is a collaboration that results in an alchemy, a synthesis of these visions.

Another composer could set the text differently. A composer could treat all four family members the same as Agee does, or single out another family member, or combination of family members, for the extra touch of espressivo. The choice would be no less valid than Barber's for being different.


Q. Which art work--Agee's or Barber's--creates its own world?
A. Both do, even as they both invite us to a better experience of the world in which we live.

All art inhabits an artistic space. Inside this space the ordinary world does not intrude. The events and objects in this space are artistic events and objects. We set off this special artistic space from the ordinary space around it by using a frame.

All of us are familiar with this feature in visual art. Inside the frame lies the world of the painting, outside the frame lies the world of museums and restrooms and tour guides and taxicabs. In a theatre the edges of the stage, the curtain, and the lowering of house lights help to define the boundary between the normal world and the world of the art.

In the case of Agee's text, the blank margin around the printed words might act as the frame. In the case of a reading, the silence that precedes and ends the reading would mark the boundary. In the case of Barber's combination work, the frame will be the silence that begins and ends a performance of the piece.

After we inhabit an artistic space for a while and contemplate the world we find in that space, we are returned to the everyday world outside the frame. If all goes well, we return having gained some insight, some revelation, some new thing of value for having made our artistic journey. We return with a boon. We may not be able to put into words exactly how we have gained, but we return to the mundane world richer for the time we have spent with art.

Time is life. Art, in taking some of our time and giving meaning to that time, becomes itself an aspect of life. The experience of Agee's 'Knoxville' was a feature of Barber's life just as surely as Agee's childhood memories were a feature of his. That's why Barber can make his own art about it. Life experiences have always been material for art.


Q. Is Barber giving us a 'pure' literary experience?
A. No. Agee did that.

Q. Is Barber giving us a 'pure' musical experience?
A. No. His music incorporates literature.

Q. Is Barber giving us a 'pure' multimedia experience?
A. Yes.The media he mixes are literature and music. The result is pure multimedia.

That addresses the matter of purity, for anyone concerned about purity.

All art is pure that gives us a pure artistic experience.


We've just examined a case in which the original art work consisted of words and someone added music. The issues and trade-offs remain essentially the same, though, if we begin with music and add dance, instead. Or with a stage play and add music, or with a novel and add film treatment, or with music and add visual art, or with visual art and add music, or with a folk tale and add music and ballet.

In each case the result will be a new work. The result will be a multimedia work. Any success it achieves will be due to the alchemy that occurs in multimedia works when sincere creative minds respond in genuine ways to existing works of art.

Notice that this discussion has not touched on likes and dislikes. Our shared observations don't depend on personal approval. They are not rationalisations of likes and dislikes. One may or may not like what Agee did or Barber did. Personally, I'm glad we have both. But regardless, we've shared observations from experience that have a good chance of standing.

That's the value of reasoned discussion. It gives us a chance to move past personal affinities and, while not negating our personal responses, maybe say something of worth about more general features of human experience.

As musicians we can get possessive about our medium of choice. We can say no one should mine music for material. But nothing fuels a creative mind like a prohibition. Creative minds are rarely slowed down for long by words like 'should.'

It's best to make peace with it: multimedia art has always been with us, it has already brought us many joys we would never willingly do without, and there is more to come. The inventive minds of the future will continue to enrich human existence in ways that today we can scarcely imagine.

Here's wishing everyone a happy Valentine's Day.


A Kinder Capitalism

A problem being faced in my native country right now is a rigidly ideological laissez-faire philosophy that has come into fashion. It finds voice on the Net.

The statutory minimum wage in the States is currently 7.25 USD per hour; a recent proposal is to raise it to 10.10. Here is an argument an opponent of the proposal—let us call him Mr Snyder—made in a forum recently.

As Adam Smith said, two individuals will not enter into an agreement with each other unless they both believe that it will be beneficial to them.  Once they have reached an agreement what gives you or anyone else the right to change that agreement?  What makes you more special than the rest of us?

Notice the argument Mr Synder is not making. He is not saying that the current proposal on the table is an impractical idea at this particular point. He is saying all laws regulating employment conditions are illegitimate. Once two parties have agreed to a contract, no one has the 'right' to change step in and change the expectations.

My response follows.


As you know, Mr Snyder, slavery is an extreme form of exploitation. But slavery is not the only form exploitation takes. Sometimes exploitation takes the form of a voluntary contract between two parties.

Extremity, misfortune, lack of options, desperation—these ongoing realities you cheerfully ignore. Sensible people take note of reality. And they see that some realities compel people to sign contracts that are lopsided.

Adam Smith understood this. People who quote him? Not always.

History shows that people in positions to take advantage of the desperate often do. When money stands to be made, the admonishment of conscience to treat another as one would be treated is often a poor enforcer. Those who exploit others are not bad people, understand. They just have pressures of their own. They must beat the competition. They must keep costs down. They are running businesses, not charities.

How 'free' is a lopsided agreement entered into by a person with little bargaining power? As free as any agreement can be that one makes with an ax at one's neck.

A time existed in Europe and its territories when workers, for lack of alternatives, 'freely' agreed with their employers to labour for long hours in dangerous jobs for very low pay. The pay was so low that supporting a family on the income proved impossible. The employers magnanimously began employing their workers' children as well. So off the children went to work long hours in dangerous factories, in the process missing out on their chances at an education or any sort of childhood we would recognise as proper. The children would grow up to continue working in factories as they lacked skills for anything else. They would need to send their own children to work in turn, and the pattern would repeat for generations.

Workers who got injured, as many did, lost their jobs. There was no insurance, there were no pensions. Permanently disabled workers faced bleak prospects. Their wives would often turn to domestic service if they could, to prostitution if they couldn't, or to begging in streets if they could do neither.

Now, you can argue (as you may be sure factory owners of the time did) that these working families still reaped some benefits from all this. Weren't they paid wages? Didn't they get to eat? Didn't they enjoy honest employment rather than sinking to the level of thieves and beggars? Weren't they free to leave their jobs for other jobs? You could, if you want, call the arrangement ideal. Everything about it was the result of pure business logic.

Many people at the time, horrified, called the arrangement other things. William Blake shared his word for it in a poem titled 'Jerusalem'. Referring to a legend that Jesus of Nazareth had visited the British Isles as a boy, Blake asks:
And did the countenance divineShine forth upon these clouded hills?And was Jerusalem builded hereAmong these dark Satanic mills?
That was Blake's word for what he saw. Satanic.

Years later a philosopher, Karl Marx, looked upon an industrial situation that was little improved. Like Blake he was appalled. Marx decided the answer was to do away with profit altogether. Workers would have to band together, overthrow their employers, and take direct control of industry. As Marx imagined it, this would launch a new society with no bosses or governments; needs would be met spontaneously by selfless workers in a classless society. His vision was too utopian to be realistic, but Marx's dream was a comforting one in a world of nightmares on every side. And it has proven seductive.

Marx's biggest mistake, though, was this: he underestimated the power of open societies to reform themselves. As democracy took root, and with it an independent press, discussion continued about the factories. Outrage built and led to changes. People decided that cruel exploitation was a blight on a community. They saw that the waste of human potential was waste for which all paid a price.

Laws were enacted to limit hours in the work week, pay overtime rates to those who voluntarily took on more work, compensate the injured and disabled, outlaw child labour, and pay a minimum wage.

No worker, the community decided, should have to put his children to work in a mill in order to pay for food and a roof. The community found it reasonable to expect business owners to pay workers enough for their hard work that they could manage to stay out of desperate poverty. Any business that could not afford to do this much could damn well fail, and good riddance. Let those businesses take the lead who best meet human needs.

Which bring us to today. The people who are talking about a living wage have paid attention to the lessons of history.

I notice that your opposition, Mr Snyder, is not to this or that hike amount, but to the idea of having a wage floor at all. You really are advocating a no-protection-for-anyone, let-owners-do-as-they-will society.

Unfortunately, Mr Snyder, your way of doing things has been tried. Previous generations saw that business will ever and only do what is good for business. It is up to a community to do what is best for a community.

You tell us we need more Satanic mills. We choose instead our bows of burning gold, our arrows of desire, our spears as clouds unfold, our chariots of fire.