Resilient Music


Listening to James Weeks’s recent CD Signs of Occupation (métier msv 28559) against the backdrop of the last few days, I find myself drawn to its sheer robustness as much as anything else. In sombre moments, I sometimes imagine what art, what music, would be left in the instance of a Station Eleven-type apocaplyse, and I take great comfort in the fact that much of what I love would or could survive, more or less indefinitely. Not everything, of course. All music recorded on electronic media would – ironically – become ephemeral, as the fuel ran out and the generators wound down, or were conserved for light and heat. Orchestral and large ensemble music – and opera – also fade through impracticality, or become radically transformed. In Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven a travelling band of actors and musicians cross a plague-ravaged North America, putting on scratch performances of Shakespeare at settlements on the road, and I can imagine versions of Don Giovanni or The Magic Flute surviving in such circumstances.

But the music with the most fighting chance would be that which made the least demands on resources: small ensembles, simple, portable instruments (no pianos!), all acoustic, flexible with regard to performance space, accommodating of untrained musicians, rewarding to play as to listen to, and in tune with its environment. Music that was, in these respects at least, close to folk music, and that addressed itself to a similar set of performance conditions.

There is a particular strand of experimental music that meets these criteria – a lot of it being composed in the UK, but far from exclusive to this country – and that I have begun to think of as resilient music. Weeks’s chamber pieces, several of them represented on Signs of Occupation, as well as vocal works like The World in tune are exemplary. Looping Busker Music (2013) on the métier CD, for example, is for a quartet of clarinet, violin, guitar and accordion and, apart from the inclusion of a tape of sampled field recordings, sounds truly resilient: simple, artless, imbued with the joy of its own existence. Furthermore, pieces like this, and the soprano solo Nakedness (2012, recorded on this disc) thematise within them their own material conditions, the way in which they come into being only because people have chosen to perform them and bring them to life.

Michael Finnissy (Weeks’s teacher) is an important influence on James’s compositional outlook, but while it can be extraordinarily muscular and materially self-aware, I wouldn’t always describe Finnissy’s music as resilient – it relies too much on expert performers (although there are notable exceptions, This Church being one). And while Weeks’s music is far from easy, I don’t believe its successful realisation depends upon expertise (and specialisation) – a product of a carefully managed, nurturing environment; so much as dedication – a product of desire and time, a very different proposition.

I suggested that a lot of resilient music can be found in the UK – and I would include Stephen Chase, Laurence Crane, Claudia Molitor and others in this group (what are we more worried about?). Rather than Finnissy, I would suggest Christopher Fox as a wellspring for this particular marriage of practicality and aesthetics. I’m going to write more about Fox’s music in another post soon, but works like Catalogue irraisoné (recorded by Weeks’s EXAUDI vocal ensemble; reviewed here) – indeed the whole of Everything You Need to Know (1999–2001) – or hearing not thinking (2006–8) seem to perfectly describe the conditions of a resilient music. The best of these pieces seem to grow from Cage’s inadvertent manifesto for a post-apocalyptic composition: that one should destroy all of one’s records; only then will one be forced to write music for oneself.


8 thoughts on “Resilient Music

  1. A lovely concept! And thanks for all the names to follow up. Your final citing of Cage’s remark perhaps says it all: it matches the old saying about culture is what we have left when we’ve forgotten everything were taught. (Or some such….)

  2. I wonder if there isn’t just a little too much residue of the (?bad?) old ideas of “writing for posterity” in the idea of “resilient”/”robust” Music? Should some human/natural catastrophe occur to wipe out the cultural artefacts of post-Twentieth Century Music-making in the (near-)future, any human survivors will have enough on their hands without worrying about which of today’s composers can be performed by the campfires.

    Human beings are robust and resilient – getting past the first decades of survival will then lead to people finding their ways back to – and improving on – the technologies we take for granted today. There will again be pianos; there will again (even before that) be electricity – and ways of remaking the technology that will enable our successors to re-hear the recordings that survive of all Musics. Isn’t it more positive to let them sort out their aesthetic priorities and let’s ourselves stick to those which most work for us, rather than worrying about what will/won’t “survive”?

  3. That’s a good point. I suppose what appeals to me about the examples I mention is not necessarily that they will survive (you’re right: post-disaster humans will have their own aesthetic priorities), but that they could. And that that seems embedded in the works’ aesthetic in some way.

    1. Yes, I see your point – repertoires needing least technological and technical requirements are the ones most resilient to events that nullify those technologies. (It’s more worrying that similar requirements would result for medical provision, too.)

      That such possibilities are “embedded in the works’ aesthetic” puzzles me, though – I’m sure that you don’t mean that the Musicians producing such work are doing so with an eye on some potential forthcoming apocalypse; but, forgive me, I’m not entirely sure what you are implying. It is great that there are Musicians who are producing work that “thematise within them their own material conditions, the way in which they come into being only because people have chosen to perform them and bring them to life” – but this is alongside other working practices; it doesn’t need a post-endgame scenario to – I’m trying to avoid the word “legitimise”, but can’t think of an alternative – itself.

      I say this not out of some self-delusional fake optimism – the immediate future holds little promise of generous state support for creative activities, and Musicians who can successfully pare down their technical requirements whilst maintaining full expressive potential are going to be the ones most likely to be able to continue working as practitioners. But I also think that our real fears give succour to those ideologies that are hostile to explorative, non-commercial creative work – and that a defiant optimism is a valid way of giving the people who noisily espouse those toxic ideologies a clear gesture that we aren’t going to go away.

      1. No, I don’t imagine anyone is writing music for the end of the world! I think what I’m getting at is that there is a dialogue with fragility in these pieces, an awareness that they could under other circumstances not exist. And I mean that in absolutely the most general sense at first – the fact that the composer was fortunate enough to have the idea and the inspiration for the piece, the happiness that there are players who want to play it, and give it time, and the joy that there are people who want to listen. It seems to me music that doesn’t take anything for granted (while at the same time shoring itself up against misfortune). In this post I’m simply exploiting a more specific, post-apocalypse metaphor to bring that side out, but it doesn’t have to be read in those terms at all.

      2. Thank you – that makes a lot of sense. (And I love the expression “a dialogue with fragility”.)

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