Thursday, June 13, 2013

A Response to Nic Collins

Nic Collins asked a number of his contemporaries about the influence and legacy of the generation of composers and experimental sound makers who came of age in the late-60s and into the 70s. The questions arose in relation to Alvin Lucier's 80th birthday, but also referred to David Behrman, Christian Wolff, Steve Reich, Pauline Oliveros, David Tudor, Terry Riley, Philip Glass, the AMM, the AACM, and the Scratch Orchestra. When Nic shared his synopsis of this discussion on social media, I replied:

Thanks for sharing this, Nic. It's really important to ask these questions and really enlightening to read the thoughts of so many sophisticated practitioners.

I'm a little younger than the folks you polled (but not a lot younger), and I have a different take on these questions. First, I would agree with you that the music of the 60s and 70s did, in fact, represent a paradigm shift. What Alvin, alone, did in that period continues to amaze - for its reinvention from whole cloth, the very notion of what a piece of sonic art could be; for its constant innovation within what now seems to be a very clearly demarcated aesthetic territory; and for his attention to detail and ability to make the right choices (large and small) again and again. The others on your list, to greater and lesser degrees, remained or returned to models more clearly informed by the tradition of music from which they had emerged and in which they had been educated. But still, each of them made great, unprecedented works and, collectively, they represent something genuinely new in the world of producing sound and listening to it as an artistic construction.

Second, I believe we are still in the process of sorting out why the best of that stuff was great and what to do with its innovations. To my mind (and ear), the most important aspects of Alvin's work are not musical or even sonic in any conventional sense of the word. They are conceptual, textual, attitudinal, social, performative, philosophical, and inherently political. The same is true of the best work of Pauline, Steve Reich, Christian Wolff, the Scratch Orchestra, and, I would add, Cornelius Cardew, Luc Ferrari, the Portsmouth Sinfonia, (oh, the list could go on). The practitioners who picked up, for instance, on Alvin's work and tried to work with spaces, or with technologically-aided techniques for generating unintentional sounds, or with acoustic science, may have discovered in Alvin's work a battery for their engines, but they missed out on the real paradigm shift represented by his work and the work of his contemporaries.

On close inspection, the sonic work of this period unsurprisingly, bears resemblances to work in other media at the same time. Alvin's work shares a lot with Sol LeWitt's, Steve Reich's tape work with Dan Graham or Adrian Piper, the Portsmouth Sinfonia with Fluxus. Cardew could be thought of variously as the Hans Haacke or the Bruce Nauman of music. Again, I could go on. But before I'm accused of saying that music walked in the footsteps of innovations in the visual arts, let me clarify that I think these maneuvers happened simultaneously and symbiotically. The world of art and ideas was bucking against its rider and, in unison, they threw him to the ground in a heap. If we see/hear/read/think the music of this period in this way, then the innovations are not about what we're hearing (or at least not strictly and solely about what we're hearing). The shift is about acknowledging new definitions of what an artist or composer does, what an audience does, what a “work” does, and about de- and re-constructed relationships between each of these elements and of the whole construct of the artistic encounter with the rest of the world.

So here, I suspect that David Toop is simply too modest to accept that these moments that he first learned from, and then to which he so decisively contributed, could represent something as grand as a “paradigm shift.” But it surely was. I imagine David is Foucauldian (or maybe Rancièrean) enough to acknowledge that something like an episteme does exist (even if it’s likely always plural). If so, he must also acknowledge that such frameworks are constructed by actions in the world and that art works contribute to this construction.

Third, I would argue that we are now in the midst of another shift. It may be more apparent in the visual arts (again? why?), where practice has turned away from the Modernist vs. Postmodernist debates and to an engagement with real-world institutions and populations. So-called “relational aesthetics” and “social practice” operate within the parameters of a set of concerns that are simply not accounted for in the debates of Greenberg-Fried v. Krauss-Foster. Again, before I’m misconstrued, I’m not championing this work unproblematically. I’m merely observing that the ground has shifted. I believe that something similar is happening in the sonic arts. It’s harder to make out amidst the confusion of categories and intentions and, I think, due to the inherent conservatism of the musical establishment (funding organizations, venues, patrons, journalists, and the academy). But I hear an engagement that not only echoes what’s happening in the visual arts, but one that leverages the unique capacities of sound in its musical, verbal, technological, and social manifestations. I’m thinking of the work of Ultra-red, Johannes Kreidler, Christof Migone, Carey Young, Jarrod Fowler, Sharon Hayes, Janet Cardiff, James Hoff, Marina Rosenfeld, Nina Katchadourian, Ragnar Kjartansson, and others.

Maybe the upshot is that, as historical creatures, it’s difficult for us to participate in more than one paradigm shift. I mean, accepting that “everything’s changed” is difficult enough to do once. To do it twice threatens to enact the Nietzschean thought that nothing is true and everything (and anything) is permitted. Of course, if that’s true, it’s false. And you know where that leaves us…

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