Beginning with music, continuing otherwise – editorial (2009)

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In this fourth edition of RTRSRCH you will find nine contributions from as many music makers. They present one or several of their works, and share their motivations and sources of inspiration. Theatrical sound improvisations on dismantled piano wrecks, an interactive operating table for the listener to lie on and  physically experience the sounds of an imaginary operation, or the organisation of a ‘new music demonstration’ in the streets of Oslo: the works presented in this RTRSRCH issue are diverse. Nevertheless, they are united through their resistance to categorisation. Musical references remain present in most contributions, however it is their visual, theatrical and above all their intersensory and conceptual characteristics that demand attention. This is even more remarkable given that all contributors share a similar background in classical music. Most are trained composers, some are classical music performers. Therefore the title of this journal is more than a metaphor for the artistic thinking that becomes apparent in the presented works. It refers most of all to a biographical reality of the participating artists.

Since extrasonorous elements play a role in all contributions, it would be tempting to dedicate this journal to a multimedial or interdisciplinary theme. Reflection on multimediality or interdisciplinarity has been prominent in the performing arts since the nineties. Accordingly, art music has not been able to escape this renewed attention to the ‘inter’ and the ‘multi’, although in general it deals less confidently and easily with medial crossovers than do contemporary theatre, dance or media art. This is in part due to a lack of openness in the field, but also to an intrinsic resistance offered by the musical medium and to a culture where ‘the musical material’ is approached as something of an abstract nature.

To meet this musical individuality on the one hand and to avoid the commonplaces of multimedial or interdisciplinary reflection in the performing arts on the other, this fourth RTRSRCH journal opts for an alternative approach. In the works discussed here the collective, interdisciplinary creation process is –while important- not our primary concern. Instead we have collected new music examples in which individual creators bear full responsibility for the artistic concept, including where ‘extrasonorous’ aspects are involved. Thus we hope to stress a problem in multimedial thinking that in our opinion has been underexposed: in an artistic product, the confluence of different media and disciplines must at a certain point be concretised. In the context of a multidisciplinary collaboration, this responsibility is ideally taken up by all participating disciplines. Nevertheless, in practice such collaborations mostly result in a repartition of tasks, with interaction occuring rather indirectly. A ‘fruitful collaboration’ usually implies that a considerable level of autonomy is safeguarded for the participating disciplines.

When multimedial implications are approached from the individualistic perspective however, the definition of ‘musical material’ – and thus also the notions of ‘craftmanship’ and ‘discipline’ – are put to the test. Problems of foreground and background, and of medial interferences arise. There is also the resistance of expectational patterns and reflexes in conventional contexts of performance. From the perspective of their classical education, the work that contributors present here could be understood as ‘fait divers’, as an excursion that is exciting though without long term repercussions, or as a subversive experiment that intends to tackle the conventions of an artistic discipline. Such a description immediately conjures up the resistance similar experiments often still have to face. As long as the inter – or transmedial creation needs to profile itself as an ‘in-between art’ in contrast to a practice with clearly recognisable contours, it can only be appreciated on the basis of its ‘otherness’, of its capacity to surprise within a familiar programme. However, the shock effects which John Cage or Mauricio Kagel were still able to generate in art music half a century ago are no longer to be expected today. In art music, the ‘other’, the experimental or the subversive has long been neutralised to a recognisable gesture.

As a consequence, contemporary forms of sonorous ‘in-between art’ risk slipping through the cracks in a pragmatical sense: they may be too extramusical to be taken seriously in the musical domain, or still too recognisable for a contemporary musical practice to be incorporated into existing dance or theatre programming. The works presented here are thus predominantly encountered at open, alternative and mainly small-scale festivals, or in programmes where ‘frontier art’ of all kinds is the norm rather than the exception. Some of these experiments seem to counter this problem by no longer profiling themselves as ‘music’, but rather as ‘sound art’, ‘performance’, and so on. The recent zeal to define and distinguish itself in the process as a new, fully fledged art form responding to specific characteristics only seems to shift problems of identity and ambiguity.

With this collection we thus want to make a statement. Armed with only the fact that we easily collected nine contributions (it could have been many more) of classically educated musicians who are developing a hybrid or different practice as an individual, who are all active in Western Europe and belong more or less to the same generation, proves that we can no longer speak of outsiders, but of an essential part of contemporary musical practice. This does not imply that the work presented here can be considered as mainstream, and even less that it can claim a significant share in the programming of contemporary art music. It is however a clear sign that a new generation of educated musicians is attempting to redefine their practice, or that some of them simply no longer feel bound to one particular medium. Moreover, by gathering various concrete examples, we want to try not to present their work as an exceptional situation. Instead, by juxtaposing them, we intend to search for underlying patterns and shared motivations. What is it that distinguishes the musical experiment anno 2010 from the openings forced by the artistic buccaneers of the previous century? Is something typically twenty-first century emerging in the musical frontier art of today, or should we rather speak of a continuation of a twentieth century practice? We leave it to the reader to discover cross connections and differences themselves. We will limit ourselves here to suggesting several paths that have occured to us when preparing this issue.

In contrast to the modernist or twentieth century experiment, the artistic motive expressed in this journal rarely seems aimed at radical change or negation of an existing practice. The works of art presented in this journal are generally not revolutionary in the literal sense. In the contributors’ words, a dialectic attitude with regard to music history rarely figures either. An exception to this is Frederik Croene’s contribution. In his ‘le piano démécanisé’, pianos are literally dismantled until nothing more than a strung carcass remains. The piano and the complete musical culture embodied by it appear in Croene’s project as a final point that only offers hope for new life when the deconstruction process is completed. A life in which the theatricality of gesture and the immediate contact between bodily action and sound can get much broader attention. Croene is above all a performer, and his dismantling concept is inspired by the physical and mental discipline required to play piano. Escape from the instrumental or musical bodice does not, however, seem the prime source of inspiration in most cases. On the contrary, for some composers the existing musical practice and its performance in particular seems to be a starting point that offers (re)new(ed) potential to embark on intersensory explorations, even if this leads to a hybrid practice which is difficult to place within the outlines of classical music.

According to Simon Steen-Andersen, the tendency towards an ever more idiomatic approach to instrumental music – which can also be recognised in the ‘authentic performance practice’ of old music – potentially leads to a ‘hyperconcrete definition’ of music by its instrumentarium. In the most radical case, the concrete instrumental action is no longer a means of realising an abstract sound idea, but it starts conditioning the sound ideal completely. In a certain sense, it becomes itself the musical objective. At the point where sound ideal and sound execution coincide, words such as ‘abstract’ or ‘concrete’ lose their meaning. Precisely at that point, writes Steen-Andersen, a new potential arises that re-enables composition and performance. Composition then becomes the elaboration of an action score, an idea which he tests in his cycle next to besides, a recycle.

The choreographical aspect of corporal gesture in musical performance plays a significant part in Steen-Andersen’s oeuvre. Notably, corporal gesture is a theme that often returns in various contributions. Although it is almost never mentioned as such, this is a theme not without musical prehistory. The mime-like Thespian Play and almost equal / meistens gleich by Falk Hübner recalls twentieth century performance concepts by Mauricio Kagel and Dieter Schnebel. By depriving the musician of his instrument and by letting him perform in a kind of ‘playback situation’, the physical effort and the resounding of the music are disconnected. In its turn, such a disconnection leads inevitably to an emphasising of the visual, theatrical or choreographical aspects of music performance.

Remarkably similar is the concept of Marianthi Papalexandri-Alexandri’s No Name, although in her case the attention for everyday movement unveils a rather Cageian input. Even so, both examples point to a current theme in the performing arts. The treatment of the physical gesture of a musical performance as an autonomous given has nearly become a genre in itself in recent years (and in popular music; think of the air guitar world championships). Moreover, it is a theme that has not only caught the attention of composers, but also of young choreographers (Xavier Leroy) and video artists (Sam Taylor-Wood).

In this current fascination for the disconnection of musical action and its immediate auditory result, we may perhaps distinguish a trace of the awareness of a living environment where the relations between cause and effect, or between presence, effort and result have become volatile. Human expression no longer has a self-evident form. Today arts’ interest is not only centred on the unveiling of human intentionality, nor on the development of new forms of expression.The area in which a great number of artists seem to be active today, is the area between intention and articulation. It is an ephemeral zone where, not coincidentally, a lot is moving in the technological and social sense. Between intention and articulation, hidden automation occurs, input and output are connected in a specific way via digital or biotechnological designs, and virtual identities acquire real shapes. The control or regulation of these activities could be described as a ‘(re)mapping’, or as the design of a model of input and output.

In a couple of contributions, similar procedures seem to come forward as the pre-eminent strategy with which intersensory or transmedial explorations can be undertaken. The artistic ‘mapping’ of different worlds with each other distinguishes itself from traditional associative or symbolic thought by its systematic and procedural character on the one hand, and by the utter arbitrariness with which different data sets or information fields can be joined on the other (where spontaneous associative thought generally relies on ingrained, physically or culturally embodied relations).

An obvious example of mapping activity in contemporary music can be found in the practice of ‘live electronics’. In a purely acoustic performance situation, there is a direct relationship between bodily action and sound result. However, as Cathy van Eck states in her article: “From the moment sound is transduced into electricity, these relationships become totally arbitrary and are open for any form of connection…  I see the loss of the direct relationship between the moving body and the vibrating material, or between what is heard and what is seen, as an opportunity to be able to compose these relationships now. “

We do not necessarily have to search for the artistic mapping in a technological or instrumental design. Intersensory or intermedial experiences not only rely on the materiality of outer facts, they are primarily the result of a perceptual and mental activity. In the ‘Letter Pieces’ of Matthew Shlomowitz, the actions of a dancer are linked in a ‘literal’ way to the sonorous actions of a musician. Not by means of mechanics or of a digital interface, but based upon an alphabetic letter structure and an interactive creation process: the performers generate actions and sounds from the letters. The performers have total freedom in choosing which actions or sounds correspond to each letter of the score; nevertheless, the result is a tight coupling between what one sees and hears. ”when an action and a sound are performed together, we perceptually couple them even if they share no material relationship. A central idea of all the pieces is shifting these relationships,” writes Shlomowitz.However, it is only because of repeated simultaneity of the same actions and sounds that transmedial bindings can occur and be contradicted in a later stage, often to comical effect.

The use of repetition as a tool for medial differentation is also something Marianthi Papalexandri-Alexandri mentions in her article: “I allow the first repetition of the gesture to emerge as a non-spontaneous emotional expression. By repeating the same gesture I offer a different meaning and function, while extensive repetition proposes a further transformation of the function and meaning of the gesture. In this way … I incorporate theatrical, choreographical, musical, and everyday life aspects associated with gestures.”

Strategies of differentiation through repetition, although of a very different kind, can also be found in Steven Prengels’ enigmatic Visite Guidée Mâlique, an obstinate musical lecture of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake through Marcel Duchamp’s The Large Glass. However different in intention or style all these examples may be, none of them seems to involve an early-twentieth century endeavour to obtain immersive synesthaesia, let alone that some kind of ‘truth’ would be pursued through the combination of different media. Rather, motivation seems to spring from the pleasure and involvement produced by the creation of temporary literalness, or in Prengels’ case, the creative manifestation enabled by the translation of a literary work through the somewhat random filter of a work of visual art.

While the design of the intersensory or intermedial mapping leaves room for imagination and creativity, there is one element that the musical experiment must continually take into account. In the buffer zone between intention and expression we not only find the freedom of ‘mapping’, but also the much less free embodiment the artistic design needs to cope with. In Laura Maes’ Oorwonde, the connection between the artistic design and the bodily action and observation acquires an inescapably corporal reality. The listener lies on an operating table for an almost clinical experience during which localised feeling and listening are so interdependent that physical distance is no longer possible. The listener becomes performer and observer at once, with his or her body as an interface.

Strikingly, this body is often referred to in a literal and abstract way. Not only the body as an entity that gesticulates or articulates itself musically, but also as an entity which experiences music and is affected by it. In the conception of the body as the area where musical action, vibration and resonance take place, a genuine relevance of new art music might develop. Where before music earned its high status on the basis of its ability to express and arouse emotions, today a major role seems to be reserved for musical thought in which ‘bodily state and localisation’ can be explored and made tangible.

This does not signify that we can reduce the subject of new art music to a physical discourse. Let alone that ‘the body’ could turn into the subject of some type of musical mysticism. Maybe it is typical for the authors’ backgrounds in classical music that the body is approached with a certain matter-of-factness. This attitude is probably also connected to the instrumental context in which the performing and perceiving body keeps operating and which demands sonorous efficiency and a certain sense of realism.

The corporal reflexivity that appears in these contributions does not imply that the corporal can be considered as the end of an artistic quest. In analogy with Simon Steen-Andersen’s idea of the ‘hyperidiomatic’, a possibility for new abstractions begins at the point where physical and musical experience entirely coincide. Or in Falk Hübner’s words, certain physical aspects of the existing musical practice can be ‘abstracted away’, so that the presence of musicians and/or listeners becomes potential compositional material. One could state that through this abstraction, music is again isolated from its execution so that it can be represented in an (action) score or, as is the case with Oorwonde, in a technical design. What counts then is no longer the representation of a sonorous sound ideal, but of a gesticulatory, theatrical or virtual music (the ‘harmony of the spheres’ is coming close, on a human scale).

We can find an illustration of this all in David Helbich’s ‘Keine-Musik’, a composition especially written for this issue, to be performed by the reader. Not music, but the formal presence of score-like instructions stresses the musical background of the author, and in the same movement also the title of this journal. This piece, which has the subtitle ‘Ohrstücke/earpieces’, again presents a situation in which performance, observation and experience are localised in the here and now of one and the same body. Most of all, however, this is a composition that we could label ‘conceptual’. The non-conventional character of all the work presented in this edition of RTRSRCH implies that every contribution involves conceptual creativity; an artistic thinking that challenges the very concept of music.

Paul Craenen, Mechelen 22/11/09