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Ansvar väger tyngre än frihet - Responsibility trumps liberty

31 mars 2010

Autenticitet, originalitet och kreativitet: Om nödvändiga och oifrånkomliga ramar och om de psykologiska invarianternas estetik

Som en kommentar till ett inlägg om autenticitet och originalitet har jag bearbetat och (slarvigt) översatt två tidigare texter (varav den ena har några år på nacken nu) till engelska. De handlar om nödvändiga och oifrånkomliga ramar, och om de psykologiska invarianternas estetik.

Which forms of expression can be understood and appreciated by a recipient? And how does this relate to the perceived creativity of those expressions?

I strongly believe that the absolute essence of communication - not least artistic expression - is that it takes place against a backdrop of a fixed frame of reference; that the communication presumes a shared understanding of this frame of reference by both artist and audience. The frame of reference may, however, change over time.

Different people may have a more or less implicit idea of the current frame of reference (by analogy with linguistic’s competence versus performance). The recipient may perceive (and appreciate) a message or work solely on the basis of the experience it generates - without concern for, or knowledge of the formal frame of reference. But the recipient can also understand (and appreciate) a work solely on the basis of how the expression relates to the frame of reference. Most of the time, the reception is characterised by a mix of these two extremes.

This applies even if the expression breaches, alters, or extends the existing frame of reference. Creativity, in this approach, can not be defined or judged - nor can it be forced to appear - in a conceptual vacuum.

As I see it, creativity can be defined in two ways: either by an expression’s relationship to and utilisation of an existing frame of reference, or by the expression’s break with, modification of, or extension of an existing frame of reference. Both of these dimensions include novelty as part of the basis for assessments.

For instance, an expression can be created within the current frame of reference, but differ from other expressions both in terms of proximity (similarity) to other expressions, and with respect to the degree of tension between the form of the expression and the frame itself. If I invent a new chord sequence on the guitar (by randomly selecting combinations of a number of scale notes, or by altering the spacing between the frets of the guitar), I can certainly present a new (or, at least, unusual) “harmony”. However, this will hardly be appreciated or considered to be creative, by either composers or listeners.

In the first case, one reason for this is that the listener can not establish a reliable picture of the constituent notes’ or chords’ relationship to each other (intellectual). Another reason is that the listener can never establish an emotional expectation of the progression of chords. This also applies to the other case. In addition, it appears that the above examples support the idea that the prevailing frames of reference in Western music are founded, at least in part, on “natural laws” of harmonics.

Pythagoras divided the vibrating string in mathematically precise distances and corresponding “well-sounding” sequences and combinations of notes, according to the “harmony of the spheres”. This “untempered” tuning system changed, during the Baroque era, into a “well-tempered” tuning system. (The circle of fifths, that in modern music theory defines the twelve tones of the octave in terms of fifths stacked on top of each other presupposes an “unnatural” equidistance.)

It is very interesting to study the development of musical theory to date, as it clearly illustrates precisely how creative steps(eg, triads, modalities, major and minor tonalities, counterpoint, modulation, etc.) have been taken by (regularly) violating, altering, or extending the existing frame of reference in different ways. Perhaps this may inspire the the creation of (possibly expression-specific ) creativity-enhancing tools?

Take a phenomenon such as alteration, or notes alien to the current chord being played - one half-note up or down from a given tone in a melody or a chord, followed by a return to the original note: The temporary dissonance is part of a device described as a Greek tragedy in miniature.

There are many clear examples of how the musical toolkit has been expanded to include techniques based on playing with the listener’s expectations (intellectual but also, and perhaps more importantly, emotional), created by his or her knowledge of the current frame of reference.

It is also interesting that Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique, although it relates to previously developed frames of reference, never really made a breakthrough. One possible explanation is that its design violates mathematical laws of nature (consonance), making the emotional experience uncomfortable or unattractive. Another explanation is that the expressions created in this new, in and of itself (intellectual) graspable framework can not be appreciated (either intellectually or emotionally - at least not when listening, perhaps while reading the notes) of the human brain, due to its limitations in working memory.

Since any expression is subject to different, expression- or genre-specific frames of reference, it is difficult to imagine general creativity-enhancing tools.

Let’s continue to apply this theory of psychological invariants to aesthetics in general.

Stravinsky is said to have stated something like this:

“It is the task of the creative human being to carefully sift the elements he receives from the imagination, for it is necessary that human activity prescribes itself borders. The more art is controlled, limited, worked, the freer it is.”

I think of this when I read an interview with Carl Nielsen:

“I have never made an outline for any of my symphonies, which have always been found to be so well-planned. They grew out of a foggy notion of one thing or another and so developed into something complete. They have come by themselves, and I have always felt that nothing could go wrong, because they were a part of me.”

Nielsen’s statement may seem naive, or perhaps deliberately formulated in line with the ideals of the late romantic era. For me it is obvious that they do not tell the whole truth.

Nielsen was exceptionally well practiced in his craft. He studied violin and composition at the conservatory of Copenhagen, where he later became both teacher and director. He admired Bach, Mozart and Brahms.

“Over the years, he detached himself from his grounding in Viennese classicism, became freer, and sometimes experimental, bordering on the edge of the atonal” my dictionary tells me, and I think of Stravinsky’s neo-classicism, and of his consciously progressive attitude towards musical expressions.

One can not detach oneself from something unless one has a thorough understanding of what it is one wants to break away from. It is not even relevant to talk about detachment without such insight. Both Nielsen and Stravinsky knew this, of course. But maybe Stravinsky had a clearer notion of how “misty ideas” evolve into something complete, seemingly by themselves. They are “misty” just because they are so deeply rooted, so widely dispersed in the creator’s consciousness. They have, in this respect, become “part of” their creator. And their manifestations are perceived to “come by themselves” to the same extent that the crafting has become so skillful, so habitual, that it is automated.

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