Sunday, March 9, 2008

Writing Music’s Boundaries, Richard Toop

I apologise in advance, at least provisionally, for a title that may appear to be gratuitously trendy, or more exactly, to be latching on to yesterday’s trends. My only defence is that, in fact, it does describe very exactly what I want to talk about. This I shall hope to demonstrate.

It is presumably unknown when, where, and in what language, an indignant listener first exclaimed: “That’s not music!” But I would suspect that it was a very long time ago, and probably predated written language. Indeed, it may well be that it followed shortly on the heels of first attempts to find a word for what we now call ‘music’. In more modern times, we can trace many such instances before the 20th century, and we can probably agree that, whatever we might think now of the works or performances in question, they were undoubtedly instances of music, rather than anything else. But there is no doubt that, in the 20th century, the definition of ‘music’ became considerably more problematic, and for a number of reasons.

Initially, many of these related to what Schoenberg once described as “breaking the barriers of a bygone aesthetic”. For many people then, and today too, aesthetic barriers might be transgressed, but they can’t be broken. Put another way, if you fool around in Paradise, you don’t expand its boundaries: you just get cast out. Less dramatically, if you have an art whose very nature is often defined in essentially qualitative, quasi-aesthetic terms that are, in the broadest sense, conservative (even the typical dictionary definition ­ “a harmonious combination of sounds”- is indicative in this respect), then any major innovation is likely to create friction with the basic definition, along the lines of: “Music is X”, “Such-and-such is not X”, therefore “Such-and­such is not music”. In this respect, it sometimes seems to me, music is the most hidebound of the Western arts, and particularly so in terms of establishment Anglo-Saxon (and especially English) aesthetic discourse. It may well be that the simplest and most sensible response to this discourse is to regard it as an interesting and often illuminating commentary on a very limited repertory (in effect, two centuries out of nine or ten, within one culture out of many), and to dismiss its pretensions to universality as a slightly bizarre eccentricity. This, on the whole, is the view I find myself inclining towards. But it would be foolish to underestimate the continuing influence of the ‘established discourse’, even on the verge of the 21st century, and its capacity to shape the nature of music historiography.

In the last fifty years, however, there have been other, more radical, developments. The initial history of music’s post-war avant-garde was one of detaching itself from any inherited aesthetic, and assuming that one of its principle objectives was to redefine the possible scope of ‘music’, either through using inherited media in a completely new way, both physically and structurally, or through creating entirely new media, such as electronic music. Many of these activities, initially regarded as ‘not music’, have since assumed almost canonical status, and their omission from a history of 20th century music would be regarded not as controversial, but simply as incompetent. Others, on the other hand, have resisted integration into music history.

It is worth emphasising, perhaps, that what I shall be putting forward as a problem area in relation to music would not normally be regarded as a problem in the visual arts. Most art historians now agree that comparable phenomena in the visual arts, even if they adopted a defiantly ‘anti-art’ posture, were nevertheless entirely referential to art, not disjunct from it, and that art history provides much the most plausible framework for explaining and interpreting them. Accordingly, one can’t really imagine an account of the latter in the first two decades of the 20th century that didn’t address an overtly anti-art movement like Dada, or of the fifties and sixties that didn’t chronicle the rise of the Fluxus artists, of whom more below. But music historiography has been very resistant to comparable trends in music. It reluctantly accepts the existence of what it agrees to call ‘experimental music’, but considers that this should be the province of a different breed of commentators, and in no way calls on ‘traditional’ art music historiography to change its own boundaries. Back in 1974, long before his days of celebrity as a film-music composer, Michael Nyman wrote a short but remarkable book called Experimental Music,[1] in which most of the trends I shallrefer to are described in a most authoritative way. But that account, and the possible strategies it opened up, seem to have been excluded from mainstream music historiography. And to the extent that activity in these areas usually inhabited an ambiguous territory between various art forms (long ago, Dick Higgins coined the useful term ‘intermedia’), musicologists have generally decided that it could best be left to exegeses in other areas. Perhaps those other areas of arts discourse gained from this, and perhaps (though relatively few music historians would accept this proposition) music lost.

There is a very concrete reason for my reflecting on such matters at this point in time, and it’s simply this. In the next month or so I have to write a chapter for a Cambridge History of 20th Century Music. It is a history of Western music, and like most of its predecessors its main focus is production for the concert hall, opera house and other socio-culturally related venues. However, to judge by the editorial chapter summaries, it is trying hard to pursue a more ecumenical path, even though, despite a final chapter provisionally entitled Geographies of Desire, the overall approach seems to be conventionally pre-postmodern. Five chapters out of twenty-two are explicitly oriented towards more popular forms, with jazz and rock being particularly emphasized, and there is an underlying assumption that many other chapters might at least make some reference to them.

Within all this, I have been asked to write a chapter that deals primarily with high modernism in the 1960s and early 1970s; other chapters will cover the same period from different standpoints. Now it seems to me that if I am going carry out this particular brief in a responsible manner, I have not only to go through the banal traumas of deciding whom to include and not to include, but also to do something a little more radical. That is, in addition to chronicling the activities of the concert-hall avant-garde, I need to draw attention to those activities that stretch and perhaps even exceed the boundaries of ‘music’, and latently point towards other sound-based art forms, even though this was not part of the initial editorial brief. I don’t wish to exaggerate the significance of all this; I don’t anticipate any cataclysmic conflicts with the editors, and it may be that in the end, only a few paragraphs within a 10,000 word framework will be devoted to this area. But the situation seems to merit a little reflection.

My main perspective here, naturally, is that of a writing historian, not of a performer or composer. Still, I should confess that in my student days, which largely coincided with the period under discussion, I was both of the latter. So even at a distance of thirty years or more, these activities have a certain resonance for me, in the sense that it’s not just a question of writing about ‘what people did’: I did it too. That raises interesting, though not unusual aspects. The advantage is that one has, or thinks one has, some authentic sense of what it felt like at the time, and what seemed to be important or interesting. The disadvantage is that any memories I have may have been blurred and distorted over the course of three or four decades, and that in any case, they can only represent one limited view, one limited experience. So they need to be treated with caution.

If I were to focus on a particular composer who created this situation, then inevitably it would be John Cage. Yet I would not be referring to the notorious ‘silent piece’ 4’33”from 1952. That piece, which initially was a response to Rauschenberg’s blank canvases, has been elevated retrospectively to Cage’s principle ideological statement (not least by Cage himself); but it gave rise to no significant practice. It didn’t establish the ‘silent piece’ as a newly proliferating genre: in principle, one was enough, though there have been some subsequent minor variants. For me, the piece that really changes the ground rules, whether intentionally or not, is Cartridge Music, which dates from 1960. The basis of this piece, which has no predefined materials or structure, is that sounds are produced by objects which are amplified by being inserted into a gramophone pickup. The main underlying assumption is that these objects, such as pipe cleaners, or pieces of wire, would normally produce sounds so quiet as to be virtually inaudible, but now they become audible. Another assumption is that most of them will produce not pitches but noises.Previously, in a 1960 context, the pickup might have reproduced Beethoven or Buddy Holly; here it does something very different.

I’m not going to claim that Cartridge Music was the first piece of its kind, but it was certainly the piece that people noticed, and drew consequences from. Out of it evolved the whole idea of ‘live electronic music’ ­ music in which live instruments and sound sources were not just amplified, but electronically transformed at the moment of performance - and that had a huge influence on new music throughout the sixties and beyond. It took any number of forms, from the highly structured to the more or less unpremeditated, and its necessary resources ranged from the purely domestic to those that could stretch a festival budget. Even a completely open work like Cage’s Variations V fall into the latter category, once one starts costing the required technology.

What live electronic music also did, on the whole, was place more emphasis on sound than structure (Stockhausen would be the great exception here, though even with him, sound per se comes to play a major role), and more emphasis on performance than on composition. And this, from a music historian’s point of view, is where things start to get a little complicated. Western art music history is dependent on the idea of repertoire; a particular genre of composition legitimises itself above all through immediate or eventual consensus concerning the quality of the best outcomes. Yet of course, music can also be defined in terms of what people do and why they do it ­ that is, as production without any necessary thought of subsequent literal reproduction, whether through notation, oral tradition or recording. That is an entirely normal situation for the ethnomusicologist, but we music historians don’t often find ourselves in situations where we have to come to grips with it. In Cage’s case, one is not just dealing with ‘concept art’: the score exists to give rise to performances, but the content of these performances, if not their actual nature, is largely unforeseeable. To a degree, that situation arises in other art music traditions ­ primarily those which, like the North Indian classical tradition, rest largely on improvisation with a solid theoretical and aesthetic underlay. But with Cage’s work, especially that from the fifties and sixties, the situation is certainly more extreme.

In relation to Cage’s Cartridge Music, for instance, I don’t personally say, “what a beautiful piece!”. But I do say, “isn’t that fascinating ­ so much followed on from it” (which is precisely why, as a historian, I know I shall need to discuss it ­ in fact, it may well be one of the starting points for my chapter). Cage himself has a rather charming and enlightening story to tell about this piece; he recalls: “I was having a drink with a friend of mine, whose name I’ve forgotten, and she had a recording that was being played while we were drinking and talking in another room, and it struck me as being a very interesting piece. I asked her what it was, and she said, “You can’t be serious!” It was a piece of mine. Which I didn’t recognize.”[2] Well, the piece was indeed Cartridge Music, and it was a recording that Cage himself had made with David Tudor. After making the final mix, which involved several superimposed layers, the producer (the composer Earle Brown) had asked whether they wanted to hear it, and being at that time innately opposed to the recording medium, as something that from their point of view gave a false sense of permanence, they had said no. So Cage was probably hearing the result for the first time.

But returning to the consequences of Cage’s piece, it gave a whole new impetus to the relationship between composing and instrument building. This is a factor not unfamiliar to traditional music historians ­ you’d hardly discuss Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven in depth without giving some thought to the development of the piano at the turn of the 19th century ­ but here it assumes a different dimension. In many cases, the piece exists primarily to expose the instrument. Moreover, the role of electronics extends beyond amplification and filtering. In some instances, the piece is not a score, not even a set of verbal instructions, but a printed circuit board.

There is a second dimension that emerges from Cage’s work at this period, or more precisely from his teaching, at the Darmstadt Summer School in Germany in 1958, andespecially at the New School for Social Research, in New York in 1958-60. One of the Darmstadt participants was a young Korean composer, Nam June Paik, who was greatly impressed by Cage’s ideas, and went on to become one the leading contemporary video artists. In New York, Cage gave a class on experimental music which attracted a small but enthusiastic group, many of whom came from the visual arts rather than music. They included people like Allen Kaprow, George Brecht, Jackson Mac Low and Dick Higgins, who almost immediately went on, along with La Monte Young (who later became the ‘father’ of minimalism) to form the core of a neo-Dada movement known as Fluxus. In fact, this movement actually crystallized in Germany in 1962, where Paik was one of those involved, and was expanded to New York a few months.

It many ways, Fluxus activities tied back to the ‘happenings’ that had already started up in the fifties. One distinctive feature, though, was rather than having many things going on at once, for a long time, they would focus on single, innately banal events, often with some humorous element; this is particularly characteristic of American Fluxus. A second feature, certainly significant from my point of view, is that often these activities, which resulted from very brief verbal instructions, were either presented as ‘music’, or at least as referential to music. George Brecht calls his pieces ‘events’, La Monte Young calls his ‘compositions’; but in practice, the distinction is not too significant. Brecht’s events have titles like Drip Music in which a “First performer on a tall ladder pours water from a pitcher very slowly down into the bell of a French horn or tuba held in the playing position by a second performer at floor level”, or Piano Piece, whose only instructions are “a vase of flowers on (to) a piano”. Moreover, these actions were typically presented in Fluxus Concerts. If one looks at the ever-growing documentation of Fluxus activities, whether it’s a matter of books, catalogues, or interviews with the survivors, one is bound to be struck by the near-omnipresence of music.

At this point, I should like to insert a brief contextualising interlude, and offer a quick gallery tour of images, scores and sounds. Ideally, they would be integrated via video, but given the relatively short notice at which this paper had to be prepared, I’m afraid I have to settle for a separation of sound and sight. Let’s start with the performance of Cartridge Music that John Cage failed to recognize, but was nonetheless impressed by:

[Cartridge Music]

Then La Monte Young, but playing a bowed gong:

[The volga delta]

And a typical Fluxus piece by George Maciunas:

[Piano Piece #13 (Carpenters’ piece)]

Now a selection of Fluxus verbal scores, by La Monte Young again:

Composition 1961 No.29, December 31

Draw a straight line and follow it.

By George Brecht:


(putting it down)





By Nam June Paik:

etude plationique no.i,

write on the black board“

from heart to htthe heart

play beethiven’s Krutzer sonata

very sincerely

with violin woithput srtring

and piano without hammer.[sic][3]

And a ‘visual score’ by Toshi Ichiyanagi:


You may of course be asking yourselves, “In terms of music, and music history, how important is this anyway?” According to Fluxus authority René Block, very important; in 1994 he began a speech with the words: “I am here putting forward the assertion that Fluxus, like no other direction in modern art, has transformed the understanding and the meaning of music and has visualized musical forms”.[4] But then, Mr. Block does have a vested interested here: he is a gallery owner who has specialised in promoting Fluxus works since its early years. Moreover, he inclines to claim John Cage as a member of Fluxus, which would indeed make a difference. I think the claim is spurious; there’s really no evidence that Cage thought of himself in such terms, and much to suggest that he had mixed feelings about the movement that hailed him as a godfather.

Still, while perhaps none of these works ­ certainly not the ones emanating from Fluxus - could reasonably be regarded as ‘great works’, they form an essential aspect of avant-garde music-making in the sixties: this is also a period when some established avant-gardists, notably Franco Evangelisti, stop composing and turn to free improvisation instead. And in my judgment, these activities do have to find a place somewhere in my chapter, even if only a relatively peripheral one. It won’t do, I think, to simply ignore them. Happily, in the last few days, I have learned that the forthcoming Revised New Grove Dictionary of Music, scheduled to appear at the end of this year, takes the same attitude, and that most of the artists I refer to here will also have entries there. So I don’t feel too isolated.

However, a whole series of related questions and problems remain. How does one find this place? It’s not like writing a book where, subject to publisher consent, you can add a couple of thousand words. Within a framework of, say, 10,000 words, one simply has to determine to leave other things out. In effect, one is preferring important ‘marginal’ activity to all but the front-rank ‘central’ activity. Put concretely, I probably have to omit a superb cantata by Klaus Huber, so that I can include La Monte Young feeding a piano. What follows from this is, at very least, a double standard; but I think that’s how it has to be. Even the most ‘canonical’ of music histories would have to acknowledge that its ‘masterworks’ form part of a trend which would normally have taken place without them, and that their elevated position is often a matter of retrospective judgment. However, the fact that some sort of consensus does arise to nominate certain ‘outstanding outcomes’ has also been a decisive factor in deciding which genres, which trends achieved the historian’s recognition. It is clear, I think, that this elderly but not yet defunct view of music history prefers not to distinguish too overtly between ‘music’ and musical works, but in fact greatly privileges the latter. It would be only a slight exaggeration to say that according to this view, music’s only significant function is to produce works, and that the exceptional work represents the condition to which all music innately aspires. This is clearly incompatible with an outlook according to which the notion of the ‘work’ is useful only to the extent that it provides a framework, a container for necessary activity. The seemingly provocative brevity of many ‘experimental’ scores reflects the fact they are only incidental. There has to be some concrete incentive to action, however gratuitous, and they provide it.

Let’s assume that one can, in principle, justify this double standard in a single chapter. More problematic, perhaps, is to weave two opposing selection criteria together in such a way that the ‘marginal’ element doesn’t seem like some kind of gratuitous intruder. In the present instance there is a potential solution, since there are links to the practice of major figures like Cage, Stockhausen, and even Ligeti, so at least one has a point of departure. I have already referred to the Cage connection; and several other young avant-gardists and future Fluxus members, including La Monte Young, attended Stockhausen’s composition classes in Darmstadt. Paik was living in Cologne in the late 1950s; Ligeti (who had a brief flirtation with Fluxus in 1962) knew him, and Stockhausen actually incorporated one of his performances into a theatre piece called Originale. So even if it involves some conceptual sleight-of-hand, the ‘canonical’ figures could be used to legitimise the anti-canonical forces.

Then there’s the question of which practices, which ‘works’ to refer to. I referred to this earlier as one of the banal problems facing all music historians, but here the problem is a little different. In terms of any established repertoire, even a late modernist one, you can assume that professional readers at least will either know the works you are referring to, or be familiar with comparable ones. They will have an inner aural image of what you are talking about, whether precise or generalised. But in terms of, say, early live electronic practice, unless you’re dealing with members of my generation or before, with long memories, you can’t assume any such thing. Doubly so in relation to Fluxus.

Here I think you have to make arbitrary choices, but meaningful ones. What are the potential criteria for this ‘meaningful arbitrariness”? It might be that firstly, the availability of sound recordings would be relevant. After all, it seems to me that historical accounts should, where possible, be verifiable or refutable, and that where no score (in a conventional sense) exists, acoustic documentation is the strongest thing to go on. But that doesn’t cover all instances. In many instances, a video would be a great deal more instructive, since it documents the performance practice, not just the acoustic outcome, which may frankly be a secondary consideration. Secondly, one might select a work, irrespective of its level of documentation, as encapsulating a particular attitude ­ one which could be conveyed verbally in relatively succinct terms. Thirdly, simple chronological priority could be a consideration, and fourthly, the sheer notoriety of a work ­ preferably sustained over at least a period of some years ­ might be a persuasive basis for referring to it. Here, I should point out that even certain works now regarded as indisputable modernist classics, such as Stockhausen’s Gruppen and Carré, initially maintained their reputation (for many years) largely by word-of-mouth, and then by a single studio recording issued on LP.

As I indicated earlier, some of these artists, primarily the ones associated with Fluxus, have already been well documented in the visual arts literature. Again this raises an obvious question: given that this documentation also embraces the ‘musical’ aspects of their works, can one simply adopt its evaluations and rankings, such as they are, for the purposes of a more music-based account? Or do different priorities emerge? In the case of Fluxus, is one trying to portray a momentary convergence of different art practices, or to document an anarchically-based attempt at a take-over bid? Or something else?

Earlier on, I mentioned the word ‘responsibility’. No doubt it’s an endless topic of debate among historians ­ probably more so now than ever, given that there are so many different stories that one is able, entitled and even encouraged to tell. John Cage recalls a conversation with the historian Arragon, in which he asked “How do you write history?” and Arragon replied “You have to invent it”.[5] That’s a rather daunting prospect, especially if, like me, you’d rather not be thought of as a fifth-rate Herodotus (the ‘Father of Lies’). But it seems that in a case like the present one, the dividing line between interpretation and invention could be rather thin.

Now as many of you will know, there is something curious about contributing to a major survey volume like a Cambridge History, or indeed contributing an entry of a few thousand words to a dictionary like Grove. Characteristically, it’s peripheral to one’s output, in the sense that it probably doesn’t contain new hard-core research. Yet the chances are that it is going to be read by more people than anything else one will ever write, and that however objective it may appear to be (in fact, precisely because of the appearance of objectivity) it is likely to shape opinion. And there, at least, lies responsibility.

So, as I hope will be clear by now, my title is not gratuitous but literal. In writing a chapter of this kind, one does not write about boundaries: one writes the boundaries themselves. Others would write them differently; but that’s in the nature of boundary-writers. Exactly where will I set those boundaries? At this moment, I don’t know for certain ­ I’ll only know when I get there, and when I do it.

[1]M. Nyman, Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond, London 1974
[2] Conversation with David Cope (1980), cited from R. Kostelanetz (ed.), Conversing with Cage, New York 1988, 214f.
[3] Cited from H.Solm (ed.), happening & fluxus ­ materialien, Cologne 1970, n.p.
[4] ‘Fluxus Music: an Everyday Event’, in A Long Tale With Many Knots ­ Fluxus in Germany 1962-1994 (exhibition catalogue), p.30
[5] J. Cage, An Autobiographical Statement,; originally in Southwest Review (1991)

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