Critical Repetition

A spanner in the works

The difference between self-expression and the critical

concerns the idea of skill versus discipline

Peter Eisenman


When I applied for the artistic research programme, my title for the project was Critical Repetition.[1] The title was inspired by Hal Foster, and I thought it was a good and snappy one. But the word critical, as applied both in the title and throughout my description for the project, has started to bug me in several ways. So after focusing on the implications of writing for the symphony orchestra, I have to try to tackle this not unproblematic word head on. Or, to put it less bluntly, after one year of work, it is time to reassess my theoretical starting point. One reason is the reflections that have surfaced during the process of finishing the first music in the project. But let me get back to that later, and start with the beginning. In my first text on the project, I stated the following:  

I have earlier written several works that in different ways deal with the subject matter of old music. In this project I want to investigate the critical potential inherent in the repetition of music history […] this is about critical repetition, where new practices re-enacts old ones, while simultaneously making these practices the object of critique.


When I read these sentences again, I’m still intrigued by the images they arouse in me, and at the challenges they pose. But there is also a certain discomfort, especially regarding the last phrase, about making the practices the ‘object of critique’. Not that I don’t see this as an important aspect of my music, but there is a risk that this and similar phrases may limit the scope of the project in a way I hadn’t foreseen.

The first thing I did when this discomfort started to surface, was to sit myself down and write something to home in on this problematic word, critique. As it turns out, it’s difficult to step outside the theoretical boundaries and connect to the actual music that I’m making, so the text tends to come out something like this,[2] which is all swell, but it doesn’t really take us closer to the music.

I’ll try to explain the background for this slight turn. From the very first presentation, I’ve had people asking me what I really mean when I use the term critical in a musical context. The repetition-part of the Critical Repetition is fairly easy to explain, but when it comes to Critical Music, it’s getting difficult. Within the music-community, the term is quite laden; it is closely affiliated with the work of Helmut Lachenmann, Mathias Spahlinger and other composers working in a more or less Adornoesque paradigm.[3] This is a problem in itself, to be able to work with the term without subscribing to the solutions and stylistic features of this ‘school’.[4] But for people unacquainted with the delicate discourses of 20th century music, the term seems to be pretty mystical. How can music be critical? As a teacher at the Norwegian Film Academy (whose name I have forgotten, he had a moustache and a roundish face, plus/minus fifty and was, if I remember correctly, of eastern European origin) reacted when I presented the project at a fellowship-seminar in Oslo: “Critical Music? Is that Possible?” Of course I maintained that it is, with reference to the aforementioned German tradition (for lack of better examples at the moment). And it is, indeed. But this reaction, quite typical, is a good indicator to the degree of alienation between contemporary music and discussions within the arts in general. It is also part of the explanation of why music has difficulties in relating to larger socio-political structures.[5] During lunch, at the same seminar (or maybe it was another, I don’t remember, all these seminars) Per Bjarne Boym, one of the fellowship mentors, asked me why I did not work with the idea of the question instead of the idea of critique. I don’t recall what I answered, something offhanded, probably, but the question-question kind of stuck with me. Also, the suspicion against critique from theorists like Rancière and the emergence of a domain of post-critique has started to interest me, further complicating the matter.

So. After these experiences, I am sitting at my desk trying to work out for myself, in the form of a short essay, what my personal take on the notion of music-as-critical-art can be. Or if I should maybe rephrase some of my ground rules and talk about music-as-question instead. At this point, the onset of my second year in the project, the act of creation, making music, has posed several issues that start to conflict with a clear-cut theorization on the subject. When you get into the groove of actually making the stuff, you get your hands dirty with all sorts of inventions and phantasmagorical detours from what looked like a well-defined path. Needless to say, this is a good thing. For art. Maybe less so for theory. But since this is Artistic Research and not Science, I will use the opportunity to see what energies can be drawn from this collision. Take, for instance, repetition as musical parameter. I use it as a metaphor for the incessant and thoughtless iteration of the classical canon in the modern, semi-commercialized symphony orchestra. I try to show, rather unrefined, the mime-game of playing the extremely limited repertoire, advocated by travelling soloists, conductors and their agents, thinly veiled as interpretation. At the same time repetition is the simplest way of evoking musical ‘magic’ and to seduce an audience. This is something every composer knows, and if used as a trick of the trade, repetition is soliciting mere confirmation and provokes no questions. So although my intention was to essay on the theoretical foundation for a musical criticality, this might be the time for taking leave with theory and to point to the actual piece of music and how these meeting points, or rather, collisions, might work.

Today is the 21st of august 2010, and in a little less than a month the first work in my research project will be premiered at the Ultima festival in Oslo. The work is a 25-minute piece for concert hall with orchestra and electronics. I have no problem pointing out the structural and timbral qualities that justifies the word critical as a superscriptio above the piece. The title is Standing Stones, and the genre-title, for concert hall with orchestra and electronics, suggests an altering in the order of symphonic music: The piece is not for the symphony orchestra as such, but about the place of the orchestra, of the music taking place, so to speak, and of the context of the modern-day orchestra within the classical tradition. And I wonder if it might be more true, both to the piece and to the direction my investigations have taken, to find a better rhetorical framework for my ideas.[6] I have written extensively about the ideas investigated in the piece in “Excavation/Exhumation/Autopsy”, so I won’t go into the details here. But a couple of frictions should be mentioned. I have already pointed to the opposition between repetition-as-metaphor and repetition-as-magic. Another friction is the use of samples. I use fragments of historical recordings and play them out against the orchestra, from loudspeakers surrounding the audience. The samples become the voice of the concert hall. The fragments are in themselves familiar to the audience, and of readily identifiable classical beauty. But heaped up in an aggregating amassment of sound, the saturated space will hopefully create questions of the sustainability of such procedures. A third example: The decay of the sampled fragments toward the end of the piece creates sound structures that have a certain kind of electronic beauty. At the same time, this prolonged gesture does, perhaps too overtly, point metaphorically to the loss of classical music’s cultural hegemony; it’s slow but inevitable demise.

These examples are related to a notion that is basic to me; that I make the place for these energies within sound, in the sounding of the orchestral hall. I want to let the unresolved frictions of dualities linger, in order to leave the situation open to the imagining ear. To let the music insist on its status as sound, and to trust that the physical sound in the actual context of the performance can convey the critical potential of the work of music.[7] I have tried to aim for something that LaMonte Young stated in 1960,[i] when describing his sounds as separate worlds connected to us through our bodies: “This is not so easily explained, but more easily experienced”. The opposite is true of so much music (what is easily explained is not-so-easily experienced), and my ambition is to create a context of experience where meaning is not parsed to some literal explanation.

I discovered through letting myself go in the act of investigating my ideas in purely musical ways, how important it has been to map out an area where idea and sound can meet on equal terms, fresh to my ear and without inhibitions. That is to say, also without the limitations of a pre-fabricated theory. After engorging myself on theory for a full six months, I plunged into the desires of music-making with the certainty that the subject matter is totally ingested into the fibre of my musical imagination. I have already stated that the piece is a place, and the listener is invited to traverse the area in a variety of different ways. The same is true of the creative process. The making of the piece is one way of mapping out the area of the project. And I imagine that each different piece will offer an independent reading of the topography, making different maps that each reveal different meeting points between idea and sound. Different places than I had thought up beforehand. Isn’t this the whole point of ‘artistic research’?

When discussing the continuation of Helmut Lachenman’s ideas with my secondary supervisor, Olav Anton Thommesen, he stated that: “Lachenmann belongs to the 20th century. You belong to the 21st!” The comparison is of course totally unjustifiable. And I’m not sure we would agree on the implications of the statement. But the point is clear: When making new music, it is crucial to trace ones own trajectory, not only on musical, but also aesthetical terms. I am not talking about re-inventing the wheel here, but about the obligation to create a personal foundation for the work. Without it, all talk of criticality is totally futile. The effect of what I want to achieve might not differ so much from the critical tradition of the sixties and seventies: to shake the dust of the inherited apparatus of classical music. At least to rattle the cage a little.[8] But it is crucial that I find my own ways of describing the processes, and alternate routes of getting there.[9] This is the only way, I think, to open up the inherited formats and institutions. And this is something that has to be done over and over again, to make the inner workings of music transparent to the listening ear. This is the core of the question, the aim of critical discourse, in my book: To make the terms and machinations of the institution audible, both to the institution itself and to the listening audience.[10] If this happens in form of a question, why not. The important thing is that the constitutional energies of the orchestra are unveiled. In other words not taken for granted. In other words scrutinized with a questioning gaze. In other words criticized. And I maintain that the processes I describe must find place in sound, not in textual or visual aids.[11] In that sense, this text should become superfluous the moment the work itself is played.

As I’m looking for a handle on all this, it occurs to me that maybe it’s all about not trying too hard. Maybe about relaxing a little, having faith in the value of art and in the aspect of emergence in this question. Letting notions arise from the matter of the work instead of imposing meaning upon it. Trusting that my use of repetition and the way I employ historical samples in Standing Stones reveal something about the orchestral machine. And that the conceptual use of play-along techniques and call-and-response between orchestra and canonical recordings say something about the role of history in the orchestral subconsciousness. At the same time, I have had the delight of getting lost in the aural sensuousness of both orchestral timbre (imagined, at this point, in my score and in my head) and the submerging into a sea of Brahms-samples or a torrent of Bruckner (heard, in my computer and in my headphones). I have set my intellectual and emotional faculties at work in the direction of questioning the relation between the orchestra and history, the orchestra and the present. And hopefully, some hidden relations will be revealed and some new insights will emerge when this orchestral rendering engages with the listener’s fantasy.[ii]

So but do I need to change the title of my project? Maybe. Not necessarily. I don’t know yet. But I do need to adjust the project description to open up for a more questioning stance, without the hardheaded insisting on critical permeating the whole text. It might actually get in the way of what I am really trying to say. The funny thing is that the problem I am discussing here does not take place in my music. It is purely a problem of reflection. I find that the issues I want to address shape their own logical solutions in the work, and I am confident in the emergence of ‘meaning’ from the music.

That leaves me where I started: With the problem of formulating these insights in text. My supervisor, Ole Lützow-Holm, has urged me to expand my field of writing, to encompass more personal, maybe even precarious views. This might be due to the fact that towards the end of my first year in the project I published a novel, where several of my topics are discussed in the form of fictional writing. So the gap between the fictional voice, on one hand, and the serious quasi-scientific voice on the other hand, needs to be filled by some sort of textual go-between. It could also have to do with a need to get away from the heroic stance of the composer (ironically, while working with the orchestra, music’s most hierarchical structure, requiring almost dictator-like ‘leadership’.)

An imminent solution, in the attempt to both be precise about my take on the subject of criticality and the need for a more personal voice, is to try to write a polyphonic text; A text where these two layers intertwine, where the main thread in the fabric is the personal voice, laying bare the actual friction at this stage in my process. A personal essay and a theoretical investigation. I could start with meditating on my original title in the project, and open a discussion on the term ‘critical’. Yes. I think this could work.

[i] La Monte Young cited in Ina Blom, The Cut  Through Time. A Version of The Dada/Neo-Dada Repetition (Oslo: Acta Humaniora, 1999) p.52


[ii] See Malsky: “Fantasy and the Concert Hall”, p.3 and p.15 for a Lacanean take on rendering and how it engages our desires and fantasy lives.


Brief Note on Repetition

W.G.Sebald has described the Inhabitants of the modern world as “ghosts of repetition” – at once “utterly liberated and deeply despondent.”[i] This is definitely true of the present-day composer of new music. (S)he is liberated in the sense of working in a field that has eked out an autonomy that has brought it to the brink of marginalization. The connections to the world, even the rest of the art-field are precarious, and the composer (working with live musicians, that is) is to a large degree dependent on the institutions of classical music, where (s)he is a guest that mainly has an ornamental function. These institutions are also in so many ways themselves ghosts of repetition. For the most prominent ones, the symphonic orchestra or the chamber music concert, we can talk about repetitions in the sense of iterations – an ongoing, ever-repeating process of doing the same thing over and over. A compulsive repetition where the institution, and, by proxy, the composer, deals in repetition of canonical musical materials and situations, seemingly oblivious – or at any rate indifferent – to its own behavioural patterns.

I have referred to several essays of Hal Foster in trying to discuss repetition in terms of composing for these institutions. There is, however, one point I need to clarify, and that is that Foster mainly deals with repetition in the sense of returns, not iteration. In The Return of the Real he develops a theory on the Freudian concept of deferred action, of the working-through of a traumatic incident.[ii] My take is rather the opposite: The trauma of the musical avant-garde (Schönberg, Stravinskij et al.) and their projection of a new course of musical history was simply overtaken and buried by the conservation and repetition of a canon that reified and engulfed these energies. Future avant-gardes were effectively foreclosed by the substitution of singularity to iterations of canon. This could be effectively done since the here-and-now of musical performance hides the fact that it most of the time proffers repetitions of a museal character. New music is, by and large, merely subscribing to this situation, giving a weak sort of political legitimacy in exchange for some warmth from the fires of the past. The rhetorics of the new can not cover up this fact, even when the work of new music is posing/being posed as a singular event, something unique and without pre-existing content or meaning. (I’ll have to discuss this a little more in-depth later).

This difference extends to another point: In relations between the neo-avant-gardes and historical avant-garde Foster writes about the critical recovery of past practices, how artists tried “to reconnect with a lost strategy in order to disconnect from a present way of working felt to be outmoded, misguided or otherwise oppressive.”[iii] For the orchestra, then, in this sense not a lost strategy as such, the challenge will be to question and examine this continued/past practice. So what I am interested in is rather the opposite of how Foster describes deferred action in the relation between avant-garde and neo-avant-garde. I will try to utilize the situation where tradition is blithely repeated without ever imagining there could be something traumatic with this repetition. I want to try to stage a moment of self-consciousness in Standing Stones, as traumatic event, futile as it may sound, by using the device of repetition.

I am also interested in several other forms of repetition. In Standing Stones, and, to a lesser degree Johannes Brahms Klarinetten-Trio, I use repetition as simple material form, as musical parameter.[iv] There is also the sense of repetition in how personal pasts cross trajectories with historical pasts, in the way canonical materials are also monuments of the subjective formation of the individual. This must be discussed later.



[i] W. G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn, trans. Michael Hulse (New York: New Directions, 1998)

[ii] See Hal Foster, “Who's Afraid of the Neo-Avant-Garde?” in The Return of the Real (Cambridge, Massachusets/London: MIT press, 1996)

[iii] Hal Foster, op. cit. p.3

[iv] I see no need to discuss this here, since it is well within bona fide music theory and processed in a multitude of studies and artistic concepts from minimal music and onwards.



[1] At this point it would be useful to say a few words about my use of the term ‘critical’. If we regard a critical position as a position of self-reflexivity, a critical art may be seen as an art that examines its own ideological devices and its own conditions and means of production. In musical terms, ‘meta-music’ is a well-known label for music that examines itself, sharing certain qualities with what we can label ‘critical music’. I will argue that the two areas also have important differences, not least in the fact that 'meta-music' often tends to underplay the examination of the conditions of production in its exuberant celebrationof itself. This is a tendency towards affirmation of present-day residue of historical structures rather than a questioning of these structures. This justifies a delineation between ‘critical’ and ‘meta’ as prefixes to music in this respect. However, critical music does probably need the meta-aspect somewhere in its apparatus in order to get access to a self-reflexive modus.

[2] My take on the term ‘critical’ does not primarily propose political engagement as in ‘political art’. In the essay “On Several Obsolete Notions”, written in the heyday of high modernismAlain Robbe-Grillet states that


instead of being of a political nature, commitment is, for the writer, the full awareness of the present problems of his own language, the conviction of their extreme importance, the desire to solve them from within. Here, for him, is the only chance of remaining an artist and, doubtless too, by means of an obscure and remote consequence, of some day serving something – perhaps even the Revolution.


This romantic notion of obscure and remote consequence seems to be a straw clutched by many artists in a time where connection to real politics seems almost impossible. Peter Bürger, on the other hand, has defined critical science as differing from traditional science by reflecting on the societal meaning of its own devices. In an essay on Josef Beuys, Bürger states that art today has no place to express a societally relevant potential of meaning. This situation, although changed in many ways in the arts since the time of Bürgers text, is still acute within music, which has rarely had real contact points with socio-political debates. It is difficult to find proper musical means when it comes to dealing with questions related to social and economical structures. In general, music can hope to be in a position to criticize these political structures in indirect or allegorical ways. These strategies can be powerful enough, not least as the classical apparatus of production, to which a lot of new music is confined, has to a high degree become an integrated part of the global marketplace. Following this, I find architectural critic Jeffrey Kipnis’ definition of critique useful also in a musical context:


A basic way for me to understand a critical practice is to think of the careful examination of the body of received practices to see which of them has become empty clichés. That's a general framework. This framework means I take a look at something that continues to operate and examine whether our relationship to its persistence is still vital, if it still does work.




[3] The “examination of perceived practices” that Kipnis prescribes can be traced in a tradition of Critical Composition, since the end of the sixties most closely affiliated with certain German composers. People like Helmut Lachenmann responded to the loss of the Darmstadt-hegemony by seeking to radicalize aspects of instrumental performance. This radicalization had an obvious political implication, taking cue from the negative dialectics of Adorno, but was nevertheless very much a radicalization of the musical language by inverting relations between musicians and their instruments.

[4] A number of idiosyncratic, individualist practices of critical composition has emerged alongside this German tradition. The Italian Aldo Clementi has, since the sixties, occupied himself with erecting ‘monuments over music’s disapperance’. These monuments take shape as works of music that act out a stasis of non-development, where motives and tone structures evolve around each other in static patterns. No dramaturgical development, no textural change, no timbral differentiation, no dynamic variation, only a mass of musical residue revolving slowly like the cinematic image of a spaceship sinking into deep space. David Osmond-Smith states that “if one takes the piled-up, endlessly repeated tonal modules of Clementi's music from the 1970s on as emblematic of the way we live now, uncertain what to do with superabundance other than to keep consuming, then his work takes on a critical edge that it only rarely hinted at explicitly.” An example of criticality intrinsic to the sounding music itself. In “A commentary on my own music”, one of the few articles translated from Italian, Clementi states that "Music (art) must simply assume the humble task of describing its own end, or at any rate its gradual extinction". The echo of Baudrillard is evident. But more interestingly, Clementi opposes the dialectic mode of thought that is so central to the German critical tradition: “Exaltation and Depression have had their day: however you disguise them, they are modest symbols of a dialectic that is already extinct.” Another example of critical practices could be the work of John Oswald, aka. Plunderphonic. He has been a pioneer in techniques of sampling and musical collage, probing the monuments of popular culture (with much legislative hassle as result, for instance being sued by Michael Jackson over “Dab”, an ingenious cut-up of Jacksons “Bad”. The court-case have in its own way become part of the critical discourse of his work.) But Oswald has also done extensive work on icons of classical/romantic music like Also sprach Zarathustra. What intrigues me most about his work is how he manages to forge critical scrutiny, context and musical substance in something highly personal, original and above all musical. Oswald has defined his material, the ‘plunderphone’ as “an unofficial but recognizable musical quote.” The plundered object has both aesthetic and/or monetary value, and, crucial to a distinction I will discuss a couple of footnotes ahead, the ability to both refer and be.


[5] New music has a tradition of directing its critical gaze inwards. Brian Ferneyhough has described his position as one of “using the language in which you write to criticize the language in which you write.” His music is an obvious case of re-thinking the nature of communication between composer and musician. But it limits itself to the score as arena for this re-thinking, it does not take broader contextual considerations into account. The obsession with musical language itself has made it difficult to unveil some of the most prominent and powerful structures governing the classical institutions of music. It has resulted in a certain kind of tunnel-vision, closely linked to the idea of the high modernist notion of autonomy, that has made it difficult to include the context of music (e.g. what I referred to as ‘conditions and means of production’) in the big picture.


[6] The movement of critical composition has in many ways petrified into style, or even rhetorical motives emptied of its original meaning and impact. What once was placed as a bomb under the holy covenant of music has been transformed to fireworks celebrating the continuation of canon. In other words: A subversive strategy has been successfully assimilated into the mainstream of the continuation of ‘classical’ music. (In his essay “The Misadventures of Critical Thought”, Rancière describes “the law of domination as a force seizing on anything that claims to challenge it. It makes any protest a spectacle and any spectacle a commodity”.) Helmut Lachenmann has long since acknowledged this problem, scourging the “structural mannerists frivolously playing with alienation as professional outsiders pandering in a Negative arts Industry”.* This makes it difficult to continue along the same line with pretence to use the expressive means for any critical purpose. Continuing with the sheer aesthetic joy of the sounds and noises that this music has developed – like in the work of Gérard Pesson – is a different question. As is, I believe, Salvatore Sciarrino’s poetic renderings in pieces like Autoritratto delle Notte. However, in a newer text dealing with the philosophy of composition, Lachenmann criticizes the frivolous utilization of ‘new sounds’ in the “sonically ‘interesting’ – i.e. boring – no man’s land of exotic defamiliarizatory acrobatics.” The composer and writer John Croft expound on this as sonic investigation that has become merely ludic: “it becomes purely positive and loses its critical capacity. Lachenmann finds this purely positive extension of technical means ultimately empty, and is drawn back to a reinvestigation of historical materials.”


[7] Criticality is a stance, an intention, more than a simple matter of technique or material. One of the reasons it needs to draw upon history, is that the critical spacethe available area for self-reflection, is amorphous and  changes with changes in the conglomerate of aesthetics, society and economics. When discussing theory of literature, Bürger claims that insight only can be successful through engagement with tradition – since spiritual objectivations do not have a position of fact.This points to the same element of historical awareness that needs to be immanent in music as critical endeavour.


[8] The institutional critique latent in the early works of the German movement has been assimilated and now fit seamlessly into the very institutions, the formats and organizations it sought to challenge(as many of its practitioners are warily aware of, see previous footnote.) One example: It is difficult to go ‘underground’ with symphonic music. The composer is totally dependent on the economical and artistic structure of the institution. This can be frustrating, but gives the opportunity, to rephrase Ferneyhough, to use the institution in which you work to criticize the institution in which you work.


[9] This Critical Repetition reflects a need to criticize not only the musical language itself, but also the discursive position of contemporary music. This can be done by examining different contexts of its existence, the classical institution being only one of these contexts. And the realm of critique should not be left to ‘negation’ and ‘negative dialectics’ alone. The power of what I would call ‘positive expression’* should not be disqualified from the compound work of critical repetition. The friction between negation and affirmation can yield a rich complexity and ambiguity, calling upon both intellectual and emotional forces to unveil rigid and restraining structures, and to propose other possibilities than the ones readily at hand. (One of my pet examples is from literature: David Foster Wallace’s writing where hilarious storytelling combine with deeply disturbing critique of globalized consumer culture within sophisticated and complex narratives of fiction.) I believe John Croft is addressing some of the same thoughts when he, after discussing the negative position (and its emptying) moves toward a vision by way of Sciarrino and Agamben, a vision where music may take on an utopian function by reinvestments of the past according to lived experience, and by new relations to our bodies, the environment and others. 


[10] It seems to be a widespread notion among composers that writing unpopular and annoying music is critical by default. This might be derived from the Adornoesque position that the function of art is to have no function in society. Simultaneously, one might argue that composers give legitimacy to conservative institutions long overdue for an overhaul. By feeding the institutions what the institution wants (pieces of contemporary music that conforms to the processes and formats of the institutions), both institution and composer seems to be in a win/win situation. But this system masks the conservatism slowly but steadily undermining the cultural legitimacy and sustainability of orchestral culture. It also masks the fact that the operating schemes of institutions like the orchestra makes it impossible to write experimental music in the true sense of the word. For the orchestra, one problem is the rigid structures of rehearsals and insufficient time to actually experiment with the musical substance. Another problem is the power that conductors and soloists hold over the programming, resulting in an ever-narrowing scope of repertoire. These are obvious and often-discussed problems, and the list could be made longer. I do not pretend to have solutions, but I try to address the situation by proposing works that takes this situation as a central premise for reflection, and to open up rather than mask this praxis. This is about critique as production of insight, insights that might very well contain internally contradictory forces. Many composers have tried to circumnavigate such oppositions by abandoning the institutions of music. But how can one execute this without re-iterating the solutions to the institutional crisis already established by the historical avant-garde? The paradox of the situation is to be able to balance these two forces, the simultaneous movement inwards and outwards. Being inside the listening, the sensuous ‘erfahrung’ of music, and at the same time being able to establish a critical position vis-à-vis the institutions of music that produce this listening.


[11] I am trying to facilitate this convergence by letting the historical element become explicit. Creating an emergent, sounding context, understandable to the ear, not (only) a staged or textual context. I think Bürger can be helpful in clarifying this point: In his essay on Beuys he points to the difference between allegorical intention and symbolically interpreted perception. Leaning on Walter Benjamin, he states that allegory is connected to the principle of rationality by maintaining meaning and the sensuous as independent terms with a fixed relation between them. The symbol is bound to the metaphysical in that the sensuous cannot be separated from its meaning.* What I am looking for in relation to music’s critical potential is the relation of sensuous perception and meaning. Much of 20th century music is in its nature allegorical, in that perceptible and ‘spiritual’ meanings are separate entities. It is a challenge to depart from this line of thought, and to try to locate criticality within the musical object itself. There is absolutely an ‘allegorical impulse’ at work in my confiscation of sound-images of Brahms, Bruckner and Mahler – to cite from Craig Owens’ post-modern ur-text on the allegory. But after this impulse has been absorbed, and the appropriated matter digested by my own apparatus, I aim for some expression that is operating on the same plane as ‘content/meaning’. The temporal aspect of music gives the advantage to envision a process where the atomizing disjunctive process of the collage is superseded by the re-establishment of an order of meaning through time. Not to empty the original sound-image of its resonance, but to work with that resonance, to let it linger on through the new layers of sound. This does not mean that the artwork is reducible to an inner essence. Nor does it recourse to the trancendentalism that Benjamin deducts from the theological origins of the symbol. It is, to repeat myself, a wish to express meaning in sound and to let sound be the meaning.**



Alain Robbe-Grillet, For a New Novel (Michigan, Northwestern University Press 1989 [1963])

Peter Bürger, Theory of the Avant-Garde (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984 [1974])

Kipnis, See Brett Steele (ed): Supercritical (London, Architects Association, 2010) p.58

David Osmond-Smith, “Temps Perdu: Aldo Clementi and the Eclipse of Music as Praxis” in Björn Heile (ed): The Modernist Legacy: Essays on New Music (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009)

Aldo Clementi, “A Commentary on my own Music” trans. David Osmond-Smith(Contact no.23, 1981 [1979])

Chris Cutler, “Plunderphonics” in Sounding Off! Music as Subversion/Resistance/Revolution. Edited by R. Sakolsky and F. Wei-Han Ho. (NY: Autonomedia, 1995) pp. 67-89

Plunderphonics alias Alien Chasm Jock, “Dab” on 69/96. (Seeland, 1996 [1989])

Plunderphonics alias Sushi Dart Scar, “z24” on 69-96 (Seeland, 1996 [1993])

Felipe Ribeiro, James Correa, Catarina Domenici, “An interview with Brian Ferneyhough”(Search 5, 2009)

Jaques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator (London/NY, Verso, 2009 ) p.33

Helmut Lachenmann, “Affekt und Aspekt”, cited in Lachenmann: “Composing in the Shadow of Darmstadt” trans. Richard Toop, Contemporary Music Review vol.23, 3/4 p.49

Salvatore Sciarrino, Autoritratto delle Notte (Milano: Ricordi, 1982)

Helmut Lachenmann, “Philosophy of Composition: Is there such a Thing?” in P. Dejans (ed): Identity and Difference: Essays on Music, Language and Time (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2004) p.66

John Croft, “Fields of Rubble. On the Poetics of Music after the Postmodern” in Björn Heile (ed.) The Modernist Legacy: Essays on New Music (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009) p.29

Croft, op. cit. pp.31-38

See Brian Ferneyhough, “Parallel Universes”, in J.Boros/R. Toop (ed.): Brian Feneyhough Collected Writings, (Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1995)

Craig Owens, “The Allegorical Impulse” (October vol. 9) p.81

David Osmond-Smith, Playing on words: a guide to Luciano Berion's Sinfonia (London: Royal Music Association, 1985)

Gérard Pesson, Nebenstück (Paris: Lemoine, 1998)


*According to Bürger, Benjamins rehabilitation of the allegory is important for the aesthetics of modernity because it made it possible to criticize the metaphysical assumption underlying the idealistic aesthetic idea of the symbol. The division in the allegory, the non-unity of perception and spirit (object and subject), became a central principle for art. This is obvious in modernist music, where the structural meaning of serialist principles have an existence separate from its perception. The rhetoric of symbolic unity, which pervades serialist music, is in fact subordinate to the allegorical nature of its schism between idea and perception (as Ligeti demonstrated in his famous analysis of Boulez’ Structures).


* In the same text, “Composing in the Shadow of Darmstadt”, Lachenmann describes the bourgeois reification of musical material: “Pure pointilism itself could be used as picturesque acoustic decór trickling away in the reception rooms of Daimler-Benz or Philips.”


* A provisional term I use here to denote the utopian endeavour of actually trying to express something personal, something that speaks itself instead of being a commentary on something else. Yes, I know it’s impossible, but to cite Ferneyhough again: “The subject will not disappear just because its existence is an impossibility…”


 ** Berios Sinfonia is still a powerful example of a piece that creates tensions between historical presence and sensuous lavishness on one side and mechanisms of self-reflection on the other. Berio resorts to text, most notably Beckett and Levi-Strauss, but also quotes from his own essays (see Osmond-Smiths monograph on Sinfonia for more on the collage technique in this work). Sinfonia is Meta-music, insofar as it discusses itself and thematize its own terms of production. This self-referenciality is so strong that it masks some of the critical focus that is also latent in the work by its amassment of historical residue collided with modernist material. A more recent case could be Gerard Pessons Nebenstück, a piano quintet based on a Brahms-piece with the same title. In this instance the use of historical material becomes nostalgic in quite an overt manner (One might argue that the piece is an example of an engagement with history as celebratory ornament instead of through dialectic opposition.) In Mathias Spahlinger’s Passage/Peysage history is implicit (the use of the opening of Beethovens Eroica) in a hidden and latent position. This renders the sensuous perception (almost) unrelated to its historical dialectic. This does, for the listener who does not know the extra-musical programme, paradoxically invite to a symbolic reading, in spite of  its allegorical intention. On the other hand, this might not be completely true, and since this is clearly not going anywhere, I think I’ll stop here, for now.