Thursday, March 09, 2017

Dead or alive



Any performer active in new music has experienced it when working with living composers: they aren't necessarily the Holy Grail of answers to the questions we may have about their pieces. The previous sentence sounds perhaps odd, as if it is a choice not to work with a dead composer. But we all do want to communicate with the composers of the music we want to play, whether we interpret what they wrote in letters two centuries ago or what they are going to say to us during the dress rehearsal for tomorrow's world première. In other words: it can be as difficult to get the information you want from a living composer as from a dead composer.

This may be one of the reasons that musicology has been mostly interested in the deceased. Other reasons are of course the convenience of a closed oeuvre and of an extensive literature to build upon, but these should be outweighed easily by the advantages of investigating living beings and their actions, one would think. Besides the fundamental urge to assess the act of (co-)creation without the distorting prism of the score, there is the prospect of insights unique to dialogue and common context (e.g. contemporaneity of language, research focus and perspective, knowledge,...). Nevertheless, research into living composers is often not much more than a way to propagate those composers’ ideas. In this regard, Ian Pace’s thorough critique on such spokesman-musicology is certainly valid for quite a few more cases than the one involving Brian Ferneyhough. I remember vividly the awkwardness of seeing David Osmond-Smith read a paper on Berio with the composer sitting next to him, and how nobody knew who to address with a question during the Q&A session. Or how Kagel visibly – dare I say “theatrically” – nodded or shook his head (dis)approvingly during each consecutive presentation at a conference in his honor.




It is none the less good to see that recent music is the object of study. It is not a very recent evolution, but there seems to always have been a kind of schism between those who scrutinize long bygone eras and those who look around themselves. The moving wall between them, gradually shifting with time at the speed of about a generation, represents defining lines between interests as well as methods. Already in 1933 Henry Cowell published a book “to present the composer’s own point of view”.* Some of the rationale behind the “experiment unprecedented in musical history” demonstrates a sense of critical perspective, such as the urge to display diversity (“Special consideration was given to composers who are developing indigenous types of music”), or the doing away with any "pretense of being complete”. (Cowell 1933, v) Other aspects betray a level of superficiality, however: while ostentatiously called “a symposium”, there was never a conference and it is reasonable to assume that Cowell oversaw and controlled the whole enterprise himself rather than organize a peer process to work out the content; contributions were sought, and when it was impossible to obtain original ones, articles were reprinted from “various periodicals”. From an academic point of view, there is a thin line between amateurism and journalism.

Interviews are similarly dubious. Since 1969, the Oral History of American Music has been collecting thousands of “voices of the major musical figures of our time” in audio and video interviews. As tempting as these look (and I have not been able to resist them, myself), there is only limited use for them, e.g. to corroborate, negate, or contextualize insights found elsewhere. Investigative journalism never depends on letting the investigated do most of the talking – the interviewer is just another prism. And then there are the multiple issues on the side of the interviewee, not least with regards to purposefully remembering one's own past. (When it comes to wilfully constructing false memories, Cowell has shown himself to be quite skillful.) 

As long as we revere the writings of artists as a product of an oracle, as we so often do their compositions, critical assessment stands little chance. Such issues of “the work” are accompanied by those of power. It is not a coincidence that I added the names of two dead composers to the second paragraph of this text. I could list others – and not just of composers – but I could also name projects of which I had to see the potential vanish into thin air because it became too dangerous to mine the field of knowledge embodied in the mind of the living being who was the object of the study. If I thought myself strong enough to put aside my own ego, that of the other was not so easy to take out of the equation.

Nevertheless, AR can mitigate some of the above concerns. From that perspective, Cowell’s book deserves to be quoted some more, even if his rationale did not include letting composers discuss their own works:

...critical estimates from composers who may not always have a polished literary style but who know their subject, instead of from reviewers who are clever with words but do not know the principles of composition. (Cowell 1933, iii)
...to obtain a synthetic and sympathetic understanding of the aims of any particular composer, why not ask him to relate them himself? He knows more about his aims than anyone else! (Cowell 1933, iii)
Composers who were included had to be persons who could write intelligibly. While literary style is not here the paramount consideration, it must be admitted that some very talented composers have absolutely no ability to set down their ideas in words. (Cowell 1933, iv)
 ...it was expected from the beginning to reveal as much about its authors as it did about their subjects…(Cowell 1933/62, ix)


To be fair, Cowells aims and ideas need to be seen in their historical context (i.e. reacting against a perceived bias in the reception of "modern" music), all the while taking into account his penchant for combining instruction with provocation. Yet, some of it anticipates ideals and conundrums of AR: today, we still recognize the added value in and the issues with an artist contemplating his/her own practice. But the problems of auto-ethnography overlap with those mentioned above, and the intentionality and poetic fallacies are treacherous at any distance between subject and object.




These challenges are very typical of AR, as the researcher necessarily involves his/her artistic practice. Through regular such confrontations in my own research, I am thus simultaneously researching (in-and-through that practice, so to speak) possible ways around the pitfalls, whether investigating living composers or performers. And although I am convinced that enough safeguards can be put in place to make scrutiny of living beings’ actions worth its while, I don’t have all the answers to all of the issues. It is therefore very fortunate that an international, multi-disciplinary three-day conference (with Ian Pace on the board of conveners) is planned to discuss just these matters. Writing About Contemporary Artists: Challenges,Practices and Complexities will be held at Surrey University's Institute for Advanced Studies on October 20-22, 2017. The closing date for sending in abstracts is May 29th, 2017.

The proposals are expected to cover a range of different artistic fields, disciplines, musical genres, methodological perspectives, and types of discourse and artist; to focus upon all forms of writing as well as its conventions and boundaries; and – naturally – to focus on living (or recently deceased) artists. A roundtable proposal is encouraged, “exploring questions around the status of creative practice as a form of research in different arts disciplines.”

Many important reasons to be in Surrey in October!


* Cowell, Henry. American Composers on American Music. A Symposium. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., Inc. 1962 edition. xiv + 226 p.

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