on music and beauty

Author: miquito (Page 2 of 3)

A role for contemporary music?

At the beginning of last summer György Ligeti left us. What struck me most, after the inevitable sorrow for the loss of another great musical mind, was the almost complete lack of notice given to his death outside the narrow world of so-called contemporary music.

Throughout the history of music there have been composers wishing to give their art a cultural status comparable to literature, or philosophy. In more recent times composers as diverse as Luciano Berio and Pierre Boulez have made a considerable effort to raise the profile of musical thought, and bring it into the mainstream cultural debate.

There are inherent difficulties with these commendable attempts: intellectuals the world over are not, in general, well versed in music and compositional theory. This is obviously the result of a formative problem – music is not part of the standard education curriculum. More problems are posed by the special language – notation – that music uses, and its tenacious resistance to be apprehended and described by words alone. A good indicator of this situation is the negligible amount of citations and references to ‘contemporary music’ sources (the actual scores) and composers’ writings in essays on modern culture.

Lively, alert and informed people, interested in contemporary arts the world over, will know a lot about the latest movies, the latest books and essays, the latest exhibitions and even the latest plays, but very seldom they will know about or attend ‘contemporary music’ concerts. For them, music is a form of pleasure rather than an intellectual activity. In their experience the music space is already well stocked with the various declinations of pop, rock, jazz, world and urban music, or even with the museum of classical music.

In our eye-dominated world, where visual media condition to a large extent our perception of reality, music becomes naturally the soundtrack of our own existence – the constant background to other, more prepotent eye-driven events. This ancillary role is exactly what so-called contemporary music tries to fight against, advocating for music an autonomous status. In his 1995 article, Dei suoni e delle immagini (Of Sounds and Images), first read when the University of Siena awarded him the degree honoris causa, and later reworked as one of the Six Norton Lectures on Poetry ( Remembering the Future_ Cambridge, Harvard University), Berio tries to defend the autonomy of the ear and its predominance on the eye.

It is telling that Berio identifies music theatre – opera – as the one area where music still has the power to be in control, generate the dramatic structure and influence all visual and narrative elements. Music theatre is inherently a ‘dirty’ playing field, where visual and musical elements merge and interact in unpredictable ways. As much as composers wish for music to be in control, planning carefully every element of the show, it will be almost impossible to avoid the predominance of the visual element. Berio’s wishful thinking is shattered against the hard facts of human perception and cultural conditioning. Moreover, opera is a team enterprise, where the composer is but one of the authors. Berio’s quarrels with directors and stage designers became proverbial, showing the difficulty of maintaining control – à la Wagner – over everything. Role specialisation in today’s theatre and the refinement of available technologies make it altogether impossible. It is also presumptuous to think that one person – the composer – can be at the same time the librettist, director and stage designer of his/her operas. Karlheinz Stockhausen’s own unsatisfactory results should rest my case.

But then, if even music theatre cannot be the vehicle of musical thought, what is left to us? Precious little, I’m afraid. We have to accept that the incomparable depth and richness found in contemporary musical thought is lost to the cultural debate, and belongs to the kind of esoteric endeavours that never go past the narrow confines of ‘contemporary music’ circles.

Where is my audience?

The relationship between composer and audience today is a strange one indeed. More to the point, is there an audience at all for so-called contemporary music? We need to be honest about it: the audience is disappearing. This is not something to worry too much about: it is only the natural consequence of the demise of the social role and status of contemporary classical music, and the related changes in music fruition and delivery. The music critic, another element of the traditional concert ecology, is also silently fading away, a powerless casualty of this evolving situation.

As a musician, I’m principally interested in live performance. The magic dimensions of a public concert is what we should care about: the ritual offering, the virtuoso display, the theatre happening on stage and the risky, adventurous nature of a live concert performance are a precious gift to all of us. But without an audience, live performance cannot survive. We already experience live performance without having to attend a ‘contemporary music’ concert: how do we convince our potential audiences that they are missing something that can’t be found elsewhere? Or, reversing the question, when was the last time you cried at a ‘contemporary music’ concert?

One obstacle, first brought to my attention by Peter Johnson, Head of Research at Birmingham Conservatoire, is the lack of a performance tradition for the vast majority of contemporary works. They are performed a few times and almost never recorded to the standards of a commercial release. They often include specific parts for specific performers, making it impossible or very difficult for other interpreters to tackle the works. A second related problem is the performers’ knowledge of the piece. How deep can your interpretation go if you are learning the piece for the first time and perform it only a few times? Compare this with the intimate relationship over the years, indeed over a lifetime, that most performers build with the classical music repertoire. A third problem is the nature of ‘contemporary music’ micro-market: the ratio between sellers (the composers) and buyers (the performers and the audiences) is incredibly skewed towards the former. The late Stephen Jay Gould had a very original interpretation for justifying this state of affairs, what he called the right wall of human achievement: in a society that favours innovation at all costs, there comes a time when the relative advancement of an art form, say music, becomes smaller and smaller, until it is imperceptible.

Current literature on audience numbers for ‘contemporary music’ concerts and audience development strategies are often enthusiastic, but, I’m afraid. always misleading. I’m referring here to the UK state of affairs, but the main argument could be applied equally well to French or Italian audiences. I would like to correlate the number of composers writing music today with the amount of people listening to their music. My impression is that the composer/audience ratio is dwindling ferociously, rather than expanding. The reason for this is probably a steeper pyramid, with few composers getting a lot of attention from the niche audiences of “contemporary music”, and a plethora of less well-known composers that remain virtually ignored.

What is in a name

Naming something is the primordial act of identification. Names form the basis of knowledge. They segment reality into discrete units that can be processed. Names describe and define reality. If something has no name, its very existence is in doubt.

This is what strikes me so much about so-called contemporary music: it has no name. Contemporary is a neutral adjective, merely stating the obvious fact that we are referring to music written in our time. It doesn’t qualify the word ‘music’ in any useful way. This is why time and again other names have been used to define this unwieldy object: art music, modern music, neue Musik [new music], musica colta [cultured music], musica seria [serious music], to name a few in English, German and Italian. None of these definitions have stuck, nor are they particularly helpful, the reason being that the segmentation of this particular bit of reality is completely artificial. It is not borne out of any historical, social, artistic or aesthetic necessity.

If we wished to define in the most concise form the conceptual field that ‘contemporary music’ and these other unhelpful names attempt to encircle, we would arrive at something like “music written by an academically trained living composer”. Although this is already quite a long definition, it needs to be further qualified: composers that are not with us anymore, mostly from the second half of the 20th century, are also labelled as “contemporary”, and “academically trained” is too narrow, as composers may have very diverse backgrounds and still be considered as belonging to the “contemporary music” field.

This is exactly the problem: the artificial definition of a “contemporary music” field is the consequence of a historical aberration: the desire to maintain a link with the tradition of classical music and to keep the distance from popular music or other music genres. But both the link with tradition and the distance from other musics are partly fictitious, and cannot be safely encoded in a name.

The conclusion is that the “contemporary music” object is not an object at all. Critical apprehension of “contemporary music” bangs all the time against this conceptual wall. We need to accept the artificiality of the “contemporary music” construct, and deal with a fragmented reality that cannot be labelled easily, if at all.

Time in Colombia

In Colombia time has a different meaning, a different structure. This has been noted already by writers and travellers, but for a composer it is particularly exciting, since it opens up a whole new perspective on time perception and manipulation.

Colombians do not have a linear perception of time – one event after the other – as we usually have in Europe. Time in Colombia is more like a sort of fabric, where each interweaving thread represents a single event. Instead of building time as a series of events following each other, Colombians maintain a parallel perception where many events are kept together. Delay and multithreading are the key concepts here; events are kept in a sort of memory buffer and dealt with according to external requirements, all at the same time. Instead of completing one event and going on to the next, Colombians advance by small or big leaps through many events at the same time.

This attitude towards time is puzzling at first, but once you get used to it, it is utterly fascinating. A group of friends might decide to visit the family of one of them living in a finca, a house in the country. The plan is to leave on Tuesday afternoon. They duly meet on Tuesday to leave, but they eventually leave only on Friday morning. A number of parallel events have been unfolding, and the trip to the finca has been delayed by three days, but for all of them it is only ‘a bit’ later. They, or their expecting host, have no concept of a missed appointment nor they feel the need to reschedule the trip. Time, simply, has stretched and the ‘visit to the finca‘ event with it, like some sort of elastic entity.

The continuous shifting and rearranging of events in time and the ability to deal with it, the ability to maintain a parallel perception of many crisscrossing events – is, I believe, one of the main reasons for the amazing creativity, emotional intelligence and adaptation skills of the Colombian people, especially those living in rural areas.

It is easy to see a musical parallel: instead of one or more fixed timelines governing a sequence of musical events or objects, each event has its own timeline, expanding and contracting according to the behaviour of other concurrent timelines.

Colombian wind band music

Yesterday night I went to a concert in the main church of Salamina, amidst the mountains in the coffee-growing region of Caldas in central Colombia. It was a banda sinfónica juvenil, bringing together the best players from all the local wind bands (there are 44 of them from every village in the region). The quality of the playing was amazing. 80 kids aged 14 to 18 played a mixed repertoire of classical music arrangements and Colombian folk music, with unerring precision, great intonation and an infectious sense of rhythm.

The most interesting pieces in the programme were by Victoriano Valencia, considered the best Colombian composer of music for banda sinfónica. Victoriano’s arrangements thread a fine line between traditional roots and innovation – especially formal and harmonic – without falling in the easy trap of emulating the jazz-derived idiom and sounds of North American big bands. I found his music highly original and very well scored.

Leverhulme application

We have just submitted to the Leverhulme Trust a funding application for a 5-year research plan at UCE Birmingham Conservatoire. Together with Jamie Bullock we have identified usability and sustainability as the key areas of development in the field of live electroacoustic music research in the foreseeable future.

The musicSpace project

Richard Polfreman and mc schraefel from the University of Southampton have invited us to take part in musicSpace, a large project application submitted to AHRC/EPSRC. The aim of musicSpace is to develop a web-based semantic browser for music-related data. One of the areas of the project is electroacoustic music. If funded, musicSpace could provide a very powerful tool for researchers and the public at large, providing in one single location a fine-tuned search engine for music data and meta-data. We are eagerly waiting for confirmation of the funding!

Music as Memory conference

Geir Johnson, Artistic Director of Ultima, the Oslo Contemporary Music Festival, invited me to give a talk on “Music and Technology: past, present and future” at the _Music as Memory_ conference, on Friday 6 October 2006. The conference was part of this year’s Ultima Festival. I enjoyed listening to Geir’s profound, personal talk introducing the conference, and to Stein Henrichsen (BIT20 Ensemble and Opera Vest), Luca Francesconi, Lasse Thoresen and Asbjörn Schaathun, also giving very interesting talks. Asbjörn gave an entertaining definition of a “perfect” creative person, obtained by combining together the different talents and characters of the four Beatles. The notes for my talk follow below.

Music and Technology – past, present and future

Music as memory
The relationship with tradition, the interaction of current artistic trends with the past is a central aspect of music making. Thanks to technology, composers, performers, indeed all music actors like you – artistic directors etc, have direct access to a wealth of resources that extend both on the geographical, horizontal plane, and on a very long vertical axis towards the past. This three-dimensional, always available on-demand mapping of human creativity in the arts is an unprecedented feat that demands a complete rethinking of our relationship with the past, with musical tradition.

The same technology that allows us to explore and appropriate the musical universe in space and time, has altered our perception of the world in many ways. Digital technology allows anything. When everything is equally available, what is the aesthetic, artistic value of a choice? How do we establish a dialogue with tradition in the current situation?
We live in the age of technology, after science, history, philosophy, religion.
Technology is overwhelming. Also, technology is *never* neutral. How can we make sense of it? By reconducing it to a human dimension. How?

The Humanist Challenge:
# junghian, ethnomusicological alternative – the consolation of archetypes
# ethical alternative – music with a message
# gestural alternative – music with the body

I’ll try to give an answer to these questions later on in my talk, from the point of view of music technology.

The past
Music as memory – from the perspective of music with technology the challenge is to allow music to become memory in the first place. Preservation of interactive, real-time, live electronics works is a daunting task that has to be tackled in a novel way.
[If we look at electroacoustic music, the situation is comparatively quite good. Once the original analogue supports have been converted to digital, preservation is ensured. True, the passage from analog to digital is difficult, and many works from the 50s and 60s where conceived with the idiosyncrasies of early recording, mixing and diffusion equipment in mind [another example of non-neutral technology!]. Those peculiarities became an essential part of the work, as it has been shown time and again in the works of Berio, Stockhausen, Schaeffer, etc.]
To get back to live electroacoustic music, as we should call live electronics, the obvious problem is the longevity of technologies, hardware and software, their rapid change, the commercial, hence temporary, nature of many of the devices used and the overall lack of documentation from the composers and interpreters. To maintain a piece using obsolete technology is very difficult, sometimes downright impossible. If a piece is not performed anymore, then it ceases to be an active agent in cultural and music life. This is too bad.

The role of the research centres
IRCAM – it has certainly helped to shape the contemporary music scene, and its contribution cannot be played down. Boulez managed to create something that lasted and thrived for many years, expanding in more directions as time went by. If we compare this with the UK experience or the Italian experience, for example, IRCAM has been an outright success. In the UK, the efforts to create a National Centre for Electronic Music were never taken seriously by the government, and in Italy, a place like the Centro Tempo Reale in Florence, founded by the late Luciano Berio, never took off properly, and was widely regarded to be just Berio’s own technology plaything – of course this says more about the difference in character between the two composers (Boulez and Berio) than about local obstacles to achieve a similar goal.

IRCAM, nevertheless, as a growing big institution has suffered from many organisational and structural problems, that have become often artistic problems, like the establishment of an IRCAM style that can be quickly recognised – again, technology, the means of producing music with technology, are never neutral, but they affect every aspect of the creative compositional process.

Computers are not neutral tools. Software and hardware impose their own architecture. As any composer that works with technology will tell you, when you are working on a new piece and sit down at the computer to do any of a number of things (analyse, design, edit and mix sounds, prepare your own compositional material by using algorithms, note generators, etc., put together your performance environment and so on), your frame of mind changes, and you have to adapt and limit your thought processes to those that the machine, the software you’re using will allow. It is all very well to say that if you need to alter the software you are interacting with, or if you are unhappy with it you can modify or write your own – in practice you can’t transform yourself in a programmer – apart from the vast amount of time that would be needed, if you do it you will need to distance yourself even more from your musical mind, the one that initially triggered the need.

So again, technology is not neutral. And if a composer works on the technology with a musical assistant, this creates another layer between the musical mind and the machine, another constraint. (Critique of IRCAM) At IRCAM and elsewhere, the main policy has been for many years to support composers through musical assistants, acting as a filter between the composer and the machine. It is no wonder that the software developed at IRCAM has never reached the simplicity of use, the fluidity that one would expect from an institution with such great minds and resources behind it. The maintenance and documentation of the software has also been always very patchy. Obviously a pachydermic institution like IRCAM has a built-in inertia that makes change difficult, but creating simple tools for musicians has never been one of the IRCAM’s priorities.

Maintenance and preservation are also thorny issues. We are trying to find a possible solution to these issues with the Integra project.

The present
Technology is the beast. From a philosophical standpoint, music technology offers a very exciting challenge: artists working with computers, altering the code, hacking it, to realise things that were not planned by the software designers, fulfill the historical role of art: disrupting received knowledge, reordering, reassembling the symbols and objects of our society in an original, critical way. But can we apply to technology the same concepts that worked for art in the past? I doubt it.

Technology is so embedded in our lives, but we still feel the distance from it. It’s here but it’s not here. We think we have the philosophical tools to dominate it, to explain and describe technology, but in reality we don’t. Technology is a self-feeding monster, what can be realised will be realised. There is no goal in technology, no purpose, everything is outside our human horizon of meaning. We are now learning to find a new vocabulary to deal with this monster, but it is early days.

Technology has no memory, Technology has no meaning. Why technology in music? We have to humanise it, and adopt standards. The fundamental issue with technology lies in its unlimited potential and its self-replicating nature: technology is inherently meaningless. If we are going to use it in music we will have to ask ourselves some hard questions. Why do we need it? How can it be musical? How can it be controlled? In order to be harnessed, technology should be brought back to a human dimension, and considered just like another musical instrument – a polymorphous one, to be sure, but still an instrument – that we can learn and play. To achieve this, we should simplify music technology, and to establish a standard vocabulary to describe it.

The word “standard” is often disliked, but we should not forget that the musical instruments employed in our concerts are themselves “standard”, in fact quite limited ones: nevertheless, they allow the transmission of an extremely complex and diversified musical message.

Integra is not alone in this effort towards more user-friendly technology, although it is only recently that usability, good interface design and a preoccupation for how humans operate have started to appear in technology products. Sadly, as far as the history of music technology is concerned, we are still living in the colonisation phase. I like to compare our current experience with the Wild West: new territories are conquered every day, there are no common laws, survival depends from individual initiative. And we are all still digging in search of that elusive gold mine.

This explains the proliferation of do-it-yourself systems over the past three decades, when each work, even by the same composer, required a different technological setup (hardware, software, or both). The often-poor documentation of the electronic parts and the rapid obsolescence of the original hardware and software have prevented the adoption of a core repertoire of works using live electronics in mainstream concert programmes.

Design – usability = make it simple! We need to trade the technological DIY approach (temporary, non-standard, often undocumented) with a user-centred approach, to ensure more performance opportunities and long-term preservation. Standards and limitations in technology can be an incentive for creativity.

The future
Integra project

Integra environment outline

Integra namespace – class hierarchy describing all the modules, parameters and functionalities, including time. Built-in inheritance. Everything is an object. The namespace is OSC-compliant for interaction with other software, network performance, etc., but not internally. OSC is one of the possible implementation of the Integra namespace model.

Database [postgres sql]
contains
• Integra modules [the building blocks of the system]
• Composition metadata [documentation on the work, the composer, the technical setup, etc.]
• Composition performance data [control and audio network and signal flow, behaviour in perfomance]

All data is encoded in XML format. All the XML files that constitute a work can be downloaded and will automatically generate modules and connections in the GUI.

GUI [any graphic library, prototype realised with Max/MSP using custom graphic library]
• interface for the musician, fine-tuned for the three main modes of utilisation: composition, rehearsal, live performance
• modular and powerful: everything is an object, every object can interact withj everything else
• extremely user-friendly
• uses new paradigms to represent concurrent timelines [Iannix]
• generates xml files
• talks to the engine in real-time
• visualizes processes in real-time

Engine [any DSP application supporting the Integra namespace]
• runs Integra modules

Henze, Canti di Viaggio

La vita di un artista romantico, con la stessa intensità e passione, ma anche con le inevitabili cadute di stile e prolissità che caratterizzano la musica di Henze. Rimane un nostalgico, commovente ritratto dell’Italia dagli anni Cinquanta in poi, soprattutto del Sud – quel Sud che comincia dai Colli Albani… – visto con gli occhi di un artista nordico alla ricerca della sua Grecia, dell’ideale classico, della bellezza.

Appaiono nell’autobiografia tantissimi personaggi della cultura artistica del ‘900, da Luchino Visconti a Michael Vyner, da Wystan Auden a Ingeborg Bachmann…mi hanno sorpreso la descrizione della lunga e difficile amicizia con Luigi Nono, che getta una luce nuova sul personaggio, e la totale assenza di ogni riferimento a Berio (a parte uno piccolissimo).

Mixtur by Stockhausen at the South Bank

Down to London to listen to Mixtur and say hello to Thierry Coduys, responsible for the electronics together with Sound Intermedia (Ian Dearden and David Sheppard).

Mixtur is the daddy of live electronics… a late discovery for me. Some awkward moments (a funny trombone glissando up and down a perfect fourth that comes from nowhere, the long pauses) but beautiful complex timbres especially in the lowest register for cello, double bass and contra-bassoon. Conceptually it was fantastic in 1967, and it still retains some of that aura, although the music has aged. And the performance with the reversed order of the sections, thankfully played in the first half of the concert, just doesn’t work.

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