Autonomy, engagement and narrative: how music goes

by Dugal

This is the keynote lecture I gave to the Composers Association of New Zealand (CANZ) conference in Sept 2008. It begins to pick away at the ideology of formalism and aesthetic autonomy which still strongly pervades and – as I argue – inhibits the development of contemporary art music, whether instrumental or electronic. The piece itself is not argued as clearly as it needs to be, hence there’s something of a tilting-at-windmills quality to it, but perhaps that’s appropriate to  the invisibility of ideology (you don’t know that you think what you think…).

Autonomy, engagement and narrative: how music goes

Before I start, I should say that what follows is speculative, personal, and of relevance to composition in New Zealand only in that it deals with matters relating to composition and mentions a New Zealander.

Aesthetic autonomy (AA), an art’s autonomy for everything but itself, is a concept so engrained in the worldview of composers that it has become invisible to us. In this invisible dominance it conforms perfectly to the concept of a paradigm, an idea introduced by the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn: a way of thinking and doing that it not recognized as such until is displaced.

On the one hand, AA is the ocean upon which our particular journey has set sail. The abstract formalism that is definitive of aesthetic autonomy in music also defines what it is to be a composer; to compose is to attend primarily to musico-material matters, and even when a composer’s aims are expressive, the measure of the success of such expression is read back into the formal level of the text; that is, to what extent did the solidity and rigour of the organization and development of musical materials make possible a particular expressive outcome. Conversely, it is very rare to encounter a work the expressive force of which derives from a rejection of formalist principles. To cast the net a little wider, compositional formalism is bound up with an attendant virtuosity of performance and listening. To play and listen to the great bulk of contemporary composition requires considerable dedication and training. Even the performance of such apparently simple music as that of Morton Feldman requires phenomenal micro-virtuosity. And to listen properly – that is with focus and appropriate knowledge – is, as Milton Babbitt noted some decades ago, a formidable task:

Advanced music, to the extent that it reflects the knowledge and originality of the informed composer, scarcely can be expected to appear more intelligible than these arts and sciences to the person whose musical education usually has been even less extensive than his background in other fields. (1958)

AA is also a unifying force. A peak of formal complexity such as that encountered in the music of the post-war modernists and the process-driven formalism of American minimalism both emerge out of AA. There should be no doubt that AA has made possible incredible achievements in the organization of sound. Likewise, AA has fostered an attitude to music which is remarkable for its intense devotion to the thing in itself. In a sense, all this is to be celebrated: it has allowed composers to truly be composers, to achieve something truly singular.

On the other hand, if AA is our ocean, do we wish to continue to voyage upon it? In the boundless possibilities for organization and reorganisation of musical materials it makes possible, doesn’t it also restrict us? Like Newtonian physics and Freudian psychology it is at base a conceptual apparatus, in this case directed towards the organization and reception of sound, but it can claim no especial validity in the wider scheme of things. And are we not at a point in cultural history – a point where history itself has been claimed to be over – at which the ongoing pursuit of formal-theoretical aims has come to feel rather aimless? Certainly with the passing of Stockhausen one is reminded of the creative limits set in place by formalism and also of the necessity of overcoming those limits – a sea-change definitive of Stockhausen’s development as composer.

To go on, the routes taken through composition in the postwar period might be brutally summarized as follows: a radical and thorough-going formalism which in its search for a new language pushed the formalism made possible by aesthetic autonomy to the point of unintelligibility (the so-called “paper music” of high modernism); a rejection of formalism by an experimentalism that deliberately eclipses the machinations of the genius-composer (an avant-garde rejection of aesthetic autonomy); and yet another return – partial or full – to common practice but minus a sense of comfortable certainty. And after all this? Postmodernity.

To remark on the dissolution of the old certainties and the shredding of the formalist metanarrative into the fragments of postmodernity is to say nothing new. In fact, the present situation is such that it may feel that routes have been navigated, all shoals identified, all maps drawn; the dangerous outcome of this being the absence of a sense of risk, of adventure, of newness. We find ourselves in the doldrums. Without doubt this is an extremely difficult time to be a composer. One way out of this malaise – which admittedly may be no more widespread than my own consciousness – is that AA, the blindspot of contemporary composition, be critically revisited.

To being with, there is an odd belief that has been bequeathed art music by the era that spawned AA. This is the notion that autonomous music is aesthetically and culturally more valuable than non-autonomous musical forms, not to mention other artforms. Pater’s dictum ‘all art aspires to the condition of music’ sums this up. Because of its intrinsic nature, music is intrinsically better than those arts – most of them – which helplessly sully themselves by referring to things in the world. Music on the other hand, provided it is not spoilt by interdisciplinary dalliances, occupies a pristine realm of sounding thought. This attitude is also associated with a history of high culture privilege – which does still exist – and which echoes in the marriage of art and state vis-à-vis arts funding bodies. Indeed, the arguments made for ongoing state support of music often hinge upon the intrinsic value of art music: though it might not be to the taste of the majority, it is nonetheless a unique cultural achievement and is therefore good for us, capable of making us better people, a better society, if only we were to listen to it properly (more or less the argument advanced by Julian Johnson in his book Who Needs Classical Music?).

Apropos society, the matter I wish to broach here is social rather than aesthetic. I harbour the suspicion that composers have inherited a debilitating sense of the importance of their art through the history just discussed. This might be rightly extended to say that “classical” music as a culture remains beholden to the idea that it somehow matters more than other forms of music. This attitude may be more acute amongst composers, for in the absence of funding, performances, large audiences for contemporary music, and living in the shadow of past masters, composers seem to take refuge in the notion that contemporary music, though neglected, is simply better than anything else out there, especially anything that is funded, performed, well patronized.

Such an attitude has dangerous gravity, because superiority and privilege are incompatible with the reality most of us experience, and living in the gap between the two can be stultifying and delusional. Stultifying because we may observe that funding and audiences are rather difficult to come by, despite the purported value of our practice. Delusional because we may not observe that funding and audiences are difficult to come by and pay no heed to the circumstance in which we find ourselves.

A remarkable case of paying heed but continuing on regardless is Babbitt’s infamous “Who cares if you listen?” (High Fidelity, Feb 1958):

Towards this condition of musical and societal “isolation,” a variety of attitudes has been expressed, usually with the purpose of assigning blame, often to the music itself, occasionally to critics or performers, and very occasionally to the public. But to assign blame is to imply that this isolation is unnecessary and undesirable. It is my contention that, on the contrary, this condition is not only inevitable, but potentially advantageous for the composer and his music

There remains pragmatic value in Babbitt’s argument for isolationism, primarily to the artform itself and those who practice it. This argument is of course not unique to Babbitt.

“[C]oming from New Zealand, you have no audience and the mythos surrounding creating music in NZ is that actually the best music is created by people who don’t give a fuck who’s going to listen to it. So from that the fact of having an audience is necessarily secondary to making good art.” –

Adam Hyde of Radioqualia. A little more direct than Babbitt, but the point is the same. What particularly strikes me about Hyde’s statement – taken as representative of a host of underfunded artsy subcultures (and this includes contemporary composition) – is the absence of the assumed superiority that pervades Babbitt’s essay. Such an assumption remains painfully evident in recent titles such as Johnson’s Who Needs Classical Music? and Joshua Fineberg’s Classical Music, Why Bother? If Fineberg and Johnson are convinced of the value of Western art music, why the exhortation of its value? Because “classical” music’s value is not solely a musical matter but also a matter of cultural status. Having fallen from its exalted position and now jumbled on the shop floor with anything else that’s both audible and saleable, “classical” music – including contemporary music – remains convinced that its fall from grace should be countermanded for the greater good; but such a decree is not forthcoming, hence the air of nostalgia, lament, even resentment, that often tinges discussion of contemporary music’s plight.

The similarity between Babbitt and Hyde is an attitude fruitful one for artists, fostering production, excellence, and individual initiative – autonomy for the artist. Hyde however, offers something that could not be expected of Babbitt: a celebration of subcultural status, untroubled by a sense of having fallen. It is also an attitude unlikely to fall prey to what Babbitt calls a ‘public life of unprofessional compromise and exhibitionism’; in other words, the giving in to the crowd, capitulation to the purported need to make contemporary music more inclusive, accessible, popular. Perhaps the Faustian pact is overemphasized, but where one doesn’t ‘give a fuck’, one is more likely to go one’s own way and to make the aesthetic most of it. Hyde and his collaborative partner Honor Harger, it should be pointed out, are now internationally recognised sound and new media artists.

At this point it may seem that my argument has folded in on itself – autonomy as the order of the day. Indeed. But autonomy for the artist, rather than the art form is what I’m arguing for; freedom to rather than freedom from, as Eric Fromm put it. This is a privileging of the practitioner, rather than particular kind of practice, which seems a necessary course of action to take in a musical environment characterized by heterogeneous practices yet prone to being undermined by the baggage associated with aesthetic autonomy as well as unequivocally threatened by ideology of consumer capitalism.

To continue on a different path, one of the curious things about aesthetic autonomy and the musical parameters associated with it is the extent to which it privileges narrative forms. By this I mean narrative in its wider sense – as linear and teleological time – rather than as story-telling. Music as narrative is not, of course, beholden to AA, but as AA rose to the top of the aesthetic heap there occurred a twinning of music for music’s sake (that is, purely instrumental music) with narrative. In a sense this pairing is an anti-spatial one: the purity of AA in music denies spatial dialogue, as occurs in text-setting where there is communication between the disciplines, because such dialogue muddies the logic of musical narrative.

My use of the word space is metaphorical, and politically so, just as the notion of high and low culture is political and built upon a spatial metaphor. Purity allows absolute governance of a monad, while heterogeneity – a spatial concept (the co-presence of different entities) – gives rise to competing interests and is thus difficult to govern. According to the logic of aesthetic autonomy this purity is requisite to a full and proper realization of the discursive potential of an art. Thus to set text to music is on the one hand to spoil poetry, but also to allow poetry to delimit what can be accomplished musically. The anti-spatial, pro-narrative paradigm of AA largely continues to this day; the music that is the highest, that is to say the best music, is also the music that is monadic, enclosed and pure. If one has doubts that this is the case, we might observe the dismissal of the early sound-based music – musique concrète – by Pierre Boulez: ‘the musical material, if it is to lend itself to composition, must be sufficiently malleable, subject to transformations, capable of giving birth to a dialectic and supporting it’. The issue here is that the materials of musique concrète – ‘a fleamarket of sounds’ (1968, 299) according to Boulez – are not pure enough, they remain referentially attached to the world from which they were plucked and thus allow the world to enter and disrupt the musical discourse made possible by aesthetic autonomy. Could this aesthetic logic also be that underpinning Philip Norman’s statement, in his magisterial Lilburn biography, that ‘the jury is still out on electronic music’?

This is not, however, to defend of a genre, for as musique concrète evolved into electroacoustic music, there was an intensification of the puritanism already apparent in the phenomenological purification of sound encountered in Pierre Schaeffer’s ecouté reduite. As the tools of electroacoustic composition became more powerful, concrete materials did soften to become as ‘malleable’ as those of instrumental music, and with this development electroacoustic composers were able to celebrate the purity of their art, as it transcended the limitations of the physical world (of performers and performance in particular). In tandem with this, the concept of the acousmatic – listening without visual distraction – was embraced as another means by which electroacoustic music could purge itself of elements disrupting the Boulezian ‘dialectic’.

My underlying point here is simply that the ideology of aesthetic autonomy appears to be at work across the spectrum of contemporary Western art music. Overarching this is another point: is this ideology not an insidious one? Insidious because it is proscriptive, tying the notion of discourse to the formal and linear, circumscribing the possibilities for both how discourse may be shaped both within music and between music and anything else. Might then the spatialisation of music enacted in the collision between musical discourse and its others be one of the more salient challenges facing composers? And might it not also be the case that this not a matter of further development of the formal apparatus of composers, but rather in the form of the attitude taken by composers. In other words, a change in the way we think and what we think about musically.

As an instance of this, and to make a final point, there is the enmity between narrative and database observed by Lev Manovich in The Language of New Media. The database, a spatial phenomenon, is the emblem of the contemporary world and its paragon is the internet; a sprawling, chronically mutating, hypertrophied database which cannot be mapped or represented, except via the provisional and highly delimited paths offered by search engines. The internet is excess, overwhelming and incomprehensible, offering as many contingent micro-narratives as there are search terms. A musical composition on the other hand, though it may present an image of excess, and an experience of the overwhelming and incomprehensible, is in fact a well-ordered, highly controlled narrative, always-already represented as the score or mapped in the form of a recording. Manovich make the claim that new media have used narrative as a default setting, an easy means to make sense of the database sublime. Music on the other hand, given its status as a narrative form, is the default setting. To take an Adorno-esque view on the matter, in the database epoch narrative is simply a remnant of an earlier paradigm and thus one which – to deploy contemporary terminology – requires interrogation and perhaps liquidation. What would happen were the default linearity of the composition – narrative – to aspire to the spatial condition of the database? In this period of data deluge, extreme sociopolitical and environmental uncertainty, and burgeoning recognition that everything is more complex than we imagined, narrative appears to be palliative and narcotic in its offer of closure, comprehensibility, codification. To make sense of things, which is what narratives do, is to prevent a confrontation with the incomprehensible, which is the age we live in: ‘the petabyte scale… requires us to lose the tether of data as something that can be visualized in its totality’ (Anderson, 06.08.08). Perhaps some of the music of the 20thC approached such a state, but narrative required that it tie up the loose ends and round things off.

I suggested earlier that what we may need to do is think different before we can make different. Perhaps to cognitively embrace the spatial form of the database, in its irreducible complexity, is one means by which we might step beyond the limits of narrative. And if it is also the case that spatial thinking is a means to open up the monadism of aesthetic autonomy and to enjoy the heterogeneity of countless micronarratives, then we composers may still have somewhere new to go. Oddly enough, that may herald a state of innocence, for as Bruno Bettelheim once wrote ‘the child’s experience of the world may be chaotic, but only as seen from an adult’s point of view… If this “chaotic” fashion of experiencing the world is all one knows, then it is accepted as the way the world is” (1976, 74).

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“Autonomy, engagement and narrative: how music goes” by Dugal McKinnon is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.