Making Innovative Art Is a Form of Generosity

An experimental composer proposes a new way to think about tradition versus progress.

A still from 'The Last Jedi'

Now that The Last Jedi is on Netflix, it’s easier to scrutinize and understand all the ways in which the director, Rian Johnson, reimagined what a Star Wars film could be. The plot twists—Leia Poppins and all that—received plenty of attention, positive and negative, when the movie made its box-office splash at the end of 2017. But with each viewing, I catch camera angles, lines of dialogue, and performance choices that, in subtle and overt ways, depart from expectations established over the previous 40 years of franchise films. It is likely these aesthetic leaps, as much as the twistiness of the story, that made it such a divisive work, horrifying traditionalist fans while thrilling critics who’ve long wanted blockbusters to be more progressive, in every sense of the word.

I was thinking of The Last Jedi, oddly enough, while taking in some experimental music at the Aspen Ideas Festival (which is co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic ) on Thursday. Mark Applebaum, a decorated Stanford University professor of music composition and theory, opened his heady and playful talk about tradition versus progress with a piano improvisation of a tune, “Buffalo Wings,” that he’d written. His performance made for an electrifying crescendo of complexity, but afterward, he pointed out all the ways his “invention” relied on things that had come before. Others had dreamed up the piano, diatonic tonality, and the 12-bar blues riff. Which meant for Applebaum, a lot of jazz improv is itself traditional or any of the synonyms that word might take: conservative, conventional, customary.

Much of his career is, by contrast, progressive to a degree that verges on stuntwork. Applebaum’s achievements include building an electro-acoustic contraption called the Mousetrap that he alone knows how to play, composing a piece to be performed by three frantically gesturing orchestra composers without any actual musicians making sound, and inventing a notational system modeled on the Copenhagen subway map. He said that he feels acute tension every day between whether to devote his energy to tradition or to progress, and he argues that this same tension surfaces across not only art forms, but also spheres of public life: politics, consumer culture, parenting, and so on.

Which is more noble: the strange and new, or the familiar and tested? To help answer the question, Applebaum envisioned all of music as a grid of squares, with each square denoting a kind of composition: music with lyrical melodies, music that emphasizes syncopation, or music using a quarter-tone system, for instance. All of those examples, he’d say, are on one side of the grid, the “traditional” half. Music with lyrical melodies are plentiful already; the world doesn’t “need” more. By contrast, creating a concerto to be played by both instrumentalists and a florist—yes, a flower arranger—hadn’t been done before Applebaum did it. The world got something new.

And so, through this logic, the experimental is philanthropic. To prize progress over tradition is a form of generosity. A questioner in the audience raised the obvious counterargument: Isn’t truly experimental stuff kind of self-indulgent, rather than selfless? Absolutely, Applebaum replied, but so is all artmaking. And to say progress is giving and tradition is taking isn’t to say that one is better than the other. Unless you’re an aesthete, all of life necessarily must involve a balance between what you do for yourself and what you do for others.

Applebaum acknowledged the trickiness and haziness of assigning moral attributes to extremely abstract artistic modes, but the more pressing concern for his argument might be its reliance on a clear binary between newness and oldness. Isn’t the truth that culture advances not through pure acts of novelty or total rehashes of what’s done before, but through blends? Commentators have come up with lots of terms for this idea: most advanced yet acceptable, make it new, and the like. Progress that actually gets masses of people to cherish it typically requires a bedrock of tradition, whether the example is a new kind of Star Wars, or a dazzling take on the 12-bar blues.