Friday, April 22, 2011

Three Levels of Knowing

Architect Matthew Frederick

Returning from St. Martin, I stopped over in Chicago to get some repairs done on my viola (kudos to violinmaker supreme Michael Darnton!), and had some hours free to roam the streets. There's a place I love across from the Art Institute called the Chicago Architecture Foundation - they sponsor tours of local buildings, offer lectures and classes, and they have a fun shop full of books and cool design-ware. My younger son is thinking about going into design of some sort, and I spotted a book called "101 Things I Learned in Architecture School"for him. Flipping through it, I could see it was a keeper. I think my husband and I have spent more time taking in its pearls of wisdom than our 13 year old, but that's another story.

Author Matthew Frederick shares his insights, one per page with a facing illustration, on topics as wide-ranging as how to draw a line, the need to express zeitgeist, or the relative width (in inches) of summer people versus winter people. Page 45 is titled "Three levels of knowing", and I have been playing with this idea in my mind for weeks now.

Here is what Frederick writes:

"SIMPLICITY is the world view of the child or uninformed adult, fully engaged in his own experience and happily unaware of what lies beneath the surface of immediate reality.

COMPLEXITY characterizes the ordinary adult world view. It is characterized by an awareness of complex systems in nature and society but an inability to discern clarifying patterns and connections.

INFORMED SIMPLICITY is an enlightened view of reality. It is founded upon an ability to discern or create clarifying patterns within complex mixtures. Pattern recognition is a crucial skill for an architect, who must create a highly ordered building amid many competing and frequently nebulous design considerations."

I love this summation of the evolution of awareness. It offers a great framework for considering education, for assessing where a person is at in the course of a project or a creation, or as a way of evaluating musical compositions.

It's an interesting lens through which to view 20th century classical music (yes, I still use the moniker "classical" to define 1000 years of multi-genre, multi-national music). Schoenberg and his tradition-busting 12 tone system cleared the way for some extremely complex compositions. In fact, in many universities, composition students were obliged to embrace complexity and shun vestiges of tonality. Serial approaches that determined not only sequences of pitches, but also durations of notes and dynamics certainly had at their core an iron-clad guiding principle, but could be extremely difficult for a listener to make sense of. As a music student in the 80's I remember playing a lot of student compositions that required me to do mathematical computations to figure out exactly how that measure was supposed to line up. Unfortunately, in too many cases a lack of clarifying pattern and connection often rendered the performing experience woefully unsatisfying. Complexity for the sake of avoiding simplicity is a misguided impulse.

As a side note, I would like to state that I find Schoenberg's own music tremendously compelling. His students, Alban Berg and Anton Webern, were masters as well and composed music that is tightly conceived and emotionally rich.

As the century wore on, the backlash against complexity crystallized around minimalism. Composers like Phillip Glass, Steve Reich and John Adams wove long musical tapestries from tiny bits of material. Glass is sometimes accused of being boring and simplistic. Having performed several of his string quartets I can say from experience that they are highly effective works that galvanize the listener's attention as the pieces traverse their long arcs. There is a cohesive architecture in play, with truly powerful climaxes and resolutions.

The problem is, the door had now been opened to legitimize dabbling in "faux-minimalism": music that uses but a few chords and lacks a larger vision. I hear too many compositions nowadays that use little and convey little. A simplistic musical view that fails to reach any depth isn't going to do much for the soul.

Grappling with complexity may be a necessary step for emerging from the adolescence of simplicity, whether in the game of life or of music.

May we all have the opportunity to grow through these stages and emerge as informed beings!

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