Beyond Asia


Last week I rather took Daniel Asia to task for his Huffington Post article on John Cage. I’m returning to the subject today because I’m interested in moving this debate beyond just Asia, or even Cage.

As Lauren Redhead noted at the time, Asia’s article is merely symptomatic of how much writing on contemporary music is lazy. (Although, admittedly, snarky line-by-line put-downs like mine are hardly the epitome of industrious journalism.)

Much of the feedback to my post so far has been positive, for which I am very grateful. Where there were disagreements, however, I was sad to see that they often quickly distilled into a perception of “this camp” vs “that camp” – that Asia belonged to the Cage-haters, and that those, like me, who disagreed with him, belonged to the equally blinkered Cage lovers.

Well, yes, I do love Cage. (You may have noticed.) But a difference of taste isn’t my argument with Asia, or with the many other examples of lazy writing and thinking that his post represents in this context. Listen to what you like: I don’t care. My problem is with a sloppy, hand-me-down ideology of what 20th-century and contemporary music was/is, and its deployment in discourses such as this. These discourses are not harmless, and they play a role in musicians’ access to a dwindling number of available funding streams (and therefore their livings). That sort of thing needs to be treated responsibly.

If there is enough unchallenged drip-drip-drip of a certain discourse’s values, audiences will begin to accept as fact that some composers – Cage, Stockhausen, Carter – were simply wrong-headed. Foolish. Unmusical. That the effort required to listen to challenging music like theirs simply isn’t worth it. Lots of smart people have told me it’s a waste of time. Why even try?

And that’s when you lose an audience. (It’s just a hunch, but I wonder if the average audience member isn’t actually less inclined towards the postwar musical avant garde than those who were hearing it for the first time 60 years ago. Something like a “Washington consensus” is crystallising around our narrative of postwar art music, and like its neo-liberal cousin in economics, it points to what Joshua Clover, after Fukiyama, calls an “end of historical thought … [an abandonment of] a conception of ongoing historical processes, of alternative arrangements of daily life”.)

And the thing is, there are plenty of intelligent ways to critique Cage’s music and ideas, even if one is sceptical about its basic premises. His exploitation of Zen, and the kind of orientalist mysticism he fostered around his music, is problematic, for example. So is his relationship to authorship and ownership. The same extends to any discussion of the post-war avant garde: the conversation gets much more interesting (and more inviting) if it takes place at the level of the music itself, and not at that of loggerheaded ideologies.

Stuff like this should be the responsibility of those who are placed in the role of expert commentator, like Asia was in this instance. As Richard Kessler remarked in a comment to the original HuffPost article:

one might expect a composer to be a bit more open minded, and to have spent a bit of time explaining why Cage’s music is different and the role boredom plays within the framework Cage had invented.

Indeed, that’s exactly what any reader might reasonably expect from such a byline. (Any student too, one should add.) The absence of such engagement from an article like this doesn’t only reflect a paucity of intelligent debate within contemporary music, it enacts it for others outside to see.

It’s 2013. Let’s try to be a bit better at this.

Photo by winkyintheuk.

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  1. I’d have to double-check but the first really measured piece of writing I ever read on John Cage came from the pen of Richard Meltzer, one of the first rock critics.

  2. Yes, this is a less snarky reply, but frankly Asia’s reactionary thinking deserved it. Frankly – it deserved worse than you gave it. it embarrasses me to think that a composer the same age as me thinks in such a way. Your point that opinion tends to become taken as fact is the significant point. i hear people constantly talk about the unlistenability of Schoenberg, a composer i happen to have a deep, sentimental attachment to. Have they really tried listening to this music, or are they merely repeating someone else’s opinion that the music is “awful,” or “painful”? Asia’s claims for the “power” of Le Sacre would have shocked people 75 years ago. Cage’s work is much younger. Wonder what people will say about it in 2048, when it’s as old as Stravinsky’s work is today?

  3. Mr Asia is an accomplished composer and a fan of melody, craft, and counterpoint. You can hear it in his music. He appreciates classical music from a player’s perspective, that is, he focuses on surface expressivity rather than larger concepts. People like this are valuable to the music community at all levels. However, he conflates taste with objective criticism. Music that One does no’t *like* is not necessarily unimportant. I don’t like Asia’s music, for example, but he has impressed a lot of people with it and built a successful career.
    Jeff A is completely right about going and listening to music before you pan it. I went back and listened to the Cage piano pieces at issue and some of them are wonderful. I spent last year studying serialism and developed a profound appreciation for music I never understood before.
    Music is hard, and Asia shouldn’t be a dick. But Cage continually explored the idea of what is and is not music. I’m sure he dealt with this kind of resistance continually and laughed it off.

  4. You write:
    “Something like a “Washington consensus” is crystallising around our narrative of postwar art music…”

    Can you go into more detail about the “Washington consensus” in postwar music historiography?

    • Hmm. It’s a loose metaphor, probably not fully theorised. But basically I’m talking about a historiographic consensus that runs broadly: 1945 > Cold War > Darmstadt > serialism [etc.] > boo! > minimalism > neo-tonality/postmodernism > yay!

      Which may be a huge generalisation, but it’s a template I think you can fit quite well to a number of recent histories. I say “Washington consensus” because that narrative seems (to me) to originate from similar North Atlantic centres of power, and maps quite well onto certain facets of the neo-liberal ideology that lies behind the actual “Washington consensus“. Though as I say, this is only a loose metaphor. Worth thinking about, I think, but I don’t know how far I’d push it at this point.

      • The metaphor is apt on one level. As Alex Ross notes so well in The Rest is Noise, post-WW2 the US poured a lot of money into promoting capital-M Modernist music in Germany. Darmstadt didn’t just happen: the Feds helped to finance it to deliver a death-blow to German Romanticism. The rise of serialism during the Cold War was supported (covertly) by forces that wanted Wagner’s influence destroyed. That serialism – like any closed ideological system – then spawned the backlash of minimalism in the 1960s was not what was expected, but perhaps what should have been. Are we not now (finally) reaching a detente in which composers can more freely invent their own relationship with pitches?

  5. “Darmstadt didn’t just happen: the Feds helped to finance it to deliver a death-blow to German Romanticism.”

    Yes and no. Surely its fair to say that there would’ve been developments in what pre-WWII Schonberg et al. were working on without these sources of funding (this has been doing the rounds for quite a while but I’m not going to trust Ross on this). Not that German Romanticism in music is completely dead either.

    You could also argue that the funding of music runs alongside the funding of the welfare state post-WWII so that could ease centre-leaning goverments’ path; and it could also be seen alongside the funding of other contemporary arts elsewhere in Europe, and their projects, e.g. free improv’s Company Week got the odd grant or two from an arts council-type body to get going I’m sure. What about contemporary dance? I wouldn’t cast serialism as a cold war funded project.

    • “Darmstadt didn’t just happen: the Feds helped to finance it to deliver a death-blow to German Romanticism. The rise of serialism during the Cold War was supported (covertly) by forces that wanted Wagner’s influence destroyed”

      Ish. There are some Chinese whispers to this story. In its very earliest years, the Darmstadt summer school was established with assistance from the Theater and Music Branch of the US Army. It wasn’t funded by the CIA. The funding wasn’t covert (like the CIA’s funding of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, a separate and a musically much more conservative organisation): individuals like Wolfgang Steinecke simply went to the military’s representative (for most of this early period, Everett Helm) to ask for money.

      In these early years, Darmstadt was very different musically: like elsewhere in Europe, the trend was towards reconstruction of the recent past, not building the remote future. Copland, Hindemith and Bartók were among those programmed. Helm aside, who as a critic had reasonably catholic tastes, the military weren’t that keen on the avant-garde turn that Darmstadt took in the 1950s (after the direct involvement of the Theater and Music Branch, and Helm, had ended). Frances Stonor Saunders, who mentions music only a handful of times in her study of the CIA’s funding of the cultural Cold War, Who Paid the Piper, notes that these criticisms “spilled over into open hostility”. And Amy Beal, who has made some of the most important study of the US Army’s involvement in Darmstadt, describes Saunders’ claim that the Ferienkurse was “a bold initiative of the American military government” as “an exaggeration of the facts”.

      There is some crossover, for sure, and certainly the American military government in Germany had reasons to promote certain kinds of music over others, but the idea of serialism and other manifestations being an intended outcome, or even something of which they approved, is a stretch at best.

      (And this is to say nothing of the fact that one of the cornerstone innovations of the postwar avant garde – tape music – was built upon technology (magnetic tape) developed in Nazi Germany.)

  6. Amy Beal’s book is invaluable, and is well written. My simplistic take on the direction music took at Darmstadt and the German radio stations and the funding for them from the US government, is that the US felt they needed to counter Soviet cultural influence, and that since the Soviet Union was promoting tonal, conservative music, that that left the non-tonal, hence initially serial music.

    Also, it’s good to remember that there are actually two strands of music going through Darmstadt – the more academic type that is programmed by the institute, and the more experimental type (often American, and exemplified by Cage and Feldman) curated by Hessicher Rundfunk – with both sides heartily booing each other.

  7. I find it increasingly fruitful for myself to simply take stock of what music I cannot imagine the 20th century without. I may not listen to Boulez all the time, but I certainly can’t imagine the musical landscape of the postwar/50s without his music, Stockhausens and probably Goeyvaerts and Nono too, not to mention Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes. I mean do people claim that theres other stuff from this time thats better, or just that there was no good music then? Anyone who can imagine the 20th C without 4’33″, be my guest, but I cant. Or even the freaking Indeterminancy recording! Still I listen to Carter’s First Quartet more than the rest I mentioned from that time, and would still insist that lookbacks to the 2nd half of the 20th C will increasingly start with Xenakis, Carter and Ligeti. Once you go a tad below them, there are literally dozens of fascinating composers, probably more per square inch than any other time in history. And, for me, the early 21st C is already unthinkable without Ferneyhough’s Shadowtime, and some works of GF Haas, Furrer and Poppe. Frankly, I can’t even get my head around a supposed composer slagging off Cage. You don’t necessarily have to want to run home everyday to put a Cage recording on (although I’ve had my Cage periods), but trying to dismiss his importance and creatvity is just ignorant.

  8. Pingback: Difficult Music Is A Myth | Social Soprano

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