In 1977 John Cage performed his Empty Words, a text piece based on the writings of Henry David Thoreau at Milan’s Teatro Lirico. Halfway through the performance, the audience --mainly comprised of art students-- started to react to Cage’s exercise in the de-construction of Thoreau’s text and did so by clapping their hands, booing, yelling and whistling while Cage, undisturbed, went on with his performance. And he went on for 3 hours!
Recently I listened to excerpts of a recording of this performance I had never heard before. A personal experience I advise you all to attempt.
Contemporary music is more than a label found on the CD bin of any, hitherto ubiquitous but now almost defunct, record store. Contemporary music is any music produced today. Even a recording or a concert of a viol consort made today with period instruments, respecting every performance and technical procedure of a particular musical age or a particular composer is contemporary music. And it therefore reflects the contemporary view of this age. Less so than perhaps an original composition written today, but a recording of music from yesterday, that respects the artistic values of the time it was written, teaches us a lot about today’s values.
Music died when it turned into a commodity. This is not a new and exciting novelty. It is rather an outcry for a situation that has become totally unbearable. On the one hand the proliferation of music or music-like products through every corner of human activity is a terrible nightmare. Instead of giving us, music professionals, a broader market to work with this proliferation turned music into such a banal activity that its value is completely defaced. The value of music —as an extra-ordinary act, as the exception, but also as the rule, is lost. Listeners, in turn, lost their right to this value of music. As listeners, the only responsible solution is to shut our ears.
Moreover, now it is possible to write whatever music you want, any sound, any trend is possible, there are no taboos. It is acceptable to use whatever language or mixture of languages available, whatever musical tradition or vocabulary from whatever musical period. But it is precisely now that the musical world has become more conservative and even reactionary than ever. There’s not even room for outrage. Where is the outrageous music for an outraged audience like the one that booed the first performance of The Rite? Where are the outraged art students that reacted to Cage’s Empty Words?
Music today is a repetition of known, trusted and accepted musical formulas, used individually or mixed with some video for the extra kick. The “peppered cocktail”, as Panikkar once characterized shallow inter-cultural relations.
No risk, no chance taking. No deeper than your skin either. Just superficiality. No one dares to step outside these familiar grounds. Everything you hear today has been created decades if not centuries ago. Thanks to the wider communication between different cultures today, “mix and match” is easier but even that is usually based on something created or discovered decades ago at best. Again no risk.
On the other hand, the digitalization of all stages of musical production, while giving us unsuspectedly powerful tools, also brought blandness, conformism and redundancy. Click here for an interesting view on this subject that I subscribe.
We all have to conform to the rules of the software, if we dare being different —software immediately turns it into something bland or adds its own noticeable and permanent petit arrière gout. And the new software is also a tool for redundancy because it is now possible to program computers with all the familiar and conservative formulas and do it repeatedly and effortlessly. The musical outcome is not even admired for its musical value but rather for the value of the programmer's accomplishments. Push a button and you can repeat the formula ad nausea. You can program chord changes into the computer and pretend that you are Charlie Parker’s rhythm section, you can “perform” a four-part fugue a la Bach by singing into the contraption. The computer will do the rest. You don't even have to investigate the foundations of your extraordinary musical accomplishments. In fact why should you? The machine outputs these great and convincing results, why bother...?
Applications such as Improvisor or Improvox are great teaching utilities, but what they do really is to turn an act of labor, love and ingenuity into chewing gum. And they are destroying the students that they were supposed to serve. Ignoring how a four part harmony came about is as bad as ignoring that chicken don't come from the fridge. Even though the musical formulas used came to us from a strong tradition and after a long evolution, disregard for this tradition and for what it stands for has never been so obvious.
There still seems to be room for the unusually gifted, for some unexpected and spectacular musical discovery, that only real talent can produce, but this is becoming rarer and the whole (including the talented) of the musical world today is the picture of society: well behaved, conform to the rule, unadventurous, meaningless, unpalatable like nouvelle cuisine, disgusting like a frozen meal.
And you get to hear all this unbearable cacophony people call music everywhere, in elevators, malls, restaurants, phones, concert halls, jazz clubs!! And iTunes and all others make it convenient and easier than ever to import all this trash into the intimacy of your own private and sacred ears.
Music seems to have lost all its sense of purposefulness and its capacity to be a major driving force in all aspects of human endeavor. Big public ceremonies have no grandiose music written exclusively to accompany them. So grandiose that its grandiosity still survives today. Where are today’s Gabrieli or Haendel? Where are the mothers that sang lullabies to their children? The Philips pavilion for the Brussels World Fair and the German pavilion for the Osaka Expo in 19070 were designed for composers, by composers. Ask any government or public institution today to allow itself to be projected to the world through the music of an iconoclastic composer. Would Germany let itself be represented by a music personality as Stockhausen? Would Philips care to invite a a composer like Varèse to help define the major theme of its pavilion? I doubt it...
The jingle is the sole monarch in the kingdom of the absolute reduced attention span.
Is it really music's golden era, like I often hear people characterize this 21st century?