Wednesday, February 26, 2014


Modernist architecture critics condemn any neo-traditional building as a "pastiche." Because this word is a cliche that they repeat without knowing what it means, they should consider a real pastiche, the Metropolitan Opera's performance of "The Enchanted Island."

The pastiche or pasticcio is an artwork made out of (or in imitation of) works of other artists. The Italian pasticcio originally meant a pie filling made of diverse ingredients, so a pastiche includes or imitates the works of many artists. 

Pastiche operas were popular through the early nineteenth century, using heavily revised librettos and adding the favorite arias of the performers. "The Enchanted Island" revives this tradition, with a libretto based on a combination of Shakespeare's Tempest and Midsummer Night's Dream and with arias taken from Handel, Vivaldi, Rameau, and others.

Architecture critics call any building that imitates historical styles a "pastiche," thinking that the word means an imitation, but they are wrong about the meaning.

For example, Jefferson's Monticello imitates the style of Palladio, but it is a unified work rather than a pastiche. If someone designed a building that looked like Monticello but had a dome like the Brunelleschi's Duomo in Florence replacing its Palladian dome, that would be a pastiche.

Should we condemn pastiche as fiercely as today's modernists do?  It obviously cannot be the greatest art, because it is not completely unified. But the success of "The Enchanted Island" proves that it can be enjoyable if it is well done.

Of course, modernist critics are too serious to appreciate works like this.  Rather than "The Enchanted Island," they prefer something like John Cage's aleatory music, composed using chance - or like Cage's 4'33" which has the musicians sit in silence for four minutes and thirty-three seconds.  This is serious art, unified expressions of the sensibility of a single artist, theoretical works meant to subvert the conventional idea of what music is.

The only problem is that no one can actually enjoy Cage's works in the way that normal people enjoy music.

The New York Times critic writing about "The Enchanted Island" defends it by using modernist rhetoric to attack modernism: "'The Enchanted Island' was designed to subvert modern ideas about the primacy of composers’ intentions."

Of course, it was actually designed so people could enjoy the music - but if today's critics need to invoke subversion in order to defend real music, let's make the most of it.

See the NY Times article.


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