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Sunday, April 29, 2007

I was paging through a collection of small reproductions of Picasso pictures today. The publisher avoided chronological order and held the pictures' titles until the end of the book. Seeing the pictures laid out like that prompted the thought that Picasso is the paradigmatic modernist artist.

He began his public career as a masterful student of the existing styles. He could do "likeness." He could "render." He deployed color masterfully.

He worked his way through his "Blue" and "Rose" periods, keeping conventional line and shape, using color expressionistically, painting symbolic images not taken directly from "life." The big breakthroughs came with the pre-Cubist and Cubist styles. Throughout his career he continued to explore and combine styles and techniques.

Stravinsky is probably the paradigmatic modernist composer, starting as a masterful disciple of Rimsky-Korsakov and Debussy; breaking through to a disruptive, disjunctive polyrhythmic mastery akin to Picasso's Cubist period with The Rite of Spring, and continuing to explore new styles and combine new and old ones throughout his life.

In jazz, Coltrane and Miles Davis would be the paradigmatic modernists, continually pushing into new styles. Ellington had as broad a stylistic arc as any of the modernists, but his career was so long that he settled into periods of stylistic consistency for longer times than Miles or Coltrane. Like Picasso and Stravinsky, these three jazz modernists mastered the existing styles before pushing the boundaries of style.

The Beatles would be the best example of modernist rockers in the Picasso-Stravinsky mold. Their early records show them mastering rhythm and blues, '50s rock and roll, show tunes, and country and western. And for the first five years of their eight years recording together, every year saw them pushing into new stylistic territory. By 1968 they started to retrench, still exploring new timbres but in what might be called a "neo-classic" vein. And this too is a mark of modernism. Both Picasso and Stravinsky had periods of "neo-classic" retrenchment, though Coltrane (and maybe Miles) did not.

Eno and the Talking Heads would be other rock candidates for questing modernism. Like Stravinsky and Miles and Coltrane, and unlike Picasso and the Beatles, they began as modernists. James Brown would be another modernist. He did not appear to begin his quest until several years into his career, but starting in the mid-'60s and continuing for many years (about a decade?), he continually pushed stylistic boundaries. Funkadelic too, whose One Nation Under a Groove sounds vastly different than their equally wonderful Maggot Brain; Groove was incidentally a huge, under-acknowledged influence on my favorite Talking Heads album, Remain in Light. Byrne and company absorbed techniques and sounds from Clinton & Company and did their own thing with them. Joni Mitchell is another, beginning as a folk-style master and producing her own brand of pop-jazz fusion which evolves over several years.

Questing modernism has a high rate of burn-out. All of the avatars went through periods of retrenchment, and most settled into their own style and stopped pushing at some point. Coltrane may be an exception, but he died young. Ellington may be an exception as well, with one of his farthest-out albums being one of his last, recorded at the age of 70, Afro-Eurasian Eclipse.

Maybe "The Quest" has been on my mind because I played music with friends at their house last night, and one of them requested "The Quest" (a/k/a "The Impossible Dream"), but I had forgotten the chords. I remembered them today. I'll have it down next time we get together.

"No matter how hopeless, no matter how far."

I admire, and sometimes take part in, the modernist quest, but I'm glad it's not the only way.

Pictures of musicians, self-portraits, and portraits of women by Picasso.

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Please forgive my boasting, but this humble blog is the number one Google search today for "l'orchestre symphonique paris 78 rpm recordings," "short plays that rhyme," "bong shop in victoria bc," and "count had right to sleep with servants on wedding night." But my all-time favorite number one (uTTT has since slipped to number two for this) was "I love my dentures." Because I do love my dentures, and the thought that my love for my dentures may have brought comfort to another denture wearer makes me feel that perhaps this blog has not been a complete waste of time.

Realized last night: Google = go ogle.

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