Pushing Boundaries (from 1998)

This article was originally published on MARCH 25, 2013

Here’s a piece I wrote for a Pacific Serenades newsletter way back in 1998. I guess the term “pushing boundaries” was popular back then, but in any case, my article speaks to our 20th century obsession with innovation. Fifteen years later, I still agree with what I wrote, and I still rail against those who think that new art must adhere to narrow boundaries critics and academics have demanded that we stay within. And though those boundaries have shifted a bit since then, they still exist. Besides, innovation takes all kinds of forms, some more evident than others.

Pushing Boundaries

If you believe what you read about art, then you know that the only art which has value is that which forever pushes at the stifling boundaries of convention in the incessant quest for innovation.

Such an obviously biased view is easy to dismiss:  Bach, for example, wasn’t an innovator yet created some of the most original and profound music ever written.  But Bach didexpand boundaries, just not those of musical language and style; old-fashioned as his music might have been, it was something that had never been created before, and it did expand the emotional and technical boundaries of its time.  In fact, I side with those who say that art of value does expand—and even destroy—boundaries.

But whose boundaries are they?

I am personally grateful to the true pioneers of the avant-garde:  they did broaden the horizons of what is possible in the arts, and their works and philosophies forced us to think and perceive differently.  In many ways, they gave us a fresh start at a time when the world of the arts seemed so saturated with great works that there was no room for more—and no point in creating anything new.

But how is it new or courageous or avant-garde to push at boundaries that are no longer there?  Those boundaries are long gone, and the philosophy that rightly pushed them out of the way has replaced them with its own rigid boundaries, the ones that many artists are rebelling against today.

And why all the fuss about innovation, anyway?  Some great composers are innovative, some are not.  Yet in reading about current trends in music, we get the distinct impression that innovation is the highest priority in the creative act.  Ironically, music academics would have us believe that new music using sounds created four decades ago is still innovative, while they dismiss as derivative some of the truly fascinating innovations of our own time.  Today, for example, composers are creating syntheses of classical music language and world musics, combining various kinds of popular music with classical music techniques, and drawing on techniques of seemingly disparate eras of music.

These are innovations that are allowing us to regain the human impulses that got lost in various revolutions of the 20th century.  Some of those revolutions were healthy, and yet so is the current artistic rejuvenation that Pacific Serenades is involved in.  The world is changing, and it’s time to move on.