The value of contrast

March 21, 2006

The concept of contrast is one that is elemental in life. I stumbled across a passage in The Urantia Book about art that helped me focus on one of the important underlying forces of art: “great art invariably involves the effective maninulation of contrasts.” As a composer, here are some parameters in music where contrast rules:

  • pitch
  • loudness
  • register
  • orchestration
  • texture
  • perceived tempo
  • perceived tonality
  • sectional proportion
  • harmonic design
  • chordal spacing from close to wide
  • musical styles or languages

And the list goes on. When I listen to Beethoven, I hear contrast everywhere. In Debussy, like Monet, the edges are blurrier, but the contrast is still there.


What about contrast in love and life?

V. A. Kolve makes the point

Del Kolve
Photo by Roger Bourland

I am in an intergenerational relationship where there is a 24 year age difference between us. When I began to fall in love over 11 years ago, I ran to one of my closest friends, Del Kolve, who himself has been in an intergenerational relationship (19 yrs difference) for 33 years, and asked him for guidance. He said something to the effect of:

“Two men already have a certain amount of similarity (i.e. non-contrast) between them, and that is even more true if they are the same age. The contrast in all things between two men in an intergenerational relationship is always interesting. Granted, there are those who prefer the ‘grow old together’ scenario, but I find this one perpetually stimulating on all levels. Right now, Larry is the age I was when we first met, and to me, it’s just fascinating to live through again.”

I have chosen another level of contrast in our relationship: Daniel is Eurasion. His parents liked the East meets West contrast, and I love who they made. But I have no Philipino in my family, so learning that way of life was very different to my own traditional white protestant upbringing. Maybe it’s just me living in a multiethnic city like Los Angeles, but I see so many race mixes here, and I for one would like to go on record as finding them beautiful. It seems the more we intermarry, the more beautiful and strong we become.

Intergeneration cohabitation is not all fun and games, as is any other kind of relationship. The older keep his energy up, well beyond what he may have alone or with someone his own age. The younger learns a great deal from the older and is emboldened and respected by the older. The older learns humility through negotiating/arguing with a younger person, and the aging process. The younger feels more confidence as he is treated more and more like an equal. Both partners must continue to love, celebrate, and embrace the age difference, but also not let it be a bully pulpit of power for the older (I’m older and wiser and therefore I’m right), or an “I’m young and cute––you’re not” offensive tactic by the younger.

(I do not have experiences with and therefore cannot comment on “father – son” role playing relationships, as ours is not that at all.)


The built-in contrast (gender and heterosexuality) in the majority of men and women, as well as the electrical universe have a great deal of contrast already “built in” so I’d be preaching to the choir rehashing this.

I’m trying to negotiate the notion of contrast and it’s importance in our lives, and how it jibes with the “birds of a feather” phenomenon where people of similar persuasions, ethnicities, sexual preference, philosophies, religions, neighborhoods (etc.) tend to hang out together. This latter societal habit involves the least amount of contrast as people of this persuasion, seek out those that are most like them.

When I think of figures like Romeo and Juliet, I think I may have answered my own question. They are the characters who seek out contrast (i.e. love outside the accepted circle) and are ultimately cast out for doing so. They pierced the birds-of-a-feather perimeter and paid the ultimate price.


Today I read in the New York Times a case where contrast has not happened. A bedouin tribe was identified as having been incestuous (breeding with first and second cousins) for centuries and have passed down debilitating genetic traits to its living progeny today.

Muslim religious leaders have been drafted to help educate the members of the group about genetic problems, speaking out about the dangers of marrying relatives and increasing awareness of genetic testing and counseling. The imams also let families know that under Islam a woman can abort a fetus up to four months for health reasons.


Well that’s what was on my mind today: contrast. Contrast in music, gay relationships, Romeo and Juliet, and incestuous Bedouins.


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