Cannot Not

Music Without Borders

Lecture for 2012 Darmstadt Summer Course

The notion of critical thinking in contemporary music is commonplace, but that critical thinking is often still only applied to a select set of materials from our post war tradition, which I find limited and insular. This talk will consider how we might broaden the scope of new music and the discourses with which we engage it. Drawing on examples from my Popular Contexts series, I will explore how this is relevant in my work. I want to engage with familiar and even prosaic sounds from popular and everyday culture. I’m interested in opening up a listening experience that enhances perceptions of the familiar, and draws attention to sounds that we usually ignore or don’t take seriously. I propose that critical thinking in new music could be more interesting, relevant and vital when applied to other kinds of sound and music.

The term “Critical thinking” has different meanings and associations for people in different fields. In our context the term Critical Thinking is typically associated with the Critical Theory of Adorno and the Frankfurt School, since that school of thought has been central in much of the discourse on contemporary music over the past sixty years. While the ideas I’m going to present here aren’t intended as a response to Frankfurt School thought, it’s difficult to talk about Critical Thinking in music without talking about Adorno. In the most reduced terms possible, Adorno believed that for music to achieve aesthetic authenticity it must upset convention and resist governing norms. And this is fundamental to his underlying belief that works of art can change consciousness and in turn change reality. That is, music that breaks with routine in the aesthetic realm proposes the same for the social and political realms. And a composer who is breaking from convention is a composer who is “thinking critically”. I take Adorno seriously even if I can’t quite believe that art has this degree of agency and find many of his ideas and distinctions outdated. My ideas are influenced by and connected to his, but I take them in my own direction.

Other fields use the term “critical thinking” in connected but distinct ways. For instance, in education critical thinking is a method of reasoning where students are taught to think in a way that pinpoints and minimizes cultural bias to seek out knowledge and evidence that fits with reality rather than inherited views. In geography, Critical Geopolitics attempts to de-legitimise classical geopolitics by highlighting assumptions and contradictions and by not arguing from a fixed position such as liberalism or socialism.

In general I define critical thinking simply as an approach where the nature of something is not taken for granted, but is investigated. This is straightforward when critical thinking is articulated in spoken or written language. We know when an educationalist or geographer is engaging in critical thinking because they do so explicitly. They say: we will investigate this subject critically! What is significant here is that we can isolate the subject and the mode of enquiry as separate things. In this talk I’m going to refer to the subject as the first degree and the mode of enquiry as the second.

When critical thinking takes place in written or spoken language it doesn’t even need to be announced. For instance, in his film The Passion of Anna, Igmar Bergman investigates the relationship between actors and the characters they play.Set on an isolated Swedish island, most of the film is a conventional narrative about four unhappy people and their relationships with one another. However, this narrative reality is periodically shattered by the insertion of brief interviews with the actors. The actors appear “out of costume”, as themselves, and they talk frankly about the difficulties they are encountering in portraying their character. More than simply reminding us that the film is fiction, these revealing interviews show us something of the struggle actors have with their task. Bergman does not need to announce that these are second-degree moments because it’s obvious.

But critical thinking is not as straightforward in music. I’d like to restate the general definition I proposed earlier: critical thinking is an approach where the nature of something is not taken for granted, but is investigated. How might music investigate itself? How can music establish the essential separation between subject and enquiry? In music it seems we have to contend with an issue that educationalists, geographers and filmmakers don’t: establishing that the work is in fact critical! And this is fundamentally important, as surely critique must always perceptibly be a critique of something or otherwise it is abstract, incomprehensible, and meaningless as critique.

I think there are some tactics we can employ, which will be the main focus of the rest of this talk. Before I go further I’d like to now play you an extract from one of my pieces. This is the first movement of Popular Contexts, a 33 minute long work, set in six movements, for one keyboardist playing piano and sampler keyboard. The title of this movement is Free Sound.

The premise of Popular Contexts is that of the piano engaging with the sounds of the world. The recordings provide contextual frames for the instrumental music and vice versa. In this movement I only use five pitches on the piano, each of which is coupled to a sample. Coupling is the foundational idea for this movement: each time a D-flat is played on the piano it is coupled with a D-flat on the sampler, which triggers a drum beat; likewise the E-flat is coupled with a sample of war sounds from a computer game. In choosing these samples, I wanted to make a contrast with the homogeneity of the piano by selecting five recordings that were as unrelated as possible both in terms of their sonic and associative qualities. Additionally, I wanted samples where the perception or meaning changed depending on how much one hears of that sample. For instance, when heard for one beat the G-flat sample produces a single bell sound, but when held a little longer you hear three bells that form an arpeggiated triad, and when held longer again this arpeggio becomes the sonic marker that precedes a train station announcement. The table tennis recording works in the opposite direction: when heard for a single beat, the sound largely acts as a signifier towards the idea of table tennis, whereas when it is allowed to play for some seconds listening may be directed towards a more abstract mode, appreciating the sonic qualities of the ball being hit back and forth.

One way in which music might become critical is through investigating its own substance. By substance I mean formations of sound into what we typically call “musical material”. That investigation could be purely auditory in focus, concerned with illuminating sonic properties, or, it might contemplate how that material is experienced, understood and how it “communicates” something like an emotion or an idea. Two ways we can do this in music, often in combination, is through 1) repetition, and 2) breaking the flow. Repetition in music is a massive topic and obviously Mozart uses repetition in a very different way to Phillip Glass. What I’m interested in, and for sure Bernhard Lang influenced me here, is the way that perception shifts when listening to a short musical fragment a number of times in succession. This is particularly interesting when that musical material is not typically something repeated; looping a drum beat or an arpeggio is insignificant as we hear that all the time, but if we took a phrase from a jazz saxophonist’s solo and looped that, well that’s interesting as we hear that phrase in a whole new way. This example would also be interesting to me in that it goes against the hot and improvised nature of the music and subverts any kind of emotional communication that phrase might have held. The change of context transforms our perception of the phrase.

By breaking the flow I mean disturbing the usual passage of musical time through blocking and rupturing the musical material. I’ll explain why think this is important via an anecdote. After hearing the piece I‘ve just played you a music student told me that all the stopping and starting had really annoyed her because it had meant that she “couldn’t zone out and enjoy herself”. My answer: “that’s exactly the point, I didn’t want my piece to pick you up and sweep you away! I continually broke the flow because I wanted you to think about what you were listening to.” While we’re on the subject, I think this student’s comment gets at the heart of why we in new music are so marginal and what we are up against. In conflating “zoning out” with musical appreciation this student may well have articulated most people’s relationship with music.

I am now going to play the third movement from the same work, which is titled Partial Pastoral Lobotomy.

The recorded sounds in this piece all relate in someway to a bundle of associations around ideas of innocence, the countryside, simplicity and nostalgia. The piano part both mimics some of these recorded fragments as well as adding further material that make similar evocations. Until the piano solo in the final part of the piece, all the recorded sound and piano music is organised into this slow 17 beat sequence:

The sequence is made up of three objects here labeled A, B and C. What each letter represents changes over the course of the piece. In the beginning each letter represented a different high register organ pitch, then three nature sounds are added, later three baby sounds and so on. I’d like to think that the sequence establishes a critical distance for the listener. Each sound-event is not just heard as content; it is also heard as a unit with a sequence. And this sequence creates what Shklovsky would call a defamiliarization: forcing the audience to see common things in an unfamiliar or strange way, in order to enhance perception of the familiar.

Before I play you a final piece I’d like to say something about a major thing I worry about when I compose: balancing the first and second degrees. In my piece Avant Muzak for ensemble and sampler that was performed here a few days ago, the instrumental part is based on a saccharine chord progression I composed that suggests the world of muzak. I think of this chord progression as the subject of the work, as the first degree. Over the course of the piece the chord progression is clinically considered in different ways – at different tempi and dynamic levels, and placed in different real world contexts by the recordings. This is the enquiry, the second degree. The problem is getting the balance right. If the enquiry is not strong enough, not imposing enough, then the work is simply the saccharine chord progression; the subject has not been transformed and the work lives only in the first degree. And if the enquiry is too strong, if it obliterates the subject, then it becomes meaningless as critique as you lose the relationship between the subject and the enquiry and the work lives only in the second degree. So either way if you don’t get the balance right the work will not live across both degrees, which is my aspiration.

I will now play a movement from Popular Contexts, Volume 3 titled The Beautiful Game. It is for ten instruments and sampler.

Before I comment on this work I’ll read a quote from the artist Roy Lichtenstein:

The closer my work is to the original, the more threatening and critical the content. However, my work is entirely transformed in that my purpose and perception are entirely different. I think my paintings are critically transformed, but it would be difficult to prove it by any rational line of argument.

In this piece I present recordings related to football in combination with live instrumental music. This music can be characterised as cordial and innocuous. Although I would also find it difficult to prove, I hope that the change of context transform the way these sounds and music are heard. For instance, I hope that accompanying the football pundits with gentle guitar arpeggios suggests that these wonderfully animated guys are rather musical with their speech. And likewise that through placing it in a foreign context, and by playing with and against its natural flow, one is able to hear this music in a different way.

I’m interested in working with musical material that has strong stylistic expectations and then going against those expectations. Evoking my definition of critical thinking, I try not to take material for granted. I’d like to show that a given music had other potential; music without borders! I’d like to show that the sounds of one idiom are not inherently better or worse than the sounds of another idiom and that the meaning and values we ascribe to a musical material might just be a cultural construct. Incidentally, many of us might snub other kinds of music for being too clearly situated within a certain style. For instance, we might criticize a country and western song because it is so bound by convention — it starts and we more-or-less know what it will do and we are usually right. But, isn’t the same true of a lot of new music?

Before I make some concluding remarks I’d like to briefly address two questions I’m often asked: is my music is ironic, and am I trying to be funny? Whether my music is ironic or not is a matter of perception, but it’s not my intention. I have described my music as working with material that is innocuous and saccharine in character. There is a distinction between these adjectives: “innocuous” doesn’t have any stylistic connotations whereas “saccharine” implies a stylized form of excessive sentimentality. Transforming the harmless and transforming the crass have different effects and I’m interested in both. I don’t use thse adjectives to ridicule or dismiss. I like all the musical materials I compose. I like them in the first-degree, which is to say I like their substance. I want to do something unexpected with these materials because I aspire to more than recreating music I like. And because I like the idea of taking material that many might regard as banal and trying to find new possibilities for it. Its not a subversive act, but simply ennobling a music that is often dismissed. And it also reflects my belief that composition is not so much about creating musical material as what you do with it. I think there is a connection here with Mozart’s keyboard variations based on popular tunes: what he thought of these tunes doesn’t really matter, its what he spectacularly does with them. This may raise some eyebrows and beg some questions. Am I proposing an extreme relativist position where all musical sounds are of equal interest? No, I think some sounds/material are more interesting than others, but I also feel that the aesthetic judgement of material is of less significance then is often held. And, do I regard my work primarily as an aesthetic experience, or more as cultural critique? I’d like to think both are possible.

Now to the second question: am I trying to be funny? I think it says a lot about the solemnity of our new music scene that I’m even asked this. I doubt the same question would be asked of a practitioner in the visual arts, live arts, theatre, dance or cinema, where the idea that work can be funny as well as conceptually rich and even profound is uncontroversial. I am happy if people find my work funny and I like it when people smile and laugh during performances. I hope it’s not cheap comedy. As a guy with a modernist compositional training I’d like to think it’s a new and strange kind of funny!

Throughout this talk I’ve used the term “critical thinking”. I’ve explored its meaning and how it might be applicable in music. Without wanting to undermine what I’ve said, I do wonder if by “critical composition” I might simply mean “good and interesting music”. For instance, with the table tennis recording in my piece Free Sound I suggested that a listener might experience a change in perception: first hearing it as a signifier towards the idea of table tennis, before abstractly appreciating the sonic qualities. Is this change of perception a “critical” step? I’m not sure. I think you can argue that “changing perception” is a key element of critical thinking, but perhaps there are changes of perception and critical changes of perception. Anyway, I certainly don’t imagine that at such a moment that anyone says to them self: aha, this work is critical and now I am listening critically! I don’t listen to music like that either.

To put it crudely, and a little comically, my idea is simply to take the analytical attitude of a Darmstadt School composer and apply it to different kinds of material, such as muzak or easy-listening jazz on the one hand, and real-world recordings of a flight-safety announcement or a football crowd on the other. I don’t want to abandon my training that gave me a specific way thinking about music, but I do want to broaden out its application.

Thanks to John Davis and Richard Toop for their comments.