A spanner in the works
The difference between self-expression and the critical
concerns the idea of skill versus discipline
When I applied for the artistic research programme, my title for the project was Critical Repetition. 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, 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. 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’. 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. 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. 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. 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. But it is crucial that I find my own ways of describing the processes, and alternate routes of getting there. 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. 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. 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.