2014-02-13

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.

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'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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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