Art is limitation

Art is limitation; the essence of every picture is the frame. —G.K. Chesterton

The Blues form has twelve bars. Twelve-tone serialism is composed of rows of all twelve chromatic tones. Sonata form features exposition, development, and recapitulation. Haiku has three lines with a 5/7/5 syllable count. And yes, a painting is bound by the shape of its canvas. These art forms are defined by their limitations.

Now, it’s absolutely cool to play with the limitations, to paint outside the frame, to give the Blues sixteen bars, to extend the recapitulation into a coda. A lot of string quartet history concerns itself with bold evolutionary enhancements to the sonata form (Go Beethoven, you hellbent deviant!). But when you transcend those formal limits, your deviation from the form becomes an integral characteristic of your creation. You and your audience are aware of it. Your artistic license is essential to your work. That’s what I take from G.K. Chesterton’s famous quote.

I met a painter who lived in a surf shack in Malibu—I wish I could remember his name—who painted hundreds and hundreds of what seemed to me to be nearly identical depictions of an abstract doorway, consisting of a rectangular door, two tall rectangles up the sides, and fourth rectangle at the top like a transom. While the rectangles varied subtly in color and in aspect, I have to admit I just didn’t get it. Yet to the painter, this obsessive form defined his unique genre. Those minor variations held endless depth and fascination to him. I hope I see them again some day and try to get deeper into them.

When bebop was young, two of the seminal jazz innovators, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, played plenty of different tunes. But a sizable fraction of their recordings were of different melodies and improvisations atop a single chord progression: the AABA form of Gershwin’s Broadway tune “I Got Rhythm.” It’s a simple little ditty, but the Rhythm changes serve as foundation for a wealth of fantastic tunes, including Bird’s “Anthropology” and “Moose the Mooche,” Monk’s “Rhythm-A-Ning,” and Nat King Cole’s “Straighten Up and Fly Right.” Bird would put together a new melody late at night, and then at a gig call out “Rhythm changes in A flat,” and everybody knew what to do. The audience heard a fully baked “Donna Lee,” while the band stuck to the familiar progression. When it was time for solos, the other musicians could disregard the new melody and blow on the Rhythm changes.

As an improvisor, I need form. I need limitation. The bounds are not immutable; I will deliberately or accidentally commit musical foot faults. But the rules tie everything together. To improvise coherently, I first had to learn the rules and the forms. I’ll always be learning them. You can’t just pick up a new instrument, forego the formal training, and jump right into breaking rules you never learned. Be wary of free jazz. Sometimes it’s delightful interplay between seasoned masters who can invent and bend formal rules wordlessly and spontaneously, but more often it’s a devil’s playground for untrained novices who haven’t bothered to learn the basics.

Which leads to another fascinating topic: distinguishing between Art and Crap. We all make the distinction, with our own personal criteria, and the dichotomy is fundamental to the art world. But more on that, probably including a rant about the parallels between hipsters and the medieval music of the Ars subtilior period, in another post.

What do you think about this or about my new blog? Please leave a comment and steer me straight.

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