[A version of this piece originally appeared in Cacaphony Magazine on May 26, 2017.]
Jacques Attali, in the inconclusive final chapter of his book Noise: The Political Economy of Music, writes about composition in a way that is not common; in contrasting it with the mechanism of repetition (i.e., reproduction) that has preceded it in the 20th century, he says composition is (or should be) (or will be) something
in which the musician plays primarily for himself, outside any operationality, spectacle, or accumulation of value; when music, extricating itself from the codes of sacrifice, representation, and repetition, emerges as an activity that is an end in itself, that creates its own code at the same time as the work.
Composition thus appears as a negation of the division of roles and labor as constructed by the old codes.[...] The listener is the operator. Composition, then, beyond the realm of music, calls into question the distinction between worker and consumer, between doing and destroying, a fundamental division of roles in all societies in which usage is defined by a code; to compose is to take pleasure in the instruments, the tools of communication, in use-time and exchange-time as lived and no longer as stockpiled. (p. 135)
At the end of a fabulous, recently written (April 2017, I think) essay entitled “Thinking About New Music,” composer/apparent-spaceship-lover Marek Poliks lists several positive things he’s incorporated into his own music-making that he thinks we ought to consider for ourselves, among which is this:
Perform your own work. Identify as a musician, not a composer. Find other musicians who will perform with you and make your music together. Feature guest artists. Ask for help, ask other people what they think. Attribute authorship to the group, you made it together.
Backing up: it does seem, doesn’t it, that new music has been in a state of paralytic re-thinking of itself for a while (Attali is writing in 1977 and Marek is doing so 40 years later. The latter talks about 2008 as a pivotal year, and he’s right; but I also think it’s worth hypothesizing that something cyclical might go on as well—2008 is not the only time that musicians have said to themselves “wtf are we doing”). And it also seems, doesn’t it, that this state of paralytic re-thinking has felt like an urgent emergency-crisis for the last year or so (the unceasing collective heart attack that is the current US/worldwide political environment being both a symptom and a cause). I hope this doesn’t seem like a grandiose claim—I’m just setting the stage.
I feel somewhat insecure and not particularly qualified to generalize at the moment, but I also feel equally duty-bound to point to and look at things that propose provisional, hesitating responses to the seemingly insurmountable problems of culture in the world. The peculiar experience afforded by Danny Clay and Earsight Duo (video artist Xuan and percussionist Peter Ferry)’s “on/off” at High Concept Labs is such a thing—a proposition in answer to seemingly impervious questions—though I actually don’t think their description of the project as something “blurring the line between performer, composer, and listener” quite does it justice.
Ben Melsky, Deidre Huckabay, and myself were the three participants(?) in the 9:30 show(?) (which started at 10:05) on Friday night, May 5, and were joined by Peter in the performance(?), thus making us a quartet. Ben and I had just come from the Spektral Quartet Contempo concert at U of Chicago (on which me and a few Dal Niente players had performed), thus the quartet as musical institution was on my mind. It would be difficult to overstate how conspicuously well Spektral Quartet plays new work, and it would be equally difficult to overstate how different the Ferry-Huckabay-Lewanski-Melsky quartet experience was.
I don’t know, what do you think about this?—maybe there’s something utopian-propositional about a quartet. It’s an even number of people, unlike the Supreme Court or the UN Security Council, and there’s no Vice President to cast the tie-breaking vote for Betsy DeVos. (Just a reminder: that happened. Betsy DeVos is the US Secretary of Education. Just a reminder.) The existence of the quartet is an incessant negotiation because of the ever-present, structurally inherent possibility of a 2-2 tie. However hierarchical things might be, the format simply does, in the end, demand that everyone work together. Or, to put it more accurately and more succinctly, as Doyle Armbrust did in a rehearsal: “I hate me more [than you hate me].” #utopia
OK, so what happened on that Friday night. Really, I’m trying to get to my experience, but I keep getting sidetracked by myself: Ben, Deidre, and I walked into the HCL space, led by Peter. There was a circle drawn in the middle of the floor, with what turned out to be four synthesizer boxes on its perimeter; we all explored the space a bit, not knowing what was going on; in order to be a guide for the perplexed, I suppose, Peter walked through the circle. I am a toxic combination of always curious but only rarely impetuous, and for this reason I surprised to find myself the first one messing with a synth; once it made noise we all immediately sat on the floor in a circle.
(Attali, describing a part of Breughel’s Carnival of Lent, at the very end of the chapter on composition: “Five people in a circle. Are they singing? Is there an instrument accompanying them? Is Brueghel announcing this autonomous and tolerant world, at once turned in on itself and in unity?” [p. 148])
(OK, I realize this doesn’t quite work because Attali talks about five people and we were only four. The world is actually imperfect and contingent rather than autonomous and tolerant. Sorry.)
The synths have an on-off switch, they have a sort-of volume knob (one that actually seems to change the timbre as well as the loudness), and they have a frequency knob (one that makes things higher and lower). The on-off switch makes a satisfying sound; this sound is probably not intended to be part of the work, but I don’t care. (Attali, you might remember: “to compose is to take pleasure in the instruments”.) The range of possibilities that the two parameters make available is completely engrossing and immediately all-consuming. Whoa, this goes really high! Wait, it goes higher? Wait, it can get louder??? WAIT IT CAN GET STILL HIGHER AND LOUDER. WAIT WAIT WAIT WHAT HAPPENS IF I TRY TO DO THE SAME AS ANOTHER PERSON’S HIGH/LOUD SYNTH. WAIT WAIT WAIT WAIT. WAIT WAIT WAIT WAIT WHAT IF I’M LIKE REALLY CLOSE BUT A LITTLE OFF OR WHAT ABOUT LIKE AN OCTAVE LOWER OR WHAT ABOUT SOME RANDOM WEIRD-ASS INTERVAL WAIT OR WHAT IF I DON’T DO ANYTHING BUT STUFF CHANGES ANYWAY.
The experience of sitting in this synth quartet is intense; the synths are often loud, but more to the point, the ever-changing frequencies and the room’s acoustics do things to my head. You might think I mean this in a metaphorical or psychological sense, but actually it’s physical. I imagine that I’m feeling my eardrums; sometimes my brain seems like it’s in a different place than my face; I’m having a hard time locating senses in my body; I’m experiencing some sort of acoustical phantom limbs. I’m half-aware that I’m responding to the actions of my fellow quartet members, but I’m not sure how or why I’m responding, what I want, what it means, or what I want us to be doing. How do we think this is to go? Are we trying to achieve unity? Are we attempting to remain in a state of enjoyable tension? Are we playing? Is this is a game? Is this a piece of music? What is a game? What is a piece of music? (Recall Marek’s suggestion: “Attribute authorship to the group, you made it together.” We definitely made it together, whatever “it” was, though I’m not sure if “authorship” is a thing we were looking for or quite deserve.)
OK, I'll interrupt again and pose a serious question for you: what are your experiences like when listening to performances, and/or performing yourself? Mine vary widely—even more these days than before—from the seemingly transcendent (like whoa that german sixth chord in the slow mvt of bruckner 7 i could just die rn) to the pedestrian (is that a theme from earlier i can’t quite tell) to the annoyed (oh FFS i told that person so effing many times not to miss that entrance) to the bored (omg why are they taking this repeat i don’t need to hear this music again) to the despairing (srsly fuck this whole thing such bullshit i should stop doing music and get a law degree and go work for SPLC what if i literally walked offstage at this very moment what would everyone do and who cares anyway).
Here though, in HCL, among these people that I love in various ways, I experience myself listening-performing and am doing so in a Goldilocks just-right of creative flow and self-awareness. I am making the piece and the form and the rules and the genre with my friends in real time. And looking back on the experience, I even worry that as I commit these words to computer screen that they betray a fallen-ness and a certain critical distance and an already-subject-to-memory-death-ness and that, worse yet, they will somehow negatively impact your experience of such a piece when you have the opportunity to take part in it. I hope you’ll accept my apology and forgive me for future harm to your listening-performing; but somehow I thought telling you about my experience was important for me to do and for you to read.
At some point various instructions started appearing on a screen. There was a long period during which we walked around the space while the synths sustained some dissonant non-chord; based on your location, its sound changed, as if it were the un-arrival point in a non-cadence that not-closed the non-form. Towards the end there was a graphic score that, tbh, I didn’t love; maybe it was a bit prescriptive and sort of a buzzkill at the end, I don’t really remember what I didn’t like about it. I do recall at some point getting all conductor-y and like trying to get the four synths exactly in tune with each other on a very high frequency, and had to just deal with it when my rage for order was frustrated.
Look. I wish I could say that all of my writing since the election has been a sort of participation in group therapy, but I don’t even think that’s quite true. It’s way more therapy for me—personally, as an individual—than for the group; it’s that I fear that what I’m doing as an artist is deeply and painfully irrelevant and I’m trying to work through those feelings; and I simply have to trust that I have your best interests in mind as well, and to hope that everything I write isn’t just so exhaustingly self-indulgent as to be not worth your time.
Attali is particularly concerned with what he calls “stockpiling”, which is what happens in the “repeating” phase of music history (roughly, the industrial 20th century); what he calls “composition” is an answer to this. “Stockpiling then becomes a substitute, not a preliminary condition, for use. People buy more records than they can listen to. They stockpile what they want to find the time to hear.” (p. 101) If I were to theorize, I might say that stockpiling, so described, is merely a thing that capitalism realized it could hella-mega-do with drives (in the psychoanalytic sense) already inherent in earlier music—to codify forms, to control the experience of time. The next logical step beyond refining these things into formenlehre-type models is to emphasize the control part, rather than the experience-of-time part, with the eventual outcome that no one listens to music but everyone owns a lot of it. For Attali, the possible escape from this is a vague vision of a person playing “primarily for himself, outside any operationality.” For Marek, writing 40 years later, it takes the form of the realization that “new music 2.0” “shrugged out” in 2008.
To be tautological: music is always about its time and place, and this is because the people that make it make exactly what they make and not something else; which is to say, the music they make must be the stuff they are driven to make. I don’t really want to do a bad job of trying to explain why I think this is (something about Trump, late capitalism, Roger Ailes, Middle Eastern politics, the weakness of the EU, WMD’s, bots, idk so much else), so much as I want you to understand something about the listening-performing experience I had with Ben, Deidre, and Peter. It wasn’t transcendent (though it was arresting), and it may not have been great or even good music, and actually maybe it was not music in a sense in which I am/you are accustomed to thinking of it; but it felt right and it felt new.
And actually this, most of all: I am interested in knowing from you, in some sense specific or general: what feels new and what feels right to you these days, musical or otherwise?
1 Jacques Attali, Noise: The Political Economy of Music, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985); here’s a decent summary of its arguments in the event that you don’t have enough stockpiled time.
2 Not actually gonna talk too much about Marek’s essay here, but I do want to encourage you to go read it if you haven’t. His analysis is shrewd and his writing is fun.
3 I don’t want to get too hung up on this because it’s not the point to of this essay, but to be fair to Marek, he also acknowledges this, and I wouldn’t to misconstrue him: “To repeat the so-tired-as-to-be-silly refrain aimed at so many people in v2.0: ‘ok, fine, but this isn’t new, this is all super 1960’s, these people aren’t radical.’ I am really not interested in having this conversation. Whether or not new music 2.0 is just a cyclical inversive reanimation of v1.0, its practice is nonetheless occasionally at odds with its intentions.” Anyway like I said go read his essay if you haven’t.
4 If you walk offstage in the middle of a show, stop doing music, get a law degree, and go work for the Southern Poverty Law Center, I would strongly support your life choice. I just want to affirm that unambiguously.