Rambler Roundtables: Music We’d Like to Hear 1

I rave about it enough on these pages for Music We’d Like to Hear not to need much of an introduction. But this year, following up on my online symposia with ELISION in spring, I thought I’d gather a few of the composers involved in MWLTH 2010 to chat a little about what they do and how they think.

In this, the first of two posts (the second is here), Tim Parkinson, Markus Trunk and Michael Winter discuss Cage, tradition and the nature of ‘experimental’ music.

Tim Parkinson is a composer and co-organiser, with John Lely and Markus Trunk, of Music We’d Like to Hear, a series of curated concerts of experimental music in London. He is also a pianist and performer, both independently and also by invitation, and has played with Apartment House and Plus-Minus.

Markus Trunk is a composer and co-organiser, with John Lely and Tim Parkinson, of Music We’d Like to Hear .

Michael Winter is a composer, curator, music theorist and software designer. He co-founded and co-directs (with fellow composer Eric km Clark) the wulf., a non-profit arts organization that presents music free to the public in Los Angeles.

The next Music We’d Like to Hear concert is this Wednesday at the Church of St Anne and St Agnes, and features music from the wulf.

Tim Rutherford-Johnson: Do we still need Cage? More than 50 years after his seminal works and writings on experimental music, his aesthetic still seems the touchstone for many composers. Why is this? And when do we move on? Should we? Is there a danger that some branches of experimental music may atrophy and become ‘classical’ (as opposed to innovative or modern)?

Tim Parkinson: I can’t really talk for a we. I can only talk about me.

I don’t tend to believe in thinking of music historically. Any music is new music if I haven’t heard it before. Historical context is a kind of concept. When I hear any new music the question is whether it means anything to me.

A lot of Cage’s music and ideas are obviously still challenging to some people. I’m playing this piece [one5] because I’ve always wanted to, because it was important to me at one point. I suppose I could say that when I heard it for the first time, I discovered that I had a need for it. Now I have a memory of that experience and I’d like to have it again. Also within the context of the programme, it’s exactly the piece I wanted to display one particular aspect of the piano, which the programme is focused around. The piece by Craig Shepard is from another angle. The dismissal that arises out of having some background knowledge of the composer or the music is the lazy habit of believing in primacy of concept over experience – Cage on the programme, oh we know what that is. But the sound of a specific piano playing it at a specific time and place is not the recording on the CD. That’s where I heard it first of course, coming out of my speakers. But that’s a fixed and dead photograph of the music, not a living thing. So I would like to hear it alive. I don’t know that this piece is even played that much. One of the nice things about Cage is that I think I know what it’s gonna sound like, but then it’s always different and unique.

People don’t know what they might need, unless they’re given an opportunity to experience new things, to find out whether they need it or not.

Regarding your question ‘isn’t there a danger that some branches of experimental music may atrophy and become classical’ – I think this is certainly true. To me, I think some of those pieces from the 50s by Cage, Brown, and Feldman have come to sound very classical now. In other words, evidence of a past exploration, but now, to an extent, known. And there are people who play this music very well, specialise in it, but don’t seem to move on to either later or lesser known works by these people, or music with a similar stance from today. Perhaps for them there is still endless potential in these works. But I would still love to hear later Cage pieces that rarely get performed these days, like Etcetera or Renga or something. I don’t know quite what they are yet. They haven’t been allowed to mature by multiple performances in the same way that, say, Vertical Thoughts has.

Tim R-J: Does ‘experimental music’ mean something different today from earlier definitions provided by Cage, Nyman, etc? Is it a valid description at all? What isn’t experimental music?

Tim Parkinson: This is a tricky one for me since my attention is more drawn towards the activities of individuals, rather than the establishment of a category. In two recent video portraits I did, John White talks about experimental music as being a historical label now, whereas Michael Parsons talks about it as being an attitude, a starting from scratch. Both are true I think. Perhaps one of the reasons why it’s not well represented in education (and concert programmes and public broadcasting) is that the assortment of people and work involved in that which has been called experimental is in actuality too broad and diverse to be able to present it neatly. It’s not a Style. The English experimentalism of the 70s is very different to that of New York in the 50s; I know someone, an advocate of one, who finds the other very difficult to understand for example.

Disregarding history again, I feel closer to Michael’s description. Music that starts from nothing, from the basics. As opposed to that which starts from a style, or which already starts from a notion of what music is. There’s already a huge amount of historical baggage to have to deal with if you want to make a new piece for the piano. Michael talks about starting from a Tabula Rasa, Chris Newman talks about clearing all the crap out of the way, before starting to make a new piece. Kerouac made an analogy about turning on the cold tap and letting it run until it runs cold.

I also often think of Jasper Johns’ words ‘Sometimes I see it and then paint it; sometimes I paint it then see it’. I think this is very important also, the importance of the phenomenon, in our case, the resultant sound. Not the importance of Composition over Sound.

I’m very fascinated by the distinction between sound and music. When starting I know I’ll be dealing in sounds, but when finished it sounds like music. I don’t start out to make music, I know that music will take care of itself. The question then is whether it means anything to me or not. And in what way.

I very often really don’t know what music is, and I’m always fascinated to hear it when it happens. To marvel at what is it telling me, or what is it doing to me? What is not experimental music then is I suppose that which already thinks it knows what music is, which starts of by writing ‘music’. Of course that’s also why experimental music doesn’t rest comfortably within education, because once people have got to university they are supposed to know what music is and end up by mastering it. Noone wants to be told they can legitimately use pots and pans again like a child if they feel like it. What is definitely not experimental music is the mannerism produced by various academics which perpetrates a lazy unquestioning rhetorical style which simply ‘sounds like contemporary music’. It really bores me to death if I ever have to listen to something like that which goes through the motions, making references to historical models in order to justify its own pointlessness. There’s really nothing new about it at all for me.

So I often think of simply ‘new music’, rather than ‘experimental music’. For all of the above reasons. I’m really excited by something I haven’t heard before. I more often think that I explore, rather than experiment. I’m intrigued by something I never would have thought of as music before. The question then is not simply whether it’s any good or not, but rather throws the question back onto ourselves of what is the relation of one’s own self to the world of organised sound. Because music is a living thing, not a fixed historical art form tradition, it’s a living medium, a natural product of humanity, changing all the time with us in the present and in the world. If we allow it to.

Michael Winter: I agree with Tim P on many fronts and also claim that I am interested in new experiences and the exploration thereof. Also, I am not interested in ‘brands’ and how they are often defined and delineated. Still, as artists, we discuss these matters and the discourse is important. Writings by Cage and Nyman are wonderful and influential. Even now, the discourse is evolving. Joe Kudirka is currently working on a thesis where he, in a very deep way, discusses his approach to a definition of experimental music. Still, I hope that Joe’s writings (as seminal as I think the thesis will be), puts a nail in that coffin.

Sometimes I wonder why we are concerned with what is and what isn’t, who is and who isn’t. I have recently been looking at the Fluxus archive at the Getty. I have so much interest in the people, the ideas, and the work, but when you read their letters to each other about who and what is Fluxus, it is actually saddening. Fortunately, they did not let their grievances stop them from making art and they were so, so prolific.

At this point in music, anything goes: any material, any process, etc.. That is not the question anymore. As artists, we should not burden ourselves with how we sit historically. We should acknowledge our influences and just explore. I think Tim brings up a good point about people and their ideas. My favorite people, the ones I believe explore some of the most compelling ideas, are and were so knowledgeable about the past and about the people that influenced them. This enabled them to explore ideas that are truly new and set into motion unforeseen situations.

Nothing exists in a vacuum. I happen to be blessed with a bad memory, so situations often seem new to me. Regardless, learning as much about the past and keeping an open mind are both crucial in the pursuit of new experiences. Only then, can we ‘start from scratch’. In my opinion, making music is not necessarily about clearing one’s mind, but rather about filling it up to the extent possible. That creates the equilibrium of ideas and possibilities necessary to move forward and even provide a focus or limited scope that helps elucidate exactly what it is that we are exploring/experimenting with. We pursue the void, the cracks and crevasses that lie hidden in a wealth of currently known information. We only realize that we have arrived at a new experience when we are presented with it. Then, we continue on, tuning our actions and reactions every step of the way in hopes for even more new experiences. This is the attitude of exploration. Call it experimental music if you like.

Markus Trunk: I think both of you have done a beautiful job at answering/subverting the question.  So I may be mostly just echoing you …  I also feel like I’m the wrong person to ask – I don’t think I have described myself as experimental very often, and if I did only because it seemed better to have some description than no description at all.  But that term has come to encompass very different things, in some cases purely invoking a historical connection.

For example, I’m not sure how a John White piano sonata is experimental except by affiliation.  Similarly, the fact that I may not know at the beginning of the writing process what its outcome will be, or to find a different solution to what “makes a piece”, is maybe not enough for it to be classed as an experiment – many of those academic “rhetorical” composers so aptly described by Tim would lay claim to doing exactly that.

I think a focus on sound and process instead of historically grown syntax may be a more useful characteristic of much of the music we are thinking of than the model of the experiment.  On the other hand I’m sometimes wondering whether some of the Wandelweiser type composers aren’t themselves resorting to an already established syntax.

What I do like is the notion of the clean slate even though that is just another metaphor.  The main task always seems to be to free myself from preconceptions of what a piece of music, say for a particular combination of instruments, should be like (Tim P’s ‘notion of what music is’), not to pre-judge the ‘material’ at hand, or a particular performance situation.

Still, out of the MWLTH lot I’m probably the least experimental one.  I don’t normally perform, never developed a real interest in collaboration – I am very much old school at heart!  I basically produce definitive scores, and rely on specialised experts to realise them.

Tim R-J: As Tim P suggests, education (and broadcasting and other institutions) enforce ways of collecting and organizing disparate groups of people under certain banners – what we might call ‘experimental music’ is just one such banner. So resistance to such labels is obviously highly desirable.

But then, as Markus points out with his example of the Wandelweiser composers, those labels may grow internally (inevitably?), from the evolution and concretisation of common rhetorics, syntaxes etc. Setting out in a spirit of exploration is one thing, but is it also necessary to have a historical sense so that one can be aware of (and thus subvert/critique/avoid) any such inherited rhetoric? We’re back to the ‘classical’ again …

Tim P: Development of a syntax is probably organic. I mean we all end up acting like each other to a certain extent, people adopting phrases and ways of speaking from TV or films, the feedback loop of communication anyway.

I suppose because Wandelweiser is a name, it becomes synonymous with a brand, which is where the dangers lie. I am always very wary of generalisations because to a certain degree they are a lie. (And there I am; Generalising.) My comment when people talk about ‘Wandelweiser music’ is that it’s a very diverse group of composers. Some of them I feel closer to than others. Also it is just the name of a publishing organisation, so one might as well talk about Edition Peters composers for example.

I often think of de Kooning’s words: ‘You are with a group or movement because you cannot help it’.

It’s not anything I turn my attention to, I think being self-conscious about it leads one to a hall of mirrors. My concern is more focussed on authenticity than worrying about adopting syntax. I’m always interested afterwards when music has resonance with other music. I mean Beethoven is as much in my house as everyone else. I also often think of what Matteo Fargion said to me once: ‘Everything sounds like everything else’.

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