Saturday, October 09, 2010

The advantages of making music under the radar

The current dramatic cuts in cultural funding — whether due to market or political forces, and whether done in slow steps (as in Germany, where the rapidly rising costs of the rights for soccer broadcasts, for example, are gradually eating up state broadcasting budgets whose fee-supported funding would otherwise be stable or growing) or in sudden cuts (as in the Netherlands, where a nationalist/populist political coalition has found common cause in attacking "elitist" arts organizations, even when some of these organizations are best evidence of what that nation can be) — have been well-described and commented upon elsewhere.  All I can usefully add is a firm expression of solidarity with the protests, as these reductions are being made to institutions which are a essential part of lives led together, if those lives together are to be lived with any purpose more than simple survival, entertainment-fed passivity, and assent to a status quo.

My realistic assessment of times to come, however, is that we will probably have to get used to the largest cultural institutions, if they are able to survive the current rounds, functioning only with dramatically reduced resources and forced to cut back their activities to minima.  That usually means very little for the most adventurous programming, even when such programming ought to be seen and heard, at the very least, as an investment in the future vitality of the institutions. It's a vicious downward spiral, but I take some heart in the fact that no institution can or should be viewed as immortal, and this mortality is actually a good thing in the long term. So long as resources and interest remain or are found for the invention and support of new institutions, there is potential for the creative renewal and reinvigoration of institutional art making.

In the meanwhile, it is useful and heartening  to recognize that most of the work done in experimental and innovative forms and idioms takes place well outside of large institutions. Most new and experimental music does not require the resources of orchestras, state radio stations or opera houses, but is made for soloists (often composer-performers), small ensembles (often composed of collaborating composers-performers sharing resources) and can now include a technical sophistication that is no less that formerly monopolized by the large institutions.  Every composer can now carry the equivalent of a Kontakte-era WDR Studio, RCA Synthesizer and the complete apparatus of Repons in their own laptop.  Most new and experimental music can be performed and heard away from the formality and expensive of large concert halls, can be recorded on equipment and media that one owns at home, and no longer requires a licensed radio station for its broadcasting, nor is that broadcasting limited to the reach of a single broadcast antenna. (It can, however, be limited by the censorship of the PRC or North Korea, or perhaps by an end to net neutrality in the US.)

Perhaps more importantly, in these times, the fact that new and experimental music is essentially invisible/inaudible to the state and corporate apparatus can be very useful.  (James C. Scott's Seeing Like a State is a superb introduction to the limits of the legibility of real, existing traditional structures to the modern state and the disasters that the best of wills have led to because of that inflexibility.)  States and corporations alike prefer and tend to respond only to structures which follow radically reduced schemes and orders.  States and corporations draw straight lines and grids and group things according to least common denominators, losing detail, texture, tone, the nature of which is often more essential than crude, uniform measures. Recognition of this may not make states and corporations pay for our rent or lunch (that's what day jobs are for, buckaroos), but it does suggest a considerable artistic advantage of going under the radar.  

In recent protests against funding cuts in the Netherlands, the police were apparently able to control crowds of protesters because the protesters moved together, with a recognizable front line, and the police are said to have used the protester's own concerted music-making as a cue for their own actions.  How much more effective it would have been had the protesters moved, not as a coordinated mass, but as individuals roughly flocking in a general, but not manageable motion?  And however could the police have taken a cue from the music had it been, instead, sung quietly but independently by hundreds of individuals moving at the own time and trajectories through public spaces?  There's an interesting invitation to compose!  

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