Curator: Martin Iddon
In many senses, the question 'why compose?' could hardly be more banal. Obvious answers, perhaps, suggest themselves. In other ways, the question is practically unanswerable, so powerful is the answer: 'because'. Yet, not least because it is such a basic—which is to say fundamental—question, it matters to ask it and, indeed, to keep asking it. There can be little doubt that the answers a previous generation might have given to the question are ones which hardly hold in the contemporary world.
The certainty of a Beethoven of the vital centrality of compositional work to the world would be difficult to find. Musics which come from a tradition which might appear to have more-or-less classical foundations are now far from central to culture, even in their Western former heartland. The idea that music, or at least the composition of it, might contribute to the common good in some way, too, is hard to support too strongly; at any rate, there are reasonably obviously 'better' activities which would seem to contribute more to that cause than the writing of music often perceived as distant, abstract, alien, and forbidding.
More philosophically speaking, the various 'deaths' of thought over the past century or so—Nietzsche's death of God, Foucault's death of Man, and Heidegger's death of metaphysics not least—suggest that recourse to the transcendental, timeless validity of the artwork will not do either. At any rate, it would be a position hard to communicate to an audience, if there even is one beyond a shrinking circle of peers.
In sum, most of the obvious reasons to compose, at least in a style which recognisably proceeds from broadly Western classical foundations, have fallen away and yet composition continues apace. Since the tangible rewards are also few, one must presume that today's young composers have compelling, and probably new and unusual, reasons to continue to do this work. This discussion session is intended to provide a space in which to explore what some of those reasons might be.
Discussants should be prepared to speak for 10 minutes regarding their motivations for composition and what they believe the function of their work to be in the world. Strategies for doing this are entirely free, but presentations which seek to leave open questions for continuing discussion are particularly welcome!
Historicized Composition, Music and History
Curator: Dániel Péter Biró
This colloquium will deal with composition as a "historicized" entity. In the past, new music, in its form and content, existed not only to be passively enjoyed but also to be re-discovered, discussed, reinterpreted, re-contextualized, read, and mis-read. New music was part of a program of 'self enhancement,' and was inherently tied to the ability to respond to music that was challenging for both performer and listener: such progressive music needed edification, as it pointed to the possibility for klingende Philosophie, challenging pre-conceived notions of the goals and borders of musical language while moving forward to create new contexts for musical comprehensibility and incomprehensibility.
A main part of such a program also involved composers consciously responding to history and music history via musical composition. While many elements of such a cultural movement are still being carried forward, composers have recently had to reconsider how music responds to such a history, to which history, to whose history etc. Viewing music composition as a critique not only of the present but also of the past, this colloquium will investigate the changing functionality of new music and what it might still become in the complex world of today.
Each discussant should prepare a ten-minute statement, which discusses how history plays a role in his or her work and/or their compositional methodology and how it relates to history/music history. The participant may also choose to demonstrate audio segments of their own work and a secondary, older work of another composer, in order to show how their music forms a historical dialogue.
Curator: Aaron Einbond
Clearly this is setting the stage for a literary revolution.
Or is it? From the looks of it, most writing proceeds as if the Internet had never happened.
— Kenneth Goldsmith, Uncreative Writing
In an age where improvisers, sound-installation artists, programmers, hackers, smartphone users, video-game players, flash-mobs, and kindergarteners can produce compellingly-creative sound worlds, often electronically generated, why bother to define oneself as a composer at all? How have 21st-century technologies required us to redefine terms like "original," "musical," and "expressive," even further than the collage, détournement, cut-up, re-contextualization, and sampling of the 20th century? While works in other fields, from Christian Marclay's The Clock to Ai Weiwei's internet activism to countless pop-musical mash-ups, have embraced the enormous computational possibilities of digital information, why have concert music composers lagged behind?
Each discussant is requested to bring two sound examples, no more than ten minutes combined. One of the examples should be a "non-musical" sound, and the other an "un-original" copy, transcription, borrowing, or allusion which may or may not be "musical." The discussant may appropriate both examples from any source, including his or her own workshop, and should address how technology is implicated in the process.
After 'Extended Techniques': Redefining the Darmstadtian Sonic Arsenal
Curator: Ian Power
"Instrumentation is composition."
— Helmut Lachenmann
One of the defining characteristics of what we might call the new music community (what Dr. Martin Iddon labeled, in a 2009 essay, the 'Darmstadt' subculture*) is its openness, instrument by instrument, to a more diverse sonic palette compared to traditional classical music. But despite the feverish lengths new music has gone to problematize its relation to the classical tradition, the two remain inviolably tethered; particularly by the musical instruments they share. The mid-20th century brought a significant expansion in new ways of using those instruments―partially through what's been branded 'extended techniques'―to serve the (ostensibly) noble purposes of expanding and redrawing the idea of beauty in music, and critiquing, via the deconstruction or expansion of classical instruments, a tradition of music-making that for some had gone stale. This relationship, however, has itself begun to stale, if not in the actual techniques, then in the dialogue surrounding them. Classical instruments still make up the majority of the instruments we use, and they continue to be designed and manufactured for their ability to perform classical techniques. New music practitioners continue to use them to subvert their designs, but the subversion has long waned―the project is no longer the one undertaken by Stockhausen, Lachenmann, Grisey, and their colleagues 40-50 years ago. Further, a composer's treatment of musical instruments and sounds is often firmly established early in a career, settled on as material for more elaborate experiments with concept and form.
My intention is not to look ahead and talk about possible new musical materials or new ways of using instruments; rather, I'm interested in discussing new ways of thought about these same materials, and about how these same instruments are selected and used. Discussants should prepare to speak for 10-15 minutes about a new shape sonic materials have taken since the use (and branding) of 'extended techniques' became common practice. To be sure, most of us still use largely similar materials to our predecessors in the 1970s and 80s; but these materials do not, and indeed cannot, mean the same thing or function the same way they did 30 years ago. Examine a trend of instrumental musical techniques and sounds culturally, philosophically, scientifically, or even musically: what new statements are being made? What new projects are being undertaken? How has our use of these techniques evolved from the projects of the previous two or three generations? How do they dictate our relationship to the concept of abstract art? And how has our relationship to musical instruments as objects ultimately changed?
The discussant need not focus on extended techniques, or on concert instruments; other topics could include found object instruments, homemade instruments, mainstream classical music, changes in instrument production, the use of perfectly traditional techniques, the performer-instrument relationship, instrumental histories (both specific and general), etc. While my intention is to talk about acoustic instruments, electroacoustic and electronic music can certainly enter the discussion as long as it is through this sort of lens. The use of musical examples will shorten your allotted time for talking, but they are by no means discouraged; even the most brief sounds can bring an invigorating freshness to the session.
*For further reading see Martin Iddon's, et al, "Enquête sur l'avenir de la musique contemporaine" in Circuit: musiques contemporaines, edited by Jonathan Goldman, v. 20, nos.1-2 (2010): 97-99, http://id.erudit.org/iderudit/039644ar.