Originally published in PLEASURE 2013
Illustration by Noel Freibert
Notes on the 20th century avant garde
1. Suppose art is not concerned with producing beauty in the sense of sensory pleasure or something found subjectively appealing. Suppose rather that it aims to express a truth--art as a cognitive activity or mode of thought.
This is a hypothesis.
2. Taking music as an art form, the guiding purpose of its methodology cannot solely be the creation of pleasant sounds. This has been the dominant consensus among avant garde musicians since modernist composition gained its footing. Let’s see where it takes us: Music thinks sonorous ideas.
“Music is language. A human being wants to express ideas in this language, but not ideas that can be translated into concepts--musical ideas.” - Anton Webern
For the most part, everything below is only concerned with developments in listening and composition in the Occident, mainly because it's the only arc of theoretical reflection on music that I know anything about.
3. Saying a piece of music sounds nice or interesting or cool because one just thinks it sounds that way is not the root of an explanation, but the bare surface. It can only signify an inability to articulate one’s cognitive grasp of music.
There should be something more going on than the sort of sensory gratification that accompanies eating a nice meal.
4. Why create music? Couldn’t I just walk around in search of pleasing and interesting things to listen to? Birds singing... or the industrial symphony of a construction site. Presumably this is unsatisfactory. These don’t seek to express or signify anything; they are rooted in forms of life that seek to achieve something other than music.
I’ll have to come back to this. Below, a historical interlude seeking to give a cursory demonstration of the manner in which music has tended to possess a conceptual dimension, expressing modes of thought that reign in particular social and historical moments. Painting with a very wide brush.
5. Pythagorean harmony is a formalism characteristic of ancient Greek thinking. Here music is a species of the mathematical arts; the ratio dominates tonality. A string played with another one-and-a-half times its length produces a perfect fifth. The correspondence between this physical proportionality and the perception of harmony lend beauty an element of apparent objectivity. The next formal musical practice in the Occident is plainsong. Originally monophonic, plainsong slowly cycles through a melodic line with a loose, modulating rhythm; an aural presentation of the eternal nature of the Creator. Polyphony is initially constructed in a linear, step-by-step fashion, matching a second voice to the first for each note. Around the same time that painters begin to receive non-religious commissions--making portraits of nobility and royalty--composition begins to change.
“I remain faithful to the pure old composition and pure rules. I have often walked out of the church since I could no longer listen to that mountain yodeling. I hope this worthless modern coinage will fall into disuse and that new coins will be forged according to the fine old stamp and standard.” - Samuel Scheidt
“Knowledge of them is no doubt necessary for those who wish to study and execute ancient music composed according to these modes; but as we have been liberated from the narrow limits of ancient music, I cannot see of what use the Greek modes can be to modern music.” - Georg Freidrich Händel
6. With the diminution of religion’s role in musical practice, it becomes an object of inquiry for its own sake; the study of counterpoint gains precedence. The parallel fifths and octaves of previous polyphonic writing are excised, yielding to voices in relations of mutual reference. The form is still primarily horizontal and linear, but it loses its cyclical nature. Baroque compositions are self-sufficient unities within unities. The melodic lines are not written note-by-note, but with the whole of the piece in mind. Instead of the medieval modes, each sonata elaborates and demonstrates a signature key, developing a theme through self-contained movements. It is the sound of a culture fascinated by clockwork; the staggered meandering of the harpsichord in Bach’s Inventions go along well with a physical world conceived as mechanistic and systematic interactions of corpuscles. Music begins to expand vertically. As European intellectual circles celebrate the infinite depth of subjectivity, virtuosity and emotive expression become fashionable. The orchestra grows in constituents, the compositions become more grandiose, more dynamic.
“Every passion--love, hatred, anger, despair, and so forth, just as the opera gives them to us--is clothed by music and the purple luster of Romanticism, and even what we have undergone in life guides us out of life into the realm of the infinite. As strong as this is music’s magic and growing stronger and stronger, it had to break each chain that bound it to another art.” - Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffman
“What love is to man, music is to man as well as to the arts; for it is love itself, the purest, most ethereal language of the passions, containing their innumerable and constantly changing colors, yet expressing only one truth that is immediately understood by a thousand people endowed with the most widely divergent feelings.” - Carl Maria von Weber
“My mind is made up; when it's necessary, I go somewhere; but it all depends on circumstances. If I have diarrhea, I run: and if I can't hold it any longer, I shit in my pants.” - Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
7. Increasingly complex harmonies become accepted into the language until, with Schönberg, even dissonance is recognized as a sort of harmony. The rules established and modified since the Baroque are seen as yet another stranglehold on the essence of music. Here the post-Renaissance progression is reaching its breaking point; musical key, the compositional flagship of a tonal center, is abandoned.
“The path to be taken here seems to me the following: not to look for harmonies, since there are no rules for those, no values, no laws of construction, no assessment. Rather, to write parts. From the way these sound, harmonies will later be abstracted […] As a reaction against the musical epoch that has just run its course, an epoch which carried to the limit the pathos of subjective feeling, one may expect a more un-pathetic kind of music.” - Arnold Schönberg
“Where has one to go, and does one in fact have to return to the relationships implied by traditional harmony?--thinking over points like these, we have the feeling, ‘We don't need these relationships any more, our ear is satisfied without tonality too.’ The time was simply ripe for the disappearance of tonality.” - Anton Webern
8. One hundred years ago, in 1913, Russolo penned his manifesto on the ‘art of noises.’ A very wide range of the compositional strategies that will come to characterize the 20th century avant garde were prefigured therein. To name a few: a focus on timbre, a turn to polyrhythms, the invention of new instruments, the use of sounds sourced from everyday experience, non-traditional notational techniques, and a preoccupation with exploring the possibilities of auditory experience. Much of the century appears as a programmatic execution of Russolo's call-to-arms, in which the demand is always for newer noises and their manifold combinations.
“Musical sound is too limited in its variety of timbres. The most complicated orchestras can be reduced to four or five classes of instruments different in timbres of sound: bowed instruments, metal winds, wood winds, and percussion. Thus, modern music flounders within this tiny circle, vainly striving to create new varieties of timbre. We must break out of this limited circle of sounds and conquer the infinite variety of noise-sounds.” - Luigi Russolo
“The electronic medium is also adding an unbelievable variety of new timbres to our musical stores, but most important of all, it has freed music from the tempered system, which has prevented music from keeping pace with the other arts and with science. Composers are now able, as never before, to satisfy the dictates of that inner ear of imagination.” - Edgard Varèse
9. Serial music, for example, develops a formal exploration of sequential tonal possibilities. A given parameter-sequence (initially pitch, but later expanded to rhythm, dynamics, etc) is subjected to repeated permutations without repetition. The latently mathematical, combinatoric pretenses of the work give rise to formalisms such as musical set theory and pave the way for even more heavily mathematical composers such as Xenakis.
10. This is representative of the proliferative pole of the 20th century. Always new sounds, new combinations, music as the organization of noises.
11. The alternate pole is reclusive. It seeks an abstract, sonic bareness; the simplicity of a single crescendo/decrescendo in Tenney's Having Never Written a Note for Percussion, the droning of the Theatre of Eternal Music, and the slow progressions of minimalism. In contrast to serialism's eschewal of repetition, an emphasis on it. Rather than direct technology toward the invention of never-before-heard sounds, it uses it in order to listen to old sounds anew; reproduction rather than production.
An attempt to render the diversity of 20th century composition a bit more intelligible, to see its output as the result of a few unified principles working in tandem.
12. The reclusive pole is implied by the proliferative one. Together they characterize the 20th century’s obsession with the two conceptual extremes of music: as noise and as its negation--silence. The approaches are not mutually exclusive. They embody the same critical, modernist spirit: music seeking to at once determine and pose a challenge to its presumed field of possibility.
13. As a consequence, music as an art form becomes withdrawn into itself.
“Called upon to say something about my public, I have to confess: I do not believe I have one.” - Arnold Schönberg
“I dare suggest that the composer would do himself and his music an immediate and eventual service by total, resolute, and voluntary withdrawal from this public world to one of private performance and electronic media, with its very real possibility of complete elimination of the public and social aspects of musical composition.” - Milton Babbitt
14. In parallel to the disruptions that met mathematics, philosophy, and physics in the early 20th century, art in that period seems to have lost confidence in its own foundations. The old, established way of doing music was no longer gripping, having lost the nature of an imperative.
15. The result was certainly an explosion in new ways of thinking about and writing music, but today it almost seems driven to become mundane.
16. The conclusion of a realized indifference between music, noise, and silence is a complete anarchy of sound. No noise is unworthy; every sound is as significant, complete, and potentially rich as any other. All sounds are material for composition, and composition itself need not completely determine the sounds it produces. Cage is the exemplar of this attitude. Silence is the disposition through which supposed non-music becomes musical. All barriers melt away; an aesthetic Buddhism.
“I have nothing to say and I am saying it.”
“A time that's just time will let sounds be just sounds and if they are folk tunes, unresolved ninth chords, or knives and forks, just folk tunes, unresolved ninth chords, or knives and forks.” - John Cage
17. Listening can now be recognized in its active or productive capacity. Just as viewing an art object depends on the participation of its audience, namely that we approach it as art, one's common surroundings gain a potential aesthetic quality. Satie muses on the creation of ‘furniture music,’ Eno endeavors to produce a music that meshes with the ambiance and utility of modern social spaces, and acousmatics cuts the recorded sound from its source in order to contemplate it in its sonic purity.
“Although it is materialized by the magnetic tape, the object, as we are defining it, is not on the tape either. What is on the tape is only the magnetic trace of a signal: a sonorous support or an acoustic signal. When listened to by a dog, a child, a Martian, or the citizen of another musical civilization, this signal takes on another meaning or sense. The object is not an object except to our listening, it is relative to it.” - Pierre Schaeffer
“New music: new listening. Not an attempt to understand something that is being said, for, if something were being said, the sounds would be given the shapes of words. Just an attention to the activity of sounds.” - John Cage
18. Just as the proliferative pole compels a sort of reclusion exemplified in Babbitt’s conception of the composer as a specialist who need not concern herself with the public, so the reclusive compels a sort of proliferation wherein music, being potentially everywhere and comprised of anything, becomes ubiquitous.
19. This prompts a return to the earlier question: why not, instead of ‘making’ music, simply go out and find interesting or pleasing noises? If composed or performed music has no value over incidental sonorous events, if the bare quality of (not) being a sound is the only guaranteed criterion of music, then it seems we lack an immediate, sure response to this question. Choosing to compose and perform music as people have traditionally done is just that: a tradition, and one that is participated in as a matter of taste.
20. Maybe music in its ‘serious’ institutional forms, being incapable of telling us anything beyond “New noises! Listen!”, will simply lose its relevance. Perhaps, in its withdrawal from general public attention, this has already happened. ‘Serious’ music as another niche genre, a particular taste exercised by a particular group with no real consequences aside from their subjective enjoyment. If you happen to live close enough to a condensation of people of a certain social background, you can pay $10 to watch someone drag their nails along the strings of an amplified cello for fifteen minutes. Everyone there will assure you that you have witnessed a truly artistic event and perhaps you will leave feeling a bit enlightened. Perhaps this is not such a bad thing, although it seems, like the rest of high art, in a precarious relation to utter banality. Avant garde music was always based in social cliques, but it was never so easy to think of it as one genre among others, perhaps with more ideological pretensions, but with no real reason for thinking it superior to anything else.
Why not just leave it behind then? If the only difference between attending a 'serious' music concert and going to a show is that the latter has a slimmer stick up its ass, why not forgo the formalities and enjoy oneself? That’s fine. The problem is that genres that aren’t in some way attempting to incorporate these ideas tend toward excessive repetition and homogeneity. Their ulterior social function is ever-present. Sure, they make for good scenes and background music, but they are impossible to focus on without becoming tedious. What happens when Stockhausen listens to Aphex Twin?
21. Of course music in all its forms is far from irrelevance. On the contrary, it is one of the arts with the most widespread appeal. It seems strange for someone not to like music, to not have well-defined preferences and tastes, however remote or generic. Moreover, music has been driven to permeate continuously deeper into the expanse of everyday experience. In commercial spaces it is nearly impossible to avoid. Through the speakers of a car, computer, or headphones there is evidence of a sweeping compulsion to take up the imperative “listen!”, to enjoy it, to talk about it and show it to others. Music as phenomenological embroidery, as a constant companion. The value given to music today is so automatic and insipid, such an obvious result of its ease of technological reproduction and amenability to commodification, that it may be healthy to ask ourselves whether we should bother liking it at all or, at the very least, at what dosage. It has become dangerously easy to distract ourselves with music--a symptom of the kind of technological rationality that seeks to remove the capacity for reflection wherever it appears superfluous. What sort of thoughts might we have if there weren't constantly songs “stuck in our head”? This phenomenon has its obscure benefactors; “catchy” music, with its militant insistence on repetition and preschool-ready melodies, provides an infectious form of marketing propaganda for its retailers. Anyone who can sit down with nothing else and authentically enjoy all four minutes of a song like “Call Me Maybe” (a half-baked trance song with enough sugary gloss to put a diabetic into a coma) is a likely victim of brainwashing. This inclination of public taste was already made evident by the massively positive reception of Ravel's Boléro, a piece that spends fifteen minutes repeating itself with small variations; perfect furniture music.
Music has always had a social dimension. Today it works not only in forging a collective experience, but also as a collection of trinkets that everyone can wear around and exhibit for each other. Certain wings of the cultural studies world responded to critics of the isolating, atomized nature of a society of Walkman listeners by celebrating its ability to color and shape everyday experiences, creating new perceptual fields and the like. They were objecting to reactionary attitudes, but their enthusiasm seems excessive, a little too eager to celebrate gadgetry.
The obvious response to all of this is to admit that people generally are not and needn't be concerned with the intellectual content of the music they listen to. It's fluff, something listened to for fun or for no good reason, and anyone will admit it. In this case, there is also no good reason to think of music as an art form in the sense originally posited.
22. Theory: so much music journalism today is flooded with hyperbole and overwrought writing styles because it is hard to get anyone to give a shit about the ten thousand sort-of-good projects being churned out by people who seem convinced that the world needs another hardcore, indie rock, or ambient electronic band. Outlets covering less mainstream spheres make a lot of noise about the accomplishments of today's non-academic ‘experimental’ scenes. At best these clans seem to be taking ideas that were well-established forty years ago and putting them in effective dialogue with non-formal musical practices.
Robert Ashley's The Wolfman (1964) remains one of the best works of harsh noise and Lucier's Music on a Long Thin Wire (1977) of drone.
23. Where to go from here? The field seems fragmented and aimless, and yet coherent in expressing the conceptual confusion the 20th century has led itself into. It's possible that we were wrong in thinking that music was an endless task, that the hyper-productivity of our age has simply exhausted the idea. Everything has run in a large circle; rejecting the simple notion that producing pleasant sounds was the telos of music has, through repeated disruptions of the dominant formal criteria, returned to a mundane, subjective determination of musical worth. Perhaps the age of radical programs and polemics has fizzled out and we are now emerging from a productive hallucination. Or should we go on chasing after ‘new sounds’ and revolutions in hearing? If nothing else, avenues of abstraction now exist that enable humans to be as entertained by random noises as they are by the Beatles and Beyoncé. It's pretty clear that the only available response is to continue as we have been, mashing together the materials on hand. Or why not say “fuck it,” get drunk, and blast something people can move to. It is a game lacking stakes.
A recent advertising campaign for the Mini Cooper, entitled NOT NORMAL and “designed to appeal to trendsetters,” contrasts shots of daily routines, suburban life, and people in suits with fashionable, neon-clad young adults playing in bands, dancing in clubs, and engaging in crazy art activities (all, of course, with their Mini Coopers in tow). That marketers are willing to spend millions on the belief that enough people will buy into this imagery is a testament to the prosaic, predictable attitudes of some portion of today's self-described 'artistic' people.
“I see myself entangled in an insoluble contradiction that can no longer be reflected adequately in works of art. Under existing conditions, music can only be an act of desperation, a negation. Possibly, it can still vaguely suggest a utopia of freedom, but the freedom we mean is greater than its surrogate, the work of art. Wherever art still assumes a positivistic pose, it functions as a counterfeit likeness of culture.” - Hans Werner Henze