“Modern Art Was a CIA Weapon”

Absolutely fascinating piece by Frances Stoner Saunders uncovering the history of the CIA’s secret funding for abstract art in the US in the 1950s.

The piece is more than 20 years old, but I hadn’t heard any of it before. An essential read.

For decades in art circles it was either a rumour or a joke, but now it is confirmed as a fact. The Central Intelligence Agency used American modern art – including the works of such artists as Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko – as a weapon in the Cold War. In the manner of a Renaissance prince – except that it acted secretly – the CIA fostered and promoted American Abstract Expressionist painting around the world for more than 20 years.

The connection is improbable. This was a period, in the 1950s and 1960s, when the great majority of Americans disliked or even despised modern art – President Truman summed up the popular view when he said: “If that’s art, then I’m a Hottentot.” As for the artists themselves, many were ex- communists barely acceptable in the America of the McCarthyite era, and certainly not the sort of people normally likely to receive US government backing.

Why did the CIA support them? Because in the propaganda war with the Soviet Union, this new artistic movement could be held up as proof of the creativity, the intellectual freedom, and the cultural power of the US. Russian art, strapped into the communist ideological straitjacket, could not compete.

Unlikely we’ll get anything half as good from the Trump administration, alas. The only indication that cabal has given of an awareness of the arts is an attempt to cut programs that cost 0.02% of the federal budget.

Program Music | VAN

A new piece on VAN by yours truly:

Recently, I played a series of symphonic movements for a class. Some were by Mozart, and others by other composers. With a little practice and guidance, the class picked up a rough impression of Mozart’s style, as distinct from the other works. The last piece I played was by David Cope’s software Experiments in Musical Intelligence (better known as EMI or Emmy). Emmy was designed to emulate other composers’ styles as closely as possible, and I wanted to test its effect on a class that wasn’t aware any of the music they would be hearing was written by software.

Of course, my real purpose was to test their reactions to algorithmic composition in general. One student, who’s preparing for her final school exams, gave a comment that’s been fairly exemplary of those I’ve heard when I bring up the topic: “You want to know that there’s a person writing the music. Otherwise how can it be special?”

Cope mothballed Emmy in 2003, and has channelled much of his subsequent work into another algorithmic composition project, Emily Howell, which uses outputs from Emmy and Cope’s training with an association network to generate music in its own style. It was only when I played Emily Howell’s music for the class that that same student was taken aback. She knew the piece. It’s in her study playlist.

The idea of algorithms that create art, and that create music specifically, is fascinating, and the more research I did on it the more interesting I found it. I think this piece should be a good primer for anyone who’s interested in the topic.

“The Next Rembrandt”

Claire Voon, on Hyperallergic:

You may be quick to identify a portrait unveiled this week in Amsterdam as a never-before-seen painting by Rembrandt. With a calm gaze, mouth slightly parted, and wearing a frilled collar with a wide-brimmed hat, the man resembles the sitters the Dutch painter so frequently depicted. Rather than dabs of paint, however, this portrait consists of pixels—148 million of them, to be exact, all created by machines and captured in a 3D-printed painting.

We’re living in a world where computers can make convincing original works in the style of Rembrandt and Mozart. That is amazing.

I’m not convinced that it means artists’ jobs are under threat from automation in the same way as people working in other fields. Mozart and Rembrandt have been dead for centuries, and while their music and art still draws people to concert halls and museums, no composer or artist has ever gained success by writing or painting in their styles. Their originality is a key part of their popularity.

Computers now can create millions of works that are functionally indistinct from those by famous historical artists, and I doubt we’re that far from having them create entirely original works. But the function of art is more than the beauty of the melody or the control of the brush stroke; it’s the connection it makes between creator and audience, and that connection can’t exist, I believe, between human and machine.

It’s not the first time something like this has happened. In the nineteenth century, the falling cost and visual fealty of photography meant that traditional visual art didn’t need to recreate the physical world; doing so was redundant since photographs would do it more efficiently and more faithfully. So visual art started to move away from more realistic depictions of the world to more abstract ones, creating works that only humans could.

Meet the Composer Gets the Peabody Award

Back in April, I posted a note that my favourite podcast had been nominated for a Peabody Award. It won.

I think we’re at the beginning of a major resurgence in the popularity of contemporary classical1 music, and that the Internet economics I’ve written about have a lot to do with that.


  1. I wish there were a better word for this. “Serious” music and “art” music both have connotations I’d rather avoid. What I mean, essentially, is music that belongs to the same cycle of influences and training that leads, say, from Beethoven to Pierre Boulez in one direction, and to Philip Glass in another, and to Tōru Takemitsu in another. That we need a single umbrella term to describe such a huge array of music is absurd, but it’s also true that branches of this tradition are more closely connected to one another, generally, than to other types of music. 

Henry Threadgill’s In for a Penny, In for a Pound Wins the Music Pulitzer

I’m coming to this almost comically late; the prizes were announced on April 18th. Threadgill is only the fourth African-American artist to win the Pulitzer (eighth, as Will Robin points out, if you count the Special Prizes and similar awards given posthumously to Scott Joplin, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, and Thelonious Monk).

Interestingly, and very much exemplary of my last post, the album is on Bandcamp, where you can listen to two of the tracks for free and then, if you like them, buy the album. (I do, and I will.)

The awarding board writes:

In for a Penny, In for a Pound is the latest installment in saxophonist/flutist/composer Henry Threadgill’s ongoing exploration of his singular system for integrating composition with group improvisation. The music for his band Zooid—Threadgill’s main music-making vehicle for the past fourteen years and the longest running band of his illustrious forty plus-year career—is no less than his attempt to completely deconstruct standard jazz form, steering the improvisatory language towards an entirely new system based on preconceived series of intervals. His compositions create a polyphonic platform that encourages each musician to improvise with an ear for counterpoint and, in the process, creating striking new harmonies.

One Night’s Chord | VAN

My latest piece for VAN magazine dives deep on the strange chord at the centre of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht:

At the heart of Schoenberg’s string sextet Verklärte Nacht stands a chord. In the midst of the work, an ambiguous, complex, chromatic tone poem, the chord stands out as uniquely ambiguous, complex, and chromatic. The work was controversial when it was written, its lush, shifting harmony having been too much for many early listeners, and that one chord was singled out as an eccentricity too far.

The reaction to Verklärte Nacht was acidic. Even Alexander von Zemlinsky, Schoenberg’s brother-in-law and nominal teacher, chastised the work for its dense harmony and its clear debt to Wagner. He told the composer, “it sounds as though you have taken a still-wet version of the Tristan score and smeared it.” When Schoenberg submitted it to the Vienna Music Society for performance, they rejected it on the basis of its unprecedented extension of traditional harmony, and singled out that pivotal chord as “uncategorizable.” Schoenberg later quipped on their wobbly logic that it couldn’t be performed “since one cannot perform that which does not exist.” And, when it finally received its 1902 premiere, three years after its completion, the audience reportedly met it with hisses and gasps.

But let’s set aside theoretical lunacy and look at the chord itself. It’s a beauty.