Art and Structure

A couple of weeks ago, Anne and I attended a concert by Camerata Pacifica. The first part of the program was designed to illustrate how Bach’s fingerprints are all over music to this day. Appropriately, it began and ended with Bach, the 2 Part Invention in F Major, BWV 779 and the Trio Sonata in G Major, BWV 1038, at the beginning, and the Chromatic Fantasy & Fugue in d minor, BWV 903, at the end. In between there was Elliot Carter’s Sonata for Flute, Oboe, Cello & Harpsichord and Henri Dutilleux’s Les Citations for Oboe, Harpsichord, Double Bass, & Percussion.

Now, I am not a great fan of Elliot Carter’s music, not on aesthetic grounds but as a matter of person taste. This hearing was different, though. Perhaps it was the lecture given before the concert by Adrian Spence, the Artistic Director of Camerata Pacifica, or maybe it was hearing it right after the Bach pieces. I don’t know why, but this time as I listened to the Carter, I began thinking about structure in music in particular and in art in general.

I was able to hear the structure of the Carter piece in ways that I had missed before. It was very different from the structure in Bach, but it was there, created not so much out of themes interlacing with one another or the movement from one key to another, but out the textural differences in the sounds of the instruments themselves. Carter revels in texture and creates structure in his music, or at least this music, by passing the sound around the instruments, sometimes in a pointillist fashion, sometimes by trading musical lines, sometimes in other ways.

Realizing this, I began to ask myself what creates structure in art, any art. I thought first of poetry and how critical structure is to poetry. Unstructured haiku is an oxymoron. Even E. E. Cummings’ poetry is highly structured, albeit it is often a rather playful and decidedly non-conventional structure. Consider this poem, for example:






If you unpack this you get

A leaf falls

Maybe, but there is little power in this version, little of the actual feel of loneliness. So instead of writing it this more conventional way, Cummings wraps the falling leaf around the word “loneliness”, and in doing so evokes the melancholy of autumn. The structure is not about syllables or the rhythmic or rhyming pattern of the words as in most poetry, but in the visual pattern of the poem itself on the page. Maybe structure is built out of pattern.

Then I thought of the Disney Concert Hall and realized that any pattern in the building is by suggestion only. As you look at the curves of the walls, you begin to realize that Gehry rarely repeats a curve. The structure emerges out of the flow of the curves, not so much out of the pattern of them as out of the fact of them.

But why is structure so essential to art? Could there be an entirely unstructured work of art? Could one legitimately call a random collection of words a poem? Could one call random notes scattered about in time music? How about paint splattered randomly on a canvass? Would that be art? Well, what about Jackson Pollock? Isn’t that exactly what he did?

Actually, no, it isn’t what he did even though a cursory look at his paintings might suggest otherwise. If you look carefully, you will see how there is texture, flow of color, even a kind of symmetry to his work. His paintings are actually highly structured, and I think it is that hidden structure that creates the impression of randomness, and therein lies the art. His art is about structurally created randomness.

I am convinced that without structure there is no art. It may be hidden or obvious; it may be conventional or avant-garde; it may be built out of the nature of the materials used to create the art or be imposed on those materials. But it is always there if we take the time and care to see it. Elliot Carter’s work is still not my cup of tea, but now I understand the art of his music.




1 thought on “Art and Structure

  1. Maddie Sifantus

    Elliott Carter and others always teach me something even when I might not like it much. Coming from the Boston area, I had the opportunity to hear (and sing) music by living composers and have developed quite a taste for it over time. Thanks for your reflections. Maddie


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