Sammy Sussman: Art for the artist's sake

Wednesday, February 27, 2019 - 5:45pm

I am currently playing bass in the pit orchestra of Runyonland Production’s “Merrily We Roll Along.” Last Sunday, we had our “sitzprobe” rehearsal. For those unfamiliar with the term, it’s German for “seated rehearsal.” It’s the first rehearsal with the pit and the cast in the same room, and it’s a chance for the everyone to focus only on the music without worrying about staging, choreography or dialogue.

Before the sitzprobe, a friend from the pit told me about how much he looks forward to sitzprobes. “It’s my favorite part of the rehearsal process,” he said. “It’s by far the most musical part of the show.”

My friend and I have both played in a couple of pit orchestras at the University of Michigan, and we’ve been through this rehearsal process many times. We know the drill with these shows: A week of two to three hour rehearsals after the sitzprobe, running through the show each night until the music becomes second nature. This is when the show comes together, individual scenes being repeated until the entire play flows seamlessly.

Personally, I’ve always found the opening night to be the most exciting part of the process. After so many rehearsals in front of a critical production crew, I love the energy that comes from a live audience—the laughs, cheers and applause at the end of every song. It’s this attention, energy, pride and adrenaline that makes the whole rehearsal process enjoyable for me.

But to my friend, the audience matters little in the rehearsal process. He does these shows to make music with strangers in a fun, collaborative environment. We are incredibly lucky to have one of the strongest musical theater programs in the world here at the University. There are few other places in the world where musicians have the opportunity to work with such incredibly talented actors and singers over the course of a week to pull together a coherent show. It is this process, and not the final product, that draws my friend to pit orchestra jobs.

This got me thinking about creator-centric art — art made for the artist’s sake. Terms such as this are frequently used to discredit certain artists and artistic movements, particularly more abstract styles from the 20th century. I’ve heard these works described as insular and inaccessible, their creators described as self-indulgent and self-obsessed. Why should a layperson care about art not written for the layperson, as many have asked.

As a young musician and composer, I heard these criticisms launched at the dissonant, abstract music of the post-war European classical music composers. The late music of Schoenberg, for example, is built almost entirely on serialism. It is inexpressive in the Romantic sense almost by design — notes, rhythms and dynamics intentionally randomized past the point of comprehension. The composer indulges in logic puzzles and restrictive compositional processes with little to no regard for how the music may sound.

In becoming more familiar with this music, however, I have learned to get past this criticism. This music demands a different understanding than that of pre-atonal music. While one can choose to view this music as self-indulgent, one can also accept these indulgences and move past them. And though we may view this music as uniquely inaccessible and self-indulgent, this criticism has been levelled at art throughout history.

In musicology, for example, we recently studied the Beethoven piano sonatas. To modern audiences, they are the epitome of solo piano music. Nearly every pianist has played through at least one sonata. Many can call up multiple sonata openings from memory.

These pieces had a very different cultural connotation when they were composed: They written not for aristocratic social functions or public concerts but for private study by the performer. These pieces, so quintessential to the public piano concert as we currently conceive of it, were once difficult etudes that rarely saw public performance. They are harmonically and melodically complex, both difficult to perform and difficult to consume. As such, they were not regularly appreciated by audiences of the day.

These pieces were criticized for the exact same reason that we currently criticize post-war classical music composers. They were written for the composer’s own interests, not for the mutually accepted standards of “beautiful” music in fashion at the time.

Another example of this is Beethoven’s “Große Fuge (Op. 133).” This piece was derided upon its premiere for being rhythmically dissonant and harmonically incoherent. Even today, nearly 200 years after the work was composed, audiences and string quartets still struggle to fully understand the piece. It’s a violent conglomeration of pseudo-atonal gestures, a work perhaps more at home among the Ligeti string quartets than the works of Beethoven’s immediate contemporaries.

If any piece of Beethoven’s is self-indulgent and inaccessible, it would be this piece. “And why didn’t they encore the Fugue? That alone should have been repeated!” Beethoven reportedly responded to the piece’s negative premiere. He cared little for what the audience thought of the work as he knew it was successful. And though it has taken the music-consuming public nearly 200 years to fully understand this work, it is beginning to move from the realm of self-indulgent to the realm of expressive and beautiful.

Some artists create for the sake of the audience member. Others create for the sake of creating. Both styles of creation have their benefits and their weaknesses. But neither can be valued over the other, nor can works created under one be criticized for this.

My friend in the pit orchestra, for example, participates in these pit orchestras for the music making opportunities. I participate in pit orchestras for the performances and the opportunity to present my work to others. What matters in the long run, I’ve begun to realize, is the quality of the art being created, not the means by which it is created. If an artist needs to make art for their own sake, so be it. So long as it has artistic value, the terms of its creation matter little.