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Music whose gestures cannot be seen but that everyone wants to listen to

Umělec magazine 2011/1


Jozef Cseres | music | en cs de ru

There are, by far, not as many ways of understanding contemporary music, within all its twisting labyrinthine expressions, as there are manifestations of this music, and yet there exist important signs (or rather tendencies) that we can use to roughly describe and differentiate today’s music from that found in preceding decades. It is definitely characterized by an intermedia orientation and by a technological unpretentiousness of musical production. The former led contemporary music towards interactive multimedia and “sound-art,” the latter liberated it of gesture and performativity – attributes of immense importance for communicating with the listener. Both combine a lax, sometimes even ignorant attitude to musical tradition going beyond the poetic, stylistic, and representational approaches and innovations familiar from previous avant-garde movements. The electronic gestures of today’s “laptoppers” and “sound artists” are significantly different from those of Xenakis, Ferrari, Schaeffer, Cage, Tudor, Lucier, Behrman, Rosenboom, Teitelbaum, Niblock, Rowe, Zappa, Collins, Marclay, Tone, Otomo, and other prominent figures of electronic music of the last decades of the twentieth century.
Above all else, they are not original and they are not at all radical. They are electronic by default, since the total digitalization of media has given birth to a new technological presence (a universal language and communications space for electronic media) on which most culture is dependent, music included. They are not original because they build their aesthetics on the poetic experimentation and discoveries of artists who were still working with analog media that, at the time, were costly and difficult to obtain. Nor are they radical, because most of their seemingly unconventional solutions are nothing more than recycled, soulless clichés, wallowing in technological inventions that they excessively fetishize. In fact, they frequently do nothing more than hypocritically pretend to be radical. Nevertheless, as a result of the postmodern digital situation with its “lightness of being” and “boundless extent” (to use the vocabulary of Wolfgang Welsch), today’s electronic art is capable of articulating a plurality of human realities as well as the emotional life of its creators and recipients remarkably in symbiosis with the advance of technocratization.
This applies all the more to music, since its non-electronic and non-digital manifestations were already operating in virtual time. But ever since some musicians (Xenakis, Cage, Lucier and many others who came after) began to intensively focus on the spatial phenomenon of sound, music no longer takes place in time but also in space. Stereophonic or quadraphonic effects were supposed to enrich the experience of listening to music, with the listener (as a result of live performers being replaced by technical reproduction equipment) losing visual control over the process of sound generation (looking at a wall of speakers, or at a keyboard-clicking “laptopper” instead of live musicians or even a record-juggling DJ really is not much fun). After the era of live electronics, which thanks to the performers’ movements and gestures partially rehabilitated electronic music in the “eyes” of the curious listener, music was rescued by electronically generated images. In the beginning, this was in the form of simultaneous video-projections, later as an interactive multi-medium responding to sounds or directly influencing them in real time. After the DJ, the new hot-ticket performer was now the VJ, who represented a medium that mixed electronic images and sounds at the accelerated, frenetic pace of the audiovisual era. Today’s DJs and VJs use found and appropriated fragments, and visual structures, to compose vibrating variable flows of synergetic blocks of sensation through which they emotively pull their recipients into a process in which both artist and recipient “are constantly becoming someone else” (Deleuze and Guattari). Gone are the “laborious” times when Cage patiently played his gramophone “operratics” or Marclay passionately created collages of phonographic fragments with purely artistic intentions.
The new flexible technologies eroded the boundaries between audio and visual in digital audiovisual storage devices, whose contents are transformed (qualitatively as well as quantitatively) exclusively on the basis of (subjective) phenomenological and not (objective) hierarchical criteria. Musical notation, music making, and experimentation have been replaced by unvarying and universally available technological archives and catalogs of sounds and images that can be immediately downloaded as needed. Thanks to portable miniature video cameras (or even mobile telephones) that record not only sound but also images, today these archives are of an audiovisual nature. Video recordings have thus overcome McLuhan’s famous binary classification of media into hot and cold – they are an extension of several senses at once, plus they are high-definition. Nicolas Collins perfectly described the impact on audiovisual art: “It’s not that there’s so much more sound-art today than twenty years ago, but rather that more art has sound. Thanks largely to the ubiquity of the camcorder as the new sketchbook, and the laptop as the universal editor, artists are always recording audio as they record visual material; while they are observing and shooting they may not listen as carefully as they look, but when they go to edit – unless they intentionally mute the speakers – they are forced to listen to sync sound. An editing room is a great place to learn about sound. [...] So in the art school where I teach, for example, all the students seem to be using sound in some way (just the way all art students used to draw), and most of them take a least one class in my [sound] department. Some of them shift so far into ‘pure sound’ as to become composers. They draw on a very different background (visual arts), and most have no traditional music skills, but they’re using the same tools as pop musicians and conservatory students. Sometimes these days it’s hard to separate ‘sound’ by artists from ‘music’ by composers.” Not to mention the originality of sounds (and images) that artists work with today!
It really is true: “derived” art (no matter whether sound or image) is barely concerned with originality (including original formal approaches) and tradition, thanks to which it finds itself balancing ever more precariously on the uncertain boundary between poetic originality and plagiarism. Again, we offer the experience of one of the most competent experts: “Since the ambient movement of the 1990s,” Collins says in this regard, “there’s been a lot more crossover of younger artists moving from a pop background into so-called ‘serious’ music; a lot of them have a very selective view of music history. But that is not always a bad thing: even studying under Lucier I was always aware of the weight of the historical context of all the music I heard, the network of connections to other pieces and artists, the ‘album liner notes’, if you will; whereas the iPod generation of my students thinks in terms of playlists – ‘if it sounds good I’ll keep it, maybe use it in my own work’ – and treats all music for its phenomenological value as SOUND, and doesn’t have or read liner notes. I think it’s very liberating for them as music consumers (their ‘record collections’ are hugely more eclectic than mine ever was at that age – and I was a very adventurous listener) and maybe even as creators, to throw off the weight of history. The downside, of course, is a lot of derivative music, but as I say, the task of every listener is to separate the good from the bad (as subjective as that may be), to be an editor.”
And so the video camera helps to spread the art of sound, in particular in artistic circles – where, however, it usually lacks in particular a meaningful poetic foundation, ending up as a mere manifestation of an easily acquired craftsmanship. In their blissful unawareness, today’s visual or audiovisual artists address would-be poetic issues that musical avant-gardists resolved long ago, using inflexible analog media within the context of the latest developments in musical thinking (in other words, not just because they happened to have access to the latest technological gadgetry). What is more, on the sociological level, the technological unpretentiousness of musical structures significantly contributes to new forms of an elitist (club- or label-based) identity defined in opposition to the mainstream, from which it differs not in terms of artistic vigor but through its carefully nurtured image and reputation – which do nothing to enrich music, but merely degrade it to the level of superficial drivel (a perfect example in the Czech lands would be the highly popular productions by Midi Lidi). In brief, just as the former poetic principle of a “new simplicity” meant more than merely strumming out sentimental chords on the guitar, it is not enough today to just click, mix, download, stream… Sure, you can, but it is not enough! We are not seeing a repetition of the historical context of the 1960s, when minimalist means of expression, media stripped to the bare essentials, ignoring virtuosity and skilled craftsmanship, and the heretical approach to tradition of the Fluxus and rock generation, grew out of an entirely different sociological backdrop. Nor are we seeing a repetition of the postindustrial situation, to which the Japanese noise and onkyo scenes responded in the 1990s.
Still, it is possible to effectively combine poetic eclecticism, an intermedia orientation, and technological moderation with a conceptual sense of perspective, experimentation, skillful mastery, aesthetic vigor, suitably chosen contexts, and respect for tradition – but this is not the approach taken by most of today’s musicians and sound artists. An excellent example of what a successful fusion of creative stimuli and creative output might look like is the work of Alvin Curran or Jon Rose, two musicians from different generations and backgrounds who have been active on the progressive music scene for several decades. The former possesses an elite academic education (among other things, he studied composition with Elliott Carter at Yale and in Berlin), while the latter is essentially an experimenting autodidact. Curran began his professional musical career in 1963 in Berlin as a promising student of post-serial composition, only to flee from academism to the then more liberal Rome, where he moved towards contemporary forms of improvisation, live electronics, music in public spaces, and audio installations. Rose originally struggled through the streets and clubs of Australia’s cities in the 1970s, playing various forms of music without any limitations in terms of style or genre, until his long-developing concept of “relative violin music” brought him to the forefront of the Euro-American musical avant-garde in the middle of the 1980s, from where he influenced musical improvisation, radio-art, environmental sound-art, and interactive electronics. In the inventiveness, originality, adaptability, transmediality, freshness, and relevance of their artistic creations, they surpass the radical avant-gardists of all post-Cage generations. Curran’s and Rose’s interactive audiovisual installations are just as “young” (from a poetic as well as technological viewpoint) as any postmodern multimedia creation, and they never lack philosophical cogency or a humorous detachment. Both are capable of combining visually boring laptop creations with attractive live gestures and appropriate acoustic contexts. In fact, this ability is what is missing from young experimenters and would-be improvisers, whose improvisations often come to an end because of a computer crash or electrical power outage (and frequently also due to a lack of grants or foundation financing). By contrast, the experienced Curran and Rose have repeatedly proven, live, their ability to dexterously and inventively create convincing art even from technical errors and failures. They exemplify, at a high level of presentational quality, all the characteristics of liberalism and the transversal pluralism of postmodernism, i.e., principles that the current artistic generation theoretically and poetically professes and vehemently declares, but that it – due to its excessive dependence on technology, its illiteracy or semi-literacy in the area of creative approaches and media, and its ignorance of tradition – is incapable of mastering in practice. What is more, the new generation is the product of technocratic and curatorial trends that it has erroneously mistaken for poetic principles.
I have mentioned Alvin Curran and Jon Rose as representative examples of the kind of new musical thinking that the postmodern era offers. This way of thinking subjects all those poetic and technological advances of the postwar artistic avant-garde to a critical and exploitative analysis: such technological and poetic advances that are oriented more towards intelligibility and concepts, rather than the senses or aesthetics. The sonoristic liberalism, non-idiomatic improvisation, and interactive live electronics of the past two decades have combined both these orientations into a viable, vibrating, versatile, rhizomatically non-hierarchical, aesthetically attractive, and permanently non-differentiable flow of electronic audiovisual gestures, individual and collective, whose only stable characteristic is its instability. It is a flow in which a diverse range of artists can and do meet in unexpected (and yet anticipated) constellations: Alvin Curran, Richard Teitelbaum, Christian Wolff, Yasunao Tone, Phill Niblock, Keith Rowe, John Tilbury, George Lewis, Butch Morris, Evan Parker, Jon Rose, Nicolas Collins, John Zorn, Fred Frith, Christian Marclay, David Shea, Bob Ostertag, Kronos Quartet, Miya Masaoka, Otomo Yoshihide, Merzbow, Toshimaru Nakamura, Günter Müller, Lawrence Casserley, Adam Bohman, Francisco Lopez, Phil Durrant, Kaffe Matthews, Jim O’Rourke, The Ex, Sonic Youth, Mike Patton, Alan Licht, Tony Buck, DJ Olive, Ikue Mori, z’ev, Alessandro Bosetti, Oren Ambarchi, Domenico Sciajno, Fennesz, Franz Hautzinger, Axel Dörner and many other personalities who have left and continue to leave their mark on the nature of music of recent decades.
The lightness and non-dogmatic nature with which these encounters take place might evoke in some people the emergence of Attali’s “network of composition”, in which music is made solely for taking pleasure in the production of differences, if only the gestures and individual contributions of the above named musicians – no matter how authentic, honest, and well-intended – did not eventually dissolve into the repetitiousness enforced by institutional demands. On the one hand, spontaneous live on-stage gestures have been anaesthetized within electronic data carriers; on the other hand, they are being sharpened by the technocratic stylization of musicians and audiovisual artists of the younger laptop generation, although in this case we are no longer dealing with a poetic and aesthetic reductionism, minimalism, or “new simplicity,” but with the calculating dictate of technology. The reality that their productions catch in the act is a distant reality, seen through the prism of technological innovations. It is the natural consequence of the retroactive effects of electronic worlds on (not only artistic) reality. The creators of digital works of art no longer articulate the plurality of the postmodern situation through cultural and semantic differences, but through elitist and technological unifications that significantly modify their experience – and ours. What is more, most digital gestures are not visible. As a result, listeners or audiences are forced to take it on faith that the sounds and images they hear and see are created by actual movements by an actual artist; thanks to their own personal experience with the grammar and syntax of electronic media, this is something they gladly believe.
And so music with a modernist tradition that only recently nobody wanted to listen to has become a music that is listened to by everyone, everywhere. Both alternatives fill me with skepticism. Besides the fact that they lead their listeners in an undesirable direction – one into conceptual elitism, the other into a consumerist and technocratic world of redundant repetitions – they lack the sense of pleasure in the production and perception of differences described by Roland Barthes and dreamt about to this day by Jacques Attali. In this era of the synchronous, transversal, and interactive articulation and distribution of information, and the extensified and intensified speed of flexible technologies, the pressing question of modernism (“How?”) has been changed to a question of “Where and when?” But nobody today has the time or the patience to wait for an answer; in other words, nobody wants to risk hearing what they suspect the answer might be: “Yesterday!”

Translated from Czech by Stephan von Pohl.



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