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The relationship between art and reality is perennially ambiguous. Should the purpose of art be to reproduce reality or to break away from reality in what English writer Arthur Christopher Benson calls a “story of escape?” Should artistic representations of the past be factually accurate or opposed to historical fact? One potential answer to these questions can be found in the words of Swiss visual artist Alberto Giacometti: “The object of art is not to reproduce reality, but to create a reality of the same intensity.” In this vein, what brings together screenwriter Michael B. Luo ’16 and pianist Alex P. Beyer ’17 is their use of a modern artistic lens to recontextualize universal human experiences that are otherwise difficult to articulate, giving these experiences a greater relevance, intensity, and viscerality.
Michael produces and writes for Ivory Tower, the longest-running show under the umbrella organization of Harvard Undergraduate Television. Ivory Tower’s latest installment, “Absent,” is a six-part series that explores the tight-knit friendships among six Harvard students who have inexplicably become literally invisible. Despite the otherworldly nature of the protagonists’ invisibility, the plot’s themes are quite relatable, tapping into the underlying concerns of Harvard students. “We play around with a lot of social themes, like trust, betrayal, and love,” Michael explains. “There are characters who are put out of their element socially and romantically, or trying to overcome their past—it’s not just sci-fi.” The juxtaposition of the supernatural and the everyday allows Michael to explore precisely what he loves about film, namely the medium’s ability to “take an audience away to another dimension where emotions and dreams can manifest themselves on screen, leaving memorable impacts.” The result is unconventional yet empathetic, alien yet entirely relevant.
While film and TV have generally embraced innovative adaptations of classic works and ideas, the growing movement of historically informed performance in classical music has prompted a struggle to reconcile modern technological developments with a respect for historical practice. The historically informed performance movement is devoted to the rigorous study of early music, with an emphasis on staying true to the aesthetic standards of centuries past. This goal often involves performing on instruments from a specific time period that are seldom heard on the modern classical stage, such as the harpsichord or viola da gamba. Proponents of the movement argue that using modern means to replicate past works only leads present and past aesthetic standards to converge in a faulty compromise, in which the former overtakes the latter to produce an inauthentic or anachronistic account of an historical work.
Alex, a classical pianist, possesses an artistic philosophy that looks beyond historical performance and readily embraces the modern piano and other more recent musical instruments. “I prefer the capacities of sound that we have now,” he says, adding that “it’s okay to expand beyond previous thresholds of sound, because obviously the capacities of instruments have changed.” Even though the instruments of the time were limited, he asserts that “the music itself, as it was conceived, is not limited, but rather boundless. For classical and baroque music, I always think of landscapes that are not limited by their time.” Incidentally, much of Alex’s inspiration to shine a more modern light on historical repertoire comes from his fascination with film and “its ability to create really visceral experiences,” which he attributes to the “shocking things” that can now be done on screen using advanced technology. This influences the way he sees the historical performance debate: “Seeing all this development in film makes it hard to limit other art forms to something confined.”
Michael’s and Alex’s perspectives invite reflection on how modern technology and ideas enable artists to bring out hidden insights into reality and history. In Alex’s eyes, historical performance paints an incomplete picture of a composer’s immense, almost otherworldly vision, whose complete manifestation is more readily facilitated by modern instruments and sounds. Likewise, Michael’s work for “Absent” suggests that “unreal” art is not necessarily “untruthful”; although “Absent” is unrealistic in that it immerses its characters in surreal, physically unfeasible situations, it is arguably truthful in its portrayal of genuine, relevant social situations. Even if art does not directly replicate reality or history, it can perhaps make us understand them on a deeper level, while granting both creators and audiences greater freedom from the demands, stereotypes, and limitations of the past and present. As with fantastical takes on everyday life such as in “Absent” or with modern adaptations of historical pieces in music, the most convincing artistic experiences often require a transcendence, rather than a rote replication, of reality, as well as a reconfiguration, rather than a mere affirmation, of the past.
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