THE CHALLENGE OF THE NEW
Recently I’ve been thinking about the challenge of the New. In particular, the challenge to the ears contrived by anybody composing ardent real New Music. I am involved with groups who seek to play, or have played, what might be called ‘modern classical music’ in public places. While they are intrigued by the act of walking past pop-up musical performances in the street or in a gallery of some kind, public people appear to have a constant problem paying for getting their bums on seats ready to listen to a formal programme in an auditorium.
It’s one thing to be involved in creating New Music and quite another getting people interested in your artefacts. To some extent it doesn’t matter because, as I know very well, having composed in a performance-free zone for many years, it could be just a participator sport, audience-irrelevant; but if one wants to build a reputation of some sort to establish certain credentials then the question of how to hook people becomes important.
But should the effort to hook them ever be made? Is it justifiable in some way? As a composer should one sell one’s soul for the bubble reputation?
In any case, I wouldn’t be seen dead at a pop concert and, if I am to leave the house, requiring something more challenging to the ears, my bum has not been on a seat at a Tchaikmozmaninovsohn concert for many years.
People will assert that they know what they like and that’s that – while anything New nearly always carries with it the taint of being ‘hard to digest’ – it doesn’t work on the palate in the same way as conventional fodder does; it’s a matter of satisfying the digestion.
Assuming one might wish to indulge in the surely laudable aim to help extend passion & interest, how does one educate the palates of people who, probably quite rightly, just want to be left alone to follow their well-established habits? It is a matter of education.
Having taught myself whatever I need to know about what I call ‘music’ many years ago, I often wonder how it was that I just took to whatever came up without formal training or guidance. How was I driven? Having heard the word on the radio, I remember at the age of around 4 asking my mother what an ‘opus’ was – she had no answer which maybe put me on the road to finding out…
MY MUSICAL EXPERIENCE
Back in the early 1950’s, after I had put a great deal of the standard classical repertoire in my pocket anyway and become capable of whistling my way through all the Beethoven symphonies among many other things more obscure, because it seemed to me that it was just what you had to do to be a genuine item of a human being, I became entranced by the very initials ISCM (International Society for Contemporary Music) and made a beeline for what was then included in their concerts (Cheltenham figured greatly, I seem to recall) – Rawsthorne, Bliss, Lennox Berkeley, Tippett, Racine Fricker and so on. Thereafter I did my bit keeping up with Stockhausen & Webern & Schoenberg & Penderecki (oh, the St Luke Passion on a summer evening in 1966) on my own and going down the byroads of Mahler (byroad as he was late 1950’s) & Havergal Brian & Robert Simpson & Arnold Bax, all the time making an effort to compose, without quite having a direction, though there were a lot of experiments. One contained an instruction for the audience to bring flints to accompany composed music for two cellos, recorder & piano by walking around banging on radiators and chairs etc while I declaimed a little piece by Hermann Hesse which begins ‘This stone is stone…’
Unaccountably, the very words ‘Contemporary Music’ have always filled me with joy & excitement. Being consumed by other things for some years, I had assumed that it didn’t exist any more till I went to a CoMA Summer School (Contemporary Music for All) for the first time in 2006 and met Michael Finnissy. That was a real life-bender. His workshop that year reinforced my notion that proper music is painting with sound, Jackson Pollock style – highly controlled & deliberate dribbles & splashes of sound. I’m so glad I had no musical training early on.
The word ‘music’ is an abstraction; or else it’s a polymorphous concept supposed to represent lots of different things from pop to rock to jazz to Beethoven to Schoenberg to John Cage’s 4’33” & right up to the Music of the Spheres.
There’s music in everything: the tapping of the word processor keys with the counterpoint of clock-ticking and very quiet inner workings whistling in my ears and the constant hum of the computer; the grinding of coffee beans and the noise emitted by any large pump. We just have to listen & notice what we’re not normally noticing.
In ordinary life, unless it’s suddenly very loud, we take sound for granted – we don’t deliberately listen for it. Listening is a matter of attention. “Just listen to that!” Blackbird just before the rain comes…
What’s more, we take it for granted that we perceive wholes – in music, whole tunes, whole cadences, whole symphonies even. We are programmed to imagine that we get a whole unitary experience when we listen to music. As a result, it’s fairly usual for we listeners to have been programmed into wanting some whole recognisable melody. But the brain is not like that at all.
Since we are not so focussed on sound, ears being backwards in coming forwards, but very familiar with having a visual experience all the time – it’s all there in front of us unless we close our eyes – in order to understand the way the brain processes incoming stimuli it’s maybe relatively easy first to think about what we see through our eyes; though we do have to focus to see properly, we don’t have to tune in and out, as it were, or switch on the radio or play the bagpipes to have a visual brain experience.
Neuroscientists will assert that we take it for granted that we perceive whole things, cat, house, garden, pen, pump and so on. But a lot goes on behind the scenes: we actually see anything but wholes; we see, quite separately, shape, colour, form, movement, bright & dark, minute changes in each, all done by different parts of the brain and it seems there is absolutely no place at all in the brain where it all comes together; what we see are fragments; what seems unitary is an emergent property of huge numbers of different maps managed by neurons. Somehow or the other (neuroscientists are not sure how – they call it the BINDING PROBLEM) everything comes together. Part of the answer seems to be that the emergent property we experience as a unitary event is (dare one say ‘simply’?) the result of temporal proximity; it all goes so quickly: there are fragmentary records deriving from past experience stored in multiple sensory & motor regions across the brain that result in fleeting blendings of reactivated fragments in a very tight and intricate interval of time.
The blending we do in an other-than-conscious kind of way is a very basic process; we get what we call ‘meanings’ from it. Furriness, a slight shine, whiskers, a wobble and a stretch, shape, movement of paw, tail, ear & mouth & staring eye & grey tabbiness – the incoming stimuli make themselves up in a split second into the familiar cat – every last detailed stimulus managed by different parts of the brain.
But ‘meaning’ is never a single once and for all event – it’s a dynamic & variable pattern of connections across many fields of experience. Thus the ‘meaning’ of a piece of music…
Whenever there’s talk of ‘meaning’, I think of what Ben Nicholson said to somebody who asked what the ‘meaning’ of one of his abstract paintings was: ‘when you see a tree standing in the middle of a field, you don’t ask what its meaning is…’
Ligeti – Artikulation – YouTube
Watch and listen to this. If your brain were contained in some e-gadget, while you’re watching & listening with attention, the computer screen would light up (neurons & synapses) all over the place to indicate multiple events in every corner of it.
Watching & listening to Artikulation, much of what’s depicted in this diagram happens: some part of your brain is registering the movement of a vertical along a graphic score; as it gets used to it, another part of your brain is anticipating what comes next, forecasting sound; another part will remember what went before and make connections; another part will be responding to colour & shape; you will register single notes, notes that bend & blend, building to clusters and chords; another part of your brain will register the distinction between loud & soft, long & short and changes in general, both graphic and auditory. You will be emotionally stirred in some way.
The upshot of this is that our brain is capable of so much more than what it has grown used to in the survival service of habit. We only normally use a very small portion of our brain. Reassured that neuroscientists don’t have all the answers, with even a rudimentary knowledge of how the brain processes incoming stimuli, it’s possible to train it to use so many more of its various parts than we do already – all those capabilities we now know about – let the rest take care of itself. Knowing what the brain can do on a good day with focused attention can lead to our using more of it.
NEW MUSIC REQUIRES NEW WAYS OF LISTENING
Music is pure sound. ‘There’s a sound – where might it go next? – where does it go next? – what am I anticipating? – how are my expectations confirmed/confounded? – there’s another sound, and another – how do they link up together? – how do they combine? – it’s gone quiet – that happened once or twice before – wow, that was an explosion! – a series of chords with an emerging sequence above them on different instruments (what used to be called a ‘melody’) – something low, something high – I can feel my brain moving to the changes of pitch & rhythm…’ and so on.
I relish the climaxes as climaxes; I relish the idling along as idling along; I relish strange sounds and unusual chords; I see the little joke – I relish huge so-called ‘discords’ and unconventional occasional resolutions; I listen to the way the instruments interact; I follow one and then another; I look for a dialogue, a narrative; the reconciling unisons perhaps… This is called PAYING CLOSE ATTENTION to what’s going on in the music! It changes the sound and the rhythm. It’s not what you might have heard before.
THE LISTENER IS A NEUTRAL ENTITY
The listener can be redefined as a neutral entity somewhere between the pattern in the brain and what comes at it from outside.
But prior programming causes us to expect music to do certain things; academic teaching has us believe that certain things must happen – when they don’t we feel let down in some way – that could be called a loss of ATTENTION to what’s happening. There are many factors at work: one of the most important is the degree to which one has learned to tolerate uncertainty, a personality factor; then there’s the matter of how one listens; we could ask what the role of habit is in our lives; can we teach ourselves to go beyond the way we’ve always done things? Do we want to? Something about horses and a watering hole.
WHAT’S IN IT FOR US ANYWAY?
William Carlos Williams said that ‘poetry is the renovation of experience’. Perhaps a systematically different approach to New Music could contribute to the renovation of the experience of music in general and, more importantly perhaps, of the totality of human experience itself.
When you develop an ear for sounds that are musical it is like developing an ego.
If you begin to refuse sounds that you think are not musical
you cut yourself off from a good deal of experience.
John Cage (1912 – 1992)