Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Sam Richards: The Engaged Musician (book review)

This book review first appeared in Tempo magazine, issue #269

The Engaged Musician: A Manifesto by Sam Richards. CentreHouse Press, 2013. £14.99

It has never quite become common to think about political engagement in the world of contemporary concert music, more so than in literature and the visual arts. Certainly, one can compose a piece of music to a political theme, yet the politics often feel a little extraneous to the music itself. Why? For one, music is abstract and evanescent, rather than a carrier of clear-cut meanings which can become permanent presences in discourse. Likewise, musical rituals are temporary things of limited physical effect – one does not occupy a public square with a symphony (at least, not for more than, say, fifty minutes). Furthermore, the ‘language’ of concert music has its own codes, which do not easily map onto those of the world and its struggles. The institutions, especially those of concert music, are often at a remove from the agora; indeed, in order to reach the kind of concentration that such music typically requires, one would generally like to keep the noise of the streets outside of the concert hall and the music school, so that the delicacies of the music can best be appreciated. This makes even the most progressive concert music, even when its ideological programme clearly supports political change, tend to operate in a disengaged manner.

It is precisely this type of disengagement, not on the level of ideological reference but on the level of musical practice, that Sam Richards takes aim at in his book The Engaged Musician, published by CentreHouse Press. In the book, Richards uses an engraving by William Hogarth, The Enraged Musician, as a guiding image. Hogarth’s musician is a learned maestro, standing at the window of his studio, enraged because the world – with its manifold sounds of street life and workers and its popular songs – is interfering with his concentration, boxing his ears in a futile attempt to keep it all out. Richards takes this image from almost three centuries ago as his point of departure to critique the current musical situation, analysing the many layers and details in Hogarth’s picture and comparing them to our present world, arriving at an equally rich range of perspectives from which he formulates his own position, which is that of The Engaged Musician. If Hogarth’s maestro has opened his window in a gesture of impotent ire and frustration, Richards would like musicians to open their windows in order to let the world in.

To do this, the musician should be ‘doctrinally non-doctrinal’ (p.22). Richards himself is a good example of this: his range of musical reference is impressively broad, writing with equal enthusiasm for and serious engagement with classical and contemporary music, experimentalism, jazz, political songs, and the various strains of folksong that he has studied in his capacity as folklorist. Similarly, his politics are identifiably to the left, yet he does not espouse any one final-solution-ideology, eclectically showing influences from anarchism, Marxism, Buddhism, as well as from a diversity of cultural and political critics.

For all this background, Richards’ writing is never academic in tone. Just as the contemporary musician should open the windows, the author does not want his message to get mired in merely academic discussions, believing that ‘practice, not theory, rattles cages’ (p.6) and approvingly quoting McKenzie Wark: ‘What has escaped the institutionalisation of high theory is the possibility of a low theory, a critical thought indifferent to the institutional forms of the academy or the art world’ (p.7). For Richards, this ‘low theory’ is formed of all the various musical practices that take up a political position against disengagement and oppression. Stylistically true to this position, Richards writes in an attractively amiable, informal register, giving the book an explicitly personal voice and making it a pleasure to read.

Being doctrinally non-doctrinaire means that Richards spends most of the book explaining what his idea of engagement is not. It is not some kind of superior spiritual remove from the world. It is not escapism. It does not collude uncritically with existing power structures (‘music-as-consent’). It is not found in any specific form or genre and, indeed, it always questions every definition of tradition, always questioning by what powers, what artistic politics, a tradition has come to be recognised as such. Instead, every time the engaged musician is faced with some artificial boundary separating the ‘worthwhile’ from the ‘worthless’, or ‘music’ from ‘non-music’, he will open the window and try to cross the imposed limits. Therefore, the form that engaged music will end up taking can never be laid out in advance. This also implies that engagement is an attitude rather than a form, and one that can be unpredictable, even to itself. 

Richards includes a very instructive analysis of the career of Cornelius Cardew. Famously, by the seventies, he came to reject all of the radical music that he composed before, proclaiming that Stockhausen served imperialism, and he proceeded – by working with accessible tonal forms and materials taken from protest songs – to create an explicitly engaged music that would be useful to the working class. Yet he never quite lost his middle-class background and outsider perspective when actually designing his music for the workers’ use and, in the end, brought together neo-romanticist musical ideals with political activism in an uneasy marriage, which did not always speak to his target audiences in the ways intended. Characteristically, Richards does not use this analysis to condemn Cardew, but as an opportunity to show that engagement in music operates within a rich variety of stylistic, affective, formal, institutional and social dichotomies, and that each position may potentially have something to offer to emancipatory politics.

Given that engaged music could be anything, what, then, makes it politically relevant? In Chapter 3, Richards offers an analysis of contemporary capitalism, taking his cue from Slavoj Žižek (another writer who has expertly navigated the boundaries between high and low theory), specifically his concept of the ‘end times’. In Richards’ reading, ’end times’ refers to a spirit of permanent crisis permeating capitalism in its present form. As is common in Marxist theory, Richards describes capitalism with equal admiration and revulsion, as a force of great creative power as well as one of oppression and slavery. What makes our days feel like end times is that capitalism no longer seems to be able to believe fully in its own motivating myth, which is the idea that all the sacrifice that capitalist production requires ends up making the world a better place with more wealth for all. These days, a variety of crises (ecological, financial, the erosion of democratic legitimacy resulting from neoliberal policies, and so on) is coinciding to generate a sense of permanent crisis. Our media reinforce this sense by constantly bombarding us with ‘hyper-news’ (p.61). As Richards observes, ‘We are hardly ever without news events that seem epochal’ (p.61), so we are permanently on edge, eroding our ability to believe in capitalism’s promises. Richards believes music must show consciousness of this cultural atmosphere, and be deliberately in opposition to the prevailing defeatist sense that there is no alternative to capitalist oppression and crisis. Music must be accorded agency. For one, music operates as a soundtrack to society, and the music that we play can greatly influence the way we affectively understand what is happening around us. For another, music can also be ‘the main event’: to play something is to act, is to actively create this sound-track, to create possibilities for alternative readings of our situation. To do this by opening any closed window one might come across is the task of the engaged musician. It is a very broad agenda, but also a modest one, working locally and without grandiose schemes.

I highly enjoyed this book. It is an important overview of how music can be used to take an engaged stance - even in our post-historical times, which offer no clear-cut roadmaps for any sort of utopian politics. It did leave me with a few questions. First, the doctrinally non-doctrinaire position is strong, but it could also easily be part of the usual liberal capitalist rhetoric, which would have it that the combination of a free market and democratic freedoms are generators and guarantees of cultural diversity and proliferation of forms. Richards does recognise this danger, and uses one chapter to rail against all the bureaucratic systems that marketeers, but also funding bodies and academia itself, use to simulate this diversity. As he observes, ‘in effect we now have a new enraged musician. The angry figure at the window is no longer a classical musician, but an arts administrator who appears to have let the street in but cannot bear its unruliness. Such a person is concerned to marshal the plethora of sounds into a controllable structure’ (p. 216). Still, the question remains, how exactly is the authentic diversity of music itself to be distinguished from its ideological and commercial simulacra?

For this, one may need to go one step further than being doctrinally non-doctrinaire. I find Richards’ argument that this attitude is a necessary condition convincing, but it is not sufficient to stand as an alternative to market ideology. In fact, the one thing that free market liberal thinking abhors most is precisely the opposite of the non-doctrinaire: a radical dedication to something specific rather than to ‘variety’ and ‘choice’; something that may even look ‘doctrinaire’. The one next step after the acceptance of non-doctrinarism then may well be to take up a seemingly doctrinal position, a radical dedication to specific musical rituals.

Of course, this is what every deeply serious musical practice really does. Though Richards does not explicitly write about musical discipline as a political force, the spirit of that idea is present in the book’s many examples of alternative, counter-hegemonic musical practices. The chapters are interspersed with many highly diverse case studies, ranging from a band made up out of refugee musicians from many countries, through a Tilbury/Prévost-recording, or a protest blues played to disrupt normal proceedings in a bank, to the Soundart Radio channel. Each of these examples is lovingly described and stands as a vital form of engagement, one of the many forms that the engaged position might take on. Put together, Richards’ examples form the strongest argument he has. They are the substance of his ‘low theory’ and, apart from featuring attractively written analyses, the book is worth reading for this small anthology alone.

© Cambridge University Press 2014

Monday, April 28, 2014

Wandelweiser book review

This book review first appeared in Tempo magazine, issue #268

JÜRG FREY: WERKBETRACHTUNGEN, REFLEXIONEN, GESPRÄCHE  by Eva-Maria Houben (ed.). Edition Howeg, Zürich 2013

ANTOINE BEUGER: WERKANALYSEN UND HINTERGRÜNDE by Eva-Maria Houben & Burkhardt Schlothauer (ed.). Edition Howeg, Zürich 2013

In recent years, three volumes have appeared – published by Edition Howeg, a small publisher operating out of Zürich – dedicated to the works of the composers of the Wandelweiser group. The first volume, released in 2008, was a collection of short essays by some nine composers, called MusikDenken (‘MusicThought’). This year, two volumes were added, each dedicated to a single composer: one to Antoine Beuger and one to Jürg Frey, both including original texts, reflections and interviews. The texts are mostly in German but the Frey volume contains a few contributions in English.

‘Wandelweiser’ itself is the name of a publishing company and CD label, run by Beuger, and it has become the name of a musical style or tendency that more and more is making its presence felt on the international experimental music scene. Or perhaps, rather, it names a network of musicians, or even, as Beuger likes to say, a certain atmosphere. The network includes the gradually expanding circle of composers that are published by Edition Wandelweiser, but also many friends, performers, concert organisations and sympathetic CD labels, such as the British label ‘another timbre’ which has published a 6-CD box set called Wandelweiser und so weiter.

It is not quite possible to define what Wandelweiser music is about. In summaries, the use of long to very long silences and sparse isolated sounds is often mentioned, but this is in no way a defining characteristic of the music of the composers involved. A good bit of the work these days can in fact be quite lush, dense or melodic. If the composers have anything in common, it is mostly an attitude, which includes a willingness to take silence – and the passage of time itself – seriously as a musical resource. It is not uncommon for them to produce extremely long works that are perceivable as large-scale time architectures. Such works do not usually fit well with the typical requirements of the concert format of new music ensembles. It is hard to imagine a group like Ensemble Modern putting on a concert with a piece like Beuger’s relatively early aus dem garten for two performers, which lasts many hours and has at most one short sound per ten minute frame.

Hence the importance of the network of composers, performers and concert organisers, which is infused with a sort of DIY-mentality. Almost all Wandelweiser composers are active as performers, at least in each other’s music, and many are also concert organisers, working in places all over the world. What is shared is a performance culture, making it possible to work quickly on new shows with anybody who is familiar with the practices and aesthetic of this culture. This has made possible a flexible approach to instrumentation and ensemble organisation; the Wandelweiser catalogue is full of works for unspecified ensembles.

Full disclosure: the author of this review is part of the network, too, having released a CD with the label and contributed one essay to the Frey collection. This may disqualify me as a neutral voice, from looking with a dispassionate critical distance at the work and giving an objective appraisal of its worth, as one would expect from a critic writing on behalf of the public. Yet it is my belief that one of the reasons the Wandelweiser phenomenon is becoming stronger these days is precisely because this kind of neutral, disinterested public position is losing its credibility, as new music is pushed ever further into the margins of public discourse. Today, it’s no use fooling ourselves into thinking that New Music is somehow at the forefront of public culture, as was arguably the case in the immediate post-war decades when Cage could make a splash on national TV and Stockhausen could make it onto the cover of a Beatles record. A novel may still cause public controversy; a new compositional form, hardly. The withdrawal of the composer persona from the public eye does not mean that the energy of the experimental music project has run out, however: it is changing location, now increasingly residing in networks a bit less formal than your average new music festival. Wandelweiser presents one very successful example of how a musical culture can build institutions and tailor them to its own needs.

This also includes organising its own criticism, theorising, and discourse. Characteristically, the Wandelweiser composers are not waiting for some PhD student to come along and write theses about them. Instead, composers Eva-Maria Houben and Burkhardt Schlothauer have taken it upon themselves to collect texts by and about their colleagues, and to begin organising what will be the discourse on Wandelweiser practice. So what of the results?

The two composer volumes present intriguing portraits of two related, but contrasting, thought-worlds. Both books include a few short texts by the composer, but most of the pages are devoted to analysis of the composer’s work and reflective essays, as well as some interviews. The focus of both books is on work from up to about ten years ago, comprising what we may today see as the ‘classic’ phase of Wandelweiser music.

From the original writings, there emerge two different composer personalities, two different approaches to a shared aesthetic. Frey is much more concerned with musical form as an architecture of time, that allows for the experience of temporal ‘Leervolumen’ (empty spaces). This emptiness is often created through silences, which are themselves articulated by the sounds around them, which in turn have a sort of naked materiality. Those sounds have their own type of ‘silence’ for Frey, after Jabès: a type of ‘unexplored depths of the signs’, when they are most detached from the necessity to carry meanings. Instead, Frey seeks to find sounds that can simply carry the architectures of time in which he is interested. His sounds tend to be simple, more or less ‘found’: a tone, a triad or two, a roll on a drum. In many pieces, the sounds are extended and put together to occupy a length of time, and then brought into balance with silences and other types of sounds, so that spaces emerge with their own atmospheres. The experience of ‘silence’ in which Frey is interested ultimately depends on sonic presences, their contrast with other presences or absences, and their characters. In a wonderful phrase, Frey summarises his approach as “Ich lese [...] Klänge zusammen” – “I read sounds together”. 

This is different from Beuger, whose scores tend to look more recognisably conceptual, and whose inspiration is more explicitly mystical (the Beuger volume ends with translations from the Spanish into German of two cycles of St John of the Cross). Beuger is more interested in uncertainties surrounding the presence or absence of events. For example, the moment in which a sound has disappeared, but its atmosphere still haunts the listener. It is a fascination that Beuger attributes to his being exposed to the work of John Cage, and particularly to 4’33”. The modality of ‘might have been’ is Beuger’s interpretation of Cage’s ‘indeterminacy’. As Beuger puts it in his lecture ‘Es könnte gewesen sein’ (‘It might have been’):

“It might be, that something has happened,
it might have been music,
for I am touched and constantly think back to it.

To what?

I cannot say. I don’t know.”

To recreate such experiences, Beuger’s scores tend towards the careful definition of a performative uncertainty. An early, very radical work, consists of only a single sound lasting ten to forty minutes, followed by a silence of at least twenty and at most eighty minutes. Both the sound and the piece itself are uncertain in their temporal definition, though the form still creates the situation of disappearance and memory with precision.

The most revealing part of the Beuger volume is probably the interview with James Saunders, which was conducted in English originally (and published in the collection The Ashgate Companion to Experimental Music). Saunders elicits comments from Beuger on many individual pieces, addressing the development of his compositional thought as it goes from work to work and touching on many issues that are not so explicit in either the scores or the short texts. The importance of the number of performers is discussed, notably the number two, which for Beuger is connected to love – hence his duos are all about the love relationship, the experience of being together, sharing life, even while being fundamentally different. Likewise, time is discussed, long durations, and how they influence the concert form itself.

Both books contain many other interesting approaches to discussing the music. There is a radio interview with Frey on his use of spoken words as material for some text compositions, using bird names and obscure Swiss place names for their sounds. There is a list, compiled by composer and pianist Dante Boon, of remarkable features of Frey’s music, simply enumerating ideas that have caught his eye (and ear) as he looks at Frey scores. Both books have some beautifully engaged essays by Eva-Maria Houben, meticulously recording the psychological effects of sounds, forms, textures and changes as they occur while listening or playing.

The essays tend not to be very technical – a striking exception is Kathryn Pisaro’s essay on non-standard oboe fingerings in the oboe version of Beuger’s calme, étendue. But mostly, intricate analyses of formal structures and material relationships are absent, as is to be expected from a music that, at first glance, seems so simple as to be almost self-evident. Yet serious music never is self-evident, certainly not when the uncertain is so deep a part of its aesthetic. Such music has complex worlds of thought behind it, of the people thinking them, and the environments within which they work and play. The existing music-theory jargon is not always best suited to discussing all that. Hence the need for books like these, attempts by the community to find its own, appropriate and clear ways of talking.

© Cambridge University Press 2014

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Mixed Economy, Ensemble Klang

(from the score:) "Six individuals negotiate a mixed economy, which consists of four different ways of organizing the collective into subgroups. These four planes are intertwined, so the performers must constantly shift their relationship to one another and to the whole, and out of the four planes' motivic shreds create their song."

Mixed Economy, written in 2010, is probably the most complex score I have written. The idea was to base everything on the way the sextet can be seen as a rich multiplicity of sub-ensembles: six solos, one sextet, fifteen duos (one for each couple of instruments), two trios (the winds and the 'rhythm section', mostly playing chords, however). However, instead of presenting these formations in sequential order, they all happen at the same time. In the densest sections of the piece, everybody is constantly related to everybody else in shifting ways. This puts a lot of pressure on individual parts as well as on the sense of ensemble playing - while creating a polyphony of very high density.

The ideal of a completely saturated polyphony has been a constant in my composing, but not merely from a fascination with high information density. I'd like to create forms that do not only create complex textures, but also make their complexity somehow transparent. You can't be expected to hear and follow everything, but you should be able to zoom in and zoom out on the processes as they unfold while you listen. To achieve this type of complexity, I have ended up rather simplifying the basic motives of my melodic style, while making heavy use of canon-like relations and repetitions, but always in intricate mosaic patterns and flexible rhythmic relationships.

Within this big, messy flux, sub-ensembles organize themselves: tiny duos that should be completely together, trio or sextet entrances that are coordinated. Like so many attempts at community in a world where all stability is under constant threat of drifting apart. The soft, slow "solos" offer a form of repose.

The piece is in seven sections, each featuring different mixtures of the "planes". The fifth section is the longest, most continuous onslaught of total counterpoint.

Mixed Economy was written (with support from Fonds Podiumkunsten) in 2010 for Ensemble Klang, and premiered by them in March 2014 at De Link in Tilburg. This recording is of the first performance.

also from the score:

Mixed Economy (Worlds on Four Planes) is part of a series of works which share similar musical concerns. Other works in this series include 20 Worlds (2005) for 2 pianos and Worlds and Harmony (2006-2008) for 12 instruments, Sept Germes Cristallins (2008) for voice and three instruments, Crawling (2010) for any ensemble.

These are some of the musical assumptions that these works mostly share:

Melody is thought primarily as changing vectors of pure speed and direction that are woven together in varying patterns, rather than as rhetorical, expressive gestures;

Rhythm and meter are directly related to melodic contour;

Techniques of indeterminate coordination between parts leading to unpredictable polyrhythmical ("metametrical") structures, like moiré patterns;

Decentered formal structures based on interdependence of the performers instead of centrally organized (conducted, determinate) structures, every performer being an equally important chain link with equal responsibility and influence on the total musical form, and requiring every performer to continually play and listen to the other performers at the same time;

Dense, saturated types of counterpoint based on elaborate forms of heterophony, or variable canonic textures, organised in extensive blocks of almost static large-scale surface development, but of permanent internal variation;

An interest in diagonal listening, in which listeners are encouraged to shift their attention freely from part to part, or between individual details, contrapuntal relationships and full textures;

As in certain kinds of minimal music, repetition of motivic cells is used to facilitate textural transparency and flexibility of performer contribution, though the aural effect tends much more towards complexity and permanent change;

Mixed Economy in particular explores the possibilities of mixing multiple types of material and ever changing phrase structures within individual parts.

These technical assumptions seek, in a focused way, to bring about a ecstatic sense of multitudinous collectivies and of a multiplicity of possible points of view, a liberatory musical experience on the verge of the uncontrollable.

Other works that feature related ideas include Eindig Stuk (2004) for string quartet and electric guitar, Panoramic Variations (2004) for 6 instruments, 2 Suites (2004) for violin and piano, The Weather Riots (2002) for 2 or more high instruments, Toccata III (2001) for 2 Glockenspiels.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

'Action Time', essay for The Ear Reader

My essay, Action Time, is now up on the weblog of The Ear Reader. It looks at works by various composers (including Cage, Wolff, Beuger, Werder and myself) trying to discover what an 'inside-out' view of time could look like. One where time is a function of actions rather than the other way round. And it looks at how ideas about time affect the art of composition. At the heart of it, the piece discusses the Number Pieces, b

The piece is pretty long; at the top of the article, you can find a link to a printable .pdf-version.

'In this history there are three related tendencies, although they occur in changing configurations within specific works. The first tendency is to see composition as definition of potential actions and action grammars. The second is the dissolution of compositional signature and idiom. The third is the emergence of interaction and the being-together of musicians as such as a compositional parameter. The tendencies signal a shift in how musical material is understood, a move away from material as that what is heard, to material as the internal dynamics of events, in excess of their audible manifestation and identity. Likewise, form shifts away from being concerned with sound architecture (“organized sound”) to being an operation on time types. In particular, action grammars delineate temporal fields that have a dimensionality different from that governing the ‘real time’ of performance. Yet their ‘other time’ is a virtual accompaniment to performance time, forming an indiscernible part of it, and the relationship between these different time forms becomes the subject matter of composition.'