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Beckmesser revisited?

[This paper is an expanded version of a response the author sent to the SAN email mailing list in August 2006.]

A composer frustrated with the lack of positive responses from CD publishers to his work sought feedback on examples of his output from the UK Sonic Arts Network (SAN) mailing list. The music under scrutiny was described as “dark ambient” itself a defined sub-genre of the increasingly broad “ambient” genre. Some feedback was duly offered, eliciting this comment from another subscriber:

Before you apportion value to your feedback, be aware of those who have driven themselves into a pit of dogma. A state where creativity is a measurable… A science… A matter of black and white. These people would like to believe that art is a matter of rules. They would like to teach the world to paint by numbers.

This comment clearly (and one must say, passionately) illustrates the chasm that is felt by many independent composers to exist between “popular” or vernacular music, and music created following in some way an academic or “formal” agenda. It was all too clear that an “academic” was here regarded not simply one who worked professionally as an educator, but one who sought to impose ostensibly outmoded and irrelevant values and attitudes on others, to preserve long-established paradigms, and in some neo-Beckmesser-ish way, to give “marks out of ten” for a piece of new work. To some extent this chasm is a simple consequence of the rapid evolution we see today of many “electronic” styles and genres, many of which are already jostling for space in the curriculum alongside the long-established classical and contemporary repertoire. One the one hand, educators are being asked to incorporate (with some level of appreciation!) new and possibly unfamiliar electronic genres into their courses; on the other, the invitation is going out to composers working in these new genres to find relevance and value, seemingly for the first time, in such an “academic” approach to their art.

The issues are clearly fundamental both to composers working independently (and perhaps alone, in the archetypal home studio), and to music educators working in the ever-changing landscapes of a myriad electronic-music genres, in which the question “can this be taught?” is to be prefixed with “how”. We will naturally disavow any skulking Beckmessers inclined to ask “is this worth teaching?”

We may begin with a mission statement: music has always been both art and craft — there are skills to develop, materials to understand, techniques to master and then be able to go beyond. We are all limited by what we cannot do, cannot describe, cannot hear, or do not know. The ultimate purpose of all learning, whether formal or self-directed, is to reduce such limitations to a minimum, and otherwise to transcend them. Setting aside the occasional paradigm-forming solitary genius, such learning develops through dialogue and feedback.

The level of technology today enables many aspiring composers to work totally alone, while hearing their music as they create it, through loudspeakers. This is undoubtedly empowering in many ways, and so long as the only listener is the composer, all composers are de facto geniuses, creating music which fully satisfies them, and which, almost by definition, exactly realises their goals. The context changes irrevocably as soon as the composer seeks listeners beyond the bounds of their studio. This immediately raises the issue of the nature of that community of listeners, and the question of what prior experience of listening they bring to the new work, that the composer can or must assume. What distinguishes the pastiche from something offering a new and distinctive voice? How much scope is there in a given genre for an individual voice, without stepping outside the defined boundaries of the genre? How much (and what form of) originality is supported by a given genre? Above all, what are the established “norms and deviations” that are presumed by both composer and listener? These lead to further questions of a more comparative nature: how does one compare one work to another, one composer to another? What makes one more or less popular, or commercially successful, than another? And even — how important is popular appeal?

To begin with, the composer may have rather more to say about these questions than the educator. Any one of them may be felt to be challenging. To them we must add a further more personal one — how well can a composer describe what they have done, what goals they set themselves in a work, and evaluate to what extent they have achieved those goals? Such questions are bread-and-butter in an academic environment, but are surely relevant to anyone involved in music creation and listening. If they are sometimes uncomfortable questions, all the better, says the teacher — but to the sensitive composer, they can seem to verge on the inquisitorial.

We must acknowledge that implicit in all such questions is a set of a priori criteria almost at the level of “moral imperatives” — many obvious but others less so — that novelty (or originality) is important; that pastiche or imitation is undesirable in a published work; that music should reward repeated listening, perhaps through a level of complexity such that no “average” listener can be expected to appreciate all aspects on first hearing; that it can be demonstrated that the composer “understands the material”. It is perhaps above all the belief that current “academic” criteria have little or no relevance to new genres that lies behind the stringent quotation at the head of this paper. It may also underlie the popular “get out of jail free” moral imperative: getting peer approval is less important than being “true to oneself” and if need be, may not be important at all.

Nevertheless, the presenting question related to promotion of a published product, which brings us back to that inescapable issue, the relationship between the composer and their audience. As noted, the music under scrutiny was described as “dark ambient”, a genre that presumes a specific form of listening (ostensibly passive, almost meditative), but which offers in principle the same challenge to the commentator as any work in a “classical” electro-acoustic genre in which the only text is the music itself. This challenges the critical listener to fall back, if necessary, on first principles, such as I have outlined. Only once these principal questions are answered can useful feedback be given to any composer.

Later discussions on the SAN list have revealed that the issue of description is perhaps the most important of all. After further feedback the composer concluded that his initial descriptions of his intentions were not accurate. Sometimes this was simply a matter of vocabulary — “sadness and loss” proved less accurate a description of mood than “oppressiveness”. Such refinements of description are a natural outcome of peer-group explorations. They also inevitably require a fluency in the use of words (and a concomitantly extended vocabulary) that is an acknowledged challenge for musicians of all persuasions and backgrounds. However, for the composer working in isolation, attaching to such a peer group, or simply to a sympathetic community of listeners, can be difficult if not impossible. As we have seen, the internet now offers a valiant, if by no means reliable, alternative.

Yet it is exactly this situation that is addressed by the modern academic environment, in which many composers, in all styles, listen to each other’s work, receive possibly challenging suggestions from teachers, and learn in a very dynamic, hands-on way, what are the required craft skills, and, inevitably, what is new and what has been done before, many times. The composer needs above all someone who can give clear evidence of their own experience of listening, which is far from being an easy skill — it has to amount to rather more than “I like it” or “I don’t like it”. To be useful, it must be able to reveal and describe things about the music, that perhaps even the composer has not noticed — terribly easy to do, when one is so close to it.

Each level of music criticism is supported by its specialist vocabulary — jargon, if we must — and music (indeed, sound generally) remains notoriously poor in everyday vocabulary not borrowed from other domains. Take the presenting genre of “dark ambient”. The word “dark” describes an optical property, and can be applied to sound only as a meme, by common consent (here signifying both timbre and mood); and “ambient” is a description of physical space, literally “relating to the immediate surroundings”. So the cultivation of a common vocabulary by both educators and composers is a first stage in bridging that chasm. This requires more than fluency in “street talk”. Description needs to be clear, as unambiguous as possible, and supportive of fine distinctions. A second stage is to remember that “community of listeners” also means “culture” so that today it is impossible to study music outside its cultural context; even “abstract” music is only relatively abstract. It can no more speak for itself today than it has ever done.

Other Publications by the Author

A Dictionary of Electronic and Computer Music Technology. Oxford University Press, 1992.

Experiments with Chaotic Oscillators (Dobson & Fitch), in the Proceedings of the ICMC, Banff, 1995.

Experiments with Non-Linear Filters (Dobson & Fitch), in the Proceedings of the ICMC, Hong Kong, 1996.

Developments in Audio File Formats, in the Proceedings of the ICMC, Berlin, 2000.

Designing Legato Instruments in Csound, in The Csound Book. R. Boulanger (ed.). MIT Press, 2000.

A Prototype Real-time Plugin Framework for the Phase Vocoder, in the Proceedings of Music Without Walls. Conference, De Montfort University, 21–23 June 2001.

Who Owns Music Technology, in Proceedings of the RAIME Conference 2003, Corsham, UK.

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