Thursday, May 03, 2012

Feasible Utopias

Crooked Timber's John Quiggin asks about "the need for the left to offer a feasible utopian vision as an alternative to the irrationalist tribalism of the right."  And surprisingly, but convincingly, he focuses on the issue of house work. I recommend the read. For the moment, however, I'd like to skirt the "irrantional tribalism of the right" (and avoid another one of my rants about musical quietism) and back up to that notion of a "feasible utopian vision" by suggesting that this has been part of the experimental music project for a good long time.

It's useful, for example, to contrast the high modernist utopia of Varese, who composed (or tried to compose) a number of visionary works that so challenged the contemporary standard of professional performance technique (Ionisation was premiered by an ensemble which featured more non-percussionists than professional percussionists) or the available resources of electronic music, that his output dwindled and sometimes got stuck altogether (yes, there were other, personal, reasons for these standstills, but these technical difficulties were authentic)  with the practical modernist utopia of the younger musicians on the west coast, John Cage and Lou Harrison, and scattered others, like William Russell and Johanna Beyer who managed to make percussion music for their own ensemble of collected instruments struck by amateur players, gathering available resources themselves and making them work rather than wait for the profession and institutions to catch up to the novel demands of their imaginations.

Another example: over-notation versus pragmatic notation (a better phrase than under-notation, methinks).  There is, indeed, something positively utopian about the densely-notated score, and their is an ever-growing handful of musicians who are attracted to and thrive with the challenges of thick (and sometimes contradictory) prescription, but the utopia here is often literally a no-place, as the literal goal is unobtainable (and sometimes that unobtainability, indeed frustration, is considered to be part of the work; variation due to error may even be a feature).  However, the more technically feasible projects conveyed by more pragmatic notation are more literally opened to the variety of interpretive experiences, a utopia of variations is expected, even invited.  (And yes, look at the way Christian Wolff, for example, literally wrote performer error into some of his cued scores! Not as a hidden program of psychological frustration but as material with which to move forward.)  

And a last example:  when the largest new music research institutions were investing on a military-industrial scale in large synthesizers and computers and recording studios with all the typical restrictions on access and agency large institutions make and remarkably little in the way of actual musical output, the more productive — and more lastingly so — were the achievements in the small-scale institutions and private studios which focused instead on microcomputers, primitive networking, hardware hacking etc., all of it endlessly reconfigurable, much of it self-financed, with resources and know-how shared rather than shepherded through corridors of power. Yes, a lot of the work was, inevitably, toss-away-able, but it was productive, in many small steps closer to a real, functioning, feasible and musical utopia.


Charles Céleste Hutchins said...

It seems like this same mapping of uptown vs downtown, mainframe vs minicomputer dichotomy extends today to LOrk vs Laptop Band. On the one hand, you have everybody with entirely matching computers, parts and programs and other hand, a more DIY aesthetic. I can't help feeling that everybody with identical setups is sort of an Apple-ification of creativity, where "creativity" means buying an app and using it in the scripted way.

I do feel this has massive political impact in terms of how we engage consumer capitalism and corporate control.

Also, I wish you had written this 10 months ago, so I could have quoted it in my PhD thesis!

Yahya said...

"Pragmatic notation" - I like it! It seems better to capture the reality that historically, most music notation has, necessarily, been indicative rather than fully prescriptive. To my mind, the gap between what's notated and what's performed is where the real music happens.

Yahya Abdal-Aziz