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received from chris brown on aug 16 1995 copyright 4735w

Mill's lecture 3.92

SPEAKING IN TONGUES: Experimentalism, Musics of the World, and the Avant-garde

Writing (and talking) about my reasons for making music has until now seemed to me to be just one of the many distractions from the process of actually making it. Deciding to devote myself to making new music as a career has proved itself to be an invitation to a struggle: how to find enough time to do it and still keep a roof over your head. And also there has been the belief that using words to explain music will ultimately fail, because to experience its purpose is to experience music directly, an experience which we are culturally too often encouraged to avoid.

I regularly struggle with myself when visiting a museum to look at a work before I look at the name of the artist and title. We're conditioned, I think, to look for an interpretation of what is new in terms of a language with which we are already familiar. By doing this we experience a work primarily via the interpretation, and avoid the sometimes difficult but ultimately more rewarding and creative task of meeting it on its own terms.

But what do these things mean - "experiencing a work of art directly" or "meeting it on its own terms"? I will assume, for the sake of this talk, that all forms of art are created and experienced in part as extended or invented language, and that to experience them directly means to interpret them via the grammar and syntax that they create within their own medium. A groundbreaking work of art creates new language by defining or redefining new meaning and grammar using materials that may or may not have carried them for its audience before.

I am assuming this not to argue for some kind of universal principle of aesthetics, but just for the purpose of explaining (that is, using language) what I see in retrospect as the intentions and purposes behind my own musical activities. The issue of the relationship between familiar and invented musical language in my own music is the issue I would like to explore.

I resisted becoming a composer. I liked to practice piano, and eventually I liked to perform piano music. I was raised on Bela Bartok's Mikrokosmos, liked especially the dances in Bulgarian rhythms, and never thought that seconds or sevenths sounded bad.

In high school I stumbled across a record of Charles Ives' Concord Sonata, took it home because I thought I could use it to write an American history paper, listened to it and loved it so much that I wore out the grooves. I wrote the paper like a musical analysis, and got a D because it wasn't considered to be relevant to the subject of the course.

I also liked Bach and Beethoven, Schumann and Chopin, and in general thought there was more than enough new music that I wanted to learn and play, that there was no need to try to make any more of it. I was also writing short stories and poetry, studying history and literature, and felt that this was the really creative side of my life.

Among other influences, I had been living in what were relatively unusual surroundings for a WASP baby-boomer. My father was the chaplain at the University of the Philippines just outside of Manila, so I grew up partly in the tropics, going to school and playing mostly with Filipino kids. When I was nine we moved to the South Side of Chicago around the University of Chicago, and I attended public schools where most of the other kids were black. Along with the classical piano music my mental soundtrack reverberated with Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, and James Brown. I spent my senior year in High School in West-Berlin as an exchange student studying German and trying to explain to my classmates what the words "He ain't heavy, he's my brother" meant. (I didn't know).

Around this time I also read James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and identified myself somewhat uncomfortably with it's main character. But one line describing artistic purpose from the last page really stuck with me: " I go for the millionth time to encounter the reality of experience...". Why "the reality of experience" - wasn't all experience real ? I found myself repeating the phrase "to believe in the reality of my own experience" like a mantra as long as ten years later. To believe in this reality, accepting no contradiction from a world that defines it in millions of different ways - this must be the first creative act. To find a musical style that came from the whole "reality of my own experience", instead of from just one part of it, seemed impossible to me and kept me still from approaching composition as a serious option.

Then in college I ran into first the writing, and then the music of John Cage. Ironically, I didn't take to his music by experiencing it directly, I had to read his writing in English in order to change the way that I was listening to his music. But that combined experience opened a door for me that provided the means to imagine a music and an art form that could include the whole "reality of my own experience". I am of course far from alone among composers of my generation in having had this experience.

As well as his music, Cage gave us an aesthetic for an Experimental Music that I believe has made the idea of an Avant-Garde outmoded and obsolete. Not that it (that idea) has disappeared. The institutions of art and culture promote it, and are now in the process of enshrining Cage as one of it's chief representatives. This is confusing, and has been especially confusing for me since I've always liked a lot of "Avant-Garde" composers, from Beethoven through Schumann, Debussy, Bartok, Cage. But I think I'm coming to a new understanding.

The Avant-garde is a nineteenth century European idea that has outlived its usefulness. It originates with the idea that art, like science, advances in a linear sequence, always progressing. Value is placed on monuments of the historical line, so the importance of the lineage must be preserved (its conservative tendency), while new monuments must be created (its radical tendency).

Not incidentally, in our mass-media culture these monuments are marketed to the society, thus turning the work of art/the artist into a product. The market always requires a new product, thus the need for an avant-garde. This creates a schizophrenia that the society considers "normal" for an artist: the artist must express the ideal of individuality, but there is no real value in artistic experience except when it advances the common history (and language) of the culture.

This contradiction has resulted during the twentieth century in at least two major artistic rebellions in which the whole idea of the value of art was questioned: Dada in the early part of the century, and the Fluxus and Pop movements in the sixties. Both of these sought to bring the high-art realm of art down to the level of everyday life, inclusive of its absurdity and nonsense. By debunking the exclusive, hierarchical nature of the art world, they were in part trying to show that the aesthetic experience is not restricted to the experience of monumental artists, but belongs to everybody. We create it for ourselves by seeing and hearing the world in that kind of way. Of course by now both these movements have been enshrined in the pantheon of the avant-garde, making their artists into sacred cows, in contradiction to their original, anarchic intentions.

The problem and the out-of-dateness in all of this has to do with a mono-cultural view of the world. The era of technological expansion has thrown most of the human race into a vortex of mutual influence in which we are all made suddenly aware that there is no one "front-line" of culture that advances inevitably the progress of the race. There are instead many cultures and many races, each with their own ways of keeping record of the phases of growth and decay, not all of which can be adequately described by the word "history".

With the prospect of an overcrowded planet running out of resources as the alternative, a new poly-cultural paradigm not based on the idea of unlimited material expansion has become necessary to survival. For an emerging culture that no longer sees its growth as a single line of development, there can be no front or rear, no one line of advance, and so perhaps no metaphor of cultural change as war. I think that despite the prevailing winds of commercialism and star-worship that dominate the media regime, artists have been creating "the reality of that experience" for some time already.

People are always asking about the art and music world "what's the next thing - what's going to be next?" In the seventies when I started composing I would always feel frustrated by this question and could only say "I don't know". Well officially minimalism was next, and that has been followed by post-modernism. Now I would like to answer the same question by saying "Nothing comes next, so stop asking", but that might be called neo-nihilism, which might also fit what a lot of artists are doing better than I would wish.

Because for me Experimentalism has been the last ism of interest. Experimentalism for me postulates a world in which the variety of artistic languages is the highest value. Experimentalism says "what would happen in my next piece if..." Every piece asks a new question, poses a phenomenological experiment. Every piece invents a new language, or tries to speak an old one in a new context.

Experimental musicians are always looking for new sounds, scraping them out of junkyards or squeezing them out of commercial synthesizers or microcomputers. Experimental musicians like lots of new tuning systems, and are not looking for the next, or the correct tuning system. Experimental aesthetics celebrates diversity. Experimentalists love multiplicity. Experimental audiences like pieces that baffle them. Most of them like a good scare once in a while, as long as it doesn't damage their ears, or harm them physically. Experimentalists make an aesthetic out of (in the words of Larry Polansky) "keeping things weird" because they know that nothing in life is really "normal", and because they accept the adage from Hindu philosophy that reality is an illusion, and the Shakesperean one that "life is but a stage".

At bottom, Experimentalists like to learn new languages. They enjoy facing the unfamiliar, partly because it provides another welcome opportunity to confront their own fears of the unknown and learn something new. Experimentalists recognize that something different and unusual has inherent value, like a rare undiscovered species, and carries its own particular emotional tone and character. It ultimately is that distinct quality of character that an Experimentalist is looking for in art, and certainly not the justification of one idea (or language) as opposed to another. Anything goes, but it's not so easy to make something new.

After coming to some (but not all) of the above realizations, I became, in my own mind at least, a composer. But in the situation where anything goes, where do you start ? This was a new question that made me so nervous that I developed an unsettled stomach for a couple of years.

But while I was worrying about which direction to go, I started going in my own direction. First of all, I started improvising. Many of the so-called "avant-garde" pieces I was performing left alot of the musical decisions to the performer. Sometimes these required a translation into notation on my part, but often I found this unnecessary and simply began to follow the directions mentally. I could now look away from the page, listen to myself and others directly without reference to "correctness" vis-a-vis the score, and make spontaneous musical decisions. The question changed from being "is this correct" to "is this working"? I found this both extraordinarily difficult, and profoundly liberating.

Until now music had basically been a static form, in which performances were bounded by their plans. Now they could also take the form of designs for action, where the music exists only secondarily on the page, but primarily in its realization in sound, as a function of the time and place in which it was being created instead of the time and place when it was designed, and as a product of the people and their interactions who perform and listen to it.

Contemporary music is important first of all because it is contemporary: it is a response to our world, a means for interpreting and thus understanding it, a way of affirming "the reality of our own experience". Improvisation is simply spontaneous composition, composing in real-time; and composition, according to Stravinsky, is improvising with a pencil. And when done with other people, improvisation is a dialogue about sound, a group composition, an interaction, and a collaboration.

I began recording myself and listening back, listening to myself, listening to my own voice. And with ensembles - recording, listening, critiquing, arguing. I was amazed that after 13 years of studying music, I had never done this before. Why not ? Isn't this an essential part of musical training? I felt handicapped and needed to immediately make up for lost time.

I also discovered the music of Henry Cowell through references to him in Cage's writings. I got several insights from Cowell's music and life that have remained with me. First, you don't have to throw away the language that you know in order to go further; in fact, you probably can't afford to, and couldn't do so if you wanted to anyway.

When language gets old, it is full of meaning, but the meanings have become so deeply entrenched that claustrophobia can ensue. Old language is full of ghosts, having been invented for another time, when the thing to be described was newly perceived. But the old is renewed by contact with the new. New sound materials enter the language free of meaning, like a newborn whose personality has yet to unfold, and breath new life into old symbols just by occupying the same space and time.

Cowell's tone-cluster music for piano had this impact on me. By simply extending the idea of harmony from chords based on thirds (tertial) to chords based on seconds (secundal ), he added a freshness and a visceral, physical excitement to settings of Irish folktunes.

(play "Exultation")

Is this music Avant-Garde ? And if not, which category does it fall into ? (like a grave, categorizing it keeps us from experiencing it in greater detail) It seems too much a jumble of influences and techniques to represent the vanguard of a movement, too personal and idiosyncratic. (I loved it - no axe to grind.)

It also introduces some other technical inventions I hadn't seen before: the use of simultaneous meters in concurrent parts (the clusters are in 3 and the single-line counter-melody is in 4 and 5) [and] In others of these early piano pieces, an extensive use of polytonality (different parts are in different keys at the same time) as well as polyrhythms.

In his book New Musical Resources, written when he was still a teen-ager, Cowell developed a musical theory for these and others of his many musical innovations which used the harmonic series as a rationale for developing hierarchies useful in composing with them. But for me the relevance of musical devices based on multiplicity (polyrhythms and polytonality) needed no scientific justification - it intuitively fit as models representing the "reality of my own experience".

And the search for new sounds and new ways of combining old ones took on the aspect of a search for the Holy Grail. The excitement of discovery could impart an energy to music that might lift the old languages and instruments out of the muck of the past and make them new.

It seemed to me that this explained what appeals to me about my favorite classical composers. Their is an energy and enthusiasm of discovery in music by Schumann (for example the use of polyrhythms in his Piano Concerto) and Chopin (polyrhythmic notations describing rubato relationships between left and right hand figures which now seemed to me to be inevitably composed by an improvisor), Debussy, Bartok, etc.

And I also read about Cowell's interest and activities on behalf of music from cultures around the world. He grew up in the Bay Area, was exposed to Chinese music at an early age in San Francisco, and studied composition at UC/Berkeley with Charles Seeger, who later became the founder of the field of ethnomusicology in the United States.

I started to listen to all the music I could find from other cultures, finding that the ear that had opened to new musical languages could be even more stimulated by grappling with unfamiliar, yet deeply evolved musical traditions. Soon I was immersed in studying Indian music, with its sophisticated modal, intonational, and rhythmic theory, and I took singing lessons where I had to learn the elaboration of a simple raga by rote from an Indian teacher until I could perform it perfectly (all from memory, no notation).

Later I studied Indonesian music, from Sunda (West Java), which impressed me as a model for a music that stressed the importance of the social group above the individual. Each player in the gamelan plays a part of the whole fabric created by all the parts in hocket together, the whole music moving to a group tempo that is always flexible, moving sensitively from one speed to another, never conducted but simply implied by the subtle cues from the drums, the elaborating solo instruments, or the dancer. Sundanese mind-meld. Then also Japanese music, Chinese music, Turkish music, Balkan music, Persian music....

In the summer of 1974 I attended classes at the World Music Institute in Berkeley, a short-lived ambitious attempt to bring traditional music masters from around the world to the U.S. to perform and to teach. In terms of the number and quality of musicians that were there, I don't think there has ever been a situation to compare with this in the U.S.

The musicians were all top performers from both North and South India, Africa, Bali, Java, China, and Japan, and the opportunities to see them all perform made clear to me the importance when studying these musics to get information straight from the source. Since then such programs have proliferated on smaller scales throughout the country, usually under the rubric of "World Music", which I think is really a misnomer.

While it is vital to study Musics of the World, it is simply inadequate to classify everything outside of Western influenced music as "World Music" when any one of these traditions could be studied for a lifetime without exhaustion. There is a danger in lumping together all of these very distinct musical traditions and treating them as one subject. These are endangered species. As the Western commercial culture continues to spread and dominate more and more of the traditional cultures around the world, there is a real need to learn as much as we can now about the techniques, practice, and languages of their musics before they are merged into something that will probably be called "World Music".

Just as we face the specter of a New World Order, we will probably also be confronted with the monotony of a New World Music, which may contain elements from the surface of musical styles around the world but which will have lost the richness and depth of expression, and of course "the reality of experience" that lay at their source. Behind the instruments and techniques of a music, or behind the notes in a Western score, lies the original spirit of the music, which perhaps is never captured by the artifacts left behind after its performance.

I am reminded of Charles Ives never wanting to finish the composition the Concord Sonata because he felt that they were always more than anything that he could actually write down. "I find that I don't play or feel like playing this music even now the same way each time - I don't know as I ever shall write them out, as it may take away the daily pleasure of playing this music and seeing it grow and feeling that it is not finished. (I may always have the pleasure of not finishing it) and the hope that it never will be - " from Charles Ives: Memos

It is impossible to maintain the vitality of a language, verbal or musical, once the life that creates it has disappeared. Real music must be more than a museum, it must be a full expression of "the reality of its own experience". After a few years of going deeper into Indonesian music, I started to feel that there was only so far that I, as an American, could go since I was not actually part of the Indonesian culture. Yet I also was already thrust into the role of teaching gamelan to new American students, and I felt while I could teach them the techniques I could not convey the substance and intentions behind the music with anything close to the authority (which according to Confucius proceeds only from "right reason") that any Indonesian could.

I also noticed many of my friends submerging their own musical identities in the music that they were so fascinated by, and felt that this was probably a dead end creatively, since they could never be fully functioning members of those other cultures. There is a definite role for a translator, but it is different than that of an author. I have a distaste for music that too directly or too exclusively borrows from the style of another culture.

What interests me ultimately is the variety of original musical expression, where musical influences have been absorbed into the fabric of the composer's imagination and can express themselves naturally as part of an integrated whole. In a positive sense these influences have been digested and return to life with new form. What is most precious in this age of commodity-culture is the authentic voice, the one designed not for sale but for the sake of expressing that unique vision arising out of this specific time and place.

I also noticed an element of escapism in myself and others in relation to our fascination with music from cultures distant from our own. In a sense we were choosing to pass over the more politically problematic third-world and hybrid musics that were right under our noses, in favor of safer ones that were further away.

I am thinking specifically of Afro-American musics such as jazz, blues, and soul, as well as Central and South American musics from Mariachi and Tex-Mex to Afro-Cuban and Salsa. I began listening rabidly to the recorded jazz tradition - Ellington, Mingus, Monk, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, Bill Evans, John Coltrane, and especially Cecil Taylor, amazed at how I could have overlooked this music in my education, and increasingly convinced that no improvisor worth his or her salt could afford to ignore this tradition.

I withdrew somewhat from my "world music" activities, still going to concerts, listening to recordings, and reading, but also beginning to immerse myself in the practice of instrument-building. Instruments and scales are "cultural compositions", in that they determine much of the most basic characteristics of the sonic content and grammar of a culture's music before it is ever "composed".

I wanted to participate in experimenting with this level of composition and I was influenced in this somewhat by the example of Harry Partch, who created an original as well as exotic music of his own by building it from the ground up with his own instruments and intonation system. Cage too, with the percussion orchestra and the prepared piano gave himself some breathing space by inventing his own sounds with which to start to compose. In retrospect, my music began to move beyond the models that influenced me to start composing when I too started to compose by creating my own sound palette.

Living in the Bay Area, the cradle of the modern electronics industry, transistors and amplifiers were the most "natural" place for me to start. I took the electronic amplification of tiny sounds as a starting point. I began by building amplified acoustic instruments, and then by building simple electronic circuits that modified their sounds.

As I got further into electronic music I realized how many composers in this century had turned to a study of the basic nature of sound as a means for infusing their musical language with new life. (As well as Cowell, Edgard Varese, Olivier Messiaen, Pierre Schaeffer, Iannis Xenakis, Pauline Oliveros, and James Tenney come to mind.) Getting close to the sound itself was for me as a pianist a goal that tantalized: I felt that my traditional instrument was much more mechanical in nature than the wood and metal radiators with pickups that I started to rub, bow, scrape and tweak in order to make new sounds.

Electronic and computer music is in one sense a way of studying acoustics. By manipulating electron flows and data in representation of sound, most composers realize anew the complexity and richness of acoustic phenomena in general. For many, such as for Steve Reich who began the compositional style he is now associated with by working with tape recorders at the San Francisco Tape Music Center (which eventually became our Center for Contemporary Music at Mills), and also for James Tenney, this realization led to the abandonment of electronic media entirely.

Since they are not necessarily tied to physical bodies, and are not transmitted exclusively through the air, electronic sounds are inherently less subtle and complex and one must often depend on specific applications to physical media to obtain more interest. (One studies and composes electronic music, but only performs electro-acoustic music.)

But the advantage of electronic sound I think is ultimately its plasticity. More than any other class of instruments, electronic music instruments can change their timbre and transform timbres smoothly and evenly. They allow a composer to compose directly with sound, to hear and flexibly evaluate the results of experiments, and to model the sound materials and the form of a piece with ease. Their strength is in their protean ability to translate vibration and shape from one form to another.

Their mechanical nature is not new among the family of musical instruments; but in our time when so much of daily life is becoming automated, the problems that they pose about the survival of spontaneity and creativity in this world take on a critical relevance. Music that comes out of its time must address issues of that time in order to survive, though it usually does so unconsciously, without intending to be so important.

The plasticity of this medium has provided me, as it has many others, with the opportunity to experiment with new musical materials, and so with the development of new musical language. Several years after turning away from my direct involvement with music from outside my own culture, principles that I gained from that study keep emerging in my music, eventually in forms that included electronic instruments and models, and in ways that I felt were integrated enough that they didn't stick out as too obvious points of reference.

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<< finally talk about the issue of form, and my use of natural models to relate sonic materials to form - form follows function, and each material implies a form - micro/macro formal structure, c.f. Webern, Babbitt, Stockhausen, etc. - play Iceberg excerpt, talk about Lava and mention the issue of spatialization of sound as an element in a formal language >>

<< post-script to the talk about the importance of the CCM in my personal history, in the history of electronic and experimental music, and its value as a cultural institution in the Bay Area


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