Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Edge of an Era

We're in the habit of thinking of history in terms of large events and clearly defined eras. Things were so, then this happened and then everything changed. The present economic crisis provides a useful, if unfortunate, opportunity to revise this habit. We are told that we are in the middle of a crisis, but for most of us, the depth of the situation still hasn't really set in. Family at home in the US is still planning turkey dinners and doing their holiday shopping. Word has gotten 'round that someone we know has lost a job or a house, but such news comes slowly, in bits and pieces, not all at once. Here in Germany, most people are enjoying a welcome dip in fuel prices — useful with a cold winter coming —, the mortgage crisis has largely been a foreign affair (okay, a few banks are going down due to US engagements, but Germany has always had a weird relationship to its banks and there's always been suspicion about American financial innovation, not altogether unlike that for American musical innovation, so there's more than a touch of "good riddance" about), and the declines in exports which will have to come have not yet registered. All the warning signs and signals have been around for a long time, and while there were voices predicting the coming doom, hindsight is perfect vision and accompanied by memories erased of those prophets who can only be enjoying their 20,000-point Dow and the McCain victory in an alternative universe.

Which is just to get 'round to the observation that other, similar events, arrived in a similar, slinking way*: the Great Depression didn't hit in the moment of the crash of '29, it came in fits and starts, and people were well into very bad times before the severity and potential duration of the event was even somewhat clear (prosperity, you know, just being around the corner). Likewise in music history, folks didn't wake up one morning in 1750 and decide, all together & spontaneously, that they were fed up being baroque and that it was time to get down and get classical. How about the "rock'n'roll" era? Mine was one of those lower-middle-class households which turned on the B&W Zenith to watch the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. But the interest was novelty (the noise, the haircuts, the suits w/o collars), not the music. After the "event", my father put on an LP of the Cal Tjader Latin Jazz Concert or Jackie Gleason's Velvet Brass to hear some "real music". Nope, even with significantly large and influential works & deeds & events, these were — and are — processes with long, slow burns. The polyphony of styles and methods and materials and ideas that characterizes contemporary composition and music distribution and reception basically eliminates the possibility of a sudden of overwhelming change. Sure, there are single works that have tremendous impact, and single composers who seem larger-than-life, but look closely, and in every case, I'm sure that you'll find that the impact is gradually, not sudden. I think it took a quarter-century for In C to register, for example, a work of decisive and international impact on two generations of composers, but the wake of In C was initially very slow, of low amplitude and more than a little ambiguous. Was it about tonality? Texture? Improvisation? Loops and phases? Nowadays, we hear In C through the perspective of its wake, and from the perspective of "minimalism" (a term unused at the time of its composition), and the immediate ancestors of In C are all but forgotten. I know several people who heard the first performance of In C. All of them agree that something fundamentally changed with that experience, but what changed immediately was the individual sense of the nature, extent, and limits of their own music-making, not the change in the nature, extent, and limits of music-making in general that we recognize today. In music, this change comes without an edge, individual listener by individual listener, not in grand and universal events dividing the moment decisively from everything that came before it.

* I think I have to add this: as a child, maybe five or six years old, I had a recurring nightmare, from which I would wake in tears and cold sweats of terror. It involved a slinky, or something like a slinky, a wire coil that would keep moving forward, step-by-step, increasing in size, volume, and ever-so-slowly in tempo, until the movement, which had begun as that of a modest toy had become menacingly loud, gigantic, and insistent.


paul bailey said...

over the last few years i started to realize that i haven't witnessed any major changes in the musical aesthetic in my adult life. minimalism was in its teen years when i discovered it in the late 80's and most online discussions still seem to be fighting wars over over events that happened 50 years ago.

i know change is coming, and from here it looks like the way many do business (get paid) is going to change radically. is money for commissions and artists in residence going to dry up? i bet its the first to go.

for those of us who create outside the academic and institutional mainstream (and further away those from commissions, residencies and festivals) it seems we are well prepared for this financial shift. after hearing about the possible demise of our own contemporary art museum in los angeles (MOCA) i wonder how many these institutions will be left standing in five years? what will people create when they aren't invited to the mcdowell artist colony? the horror!

Daniel Wolf said...

Paul --

Who the hell gets invited to the MacDowell Colony? I've never even bothered applying -- besides the fact that my references would hold no weight there, being outside the conservatory set, how could I afford transportion there? what would I do with my family? how would I keep up mortgage payments?

I suspect that those of us with most of our experience outside of mainstream institutions may well do better in the coming times than those (school of quietude/conservatory) types.

Samuel Vriezen said...

The theory of Badiou gives a good analytical background to these observations. In Badiou, Events are indeed decisive, but they can never be formally pointed down - they're "undecidable". You can't prove that events have taken place. You can always just "go back to real music" - pretend that new thing just wasn't new. Which is why people must *decide* they have happened, and then allow them to become *decisive*. That takes time, and it takes militancy, which is the process (the "truth procedure") of being faithful to an event that you have accepted as such - in Badiou's theory, this militancy is the form of subjectivity itself.

"The polyphony of styles and methods and materials and ideas that characterizes contemporary composition and music distribution and reception basically eliminates the possibility of a sudden of overwhelming change." - that would be well described by Badiou's notion, from Logique des Mondes, of a "monde atone" ("listless world"?) - a world oversaturated by its nuance that makes decision practically impossible.