Friday, December 23, 2016

Music vs "Sound Art"

Roger Scruton, in that essay I linked to in the miscellanea, makes an interesting distinction between musical tones and acoustical sounds. He doesn't actually use the phrase "sound art", which comes from a comment. Here is how he defines the difference:
Sounds are objects in the physical world, albeit objects of a special kind whose nature and identity is bound up with the way they are perceived. Tones are what we hear in sounds when we hear the sounds as music. They have features that no sound can possess – such as movement, gravitational attraction, weight, and position in a one-dimensional space. They exemplify a special kind of organisation – an organisation that we hear and which exists only for someone who can hear it.
This gets at an aspect of the avant-garde in music that tends to perplex many listeners: why is it that it does not sound like "music" but rather like random sounds (and noises)? Scruton explains further:
When we hear tones we are also hearing sounds; but we are hearing in those sounds movement, organisation and gravitational forces in a one-dimensional musical space. That is the fundamental musical experience, the experience that causes us to hear one note as moving on from another, answering another, attracted to or repelled by another. It is what enables us to hear tension and release, beginnings and endings, goals and starting points. It is at the root of the art of music as we have known it, since it is what gives music its fundamental nature as an art of motion, which grips us and takes us with it in a space of its own. We are moved by music because music moves.
The whole point of the partimento method of musical instruction, that all composers up to and including even such modern giants as Prokofiev and Stravinsky studied, was to teach this tonal dynamic: how notes want to resolve, harmonic tensions, beginnings, endings, goals, etc. Oddly, examination of this method has only recently caught the attention of music theorists with two excellent recent books on the subject. Prior to that, music theorists, even those who did not specialize in 20th century music, tended to regard music from a less practical perspective.

Scruton's insight is perhaps the kind of thing that only a philosopher might have. Practical musicians, whether they are performers or composers, tend to regard what they do from a more sensual, less intellectual, perspective. John Cage, who is most certainly a practitioner of "sound art" rather than music, always referred to what he did as music, just a different kind. For him, this applied even to 4'33, his silence piece that is the archetypal example of "sound art".

Let's listen to a performance:


That is, of course, a brilliant piece of "sound art" but not a piece of music as it contains no musical tones. Which corresponds to our common sense perception. But anyone who has set foot in a university music department has had that common sense hammered out of them long ago! One of the absolute best ways to indoctrinate malleable students into the principles of avant-garde modernism is to confront them with 4'33 and bully and browbeat them until they accept it as music. I suspect that it didn't quite "take" in my case because around 1972 or 73 I got into a furious two or three day debate about the piece with a close friend who was not only a very able debater, but one with considerable background in philosophy. He simply rejected all the usual feeble ploys. At the end of that discussion, we could agree that while one might consider 4'33 as an example of "meta-music" it could not be considered a piece of music as such. That discussion lingered in the back of my mind for a long time before I started to undertake serious study of the history and aesthetics of music.

Scruton specifically excludes composers like Edgar Varèse from the concept of "sound art":
Varèse, Pierre Schaeffer and their immediate successors awoke composers and audiences to the many new sounds, some of them produced electronically, that could enter the space of music without destroying its intrinsic order. These experiments are not what I have in mind when referring to the replacement of tones by sounds and musical by acoustical hearing. I am thinking of a more general transition, from Tonkunst to Klangkunst, to use the German expressions – a transition of deep philosophical significance, between two ways of hearing, and two responses to what is heard.
However, what has likely always stood between me and an appreciation of Varèse might be that the way he hears is more in terms of sound art than music. Here is Déserts:


As one commentator says about this clip: "Different styles of music require different ways of listening.  Varese and some others require listening to the spaces between the sounds as well as the sounds themselves." Yes, exactly. But while this might be a wonderful example of sound art, it turns out that I no more like sound art than I do maudlin, hectoring pop music!

The reason that so much avant-garde music sounds as if it escaped from a science fiction film soundtrack is that it is about abstract sounds and textures rather than the human sounding tensions and directions of musical tones.

This makes the job of musical composition in a post-avant-garde environment to be very tricky indeed. As Scruton observes:
Bureaucrats charged with giving support to the arts are, today, frightened of being accused of being reactionary. I suspect that everyone in this room is frightened of being accused of being reactionary. The history of the French salons in the 19th century, and of the early reactions to musical and literary modernism, has made people aware of how easy it is to miss the true creative product, and to exalt the dead and the derivative in its stead. The safest procedure for the anxious bureaucrat is to subsidize music that is difficult, unlikely to be popular, even repugnant to the ordinary musical ear. Then one is sure to be praised for one’s advanced taste and up-to-date understanding. Besides, if a work of music is easy to assimilate and clearly destined to be popular it does not need a subsidy in any case.
There were a few that managed to steer that dangerous course between the Scylla of facile cliché and the Charybdis of "sound art". One was Henri Dutilleux who was contemporary with Pierre Boulez. This is his violin concerto titled L'arbre des songes:



5 comments:

Christopher Culver said...

I know that some conservative classical music critics want to set up a dichotomy between "music" and "sound art" so that they can deny the avant-garde music they don't like an equal standing with the music they do like, but I’d say that that battle is already lost, and it wasn't even the outcome of the struggle between classical music factions. The battle was lost when, in the popular music world, artists like Merzbow and other exemplars of the Japanese (and Detroit) noise music scenes began to be covered in the popular music press like any other act and when they began being invited to pop music festivals.

I have seen Merzbow as part of a festival on several occasions, and audiences have no problem going from a performance of some traditional band with its rooting in common practice tonality to a performance of Japanese noise. It’s all the same enjoyment for them. Claiming a dichotomoy "music versus sound art" comes across as an offensive attempt by an outsider with an axe to grind to deny the unity of experience that such listeners feel within themselves.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Christopher! OK, I had to go to YouTube and listen to some Merzbow because I had never heard them before. Reminds me of an only poorly-recalled evening back in 1969 when my buddy was trying out his new acquisition, which was an Altec-Lansing theatre speaker cabinet about seven feet tall. I'm not sure what kind of drugs we were on, but he was getting a lot of feedback out of a Fender Stratocaster.

Far be it from me to deny anyone's unity of experience. I assume that you don't want to deny my unity of experience either? Of course your argument is inherently unanswerable because it appeals to subjective experience. But while not contesting anyone's private experience, I think that if anyone listens to some Merzbow, they would have no difficulty noticing the dichotomy between it and, oh, pretty much any classical music ever.

Jives said...

The Scruton talk was really great, he really describes the problem in a refreshing way, which really doesn't tear down the avant-garde so much as contextualize it more realistically. I think the sound art/music dichotomy is a useful one (although limited like all such constructs, not sure how postulating that is offensive, but it's the internet..).

As a classical musician, and an avid fan of sound art myself, creator and listener. I would never deny its emotional appeal. But it really is a different art form from written music for the concert hall, right? They require very different skill sets, training, equipment.

The sound artists of the classical avant-garde screwed up when they tried to shoehorn this music into a performance culture to which it was unsuited; simultaneously vilifying and tearing down the existing tradition in the name of some vague idea of "progress." Many, many times in "Silence" John Cage writes that some old construct is "no longer necessary"? It's this idea that we need to jettison the older tradition which was so toxic.

It was the wrong audience, as Scruton states.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks Jives. As always, you lend a resonant note to the discussion. I think you are right about Scruton contextualizing the avant-garde.

What pieces of sound art would you recommend we listen to?

Jives said...

these days I'm enjoying Sabled Sun-2147, Ian William Craig-Centres, Loscil-Monument Builders, Shrine-Ordeal, Offthesky-Light Loss, Legiac-The Voynich Manuscript, Sphare Sechs-Enceladus...I'd probably put Pauline Oliveros in this group too.