Saturday, August 23, 2014 12:00 p.m. Sandwich Reception (Music Dept's Taft Lounge)
Talk the Walk
Curator: Ashley Fure
Contemporary music suffers from a certain intellectual isolationism. We have a problem relating to broader culture.
My brother went to Architecture school, and he was constantly forced to consider and express the relevance of his work from a cultural and historical perspective. I was never asked to do this while studying music.
As composers, we tend to speak of our music from an interior rather than an exterior perspective. We treat our works as isolated aesthetic objects that construct and respond to their own terms. If we reference history, we do so most often to situate our music within a specific, insular cultural lineage.
Because the terms we use to frame our work are often self-referential and jargon heavy (i.e.. geared toward highly-trained ears), those outside our community often have a very hard time engaging and intellectually connecting to what is at stake for us, what we care about, and why.
This has dire consequences. If we cannot express our aesthetic concerns in language that links beyond the esoteric boundaries that enclose us, we will remain an isolated and self-involved subgroup, the support of which becomes increasingly difficult to justify as a public expenditure.
I would argue that much of the allure of the recent conceptual turn in the German contemporary music scene arises from the ease with which this work reaches beyond the boundaries of the concert hall toward other cultural domains (take, for example, Fremdarbeit by Johannes Kreidler, a work that integrates outsourcing into the compositional process).
And yet, is replacing ‘sound’ with ‘idea’ the only hope contemporary music has of integrating into an expended intellectual field?
Conceptual sound artist and cultural critic Seth Kim-Cohen seems to think so. In his 2013 book Against Ambience, Kim-Cohen claims that a focus on the ineffable materiality of sound (one he finds rampant in contemporary music culture) is both naïve and ill-placed. He links this critique of material self-evidence to what he coins an ‘ambient turn’ in the contemporary art world, exemplified in the following quote by visual artist James Turrell: “My art deals with light itself. It’s not the bearer of the revelation – it is the revelation.”1
The quote suggests that Turrell’s light is self-evident. It depends on no physical or conceptual substrate, because it emerges ex nihilo. It requires no preconditions. It neither requires nor offers explanations. It simply is. This “simply is” supplies the most common and most problematic precept for thinking about and working with sound. Elsewhere, leaning on Derrida’s critique of what he calls “the metaphysics of presence,” I’ve argued that this “simply is,” this self-evidence, is a fantasy.2
He goes on to argue that no form of experience is without context (“…the only thing that all works of art produce are relations.”) To say that sound ‘just is,’ is both lazy and masochistic; it not only fails to describe what actually transpires in acoustic experience, it also denies music the possibility of participating in a broader cultural conversation. According to Kim-Cohen, the aura of ineffability locks contemporary music outside the marketplace of words, which, whether we like it or not, dominates our cultural moment.
Cultural critic Chris Cox takes a contrasting position, voicing skepticism toward works that distill so easily into one-line descriptions (“See look! My work is political….It’s about outsourcing….ooh.”) He sees the obsession with linguistic exportability as a capitulation, one that drains the potent and specific contribution sound offers sentient experience. In his 2011 article “Beyond Representation and Signification: Toward a Sonic Materialism,”3 Cox writes:
Sound is not a world apart, a unique domain of non-signification and non-representation. Rather, sound and the sonic arts are firmly rooted in the material world and the powers, forces, intensities, and becomings of which it is composed. If we proceed from sound, we will be less inclined to think in terms of representation and signification, and to draw distinctions between culture and nature, human and nonhuman, mind and matter, the symbolic and the real, the textual and the physical, the meaningful and the meaningless. Instead, we might begin to treat artistic productions not as complexes of signs or representations but complexes of forces materially inflected by other forces and force-complexes. We might ask of an image or a text not what it means or represents, but what it does, how it operates, what changes it effectuates. This is precisely the sort of analysis Deleuze offers in his books on Proust and Kafka, Francis Bacon and cinema. Of a painting, film, or novel, Deleuze writes: ‘It represents nothing, but it produces. It means nothing, but it works’ (Deleuze and Guattari, 1983: 109). In a materialist analysis, notes Deleuze, ‘language is no longer defined by what it says, even less by what makes it a signifying thing, but by what causes it to move, to flow, to explode’ (p. 133).
Should our desire to intellectually connect to other domains affect the creative choices we make? Can abstract, materialist works engage in a broader intellectual conversation or is the path toward cultural connection paved only by politically explicit operas or concept pieces designed for YouTube dissemination? In other words, is our intellectual isolation a problem of content or of framing?
Prepare a ten-minute presentation about your work that situates the aesthetic issues you are most concerned with in a broader cultural context. Imagine you are talking to a group of highly intelligent academics that have little to no formal musical training. Focus on making your work seem relevant, necessary, engaged, and self-aware - worthy of their interest, intellectual respect, and institutional support.
1 Pasted on the wall of James Turrell’s 2013 work Aten Reign at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.
2 Seth Kim-Cohen, Against Ambience, (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013), Kindle locations 348-349.
3 Christopher Cox, “Beyond Representation and Signification: Toward a Sonic Materialism,” Journal of Visual Culture, Vol. 10(2) (2011): 145-161.
Reflexive Modernity Without a Parallel Neo-Avant Garde
Decoding the “Global Style” of New Music
Curator: Alec Hall
If, as Hal Foster claims, Modernist architecture was the ‘International Style,’ then today’s neo-Modernist architecture is now the ‘Global Style,’ whose aesthetics are defined primarily by a kind of “banal cosmopolitanism.”1 An inquiry into New Music’s present status through the lens of the ‘Global Style’ reveals three interdependent questions about the nature of composition today:
In his seminal 1977 text, Noise: The Political Economy of Music, Jacques Attali divides the history of Western music making into three main epochs: Sacrifice, Representation, and Repetition.
The period of Representation—beginning in the 18th century, more or less—marks for the first time music’s emergence in the political economy as an exchangeable commodity. The development of music as a social force independent of the feudal courts coincides with the emergence of the Bourgeoisie as a socio-economic class, indeed these two phenomenon mutually shaped each other. As music moved away from its ritualistic origins in the Sacrificial period—the purpose of which Attali calls the channelization of violence—a professional class of musicians flourished, whose milieu was no longer the carnival, but the concert hall. In essence, the musician ceased to be a domestic worker who sold his/her body, and instead took profit from the sale of his/her labour. Music “became the locus of the theatrical representation of a world order… It was a model of society, both in the sense of a copy trying to represent the original, and a utopian representation of perfection.”3 Representation stretched largely from the dawn of tonal music until its twilight at the turn of the 20th century, replaced by the arrival of the Repetitive society; the society of mass-production, and the audio recording.
As the Repetition society unfolded, and revealed itself in earnest, an entirely new force in conceptual history emerged: the Avant-Garde.4 In a significant text from 2010, in response to more than three decades of critical debate on his 1974 Theory of the Avant Garde, Peter Bürger outlines the conceptual foundations of the movement: “At the center of this constellation is an interpenetration of two principles: the attack on the institution of art and the revolutionizing of life as a whole. Both principles go hand in hand, indeed they mutually condition each other.”5 Strikingly, the life span of the Avant-Garde was also chronologically similar to the related, yet divergent Modernist project, which materialized roughly about the same time and maintained its dominance until the late-1960’s, at which point both movements dissipated.
With the emergence of new exchange mechanisms in the Repetitive society, we see for the first time a bifurcation of the musical economy into two separate streams: one that generates a positive capital flow (what we might call ‘popular’ forms), and one which is negative (everything else). And while the historical inertia was strong enough to propel the old forms of musical economies through to at least the mid-century (in reference to symphonic repertoire, primarily), it is clear in retrospect that the Repetition era effectively managed to kill off the old Representational forms almost entirely. The only survivor from this epoch is the category we presently call New Music.
Through a combination of factors (largely by way public funding, and the safety of being ensconced within academic departments) so-called ‘Serious’ music has always remained outside the Repetitive society, both economically and culturally. However, despite appearances and protestations to the contrary, this category of creative work is governed by a very particular logic of economic exchange that has much more in common with Repetition than Representation.
Beginning in the 1980’s—in concert with the proliferation of neoliberal economic policy around the globe—was a calculated push to redefine the social value of qualitative disciplines. Fields in the liberal arts—political science, sociology, music, etc.—could instead be re-engineered into research disciplines, through which their social currency could instead be measured by their quantitative economic impact. Indeed, the notion of ‘Experimentalism’ in New Music today has less in common with any historical connection to the celebrated American traditions of the past century, than it does with a more far-reaching global economic agenda. Indeed, a declaration by a composer (or sometimes called a ‘researcher’) that a work demonstrates an experimental technical quality—no matter how substantive—will typically yield positive feedback from the institutions and granting organizations responsible for ongoing support.
There is no neo-Avant Garde associated with the Global Style, however—for which any presence of such a movement might indicate an authentic alternative to capitalism—and as such any ‘experimentalism’ today works only within the narrow confines of a limited set of neo-modernist aesthetics, or what German sociologist Ulrich Beck calls “Reflexive Modernism”. Beck’s thesis—sometimes also called the Second Modernity—refers quite simply to the way in which advanced modernity “becomes its own theme”. The neo-Modernist project lacks any authentic coordinates of meaning, other than its own self-congratulatory, technocratic impulses; Hal Foster writes that Norman Foster’s office “perhaps more persuasively than any other office, [it] delivers an architectural image of a present that wishes to appear advanced.” (emphasis added)
Returning to our initial questions, if artists are in fact charged with an aspect of social responsibility, is it morally imperative to avoid writing in this technocratic style of the neo-modern? If so, how would this be accomplished; could the development of a second wave Avant-Garde be one possible response? And should this provocation arrive on unexplored territory (by exploring the domain of Repetition and exploiting it), or should musicians fight to reclaim non-commodified spaces, and continue to rebel against the mass-produced society? What would a post-Repetition era look like, and are we already there?
Discussants should be prepared to address aspects of the questions for 10 minutes, and prepare an audio example of a finished work of their own that relates, a sketch composed for the topic, or a work(s) of another composer that addresses the topic.
Hal Foster, The Art-Architecture Complex (London: Verso, 2011). Foster deploys this term in a different way than Ulrich Beck originally conceived it, whereby he refers not to any particular aesthetics per se, but rather to the staggeringly mundane quality of global capital’s intricate constellation of exchange mechanisms.
2 Adorno: “Radical music unmasks false consciousness and can transform the infrastructure, the relations of production outside the sphere of music.” [Jacques Attali, Noise: Political Economy of Music, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985), 43.] Beuys: “Only on condition of a radical widening of definitions will it be possible for art and activities related to art [to] provide evidence that art is now the only evolutionary-revolutionary power. Only art is capable of dismantling the repressive effects of a senile social system that continues to totter along the deathline.” [Carolyn Tisdall, Art into Society, Society into Art (London: ICA, 1974), 48.]
3 Jacques Attali, Noise: Political Economy of Music, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985), 57.
4 The Ford Model T began production in 1908, while Luigi Russolo’s Intonarumori were first created in 1913, and Marcel Duchamp’s first Readymade, Bottle Rack, exhibited in 1914.
5 Peter Bürger, "Avant-Garde and Neo-Avant-Garde: An Attempt to Answer Certain Critics of Theory of the Avant-Garde, New Literary History, 2010, 41: 695.
What Does Your Life Mean to Your Music?
Curator: Ray Evanoff
I am interested in hearing about the ways your music connects with your life. What is the import and influence of your personality, emotions, life experiences, hobbies, and interests? What tangible effects do these have on your work? How does your life seep into your art? Is it important that it does?
If your art and your life remain largely separate, I challenge you to assess this gap. What is its source? What are its advantages and shortcomings? Does abstraction limit your reach as an artist, or the scope and capacity of your work?
Your discussion should elucidate how your life affects your art. The emphasis should be on yourself: historical, social, philosophical, and other suprapersonal elements may factor in, even greatly, but only insofar as they are personally contextualized. Your focus should be on how your individual personality, preoccupations, and experiences shape your music.
Your approximately 10-minute presentation should discuss the perceivable effects of your life on your work, be it a specific piece or a general trend. Musical illustrations are especially welcome.
New Music: Just Another Subculture
Curator: Martin Iddon
The immediate context for this discussion is a short position paper I wrote for the Canadian new music journal Circuit under the rubric ‘Enquête sur l’avenir de la musique contemporaine’. The text of that paper is presented below.
Over the past twenty years or so, the cultural position of new music has radically changed. After the Second World War, despite burgeoning interest in popular musics, it was clearly accepted that new music represented ‘art’ (as opposed to the ‘entertainment’ of the popular) and that this art occupied a culturally central position. Today, such a claim would appear implausible. Nevertheless, with the loss of new music’s seeming purpose–simply (or not so simply) to ‘be’ art–, predictions that this particular nexus of musical trends would rapidly wither have been conspicuously confounded. The reasons for this, it seems to me, are intertwined with new music’s shift from cultural centrality to a position akin to that of a subculture, even if the subcultural participants may not all have noticed or come to terms with the meanings of that change. This strikes me as good news, albeit of a very particular sort.
To become subcultural hardly means to be silenced, as some of those most pessimistic about new music might suggest. And while the same issues face all subcultural adherents regardless of their form of expression, it does, however, suggest that composers must come to some challenging decisions in a timeframe rather shorter than they might desire. Dick Hebdige’s classic description of what a subculture is argues that “[s]ubcultures represent ‘noise’ (as opposed to sound): interference in the orderly sequence which leads from real events and phenomena to their representation in the media.” (Hebdige 1979, 90). As early as 1963, Howard Becker emphasised “the boundaries drawn by jazz musicians between themselves and their values as ‘hip’ and their audience as ‘squares’” (quoted in Hodkinson 2002, 10). In a sense, new music could hardly be expected to carry out this heroic winning of space, not only because the subcultural participants are certainly always already a great deal more ‘square’ than ‘hip’, but essentially because the way in which this particular subculture has shifted from the mainstream to the marginal means that some of those privileged trappings of ‘space’ remain viable.
In the bluntest of terms, composing ‘art music’ in the tradition which might once have been termed ‘Western classical music’ after the end of the avant-garde necessitates that music become (or has already become) subcultural. The important distinction, to my mind, is not whether or not to accept that situation, but what to do about it, if anything. It strikes me that there are three options. The first is largely to ignore the issue, which would mean to continue as if nothing had changed, as if the end of the avant-garde were not an event. For many composers this would doubtless be the preferred option, not least because it is the route that leads to the greatest public success. Yet, it seems to me to disregard (almost wilfully) the reality, as I see it, that composition will have little option but to change, and probably sooner rather than later. At best, this is a short-term solution to the problem, and to take this route would certainly suggest that the path toward subculture is, indeed, a ‘problem’. The second option is to pursue that autonomous sphere where the new music culture operates essentially outside mainstream culture in its entirety. In many respects, this situation is very close to the current one, from the perspective I have outlined; the only real distinction would be a self-awareness in that distantiation from mainstream cultural praxes. This may be a viable strategy. Yet a necessary corollary of such an approach would be that new music, even as a subculture, would stand rightly charged with the accusations levelled against it for the past fifty (or so) years: it is ‘out of touch’, inaccessible, forbidding. To take this route would indeed be to say ‘who cares if you listen?’, as Babbitt’s editor at High Fidelity put it. Finally, composers, at least those who recognise their own situation as increasingly subcultural, could choose to use this position as one through which to critique the mainstream, even if only to critique what they find problematic or troubling in music in the mainstream (doubly so, since even if punk can find itself co-opted into the music industry, surely the fringe of new music is too distant to be rebranded in such a way). Through this, it might be possible to find ways through which new music can be not only as vibrant and diverse as it generally is in the praxis of composition, but also to develop a new social function, one which, arguably, only a subculture of precisely this type would be capable of creating and one entirely different from the one it had previously assumed.
Discussants should be prepared to speak for 10 minutes on a topic developing out of the above. Possible positions might agree or disagree with the main thesis—that new music has become subcultural—or the more extreme corollary—that new music is just another subculture—or might suggest further strategies for coming to terms with the (un)changed situation of new music in the world.
Ashley Fure is an American composer of acoustic and electroacoustic concert music as well as multimedia installation art. She holds degrees in music composition from Harvard University (PhD), IRCAM (Cursus 1 and 2), Oberlin Conservatory (B.Mus), and the Interlochen Arts Academy. A 2013-14 Fulbright Fellow to France, Fure recently premiered an evening-length electroacoustic ballet commissioned by IRCAM for the 2014 Manifeste Festival in Paris. Notable honors include a 2013 Impuls International Composition Prize, a 2012 Darmstadt Stipendienpreis, a 2012 Staubach Honorarium, a 2011 Jezek Prize, and a 2010 10-month residency at the Akademie Schloss Solitude. In September 2014, Fure will join the Music Department at Columbia University as a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow before beginning an Assistant Professorship in Sonic Arts at Dartmouth College in 2015.
Alec Hall was born in Toronto in 1985 and currently lives in New York City, where he works with George Lewis in the doctoral program at Columbia University. His works are primarily experimental in nature, with a strong focus on semanticity and representation in acoustic structures.
His work is frequently performed throughout Europe and North America, with notable premieres by the Ensemble SurPlus, Ensemble Intercontemporain, the JACK Quartet, ICE, Talea, and Ensemble Pamplemousse, among others. He has won five prizes in the SOCAN competition for young composers and he was a finalist for the Jules Leger Prize in 2011.
Principal teachers include Tristan Murail, Philippe Manoury and Fred Lerdahl, while he has also worked closely with Chaya Czernowin, Steven Takasugi, and Roger Reynolds. He is a founder and co-director of Qubit, a non-profit organization in New York dedicated to presenting events highlighting new and experimental works with electronics, such as the Noise Non-ference, a two-day interdisciplinary festival in March 2013, and Machine Music, a week-long festival of new works for four Yamaha Disklaviers.
He holds an M.A. in composition from the University of California, San Diego and a B.Mus in composition and violin performance from McGill University.
Ray Evanoff is an American composer whose work explores an array of personal interests, including succinctness, obfuscation, contradiction, the interplay of consonance and dissonance, and how pieces can be interwoven. He has collaborated with and been performed by contemporary music specialists such as Ensemble Dal Niente, Distractfold, Ensemble Pamplemousse, Ensemble SurPlus, Liam Hockley, Seth Josel, Mabel Kwan, Xenia Pestova, and Samuel Stoll, among others, in concerts across Europe and North America. His music has been included in the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, Internationales Musikinstitut Darmstadt, Neuköllner Originaltöne, and the Sonic Fusion Festival, and supported by the City of Charleston Office of Cultural Affairs, the Harry and Alice Eiler Foundation, MATA, the Royal Musical Association, SALT, and the University of Huddersfield. He studied at the College of Charleston and the University of Huddersfield, where he received his PhD in Music Composition in 2012. He lives in New Orleans.
Martin Iddon was born in Manchester in 1975. He studied composition and musicology at the Universities of Cambridge and Durham and studied composition privately with Steve Martland, Chaya Czernowin, and Steven Kazuo Takasugi. Iddon was appointed Lecturer in Music at University College Cork in 2005, moving to Lancaster University in 2006, and the University of Leeds in 2009, where he is Professor of Music and Aesthetics. His music has been performed in North America, Europe, and Australasia by Ensemble SurPlus, ekmeles, the Kairos Quartett, Eva Zöllner, Rei Nakamura, and others. His CD, pneuma, was released in 2014. Between 2006 and 2009, Iddon was a shortlisted composer of the Society for the Promotion of New Music and was a finalist in the 2012 Christoph Delz Foundation Competition for Composers. He was a jury member for the Julius F. Ježek Prize in 2008 and 2010, the International Computer Music Conference in 2011, Opera North's New Composers Forum in 2012 and 2013, and for the Darmstadt New Music Courses' Staubach Honoraria in 2009, 2011, and 2013. His books New Music at Darmstadt and John Cage and David Tudor are both published by Cambridge University Press. Contact: m.iddon[at]leeds.ac.uk