The Rambler :: blog

Monday, August 29, 2005

Sussex conference 

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Thoughts (more or less) as they came to me on the Friday night train from Brighton

Thursday a bit odd. Didn't really take off as a conference I think, until Ian Pace's paper, polemically contesting the current discourse surrounding new music (the primacy it gives to ill-defined things such as 'well-made' etc.) ('discourse' in true Foucauldian sense for once), and the negative impact Pace believes this to be having on composers. The paper that followed (Claire Taylor-Jay) added to my personal concerns - where Pace attacked the mechanics of a discourse that seeks (artificially?) to impose unity upon a work, Taylor-Jay hauled up Barthes and Foucault to attack the principle of finding a consistent voice and/or style in a composer's work. See, eg., Stravinsky. I was worried by this - even though I've read the same articles myself - because a secondary effect of my Penderecki work hints at a unity within a work received as disjunctive (St Luke Passion), and a career equally so. Ended the day deflated, ready to pull up my work these past three years by the roots. Felt as though I have been intellectually poisoning myself: the two Thursday papers just held up an abrupt mirror to my condition.

Friday better - tonic/fresh water shower/antidote. David Toop's keynote lecture excellent, for all that it reemphasised some of the same intellectual concerns for radicalism over conservatism, canonisation, comfort. I feel better disposed towards Ocean of Sound, and may reread. Wolff session first thing prepared the ground well. Philip Thomas' paper in this the best. Rounded off with a performance (in dead acoustic, with rattling air con, on uninspiring upright piano) of Bread and Roses. (Music!)

Toop, then, tackled many of the recent concerns and obsessions of this blog - quoting from a few of the same sources as I have too. Interfaces of musics, the role of classic/contemporary, Ivan Hewitt's rift, Martin Kettle's 'Classical Rock 'n' Roll' (also letters | more letters | blogged).

In response to a point made that Martin Creed was front page news with his Turner Prize work, but classical music was not, I asked a rather garbled question around the fact that music had such a moment, 50 years ago with 4' 33"; and indeed, many of the references to the sort of 'contemporary' music we all wanted to have a higher profile had been to works 40/50 years old. What, then, would Toop be looking to? In asking a question like this, I was once again dredging up my own fears of conservatism; calling Alvin Lucier old-fashioned in a question from the floor is one thing; but to go home and study the tonal-harmonic structure of a 40-year old religious choral work is quite another. How had I ended up here, an not studying Wolff (say) or new complexity, or anything more politically, socially and musically complex than an overblown Bach tribute? (Which St Luke is very much more than, but I raving for a moment.)

I talked with colleagues after this, about the disconnectivity between the sorts of music nerds who are interested in contemporary avant garde music. There are those of us at conferences like this: we study this stuff, and Stockhausen, Henry, Xenaks etc are impossible for us to approach without the historical narratives we have been brought up on. How can we listen to Stockhausen without at least acknowledging the (concert hall) process that aborned him through Webern, Schoenberg, Wagner, Brahms, Beethoven, Bach. He is a product of that narrative, and is incomprehensible to us - he does not exist - outside of it. But there is a second group of music nerds, who listen in large part to the same composers, the same pieces (although crucially not entirely the same) but for whom that narrative is meaningless, damaging, incorrect, and for whom it is necessary to conceive Stockhausen in terms of an entirely different set of musical-historial imperatives. To see the difference, just look at the relative importance of, say, Kraftwerk and Boulez to each group.

In defining 'our' brand of music geekery (Type 1) so precisely, it was no surprise to realise, therefore, that four papers that had had most impact so far (including a lecture-recital by cellist Neil Hyde) all came from outside the traditional academic subset: three performers and one performer-composer-journalist-writer polymath. My concern became not so much that my research might be invalid - my worries here are eternal, but silenceable - as that my outpourings and impulses here - more instinctive and therefore more fundamentally honest, perhaps - tend toward the reactonary and conservative ('damaging' in Pace's formulation). Odd to be worried about personal ephemera, but there you are. More about how I am shaping my intellectual outlook - poison to the mind again? Also, the fact that I often try to position myself between the two worlds of music nerdery mentioned, when maybe this is wrongheaded. There has to be a way of bridging the two, but perhaps distinct personae are what is needed.

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