“the structure beneath the color, … the sound underneath the note”

Posted: February 4, 2019 in Music, Uncategorized

More music for you!

A great deal of purism is the translation of an extreme solicitude, an anxiousness as to the fate of art, a concern for its identity. We must respect this. When the purist insists upon excluding “literature” and subject matter from plastic [visual] art, now and in the future, the most we can charge him with off-hand is an unhistorical attitude. It is quite easy to show that abstract art, like every other cultural phenomenon, reflects the social and other circumstances of the age in which its creators live, and that there is nothing inside art itself, disconnected from history, which compels it to go in one direction or another. But it is not so easy to reject the purist’s assertion that the best contemporary plastic art is abstract. Here the purist does not have to support his position with metaphysical pretensions. And when he insists on doing so, those of us who admit the merits of abstract art without accepting its claims in full must offer our own explanation for its present supremacy.

– Clement Greenberg, “Towards a Newer Laocoon” (1940)


The great 20th-century art critic Clement Greenberg, in the passage above, is alluding to three of the greatest abstract painters of the 20th century: Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian and Kasimir Malevich. Each of these men wrote a manifesto (see and click the images below) in which he explained the nature, production and effect of abstract painting in emphatically spiritual terms. Greenberg eagerly asserts that the work these abstract artists have produced is indeed the very greatest of the day. However, he insists that, when it comes to these artists’ explanations of what they were actually up to when making their work, they are, sadly, completely mistaken. Rather than resorting to high ideals and spiritual principles, Greenberg insists that abstract art, like all art, must be explained exclusively in terms of the historical and material conditions under which is what produced, and that is must be appreciated in material, not spiritual, terms.




A student in a class I recently taught thoughtfully expressed concern over the fact that Greenberg dismissed the school of painting known as Symbolism, which according to popular understanding, sought to achieve spiritual effects through a return to mythology and a world of pure illusion emancipated from our own. Greenberg exemplified Symbolist painting by referring to the work of Gustave Moreau. Elsewhere, however, Greenberg commended the music of the “symbolist” composer Claude Debussy for its “escape from literature”, its abstract purity.

Music, in flight from the undisciplined, bottomless sentimentality of the Romantics, was striving to describe and narrate (program music). That music at this point imitates literature would seem to spoil my thesis. But music imitates painting as much as it does poetry when it becomes representational, and besides, it seems to me that Debussy used the program [by which Greenberg means attempts to create the effect of stories and landscapes, as in say, Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony] more as a pretext for experiment than as an end in itself. In the same way that the Impressionist painters were trying to get at the structure beneath the color, Debussy was trying to get at the ‘sound underneath the note’.”

In your own words, what do you think it is that Greenberg is hearing in pieces such as those below?

  1. What Greenberg hears in Debussy, in my mind, is almost exactly what he experiences when viewing a Picasso or Mondrian painting. I’d say he is appreciative of the artist because they are using the unique characteristics of their chosen medium to explore new realms of possibility to keep culture moving forward. As we mentioned in the discussion today, each artist is pushing their medium to its limits in order to see how far it can actually go in its purest form.

    Just as Mondrian’s “Composition with Red, Blue, and Yellow” is an experiment of color and line, Debussy’s “La Mer” is an exploration of musical techniques such as rhythm, harmony, and dynamic. Greenberg would appreciate the ‘opacity’ of their art because the audience is forced to engage with the details of the medium and appreciate each work as belonging to its respective medium. One could appreciate a painting for being a painting rather than trying to be a story (ie, imitating literature).

    I initially thought that Debussy would be walking a narrow line with Greenburg because pieces such as “La Mer” and “Nocturnes III (Sirenes)” seem to tell stories. In “La Mer” for example, you can almost see a smaller fish fleeing from a larger predator and then joyously celebrating escape. Why is it that Greenberg would like a piece of music that is imitating literature through storytelling? The simple answer is that it isn’t imitating literature- having a subject isn’t a crime in this case, but rather something that is incidental.

    I think that Greenberg would listen to “La Mer” and say that it uses the subject of the ocean as a vehicle through which to push the boundaries of music and musical technique. The same idea could be said for any painting Greenberg enjoyed. Take for example “Impression, Sunrise” by Claude Monet. That painting is simply using boats on the ocean at sunrise as a vehicle to explore and experiment with color, shape, and composition. It’s not about conveying the subject, but rather the subject is an agent used to explore the unique qualities of the medium itself.

    I think that Greenberg would also thoroughly enjoy how both “La Mer” and “Impression, Sunrise” are both honest about their medium of choice and its defining characteristics.

    Something I got to listen to over the weekend that I think Greenberg would enjoy ( at least conceptually) is “Initiale” by Pierre Boulez . Here is a link to that: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NvCfjTBUOZA

    • In discussing Debussy, Greenberg is quite clear in saying that the ‘programatic’ nature of this music stands potentially to invalidate his thesis about the medium specificity. This is because of the narrative, or at the imagery, associated with ‘program’ music threatens to turn the music into literature. Greenberg’s explanation is that the program merely provides an occasion for music, and we would be missing the point, as you say, to pay too much attention to the more occasion. You analogy with painting makes sense. We shouldn’t, when looking at modern painting, or any painting for that matter, worry excessively about the subject matter, but rather she should focus on the handling of the medium. In music, what we should want to hear is not the sound of waves and wind, but rather the decidedly material sounds of the wood and strings as the composer and performer try to get us to hear the actual sound of the piano.

      I’m glad to see your interest in Boulez, a composer one doesn’t hear much these days. You are right to invoke his music in this discussion, as he was a composer, and more famously a conductor, who paid very close attention to the materiality of sound.

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