When one looks at nature, at mountains, or rivers flowing, or the branches of a tree outside your balcony window, the common human response is a sense ease and of comfort.
But I often wonder what exactly it is we are responding. What makes this feel good to us?
There's probably something vague and hand-wavey to be said about Mother Nature here, but I don’t buy it. Mother Nature has also given us Great White sharks and barren deserts and scorpions, but these things don’t give us a sense of comfort and ease.
Rather, I think our response to nature is driven by subtle rules of construction. Patterns which aren't obvious enough to register with our conscious, but remain available nevertheless to our senses. We do not realise that we notice them, but still we do. We can feel them but not discern them.
Consider walking through a lush green pine forest. Here the Fibonacci sequence and the golden ratio will underpin the way in which each tree’s branches will split. And this same pattern repeats in the branching of the veins within each leaf. And, I suspect, would also dictate the distribution of trees in the forest. It is a pattern we can sense, yet cannot consciously discern.
It seems the same to me with music.
The best Bob Dylan songs are great in my opinion (besides his inimitable delivery) not because of their obvious rhymes on the last words of the couplets - but because of the subtleties of their inner schema. It’s this that makes the song seem to lock together, as if it were always made to be this way. The internal schema is not immediately obvious when you listen. But it's that lockstep, of which we have only a cursory awareness when we listen, that makes it feel so right and so natural.
Beethoven is another. There is a subtle architecture which underpins all his transformations and explorations. You don’t notice it when you listen, it’s not obvious. You can feel its presence, but cannot articulate it directly. The passages and changes just seem to feel right, to feel inevitable.
The same can be said of electronic artists like Aphex Twin, or SquarePusher or Flying Lotus. Inside these dense and intricate musical constructions there is this sense of some governing principle, but it's really very hard to put your finger on exactly what it is.
I note these artists especially because they push towards the boundary of chaos. There is a sense of reaching the verge of order in their music, things are brought to a pitch just behind true chaos, but never quite tipping over - and it's walking this fine line as a listener, that makes their music so compelling.
It is a very tricky balance to manage. That between control and chaos.
If you err to much on the side of subtlety (aka chaos), or too much on the side obviousness (aka control), the aesthetic effect is ruined.
If your pattern is too buried, then the work, the image, the music will just feel like disorder. The sound of fifty violins playing out of time and out of tune.
But conversely if your pattern is too obvious, and the audience can too easily discern it, then it will lack a certain life and magic, it will feel dull and cheaply manufactured. Think of those terrible pop song on the radio. That millionth excruciating rhyme of “angel above” with “love” and how much that makes you cringe and curl your toes.
It’s somewhere in-between these two poles that great work lies.
This concept doesn’t just apply to the geometric or the architectural, but also equally to the symbolic.
Take film for example.
I'm a huge admirer of the Coen Brothers and I love “A Serious Man” especially. I’ve watched it over and over. But I wondered to myself recently: why do I enjoy it? Why does it all seem to hang together so well? When the film has so many oddities and turns and tangents? I think the answer is that it is built on a deep foundation of theme. A symbolic fabric whose presence is not obvious, but oblique. A theme which reverberates throughout the whole structure, yet never really appears anywhere in full light.
This echoes David Atwell’s discussion of JM Coetzee and his approach to writing. In his initial drafts Coetzee’s symbolic intent can be clear at times, the meaning of things are visible on the outside, but then Coetzee revises and rewrites, revises and rewrites, revises and rewrites. From reading Atwell’s “Life Of Writing” I think it's this doggedness that is at the core of Coetzee’s power as a writer. He starts from a place of symbols and meanings, and then starts to erase things, kneads them over, extrude and deform them, until at the end, its hard to say why everything fits together so well, why it reaches into a deeper part of us, but it does.
Does this contains the kernel of a technique then?
By erasing the obvious links, those where your pattern announces itself too loudly, the work is left with remnants, pieces which hang together in a way that just feels right, feels alive. A common principle buried somewhere within.
As great design is ninety nine percent invisible, so perhaps the greatness of art and aesthetics is held in these invisible governing principles, themes, architectures, and patterns.