X, Y and Z

X, Y and Z

Rob Casey says critics are right to pigeonhole.

Some months ago I was listening to a BBC radio broadcast from Berlin. The aim of the programme was to shine a beam into the darker recesses of German musical life and hopefully illuminate some of the activities taking place on the city’s cultural margins. For the most part the producers of the show were successful in garnering a collection of revealing interviews with a variety of artists currently ploughing a furrow in the often lonely field of experimental music. However, when they took a moment to dip an inquiring toe into the small pool of ‘noise artists’ that call the city home they were not met with the cooperation that they had erstwhile enjoyed. One particular composer who was targeted for an interview had gotten wind of the fact that the BBC intended to seek the participation in the programme of one of his contemporaries in the noise-art field. Evidently this particular associate’s brand of anarchic musical deconstruction did not sit comfortably with his own. The aggrieved composer could not for a moment tolerate his assemblage of scratches, scrapes and hisses being pigeonholed with that of his rival’s and so, the show’s host, whose laconic tones did not betray a hint of surprise, informed the listeners that he had not been able to proceed with the interview as planned.

At this stage in the proceedings I was happy to be persuaded that Berlin was a teeming hot-bed of experimentalism, populated with keen musical adversaries who were forever crossing the street to avoid one another and asking to be re-seated in restaurants due to the indigestion being brought about by the adjoining table’s views on ‘bruitism’. The remarkably adversarial way in which artists and critics conduct themselves on the extreme fringes of a wider cultural indifference, although often destructive, and occasionally lamented, is not surprising. We are, of course, as a species unparalleled in our ability to stir up a life threatening argument with the most minimal of resources. Being so assured, perhaps we should not presume to waste any more time considering the distress of composers when commentators threaten to infer stylistic similarities between their own renderings and those of their contemporaries. A significant consequence however is that the transgression of stylistic boundaries increasingly appears to be the endgame of much music of today.

Twice in recent months I have attended premieres of new Irish works at which the composers have all but apologised for seeking inspiration from great works of the past. Despite the celebrated harvesting of the past by composers such as Arvo Pärt, their pleas for clemency indicated that they fully expected their efforts to be dismissed solely on the basis that they had attempted to retread a path through areas of the western musical canon. It is sad that the legacy of great traditions, across the musical spectrum, should be so negatively construed by younger composers. We forget that any tradition sustains bold innovation and that no work is ever good because of clever iconoclastic manoeuvrings. But why do many trouble themselves with rebelling against the capricious labelling that all listeners, not just critics or broadcasters, indulge in? Is this a sustainable, even relevant, musical model? 

Usually at this point the ostensibly more enlightened, eager to assert their pluralist credentials, will remind us that the removal of boundaries means that composers are no longer subject to the remit of hardened categories but are instead freely engaging with sounds of all colours and creeds and, well, what could possibly be wrong with that? Perversely, the ongoing obsession with transgressing stylistic boundaries has increasingly become an artistic credo in itself, as composer John McLachlan alluded to in his recent article on the Crash Ensemble (JMI, Nov–Dec 2007). Any review of the Crash Ensemble’s achievements invariably dwells at some length on socially conditioned notions of ‘stylistic boundaries’, ‘iconoclasm’, ‘cross-fertilisation’ and so on. Composers, it seems, are being pushed towards cultivating a type of compositional tourism, feathering their nest with the assorted accoutrements of myriad musical styles. Students increasingly see this as a shortcut to ‘new’ progressive music. Little regard can be given to the material nature of the musical resources at hand when the seemingly interminable fascination with the dissolution or mixing of musical categories is enough to sustain an artistic model. Why then do we erect such ‘arbitrary’ stylistic divisions and is there merit in their subsequent violation?

Liquids, Gasses, Solids
The proclivity to categorise, scientists believe, is one of the fundamental functions of sentient creatures. It enables us to learn from new experiences and to adapt our behaviour appropriately when met with ostensibly similar situations in the future. Whether it is liquids, gasses and solids or jazz, classical and rock we tend to catalogue distinguishable elements as equivalent under one umbrella term. It is simply in our nature. ‘Ah yes,’ the progressive artist will exclaim, ‘but liquids, gasses and solids exhibit clearly defined properties that enable me, with no small degree of certainty, to tell a solid from a liquid. There are countless artists on the other hand that occupy a grey area between your institutionally codified musical categories.’ Indeed they do. This notion of fixed boundaries lodges firmly in the craw of modern day musicians and composers when discussing their work, but a cursory glance in the direction of other disciplines reveals that what causes such agonising and hand wringing in the artistic community, has been replaced in philosophy and the sciences with a more benign reading of how we arrange, equate or pigeonhole objects and experiences and, by extension, musical boundaries. 

The classical view of how we go about creating categories was based on the idea that knowledge accrues only from universal truths. Music critics are often accused of trying to arbitrarily codify universal musical truths simply to meet their own needs, that is, to keep them in gainful employment. Music X is pop music, Y is classical, and so on. It does not seem unfair then that the artist should query on what universal truths the critic claims to be basing such grand pronouncements. The classicist would argue in response that popular music is defined by whatever is common to, or shared by all Xs, i.e. the elusive secret ingredient that would allow us to say with absolute certainty that what we are listening to is indeed ‘popular’ music. Once we group categories according to the traits they share, the classicist would continue, we then create sub-genres according to the properties that differ between them until eventually, after an exhaustive system of checks and balances, we arrive at a clearly ordered musical taxonomy replete with fixed boundaries. We are then well equipped to cross-reference new works against our ordered system before deciding under what label we should deposit them.

Music, however, is an evolving art form. What happens when some rogue composer mixes and matches elements from different categories, thereby undermining such a carefully ordered system? Not a lot as it turns out. In an article published in the Journal of Consciousness Studies entitled ‘Reclaiming Cognition’, Eleanor Rosch, a professor of psychology at the University of California, pointed out that, contrary to what the classicist believes, our minds are awash with concepts whose boundaries ebb and flow and commingle without causing us a moment’s unrest. The effort we expend on conceptual reordering is minimal. Our sensory perceptions are so changeable that we have to be at ease with grading category members according to any number of variables. 

To give a musical illustration; we may call to mind George Gershwin’s ‘I Got Rhythm’ when asked to name a typical jazz standard. However, even if the foremost musical features of ‘I Got Rhythm’, such as its harmonic and rhythmic structures, are retained in a performance, other more subtle variables such as the concert environment or instrumentation with which it is performed are quite enough to see the piece fetch up a whole new category altogether. So if listeners dissolve and create new categories in such a casual manner why should artists reject them so fervently?

Art of Destruction
The ease with which we disregard conceptual models on a moment by moment basis does not sit well with artists who would much prefer we spend sleepless nights torturously re-examining artistic tropes. Recently at the Manchester International Festival, the Manchester Opera House played host to a show of time-based visual artworks. The show, entitled Il Tempo del Postino exhibited contributions from a cabal of renowned artists that included Matthew Barney and Pierre Huyghes. The central idea for the show was to remove the art exhibition from its traditional gallery setting in favour of the concert hall; replacing the spatial preoccupations of the gallery with the temporal concerns that are normally the province of music. Having to surrender the right to skip past exhibits that didn’t take their fancy, critics were underwhelmed but conceded it was a valuable exercise in challenging institutionally codified visual art practices. A tepid endorsement perhaps, but a similar, essentially positive, sentiment greets many modern challenges to artistic norms. It is unsettling that many of today’s artists and composers believe that rather mundane transgressions are the only way to engender meaningful transformations in art or music.

In an interview conducted with the music journal Tempo, Helmut Lachenmann criticised the ‘professional surrealists’ that seek only to subvert the musical status quo. He asserted that the impetus to create only through destructive means leads to a perpetual state of artistic collapse. A destructive impulse affords no opportunity to refine or develop an aesthetic; it aspires only to obliterate everything that has come before. Similarly the belaboured grumblings that often accompany the pinning of labels and the rather Sisyphean exercise of avoiding them does little to further musical development. Rather than standing on the shoulders of giants, the fugitives of convention prefer to flit about in the shadows aiming only not to be trampled upon. Why waste time celebrating stylistic strategising at the expense of more considered reflection if we are really intent on opening up new sonic horizons?

Stylistic inferences do not threaten to bring about a rigid musical paradigm any more than do those musicians who endlessly evade them. John McLachlan referred, in the same article mentioned above, to the musical hybrids emerging from music technology programmes in Ireland. More important than the hybridisation of idioms these courses afford young Irish composers the opportunity to study the fabric of sound itself. This can only benefit subsequent efforts to compose effectively with it. Composers and musicians who seek to better understand the tools at their disposal – sound, silence, and the not inconsiderable influence of the human mind – can perhaps countenance a richer, more engaging medium in which to work than those who take their lead from protracted arguments about society, culture and idiomatic barriers. As the art critic E. H. Gombrich wrote in 1966, ‘If anybody needs a champion today it is the artist who shuns rebellious gestures’.

Published on 1 May 2008

Rob Casey is a Dublin-based musician and composer of electronic and acoustic music.

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