Monday, July 27, 2009

Musings on "Music for a Modern House"

For many w
ho enjoyed the wonderful evening of chamber music provided by the Clavio Trio at the Greatbatch Pavilion last week, the Duo for violin and cello, opus 7, by Zoltán Kodály was the highlight. The vigorous performance by violinist Deborah Greitzer and cellist Linda Jennings was dazzling in the compelling acoustic setting of the Greatbatch Pavilion. "Music for a Modern House" was organized to showcase some of the Clavio Trio's early twentieth century music against the backdrop of Frank Lloyd Wright's early twentieth century Martin House complex. The initial concept was of a broad historical connection between music and architecture. But further contemplation yields more specific parallels between Wright's work and that of composers such as Kodály: they both took inspiration from "other" cultures, using them to energize the products of Western modernism.

y speaking, Wright and Kodály followed a practice that was already familiar to European artists and composers by the beginning of the First World War: mining various cultures seen as outside the classically-based tradition of European historicism for new "raw material" to be refined by the rapidly-shifting paradigms of Western art. In Kodály's case, this mining took him to the rich melodies of Hungarian folk songs - to his own backyard, so to speak. In 1905, the same year that Kodály began visiting remote Hungarian villages to start "collecting" these folk tunes, Frank Lloyd Wright made his first visit to Japan (as the Martin House was still under construction), where he would nourish his already budding love affair with Japanese art and culture.

An important difference between Kodály
's and Wright's appropriations is that Kodály turned to what was familiar and close at hand for inspiration, while Wright went further afield. Raised in the Hungarian countryside, Kodály returned there, with an educated ear and eye, to "rediscover" and intellectually appropriate the folk music of the region. It may seem a contradiction in terms for Kodály, Bartók and other composers to treat European folk songs as products of "another" culture, but this was done in the contemporary spirit of re-working such "low" cultural finds into the products of "high" culture (e.g. classical music). Wright, by contrast, went half way around the globe to commune with his favorite source of design inspiration. By 1905, Wright was already familiar with Japanese art and culture by virtue of influential orientalist Ernest Francisco Fenollosa, and by visiting the Ho-o-den, the Japanese national pavilion at the Chicago World's Fair of 1893. Wright's fascination with all things Japanese was not unique at the turn of the century, but part of the larger trend of "Japonisme" in art and culture that also influenced the work of artists such as Van Gogh. Though Wright would often deny or sublimate the influence of Japanese architecture on his own buildings, he did admit to a certain cross-cultural affinity (especially in regard to the Japanese print), one that he absorbed into his design palette of Sullivanesque ornament, geometric abstraction and the new American vernacular of the Prairie School.

The appropriations of Kodály and Wright
may be seen as experiments in the laboratory of modernism. Both seem to assert that the products of Western high culture were in need of aesthetic or expressionistic infusion from elsewhere if they were to avoid decadence and stagnation. Such infusions came from sources as diverse as African sculpture (Picasso), Tahitian culture (Gauguin) and romanticized Medieval Europe (William Morris). While some of these artists may have found novelty to exploit in these cross-cultural sources, I think Wright and Kodály turned to them out of a more comprehensive understanding and reverence for what they found there: truth to the human experience.


Marie said...

Eric - Thank you for another wonderful and informative post! Kodaly is one of my favorite 20th C. composers (okay maybe Dvorak, okay maybe Bartok!).
I look forward to your beautiful blog each week.

EJF said...

Thanks very much for reading - I'm so glad you're enjoying it!