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Mantra Canon score pages Dennis

previous   August 7, 2006   next

The old fallacies are repeated, musically and conceptually.

In a recent post to the Canadian Electroacoustic Conference list -- a powerful assemblage of electroacousticians -- a composer expressed a skepticism of academia, concerned that its approach shakes artists' confidence "in their value of independent thought."

One of the academic hard-liners is Kevin Austin, who has been behind the academic walls for so long that he perceives the role as significant and even normal. Don't get me wrong. Kevin is one of the good guys, always assessing the validity of the academy's role -- though his compositional productivity is certainly not publicly substantial, a symptom of acadenemia. He wrote:

The creative artists' lack of confidence is "my responsibility". I would advise you to stay away from my third year class. The students in this class for the past two years (and myself included) have not suffered fools lightly. It is expected that the composer presenting their work is "prepared". This includes being articulate about the 'what' and 'why' of what they are doing. This isn't a composers' cooperative, it's a school. When students leave this place and go on to a higher level, I would like to know that they can 'hold their own', because they have had to remove the crud and fuzzies from their thinking. This kind of rock and a hard place approach has been known to carry over into their compositions. They have found that if they do not wish to be critical about their work, there are 12 of their peers sitting in a room who are prepared to accept this onerous task.

The staggeringly flawed nature of this comment is twofold. The first flaw is that being verbally 'articulate' is in any way meaningful to the creation of music. The second is the implicit acceptance of his role as a vocational coach & cheerleader. Of the latter, there is little to say except that the competitive criticism has yielded almost nil in terms of public success, the assumed measure of any successful competition; if any talking is to be done, one would think it would be about the psychology of widespread failure. As to the meaningfulness, that one can competitively out-talk another is an exercise of such distastefulness that it is best left to the barstool; that one can out-electroacoust another is a judgment left to a listening audience, present and future.

But more egregious is the very notion that "preparation" must involve the unavoidably garbled translation from the sonic to the verbal or textual. In his role as educator, Kevin is a professional and expert prosecutor, and would immediately poke rapid-fire and increasingly diversionary questions at that last sentence in seeking to break its meaning down into meaningless in the pretense that it is something else than what it is. We would be reeling with debilitated confidence in our meaning and words. The words fail because to academics like Kevin -- and his name is repeatedly invoked merely as the most recent example of offensive behavior -- there is ever only process during which nothing is settled and after which there is only more process. It is as if, somehow in the course of history, we ceased to be craftspeople and were transformed into CNN crawlers of artistic philosophy.

Textual exposition is a shared approach whose advocates appear to believe (though they would further equivocate by suggesting that they are only taking a position or proposing thought experiments -- and this is no strawman argument) that artistic growth is only possible through the thorough integration of verbally critical tools. The irony is that the sources, processes and results are entirely non-verbal, and the promotion of verbal translations ("being articulate about the 'what' and 'why' of what they are doing") is abusive and damaging, positing a replacement for the artform's own language as being a tool of significance.

Oh, yes, that sounds all touchy-feely. But the truth is the lie. Composers -- artists -- are pressured to provide a verbal bedstraw for teachers, audiences and critics into which they can nestle for their own comfort. Especially teachers -- how can they understand if the artist can't explain? They wouldn't want to be embarrassed by assuming too much or grasping too little of what they hear, oh no; that's left to analyzing dead composers, composers who can no longer complain about this effete behavior. It is of no consequence to them that the language in which the artists work is the language of the artform, not words, because it provides a comfort level without which they cannot function. The risk is too great, so the burden is shifted to the student. To the audiences and critics, that need is understandable (though filling it is often pandering). To the teachers, however, the inability to accomplish their purpose without translation is nothing less than a scandalous accusation of incompetence -- incompetence in developing the internal terms of the debate, incompetence in creating the way of working wherein words are excised, incompetence in their own ability to conduct an exchange in the artform's native language.

This is reminiscent of one of my own college instructors, who raged at us one day for our lax and sluggish approach to analyzing scores. We were louts, musical charlatans who wouldn't know a Neapolitan from a Landini. The truth -- which he admitted that day in a candor rarely heard before or since -- was that he was simply unable to compose, and the closest he could get to making art was to look at it from the outside. He was a child at a patisserie window, describing what was there without being able to taste it much less create it. (Today he is a well-respected musicologist who still cannot compose. Would you trust that man to understand your art? I wouldn't.)

Indeed, verbalization may be useful for those who are not direct participants in the artform. But for those who do create work, it is a sham.

There is no denial here that words and formulas are part of the descriptive aspect of arts -- peripheral, yes, but present. It is worth knowing how a fellow artist (even a student artist in a school rather than a cooperative) went about the tasks of assembly, at least those tasks that can be recalled. It is significant to be familiar with and proficient in the techniques of the artform up to the student's present, where those techniques offer choices rather than clutter. But respecting the inner artist appears to have become unacceptable, as if the path chosen needs defense. Those who don't speak are fools not suffered lightly.

Need examples? Who could have known that Stockhausen would stumble upon the art of continuous-vs.-atomic music not in a classroom but in a studio stuggling to meet a deadline? And who could have known that minimalism would be nonpop's greatest success story in the past half-century? Oh yes, success followed both of these examples. That awful measure of audience interest in a music which academia not only could not have engendered but rather entirely missed. Until it was hijacked by more traditional composers, minimalism was born and bred outside the academy by composers who studied their techniques empirically, even learning from those with whom the only shared language was sound.

There is no denying that academically trained composers can be successful. As was pointed out during the discussion, Hollywood studios have targeted electroacousticians who know Csound to use for film sound effects. But it's a strange discontinuity, isn't it, that academics who would doubtless founder in a high-pressure production environment would point to it as if it were their own success story? This is a sleight-of-hand, deception. Like other electronic music developments that were taken out of the hands of the academy, these successes are begrudged and demeaned. This way comes something filthy in public acclamation.

Yes, there is a certain truth to the dilution of high concept when bounded by an entertainment vehicle such as a film. Collaborative art is a compromise of the imagined and the possible, so it is perhaps a weak example of academic failure. A stronger set of examples are the events spawned by the academic practitioners: competitions (choke on the Bourges nightmare), workshops (you can take an eight-month course at the Centre de Création Musicale Iannis Xenakis to learn academic electroacoustics for a mere $7,738.95 -- but at least you are in France and get some good food with it), and conferences (there's always DAFx, daffy name and all). Who goes? Who cares? Right -- "this isn't a composers' cooperative, it's a school."

The unbearable élitism in that statement reflects the entire character of new nonpop's bad years: that somehow, time spent in the classroom yakking about one's work is a meaningful exercise. Wasn't. Isn't. Won't be. Is there a counterexample? The composer who can attribute success directly to talking about the doing? I want to meet that composer. But somehow I'm reminded only of Harold Hill. And that was fiction.

Some things forgotten in my recovery from too much chess photography: The year's first morning glory bloomed on Sunday. And I've got a new section of ringtones with more info about them to follow.

One of the season's first morning glories

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