Monday, February 23, 2015

A Little Dissonance

"Do you mind a little dissonance?"said the piano teacher as we discussed how to play a certain phrase.
I said I loved it - and realized, in saying  that, that the same principles hold in all the arts.  In pictures (whether made from paint or fiber*) we call dissonance "edge" , in pictures that move (i.e. films) it's known as dramatic tension - but it's the same phenomenon in all.  Even in a romance we would be bored silly if the heroine's romance was perfect from start to finish!  Boy meets girl, they fall in love and ride off into the sunset is pretty dull after all!!  no no we want girl meets boy, they fall in love, then Something Happens and all is in jeopardy, but with a courageous effort from somewhere, all is resolved!   Look at Dickens and the trials and tribulations his central characters went through in order to achieve their Great Expectations - which of course always turn out to be different, and nobler, as a result of the trials endured.  Classic Greek drama too.  And in cooking!!!  if all the tastes and textures are the same, it becomes so bland...even if all the colors are the same.  At the convent school I attended for 12 years - yes 12 years martyrs have done less time! - we would have grey mutton with white fat, white and grey lumpy mashed potatoes and cauliflower boiled down to a pinkish grey mush....yes even, I mean especially! - in food we need color and contrast! I learned about contrast early!

What purpose does the contrast, tension, edge, dissonance serve? why do we need it?    there area number of reasons.  The Greeks felt that in order to be completely satisfied by the drama we needed to feel different (and strong!) emotions when experiencing it.  Keen interest, horror, anger, despair, relief and finally joy.  Running an engine at all its different speeds gives it a good work out!
Eating a meal with different tastes, different oral textures, even different temperatures is so much more enjoyable.  Contrast not only draws our attention, it enervates us.  It tunes up our senses and our emotions.  it makes us feel and see and hear so much more clearly.  it is much richer an experience than the bland simpering sweetness of the Hallmark/Kinkaid variety.

How is the dissonance/tension achieved?  In music you can contrast rhythm, color (with different keys), timing, legato vs staccato notes, single versus many notes etc.  Now do these things sound familiar?? Oh yes:  contrast in values, contrast in color, contrast in shapes both positive and negative, textured versus solid fabric.   It's all the same principles in art quilts.

Very interestingly,  self taught artists  have always been very aware of the need for tension - think about jazz, think about the "who'd a thought it" quilt makers of Oakland and Gees Bend fame whose work lead to exciting new developments in art quilts in the '80s and '90s.   They were less bound by the "rules", less concerned to be following them, and more interested in the actual Impact of the work.
As Picasso noted to be able to paint like a child but with the knowledge of the trained artist was the way forward, the goal in art.

Does it work if the whole art work is dissonant?  Well....a protest song maybe....but generally if it's all dissonance we'll turn it off, tune it out.  So we don't want too much, we want a little tart salt, a little bitter lemon, a little vinegar on the chips (fries to y'all!).  The contrast in sound, or sight or taste or feel makes each component much richer.

I'm always looking for good topics, topics that are central to making exciting art work, for my Master Class (there is a significant waiting list for  the online version by the way, but do email me if you are interested.  Also there are just a couple of places left in the Actual version to be held on Cape Cod this June, email ambasatrvl AT for details).  I think it would be fascinating to see how we can introduce dissonance into our fiber pictures, our art quilts, using some of the ideas I've learned from music and the other arts.   I shall sit down with my laptop and a nice cup of tea and do a bit of cogitating on this one!

Consider adding dissonance!
And, if you have been, thanks for reading!    Elizabeth

* It's curious, isn't it, that if the artwork is made from paint it's called a picture and if it's made from fiber it's called a wall hanging.  And yet, most pictures are also hung on the wall...and art quilts are really pictures (whether abstract or representational).  I think I might refer to myself as a maker of pictures in future!!


Mary Helen in OR said...

Yes, yes and YES!! You are indeed a
Fiberist (Watercolorist)
Fiber Painter (Oil Painter)
Painter with cloth!

Thanks for the cogitation! There is rhythm, variety, and occasional dissonance in your written word.
Mary Helen in OR

Vicki said...

Are we biologically predisposed to variety, change, novelty, drama, excitement? Perhaps it's because we are omnivores and hunters at heart. We love to be surprised, even shocked. Behaviorists say that a laugh is a sudden shock or fear turned to relief. Our pets don't mind eating the same boring brown stuff every day and seem to prefer predictability. People, not so much - especially creative people, who chafe at predictability.