In a thin strip of woodland running alongside a rugby field, there is (or at least, there was) a bog. A friend and I once found a purpose there. We were to build a bridge from one side to the other. We spent most of the morning gathering the longest fallen branches we could find. The branches were meticulously sorted into piles of comparable length. Then, with myself thigh deep in the putrefied mud, and my friend standing on the top of the incline delineating bog from land, we carefully lowered the longest branches first, lengthways, in a number of columns just wide enough to accommodate a small pair of feet.
Climbing out of the bog and onto the freshly laid branches was an extremely delicate exercise: so as not to sink them with carelessly distributed weight, I first stretched my arms across them as far as possible. Then, torso grazing flat against the knots and bark, I slowly pulled myself along until my legs were free of the viscous body beneath. From there on out, it was a simple matter of taking each pile of branches across the partially built bridge and placing them in the bog. As long as nobody stood still for too long, the branches held, and by early evening, the two of us could cross from one side to the other and back again with relative ease.
Readers will not be surprised to hear that by the time of our return the following week, the bog had ingested our bridge. So, we spent most of the morning gathering the longest fallen branches we could find. The branches were meticulously sorted into piles of comparable length. Then, with one of us knee deep in the putrefied mud, and the other standing on the bank, we would carefully lower the longest branches first, lengthways, in a number of columns just wide enough to accommodate a small pair of feet. As the weeks went by, our methodology incrementally changed. Our improvisations became architectures. Elaborate, serious, obsessive. Layered with the ossified debris of one failed approach after another.
Eventually, we settled on a widthways configuration. This took many more branches, but they did not need to be particularly long, the route across was less treacherous, and neither one of us would need to climb in for the initial phases. We started to tie one branch to the next with vegetation. First, single strands, and then by twisting two, three, four stems for greater strength. Later came posts, driven deep into the bog, and melded to the structure with mud and knotted sticky-weed. For a time, ten, twenty, then perhaps even thirty pairs of branches with y-shaped offshoots near to the top would form crude supports for a grid of beams hovering precariously an inch or two above the bog. Twigs, leaves and detritus would be thatched across to fill the gaps. This was our most complex design and the most laborious to execute, but it was among our least successful. Unlike our more instinctual attempts, it failed to take advantage of the surface tension nature had gifted us. The vertical branches leaned and sank with our steps and the thatch slipped away underfoot. Eventually, we went back to an older way. I can’t remember what our last bridge looked like.
In pondering our persistence in the few days since this series of non-achievements came to mind, I’ve come to realize that many of my recent frustrations are born of a sense of passing time that we did not possess; a need for an imminent solution whose success predicates some other success, or is the means to some greater ends. We just kept building, repairing, re-building, failing and building again. We registered our lack of progress with a degree of nonchalance I think back upon with envy. This is not to suggest our little forays into amateur civil engineering were for their own sake: ultimately, we really did want to build a lasting bridge that people could use to cross the bog. In spite of our sincerely held instrumentalist aims, it was nevertheless only incidental to our purpose that the bridge was completely unnecessary. It was perfectly possible, after all, to get from one side to the other simply by walking a little further along the edge of the field before entering the woodland. At the top of the slope emerging from the far side of the bog were spiked railings barring the way to an unremarkable South Manchester street.
With a view to uncovering the political implications of notational, technological and musical innovation in composer–performer relationships within Western art music, this paper examines three disparate works: Christian Wolff’s Duo for Pianists II (1958); Brian Ferneyhough’s Unity Capsule (1975); and Georg Hajdu’s Schwer… unheimlich Schwer (2009). By first exploring two innovative 20th century works, Duo for Pianists II and Unity Capsule, the paper establishes a framework for a discussion of the political and ethical dimensions of composer–performer relationships in relation to the 21st century innovation manifest in Schwer… unheimlich Schwer (2009). This multidimensional examination draws on Warren’s (2014) examination of the relationships between ethics and music, Godlovitch’s (1998) philosophy of performance, and research carried out by practitioners such as Couroux (2002), Schick (2006) and Eigenfeldt (2011; 2014). The paper concludes that all three pieces demonstrate the potential for notation to have strong political implications, and that composers are ultimately responsible for the political implications of the performance experience.
In a 1993 interview, Nam June Paik (Wijers, 1993, p. 9) stated that ‘In a nomadic, post-industrial time we are more experience-oriented than possession–oriented’. Essentially, Paik was positioning Fluxus as a manifestation of changing attitudes towards the function of art and artists among its adherents in the wake of economical and societal transformation from industrial to post-industrial models. Although Fluxus was a loose, international movement spanning multiple decades (Smith, 1998, pp. 14-32), for the sake of understanding the motivations of Fluxus members in relation to Paik’s statement, the scope of this essay is limited to the rough time and location of its conception. The varying ideological strands from which Fluxus artists developed their output, including the concept of ‘experience-oriented’ art, are perhaps best understood as part of, and/or in reaction to the emergence of what Paik refers to as a ‘nomadic, post-industrial society’. In particular, the experiential elements and wider implications of the work and discourse of George Maciunas, George Brecht and Alison Knowles can be explored in the light of their societal and economic context.
As first hypothesized by Inglehart in 1977, and summarized by Wright (1978, p. 270-273), the economies of America and Europe can be characterized as the result of a slow shift in values from materialist to post-materialist. A ‘satiation of basic material needs’ (Wright, 1978, p. 270) led to the prioritization and, subsequently, the increased commodification and value, of creative and intellectual ideas at the expense of economic and physical security among the educated middle classes. This aspect of post-industrialist society is linked to art-as-commodity; that which is frequently exchanged and accrues value among collectors, critics and galleries according to the status it has been given by market forces (Gimpel, 2000, p. 51).
Lushetich (2011, p. 73) theorizes that artists recognizing ‘the need to get away from… art that privileges aloof spectatorship’ associated the divorce between experience and meaning ‘common to work characteristic of the Fordist era’ with commodity fetishism (in this context, a distancing between artist, as producer, and audience, as consumer). Fluxus, and to varying extents, Experimentalism, Pop Art, and Happenings, movements with which it shared symbiotic relationships, (Higgins, 2002, p. 163) were partially provoked by a move ‘against the artificial separation of producer or performer, of generator and spectator’ (Maciunas, 1962, cited in Hendricks, 1988, p. 23).
Brecht’s Water Yam was a series of events published in their first form in 1963 by George Maciunas (Higgins, 2002, p.163). Among them was Drip Music, which ‘may occur by chance or by choice and in accordance with almost any circumstances’ (Higgins, 2002, p. 46). In the presentation and marketing of Water Yam, ‘the high cost of culture is problematized’ through the use of ‘cheap materials,’ which result in ‘low costs’ to the participating audience (Higgins, 2002, p.164). Maciunas’ influence in the publication is clear. The design of the box was in keeping with the ‘principle that the kits should be cheap, disposable and unprecious’ (Higgins, 2002, p.163). Many of Brecht’s event scores (such as Keyhole event, 1962, Higgins, 2002, p. 22) were handwritten, and bore his signature; the printed versions, such as those in Water Yam did not, and sometimes omitted his name altogether (such as the selection in Higgins, 2002, p. 103), paralleling Maciunas’ advice to Ben Vautier: ‘don’t sign anything’ (Maciunas, 1964 cited in Hendricks, 1988, p. 133).
Alongside other Fluxus associates, Brecht attended Cage’s class on ‘Experimental Composition’ from 1958 to 1959 (Ouzounian, 2011, p. 201). Shortly after meeting Cage, Brecht wrote the essay “Chance-Imagery,” advocating chance as a method through which an artist is allowed to ‘transcend personality, culture and, ultimately, self’ (Brecht, 1957, p. 23 cited in Ouzounian, p. 208). Brecht’s event scores expanded upon Cage’s concept of the sound event placed in time, with ‘more generalized structures in which sound is one element among many’ (Ouzounian, 2011, p. 206). Including but not exclusive to Water Yam, Brecht’s ‘event scores’ exemplify this experiential, multisensory model; as ‘psychophysical structures’, (Brecht, 1991– 2005, p. 165 cited in Ouzounian, p. 206) the scores sought to highlight aspects of a ‘unified whole’ arbitrarily arrived at by chance.
Ouzounian (2011, p. 208) refers to Three Aqueous Events as an explicit example, a performance of which reveals the state of the performance material ‘as arbitrary points within a continuous field’, to the performer (in this case, equally an observer) who ‘ideally… experiences his or her own place within this continuum’. Thus, the score in itself does not embody but propagates the text; it serves as a prompt for performance, which in turn serves as a prompt for the perception of an event that already exists outside of the immediate context.
As put by Kotz (2005, p. 12), the event score often provides a ‘linguistic frame that directs attention to pre-existing phenomena’. In this way, Three Aqueous Events allows works to ‘disappear into the everyday’, (Dezeuze, 2006, p. 60) resonating with Maciunas’ aim to remove boundaries between art and life (Maciunas, 1962, cited in Hendricks, 1988, p. 23). However Brecht’s plan to sell Sink (1962) under 3 different guises highlights his acceptance of the multiple modes of perception that might be projected onto a given work (Dezeuze 2006, p. 61). According to Dezeuze (2006, p. 61), Brecht prepared 3 adverts for Village Voice, one advertising the sink as a sink, describing its condition and style, the other as a more possession-oriented sculpture and finally as an experiential prop sold with access to incidental events in which it might participate.
The ‘propositions’ of Alison Knowles resonate with the aims of Brecht’s event scores (Robinson, 2004, pp. 98-99). Each proposition is overtly multisensory, with ‘elements of chance incorporated into the temporal framework’ (Robinson, 2004, p. 99). Knowles was the only artist from within the Fluxus proper to include actual brands in her works (Robinson, 2004, p. 101). Although this draws her aesthetic concerns superficially closer to Warhol in his aspiration to create work transcending class barriers (Grudin, 2010, p. 3), by placing the brand name in a more experiential context, the connotations to which the commodity in question generally apply are subverted rather than framed. In Nivea Cream Piece (1962), the universally recognized product becomes ‘strange or even abject under the intense focus of its enactment’ (Robinson, 2004, p. 203). The sound could invoke squeamishness (Robinson, 2004, p. 203) or even notions of the ‘vaguely erotic’ (Mandl, 2010).
Among Knowles’ most famous ‘propositions’ is The Identical Lunch (c. 1969-1971), which frames the usually public consumption of a very specific meal. Much like Brecht’s ‘Drip Music,’ the performative actions are occurrences from every day life. The performance has both very private and very public aspects; the internal sensory experiences of any performers, and the changing context within which it occurs (Weil and Knowles, 2011). From its conception, Knowles encouraged performers to record their experiences, which were published in a journal in 1971 (Weil and Knowles, 2011), shifting aspects of the private experience to a broader audience. Knowles’ later screen prints of friends performing the piece in a more isolated setting (Weil and Knowles, 2011) represent a different kind of public exposure to the act, divorcing an observer from immediate experiential elements. The prints also overlay the performance with ‘mass imagery’, by way of a prominent Star-Kist logo (Higgins, 2002, p. 157), during an otherwise private lunch, thus exposing the performer to the public in an equally divorced way.
Knowles’ Been Rolls (1963), consisting of ‘fourteen tiny paper rolls’, with arbitrary bean-related facts, ‘including people named Bean, proverbs and stories and beans, bean recipes and ads for L.L. bean’ as well dried beans, were all presented in a ‘found tea tin’ (Robinson, 2004, p. 103). The tea tin was labelled according to the designs of George Maciunas. The label places it among the Fluxus “anti-commodities” along with many of Maciunas’ Fluxkits (Robinson, 2004, p. 103). Robinson (2004, p. 103) highlights the fact that the beans themselves cannot be replicated or mass manufactured exactly from one instance to another. Not only does this subvert the ‘perfect serial sameness of mass produced commodity’, (2004, p. 103) it also incorporates a kind of chance procedure in the physical properties of each bean, and the subsequent parameters of any given experience. The level of physical engagement Bean Rolls permits its audience (Higgins, 1998, p. 67) is also congruent with the Fluxkit concept.
Maciunas’ Fluxkits are collections of items inviting the ‘private explorations of a viewer’ (Higgins, 2002, p. 31). Subsequently, much like Bean Rolls, and Brecht’s Three Acquious Events, the Fluxkits often create a situation whereby audience and performer are one. Fluxus 1, assembled by Maciunas, contains ‘objects, visual work and essays by thirty-nine artists’ (Higgins, 2002, p. 53). The multiplicity of primary sensory information that the items convey is outlined by Higgins (2002, p. 53); a napkin and medical glove to touch, a tune and words to sing and portraits to view are just a few examples. As in Three Acquious Events, Drip Music,Sink, Bean Rolls, and The Identical Lunch, Fluxus 1 assimilates everyday objects without transforming or framing them in such a way as to impede their normal use; a prime example of Maciunas’ aim to obtain ‘”art” experiences from everyday occurrences,’ (Maciunas, c. 1963-4, cited in Philpott, n.d.) as oppose to creating it using the everyday as source material.
A contrasting Fluxkit, which contains a single, purpose-made object, is Maciunas’ Smile Machine (1970-72); a sprung metal contraption forcing the wearer to ‘smile’ while enduring the taste of ‘blood and metal’ (Higgins, 2002, p. 50) and physical discomfort, inducing a phenomenological experience unique to anatomical attributes of the mouth of the wearer. The work perhaps also serves as a political statement; a commodity sold to force a distorted external symbol with incompatible inward associations, fitting Robinson’s (2004, footnote no. 17) definition of a Fluxus ‘anti-commodity’. Fluxpost (smiles) (1978) is a series of stamps depicting unflattering smiles (Higgins, p. 48-50). Higgins (2002, p. 50) views Fluxpost (smiles), experientially in the light of Smile Machine, invoking an awareness of the inside of the mouth. Other readings of the work view it as a critique of Capitalism, ‘betraying specific class, cultural or racial associations’ (Higgins, 2006, p. 282) with regard to the condition of the teeth relative to their bearers, an observation Higgins does not outright dismiss. The former component of the work is perhaps triggered by foreknowledge of Smile Machine; the latter by foreknowledge of Maciunas’ political angle and the cultural landscape from which the work was conceived.
Fluxiosity (1966) is demonstrative of Maciunas’ ‘ambivalent relations’ towards Capitalism (Sell, 1998, p. 6). The work outlines a ‘Fluxus HQ,’ in New York, multiple international centres from which the former might disseminate it’s ideals, a list of commodity goods, ‘like a bill of sale’ and, finally, a list of participating artists (Sell, 1998, pp. 6-8). The ‘Fluxus HQ’ to which Maciunas referred didn’t literally exist, but was rather an ‘imagined centre’ (Sell, 1998, p. 6). ‘Fluxshops were set up in the US, France, and the Netherlands’ (Smith, 1998, p. 29) and the multiplicity of distribution outlets, with mail order warehouses in the US and Europe (Smith, 1998, p. 29) may be, in part, what Paik was alluding to with his use of the word ‘nomadic’. Through its mail order system, Fluxus and associated publishers attempted to subvert the ‘highly centralized distribution system of the art world’ (Paik, 1978, cited in Smith, 1998, p. 29). Paik could have also been referring to the locational independence of Fluxus pieces from art galleries, concert halls or, in many cases, any particular geographical location, that made this method of distribution more viable.
Prior to Fluxioity, Maciunas’ works had employed ‘more straightforwardly leftist rhetoric’, (Sell, 1998, p. 6) which resonated more closely with the aforementioned views of Lushetich on Fluxus as a reaction to commodity art, and on Maciunas’ original conception of Fluxus as, in part, an attack on it (Saper, 1998 p.150). The Purge Manifesto of 1963 was more outwardly iconoclastic, calling on his peers to ‘purge the world of bourguois sickness… professional and commercialized culture’ (Higgins, 2002, p. 95), as was Fluxus news-policy No. 6 (1963), calling upon Fluxus artists to commit acts of cultural violence from ‘sabotaging museums’ to ‘creating mayhem’ (Higgins, 2002, p. 95) during rush hour.
The most overt display of iconoclasm to the outside world in Fluxus was the 1964 picket of a concert, within which Fluxus members were billed as performers alongside Stockhausen (Higgins, 2002, p. 72). Although Stockhausen was previously involved in several earlier concerts at the behest of Nam June Paik (Higgins, 2002, p. 71), Piekut (2011, p. 68–71) suggests the picket was as a result of the anti-bourgeois Jazz background of influential Fluxus associate Henry Flynt, combined with continuing events outside of the avant-garde leading to a general increase in anti-art sentiment. Higgins (summarized in Piekut, 2011, p. 68) has characterized the event as the culmination of an ongoing dispute within the Fluxus movement; Maciunas, Flynt and other picketing members viewing it as a ‘politically-motivated anti-art critique’ against those taking part, who saw Fluxus as ‘a socially elastic aesthetic based on individual experience’ (Piekut, 2011, p. 68). Sell (1998, p. 8) offers a more reconciliatory understanding of Higgins’ dichotomy through his reading of Fluxiosity as a manifesto ‘defining…a shared matrix of conceptual paradoxes and structural contradictions within which an individual artist might work’.
At the time of its conception, Fluxus can be understood to have been a multi-faceted umbrella under which artists with some common interests operated. It is not enough to ignore the wide-ranging and contradictory political implications, both overt and connotative, of the body of work generated by Brecht, Knowles, Maciunas and other Fluxus artists, operating within the ‘nomadic, post-industrial society’ Paik refers to: subversion of the art market through alternative models of production and distribution afforded to the Fluxkits, various anti-commodities and artists books such Water Yam as well as the dogmatic, iconoclastic sentiments of the Purge Manifesto and Fluxiosity are to name a few. It is also not enough to consign Fluxus to the status of political movement; not only due to the lack of straightforward ideological consensus, but also because the experiential models that arose, in response to traditional art, invite a more concise analysis of the Fluxus movement. In short, Paik’s statement in relation to the conception of Fluxus describes a displacement from one prioritized mode of perception to another, in reaction to the prevailing cultural and economic norms of the art world as a microcosm of late capitalist society.
 It is worth noting that the experiential aesthetic is far older than Fluxus and associated movements. The aesthetic concerns highlighted by philosophers such as John Dewey, who wrote as early as 1934 on experiential modes of perception in art were, however, explored and developed by Fluxus artists (Higgins, 2002, p. 17).
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As this post is following on from my July 21st post, describing ‘Surface I’ from my ongoing project, ‘Impressions on Surfaces,’ I’d first like to draw attention to my description of the unifying concept in the project, extracted from that post:
The core of ‘Impressions on Surfaces’ is in two parts; an audible layer of precomposed, repeating material presented on the score and to be played by a performer, and an inaudible layer, the content of which is only hinted at by its ‘imprint’ on the former. The inaudible layer was generated with IRCAM’s Open Music from randomly selected preset rhythms, and consists of five streams of pitch and rhythm data.
Before I go further, I’d also like to return to, and expand upon, the visual/tactile analogy I presented in the previous post: I invited you to imagine a piece of tin foil stretched over a painting. The painting is obscured both visually and to touch. By looking, we might gain some knowledge as to the nature of the painting; the size of the canvas, and perhaps some prominent brush strokes forcing themselves against the foil. To touch, we may gain a little more idea of the details the foil obscures; the grain of the strokes, perhaps some idea of the nature of the paint, the outlines of figures or aspects of its composition. In any case, the sum of all the sensory information one could obtain would not go nearly far enough to expose the true nature of the painting. The tin foil dominates every sensory aspect of it; what it does not completely hide, it obscures and distorts with its own characteristics.
Suppose the tin foil was exchanged with a piece of muslin cloth. The change would not only affect our immediate perception of the surface layer, but also our comprehension of the painting beneath. Different aspects of the painting become more prominent; perhaps we could see some shades of colour through the tiny holes in the muslin, while it might now be too thick to reveal the strokes underneath to touch. Here, the inaudible layer is analogous to the painting, while the surface covering it is comparable to both the audible layer and the conditions through which aspects of the inaudible layer might become apparent.
For each section, there is both a unique audible layer, and a unique series of conditions through which material might pass from the inaudible to audible. In other words, I’m exchanging the surface covering our painting per section. It is my intention that throughout all sections, the content of the inaudible layer remains the same, as does our imaginary painting in the above analogy. This is because the clear difference in the way aspects of the inaudible layer manifest themselves in the audible from one section to another highlights the extremity of the filtering effect taking place. Additionally, it is more interesting to me to shed light on multiple aspects of a single form (obscured as they are) than it is to shed light on a single aspect of multiple forms.
The ever so slightly younger me was convinced of many things with regard to music that proved difficult to shake, the most sacred of which being the notion that it could convey a meaningful political message by means other than the sheer audacity of its own existence. My explanation for indulging in such naive symbolism, however briefly, is that I could not find a way to reconcile the life I had left behind with the one I so desperately wanted to break my way into. How could a man who had spent the last of his teenage years activizing, occupying and polemicizing in the name of Socialism so wholeheartedly embrace the regularly elitist, often inward-looking world of ‘new music,’ except in the hope that his own music might somehow promote concrete anti-capitalist ideas?
While music can serve as no such platform, no work is created from nothing; it is a product of its time, reflective of and inseparable from the society within which it is situated. It is from this vantage point, carved from my understanding* of the writings of Pierre Bourdieu and Terry Eagleton, among others, that I have gradually formulated a new reconciliation. In developing a fascination with the works of early experimentalists such as Cage, Wolff and Cardew, and later Fluxus artists such as George Brecht and Allison Knowles, I became increasingly aware of the inherent barriers manning the borders of bourgeois culture: The neigh-on impenetrable muscle memory of a virtuoso violinist, who has spent years proudly honing the techniques necessitated by traditional repertoire, the sacred social norms of the concert hall or, indeed, a given composer’s unquestioned assumptions as to his or her role in the act of creation are to name a few.
Music cannot activize like a protestor, nor can it incite specific actions (revolutionary or otherwise), but it can share a protestor’s optimism. It is my sincere belief that through a multitude of ideas that actively resist aspects of oppression in composition and performance situations – from Richard Barrett’s ‘point-zero’ approach to instrumental writing to the cross-referential, intelligently programmatic works of Michael Finnissy – one or two of those barriers might, for a brief moment, be made permeable enough to expose a little of the potential that could exist in the music of a post revolutionary society.