Sunday, May 27, 2007

Beyond Zero

In the late 20th century, the impulse to re-imagine music from its foundations was a defining one. Whether making music as or through some formal system (serialism, algorithmic composition), or through a reconsideration of compositional habits (Cage), or through playful concreteness akin to a Wittgensteinian language game (extra point: in how many ways can one connect Reich to Cardew), or in a deeper consideration of the physical matter of music and its psychoacoustical apprehension, there is a least common denominator, and that is the the search for a null point, the place where a music might begin.*

My musical youth was marked by an obsession with this search, whether trying ever-new variations on systems for pushing notes here and there and about, building instruments, experimenting with extended vocal techniques, too many all-nighters in an electronic music studio, obsessively recording environmental sounds, or spending hours in an anechoic chamber or a sensory deprivation tank. In those heady days, the notion that a new music might also represent an alternative form of consciousness didn't raise an eyebrow. Wild times, too: one day, everything seemed possible, and the next, nothing. And always the risk of confusing a self-centered and personal search with a musical result worth sharing. (Some colleagues actually got sucked out of music, per se, and ended up in some profitable and therapeutic corner of the human potential movement or whatever it's now called.)

These days, I have to admit to a certain amount of envy for my younger colleagues who are able to look back easily, without anxiety, at music which came out of these progressive impulses and absorb it at face value, as music, unburdened by ontological questions. And even more, they seem to have some exemption from the need to build each new piece up from nothing, an exemption with which I am not yet blessed.

* The OULIPO lucked onto that wonderful word, "potential".


Samuel Vriezen said...

Daniel, this is an interesting post. To me, a still somewhat younger composer with an interest in this tradition, it seems there is a kind of continuity between "starting from zero" and "being able to think the whole thing through down to the last details" - which one might imagine Bach was able to do as well. Myself, I definitely 'use' what I know of Cage, Feldman, Reich, Johnson etc. (and perhaps Bach and Ockeghem too) but I do find that with every piece, the same elements have to be brought to a new balance, which can take me all the way to what I think of as the fundamentals of musical composition. In fact I believe this remains essential - sometimes, when in the mood for exaggeration, I feel that the one thing that is common to all of bad art is ecclecticism.

Your passing mention of the Oulipo in this context I find interesting. The Oulipo never really starts from zero of course, they always start from the nature of some language or other. But the use of constraints does make them approach this given as if it were from zero perhaps. In any case, the fundamental difference between language and music seems to be that in language, there is always much more that is given than in music. 'Sounds as such' seem to be more conceivable than 'words as such'.

Daniel Wolf said...


You probably know more about the Oulipo than I do, so please correct my impression if it's wrong, which is that the Oulipo members never questioned the notion of literature, but rather accepted it (i.e. genres, syntax) as given and then sought out new techniques for keeping it lively. Music has a decided advantage in that in terms of form and syntax, nothing is given (after all they are only "sounds as such" not placeholders in a lexicon and grammar), all is only tradition, and every innovation creates an opening in that tradition.

docker said...

This discussion reminded me of Frank Zappa's answer to the question "Why do you compose?"

His response "I just like to make sounds and stick them in my ear."

Insisting that music have meaning, social relevance, logical consistency or historical context will make you an unhappy camper.

Seems to me that we would be better off writing music to which we enjoy listening because we enjoy writing music.

Daniel Wolf said...

David --

I remember one late, possibly lubricated, night after a concert, in David Cope's house. Someone had the idea to hunt for interesting sounds in his kitchen and we quickly found the winner, which was a grill from the oven, suspended by two pieces of string, with the ends of the strings wrapped around fingers the tips of which were nestled each in one ear, the whole grill swinging freely from the fingers. Once struck with a wooden spoon or spatula, you were treated to a private concert of the most amazing sounds any of us had ever heard.

Amazing sounds, shockingly beautiful, but not yet music, as it was absent a context, a reason to be heard now and not later or never. The lesson here was that ear candy (be it that oven grill, or Tchaikovsky, or Bacharach) is easy to make, easy to digest, but it's still candy, and the camper is only going to be happy until the sugar has burned away. And yes, you'll keep coming back for more, but you're caught in a vicious cycle.

I don't insist "that music have meaning, social relevance, logical consistency or historical context", as any music, including ear candy, will have all of that. What I do insist upon is that the music challenge, or even change, the way I listen.

Samuel Vriezen said...

Daniel, your understanding of the Oulipo is in agreement with mine. But they did (and do), of course, go far beyond existent genres, inventing genres of their own (generalized sestinas, the 'morale elementaire', the 'snowball', etc.). But language was given - albeit sometimes in strange ways (e.g. there were investigations of the language of the great apes, which was deduced from analysis of the Tarzan books, for example)

And re: meaning and all that - it's indeed not necessary to insist that music have meaning, social relevance, logical consistency or historical context. Usually, music has all of the above in some form or other whether you insist on it or not. The question is rather: does the specific kind of meaning, relevance, consistency, context your music has interest you or do you not really care?

docker said...

Daniel, let me get this straight. You and your cohorts had a few drinks and rummaged around in someone's kitchen banging on cooking utensils hunting for the most interesting sound. After diligent consideration your committee awarded the prize to the Suspended Direct-Cranial-Transduction Oven Grill-o-phone. (I assume you know that something simpler is possible with any kitchen fork; just strike the tines on a hard surface and put the handle against your ear.)

Anyway, can it be that no one in your group made the small mental jump to regard this sound as music? For a while back then building instruments was enough to get you considered a composer. (These days I think those types have moved into the sculpture world.) But still, a little compositional mentation and viola, and you've got music. Ooops. I actually meant to type "and voila" - but a piece for amplified Oven Grill and Viola would not have been considered the slightest bit unusual in my graduate school days. I actully performed a piece for clarinet and blenders once.

Okay - back to David Cope's kitchen. Did you find time to jam a bit afterwards? The Cope Kitchen Combo improvising it's newest work the Coffee Pot Cantata. Nearly any human, except a few academics apparently, would recognize that as a primal form of music.

I remember hearing a story about Brian Eno. He had attended one of the New Music America festivals and someone asked him how he liked the music. He responded "It thrills me all the way down to my neck." I've always regarded that as one of the most intelligent comments anyone has ever made about new music. (I hope the story is not apocryphal.)

It's perfectly fine to listen to music in hopes of having it change the way you listen. But maybe you should consider occasionally listening to music that challenges another lower organ - like, maybe, getting your toes a tapping. Or music for your stomach; a musician's got to eat, right?

Daniel Wolf said...

David --

While I'm something of a minimalist, I remain optimistic that we can have a musical life including music that does more that assist with lower bodily functions.

In Gilbert Rouget's _Music and Trance_, it's shown (conclusively AFAIC) that although music may often be a component of trance induction, no specific musical material is associated with this instrumentality; in other words, the music is just a placeholder in the process of induction, and some other, perhaps any other, music could have been sustituted.

And that's the problem with _Gebrauchsmusik_ -- it is usable, but also disposable and replaceable. If you wanna dance, there's always something to dance to, and if you want to eat, you'll eat no matter what's on the radio, and if you want to do something more interesting, well, Louis Soleil had Lully, the King of Karagasem had the Gamelan Semar Pegulingan, my father's generation had Jackie Gleason's Velvet Brass and we've got Barry White. And while I will use as much functional music as anyone else, enjoying ear candy as if my blood sugar count were zero, I have made the choice that I'm not going to waste any of my limited time and energy for music making on anything other than renewable music, the music that nourishes mind, body, spirit, and keeps at it for the long haul.