Saturday, July 02, 2016

Joan Arnau Pàmies on "New Music", it can be any kind of music that can be successfully assimilated into a Marxist narrative of class warfare, it seems.

I would argue that New Music is generated by: (1) the anti-establishment content of the lyrics and (2) pastiching stylistic qualities from historically black genres such as hip-hop and jazz, which potentially enhances critical readings of the history of black music through the capitalist economy. Whether Lamar provides an alternative view of the material conditions—what should be done considering these circumstances—remains to be seen.

Beethoven produced a body of work which, in my view, exemplifies the two fundamental priorities of the modern project of New Music: (1) the critique of (possibly flawed) traditional models and (2) the creation of newer (perhaps more productive) alternative means. The surface of the composer’s discourse—the rhetorical tools rooted in functional tonality—is certainly old and familiar to many, but I am not sure that his ability to question, deconstruct, and reassemble musical discursivity has been recognized by large audiences yet. Beethoven, as Adorno and Charles Rosen have argued, is possibly a Classical and a modernist composer at once. (This has also been contended by Michael Spitzer in his book Music as Philosophy[3].) In fact, one could speculate that Beethoven is the ultimate New Music composer, since the object of his critique—the Classical style—is a consistent stylistic formation relatively easy to categorize and scrutinize. From Haydn to Mozart, to the likes of Muzio Clementi and Johann Christian Bach, the Classical style demonstrates a highly systematic approach to formal development. What we know as sonata form is an example of this aesthetic. Sonata form is rooted in a dialectical means of organization, in which two contrasting themes (A and B) in different keys are ultimately reintroduced (and reconciled) in the original key of the movement after having gone through multiple potential organizational options in a developmental section. This form, in its most basic iterations, was commonly used in some movements of instrumental sonatas, chamber music, and symphonies, and was a fundamental pillar of Central European notated music in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Beethoven was thus a composer working in this tradition.
The first movement of Beethoven’s thirty-first sonata for piano is an excellent instance of the composer’s interest in disrupting the traditional logic of sonata form.


Hmm.  I thought Rosen and Leonard B Meyer clarified that sonata form was actually no dialectic at all, and that interpreting sonata form as in any way monolithic, let alone dialectic, was to impose upon the sonata tradition a mode of thought that wasn't contemporary to its evolution.  One of the most basic and by now unpardonable mistakes to make in asserting things about sonata forms is that the form is predicated on thematic contrast.  It's not.  There are reams of sonatas by Haydn where he just had one core theme.  That sonatas from Beethoven forward could be construed in dialectical terms doesn't mean we should necessarily say about sonata form as a whole that "that" is what it's about.  So if the sonata isn't necessarily characterized by two contrasting themes is it "dialectical"?  It could be but Rosen described sonata forms as being based on resolution of harmonic rather than thematic contrasts. 

One of the other elisions that can happen in discussing sonata forms is to overlook that in those sonatas the repeats that are often omitted weren't just there by chance.  I've written in the past about how when you factor in the structural repeats as truly structural that at a very broad level you get a sonata form that can "read" as a verse chorus verse chorus bridge verse chorus, with provisos for the large-scale architectural aspects of sonata forms.  In other words, the way sonatas seemed to be played as instructed from the scores of the time it looks like they had slightly more in common with what we'd call a default pop song structure now, writ large, than with what 19th century music theoreticians claimed about the sonata. 

By the early 19th century the structural repeats started getting omitted in performance but also at the level of the score itself.  Beethoven's "critique" might not have been a critique so much as an allowance for a type of "compression" in which you can omit more and more of the things people could be expected to understand.  Let's take a stab in the dark and propose that if Haydn was Fritz Lang making films in one way then Beethoven, in spite of his more expansive approach to developmental economy, could do so because he'd simultaneously made a Godard like innovation of a "jump cut".  Romantic era expansion of organic development could "work" in the sense that it could presuppose Classic era forms as amenable to formal compressions and not just as a "critique" of those forms.  Leonard B. Meyer wrote in Style and Music that one of the problems of the Romantic era was that composers eschewed convention and old traditions at a formal level but they had no alternatives in practice.  Some innovations happened at the level of how to play with conventions and how to disguise them, but the conventions of the tonal idiom didn't start to really fracture until later. 

As far as Beethoven and subverting the expectations of sonata form go, he did that, but it would be difficult to top subverting the expectations of where sonata for "should" go in Haydn's work.  One of Leonard Meyer's observations about the Romantic era was that in their repudiation of convention and tradition with their quest for the becoming and the new, the music of the Romantics is very short on things like wit.  Haydn lived in an era in which the conventions and expectations of what music was supposed to sound like were so well set that he could constantly play with those expectations and subvert them.  Mozart and Haydn had a capacity for wit because they were already constantly messing with what audiences could expect. So J. A. P.'s comments about Beethoven don't seem exactly "wrong" as they seem too anchored to a mythology surrounding what Beethoven did with sonata forms that takes for granted a view on sonata forms that isn't necessarily a reflection of what that music was on the page as what some 19th century historians may have liked to say about Beethoven's response to what they thought sonata form was. 

There's nothing about a sonata form that is inimical to 12-bar blues, for instance. 

At the expense of losing nuance, if I were to oversimplify my language, New Music is an emancipatory project largely dissatisfied with the world, which thus attempts to project the possibility of other worlds. On the other hand, contemporary music is music created today based on rather superficial aesthetic qualities (instrumentation, gesture, harmony, counterpoint, texture, timbre) found in European classical music. This distinction explains why I define some of Kendrick Lamar’s work as New Music, while it cannot certainly be understood as a form of contemporary music. That is also why there may certainly exist New Music that uses some aesthetic features from contemporary music. In addition, New Music does not have to be new: Beethoven has strong New Music qualities—whether these convey any real potential today or not is an entirely different conversation. To sum up: New Music is ultimately an anti-establishment (and by that I mean all forms of anti-establishment: economic, cultural, educational, artistic) ideologico-aesthetic project, whereas contemporary music does not have to be. [emphasis added]

As a composer myself, I do my best to write New Music. Whether it is notated or not, whether it uses recent technological developments, whether and how it uses Western instruments: these are—to some extent—secondary aspects of my music. Ultimately, I am at a point in my career where my priority is to create works that do not accept a given tradition as a natural artifact. I try to persistently reevaluate the knowledge I have gained over years of study, as well as the tools that I have been given throughout my formal education. This does not come from a dogmatic position, but rather from an experimental hypothesis. My contention is that music may serve to open alternative paths for human existence, through which we may gain access to uncharted phenomenological territories.

At a time when our most immediate collective reality is not only mediocre, but also dangerous and pathologically against the creation of fairer worlds, I would like to believe that there is some work to be done in our field, where perhaps we can reclaim creativity and imagination through the difficult—yet hopefully productive—process of constant self-critique, rigorous historical analysis, and the development of a holistic praxis that is skeptical of the thoughtless reiteration of obsolete models.

At the very least, I would suggest that it is our social responsibility to stick our fingers into the small cracks in this wall of concrete located in front of us—that is, a standardized and commodified existence—which has robbed us of the possibility of imagining a better future.

New Music can be in whatever style you want if you're coming at it from a Marxist enough perspective.  Beethoven can be a paragon of New Music or the embodiment of the terrible ossified Western canon of dead white guys or capitalists depending on who's making the complaint.  It's a strange era we live in (like all the others were strange but in slightly different ways).  If enough people like a thing they annex it within their views and find ways to reconcile it with their views.  So even a Marxist can prize a Beethoven sonata.  A work of art that was a commodity can be de-commodified with the right ideology.

Now I've never really been a fan of art for the sake of art, art that has not justification other than itself.  That has always seemed like a wildly stupid reason to make art.  It's what I'd call consumeristic but it's also a mentality that leads artists to imagine themselves priests of a kind of art religion.  The embrace of an existentialist "because I choose" to life in the arts that dares to imagine better worlds ...

hey, you know Isaiah imagined such a world, or the author of the last twenty odd chapters of Isaiah.  The thing about apocalyptic literature is that in spite of the contemporary Western use for apocalyptic to imagine terrors that must be averted apocalyptic literature was attempting to imagine a better future world.  Marxism is ultimately a secularist variant of Judeo-Christian apocalyptic that imagines that there's no gods who will bring about heaven on earth, we humans will do that ourselves with a revolution of the workers. 

People have been fretting about the dehumanizing aspects of scut work for as long as there has been scut work, most likely.  There have been polemics about how Protestants developed the Protestant work ethic that rewarded selfish ambition depending on who you read and who you talk to.  Another way of formulating things could be to suggest that if you sanctify scut work by saying it's valuable you can increase productivity.  Ellul observed that communist propaganda convinced workers their work was valuable and production increased.  That was half a century ago, perhaps before the jocular axiom emerged within the Soviet system in which it was quipped "they pretend to pay us and we pretend to work."  At the time Ellul was writing perhaps the Soviet workers were pretending with more zeal.

To read Marxists write about the social role of the artist any sense of class guilt that they should be artists vocationally at all is sort of like reading 19th century Presbyterians writing about public worship invoking the regulative principle or arguing against instruments in public worship. 
Marxist aspirations for the arts would seem to be of a secularist mirror image to that of church music in a theocracy and for probably obvious reasons.

Im not a Marxist and I can't take Marxism as offering any actual solutions to the plight of the working class because there are no solutions to the plight of the working class and there will never be any, if by a solution for the plight of the working class we mean anything like the idea that boring and dehumanizing scut work will stop being borning and dehumanizing scut work.  It would seem that the solution empires of the past have come up with to provide a psychological narcotic for those tasked with the scut work of building the monuments of empire was to give them roles in the building of the monument, to give them (or a select few of them that were ideally suited to photo ops by looks or intellectually suitable for the writing of press releases) a role in the story of the creation of the monuments of empire.  This can be described in a short phrase as the sum of arts histories. 

At a more local level there was a film called God's Work, Our Witness, in which one Mark Driscoll managed to use the royal "we" to describe the story of how he built his empire and along the way a few people were brought in to share their part of the story of how Mark had set about to build his empire.  Some of those people are lovely, amazing people I still consider friends, by the way.  And I used to go to Mars Hill.  Legacy was what Mark Driscoll implicitly and explicitly promised us and we bought it the way Marxists buy the idea that there will ever be a classless society.

My skepticism about New Music is that its advocates may not recognize they are just part of another empire.  Any of us who are artists at any level are servants of empires.  That's been the startling epiphany in Miyazaki's The Wind Rises that has had me thinking about that for a few years.

Beethoven's work was able to be assimilated into old leftist/Marxist thought by the high-brow crew and it's apparent that people who interpret the world through Marxist metanarratives can still transform Beethoven's work into New Music.  What was written in the context of capitalist/imperialist society in Europe could be transformed into a talisman of the Left by dint of a narrative in which Beethoven was subverting formal tropes of which his work was somewhat deviant from but ultimately exemplary--Beethoven's work became part of the canonic approach to much for which his work was retroactively considered super-revolutionary. 

A similar hat trick regarding the fetishes of capitalism-in-music has been performed by the New Left with respect to popular music.  Whether Beethoven or the Beatles it's still possible for a Marxist to assimilate the music into the ideology.  But then there are plenty of Christians who can assimilate Star Wars into a Christian soteriological parable. If capitalism can assimilate perfectly all modes of rebellion into its mainstream Marxists can return the favor by finding ways to assimilate art made for money into some kind of countercultural aspirational narrative.  It can seem very much like a case of "I know you are but what am I?" that gets repeated back and forth by two kids on the playground, it's just that as we know from the history of the Cold War these two kids on the playground had kind of big caches of nuclear weapons and, in different ways, their own prison-industrial complexes.

I wonder if in many ways the ideal Marxist artist makes art much the same way a Christian monastic would. 

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