Avant-Garde

The Radical Simplicity Of The Avant-Garde

Landmarks tell us where we are, they help us get to where we’re going. They appear differently to us depending on our distance and angle, and it is that relation which orients us. No matter how concrete and specifically defined they are as objects, their meaning and function are mainly subjective and relative.

In Brooklyn, the main landmark is the Williamsburg Bank tower, which tells us how close or far we are from two central hubs, the meeting place of the Long Island Railroad and the New York City Subway system, and the complex of the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Both of those can tells us our distance and direction to an enormous expanse of places and ideas, but the latter is also a mirage. Like a false oasis in the desert, it fools people into thinking they can see how near the avant-garde is, but there is no avant-garde there. Because unlike a point in space or on a spectrum of style, the avant-garde is far less an idea (or in fashionably ‘concrete’ terms a construct), but a practice; the practice of radical simplicity.

If you’re in Brooklyn, though, and heading in a particular direction, the bank tower can help you easily find your way to a place where that practice of radical simplicity happens almost every night, the Issue Project Room, slightly west and due south from BAM. It seems like an appropriate relationship, in relative terms, and it’s even more appropriate that the future home of Issue Project is almost due west (or left) of the complex. It’s at Issue Project Room where you can see and hear, not things like the simplistic pop philosophy of a Laurie Anderson (who appears avant-garde only in relation to a range limited to the span from Talking Heads to Beck), but music in its most basic, unselfconscious state, sounds as the result of practice, sounds made possible through questions, not results circumscribed by easy answers.

In June the Darmstadt Institute 2010 was in residence at IPR, and the programs I saw were extraordinary, leaving powerful, lasting impressions that mock the concept of taste; of good and bad, of like and dislike. The series title is a multifold homage, both honoring and teasing the annual Darmstadt symposiums on Serious Music. Those have long been both a resource and a bane, a place to offer creative possibilities in music and also to ossify them into aesthetic dogma. Well, as Robert Greenburg liked to say in my graduate school seminars, dogma eats dogma. In contrast, the Darmstadt Institute at IPR could not be less dogmatic. Under the gentle and social auspices of Nick Hallett and Zach Layton, it presented programs with the idea of offering interesting music, and worthwhile areas of exploration, while agnostically declining to tell anyone how great or important it might be.

It’s a subtle and important distinction, and allows IPR to present important context to the programs without coming off as lecturing or dictating ‘proper’ responses. The result is a way into listening to music that may be so unfamiliar as to baffle, and the genuine pleasure of learning and incorporating a new idea or aesthetic view. A real triumph of this approach was the June 18th evening dedicated to Luc Ferrari that, with his widow Brunhild in attendance, was also a gracious and unofficial public tribute to one of the quietly monumental artist of the previous century. The structure of the program turned out to be, itself, musical, with the second half offering a musical response to the musical presentation of the first half, in a creative spiral built around Ferrari’s electro-acoustic work “Tautologos III.” To start, IPR screened a documentary, “Luc Ferrari: Facing His Tautology,” made shortly before his death, in which he supervises a recording session for the work. In the second half, Ensemble Pamplemousse and David Grubbs played the piece, and another work, in a living and ongoing dialogue with the composer, who, having just appeared in front of us, was as alive as everyone else in the space.

“Tautologos III” uses structured improvisation against an electronic audio track, the musicians creating their own material then following rules about repetition and entrances. The performances, as heard in the film and live, were completely different in sound (with very different instrumentation) and style, the common identifying thread being the audio. That track, as chaotic and random as it may sound, is the regimented part, the sonic events taking place in the same order and at the same times. In the film, the musicians created their material with an ear towards almost pop music riffs (Ferrari remarks to one of them, smiling, how horrible a phrase is), while Pamplemousse was more abstract and understated, more radically simple, carefully placing sounds in time and listening to each other. That is, after all, the fundamental practice of making music, with notation, tunings, harmonies and forms comprising the wonderful artifice of a developed, abstract art. The quiet, focussed, transparent and contemplative performance was a dialogue with the composer that came to a superb stopping point but which can never, thankfully, actually end. Pamplemousse and Grubbs finished the evening off with “Et tournent les sons dans la garrigue,” an instructions-based piece for an improvising ensemble. It was some of the finest group improvising I’ve heard. A punishing drum stroke began a ritual of listening and playing, call and response; beautiful, sustained sonorities in the strings, augmented with flute and then following by a quiet, repeated guitar note and the lovely tone of a bowed piano string. It was the sound of how civilizations began, ten thousand years ago, via the simplest dialogue and consensus. An improvising ensemble tosses ideas amongst its members, who ideally find a musical consensus and from it build a group expression. Pamplemousse’s consensus was in creating a group sonority, maintaining a constant, luminous sound while slowly adjusting the pitch material to move the music from one point in time to the next. As the audience listened and watched, they sculpted the air between, the musicians developing a varied palette of attacks, the piece expressing the paradox of taking on more coherent information while the sound itself began to disintegrate, a violation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics that only music can accomplish. The activity receded into a beautiful, sonorous end built around the return to the consensus of sustained pitches, colored by arpeggiations. Then, in a way that only the radical simplicity of improvisation allows, pianist David Broome broke with the consensus as the other instruments dropped out, and played a coda, a pocket ballad touching on standard ideas of melody and harmony, something simple, touching, attractive, transporting the piece from one place into another, completely different, brand new and absolutely fitting. The expressive beauty of the moment left the audience in awe.

Ferrari’s work is in part about how music makes civilization, and two nights later Darmstadt followed it up with how music works on the body, with an evening of discussion and performance titled “Biomusic.” It was mysterious, unnerving and stimulating, like a a vivid, provocative dream. In three parts, it was lecture, music and film (actually more of an exercise in extreme audio and visual stimulation). Branden Joseph, Frank Gallipoli Professor of Modern and Contemporary Art, spoke about contrasting ideas of the simplest music of all, pure sound, as embodied in the most generously civilized idea of Max Neuhaus‘ public sound out (his famous Times Square installation is a prime example), and the materialistic dystopia of Manfred Eaton, who’s concept of “Bio-Music” shows what thoughts are possible when everything is a commodity, and every idea about governing is based on who controls whom. Eaton, an inventor more professionally known for his work on brakes for train engines and cars, developed a speculative but detailed system for creating sound and music via a direct connection between brain waves and sound producing apparatus, and sought to implement the idea as a means to control the consciousness of others. The combination of the creative possibilities and the malevolent intent was fascinating and disorienting to hear in discussion, like watching Donnie Darko and trying to figure out if there actually is a copy of The Philosophy of Time Travel in print. Joseph was an expert guide into these ideas; clear, logical, giving just enough detail and context for the oddness at their cores but trusting the audience to capably follow him along.

He was followed by composer David Dunn, playing two pieces each based on a biological premise. The first used ultrasonic sound, lowered down to the level of general human perception, to explore the idea of what bats might perceive sonically if they flew through his New Mexico backyard (or, really, what we might ‘see’ if we were bats). The second was described by Dunn as offering an answer to the question, what if viruses have ears? After thinking of the questions, Dunn removed himself as much as possible from the process of producing the sounds that made up the pieces, at least in terms of what it means to be a composer. For the first piece, he used a binaural ultrasonic mic and recorded the sonic landscape of his backyard, a landscape we would never hear under normal circumstances, but one that we can hear in the concert setting. The second piece was realized through two oscillators Dunn built, designed to work with and against each other via feedback, a bit of creative destruction applied to Eaton’s fundamental concept. Where Eaton was concerned with the idea of control taken to the extremes of social organization, Dunn is interested in autopoiesis, the function of the means of making a piece working to produce, and destroy, the piece’s form, and vice versa. A simple, extraordinarily elegant idea that can propagate itself as much as a compose produces it, and creates complex sounds. Some have a tactile quality, especially in the depiction of what a bat might see, which can seem startling at first but is essential to sound – touch at a distance. While composers use their art to organize sound to touch us in certain, frequently manipulative ways – they want us to feel something – Dunn has us observe sound being created in front of us, seemingly without any emphasis, as if it were a creature seen in the wild. His bats fly according to their own thoughts and needs, his oscillators work with and react to each other. The feeling that observable order was on the verge of coalescing in the second piece was riveting; after burning seemingly randomly through extremely fast pulse rates and frequencies, they would meet on a single pitch for brie moments, charged with the tension that their equilibrium was too unstable to hold. It was another effective demonstration of how simple ideas can create complex results, and how an increase in coherent information and ideas in a piece of music can seem like chaos when it is anything but.

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Not a dirty projector

Biomusic came to an end with the singular work of Bruce McClure. He works with film, but he doesn’t make movies, and he works with sound, but he’s not a composer. His piece, Ventriloquent Agitators, accessorized with amiably eccentric hand-written program notes and a set of ear plugs with a noise reduction rating of 33dBA, was performed by means of four film projectors, threaded with simple patterns of light and dark frames, alternating as four sections of a square on the projection surface. As the film moves through projectors, the images are also produced as optical sound signals and processed through a series of guitar effects and then sent out through the PA system. The result is rapidly shifting/switching patterns of light and dark, on and off, binary images along with deeply thrumming, complex monotone sound, the image and sound closely coordinated. McClure is playing with, and exploring, the simplest biological reactions to input in our senses. The inexactness of the analog projection slowly, hypnotically transforms the heavy, hard sound into an irresistible rhythm, relaxing in spite of the sonic force, while the stimulation of the lights creates a powerful and vaguely pleasing sense of disorientation in the brain. The experience was unique, the power almost overwhelming but McClure’s complete guilelessness and his open-minded questioning of possibilities and curiosity about what might happen are communal, and so the feeling of having someone run their fingers through your mind was an appropriately dreamlike experience for an evening that beyond with a trip into the rabbit hole, and left us with the dazed refreshment of waking from a profoundly deep and much needed sleep.

Dunn stuck around for a couple days for an evening dedicated to the late composer Kenneth Gaburo, a difficult figure in very real ways. Gaburo is obscure, even in the world of contemporary music, for the singular quality of his work, which seems untethered from centuries of tradition, and his clearly irascible personality. He created an impressive and influential body of work, while exploring some of the most radically simple, and avant-garde, ideas and processes in music. He used standard instrumentation and forms for a period, even had a piece performed by the New York Philharmonic under the baton of Dimitri Mitropoulos. He also made some fine, important tape and electronic compositions, like “Lemon Drops” from 1964-65. Why he was being remembered, and the evening was as much remembrance as performance, with Dunn, Larry Polansky and Chris Mann present, discussing Gaburo as the man and composer they knew, with Warren Burt joining via projection from Australia, was for his creation of an unclassifiable art that combine linguistic raw materials, musical structure and theatrical performance, an idea he called Compositional Linguistics.

We need artists like Gaburo to think these thoughts and do this work for us. Language is at the core of the human species, and music is not only a language but arguably the very first human language. Language makes society, and thus civilization. The language of speech and writing and music has developed over thousand of years, especially that of music, which in the West has become an entirely abstract concept, a language without inherent meaning. In the context of our aesthetic culture, breaking down musical instruments to their common core – the human body that plays them – and breaking down music to it’s most fundamental component – the sound created by the human mouth – led Gaburo to a way of structuring spoken language as music. This is a necessarily simplistic description of things that not even a graduate seminar could treat with proper justice, but it gives some sense of what makes his most famous piece, “Maledetto,” what it is. A ‘Composition for seven virtuoso speakers,’ “Maledetto” is a forty-five minute opus that begins with a speaker describing and attempting to explain the origin of the screw. As he continues, other voice join in, working from a different but ubiquitous definition from screw, that is the verb, and exploring an impressively comprehensive set of slang riffs on the carnal act. The speaker is the straight-man, and by the time he mentions Archimedes’ endless screw, the effect is amazing and hilarious. His coda, where the screw becomes an object contracted by his brother-in-law for the government, and through which the government . . . well, you know what The Man does to us. The piece has a clearly made musical structure; a shape, sections, internal counterpoint, but although there are occasional sung tones the material is spoken. It’s music, it’s theater, it’s a lecture, it’s fascinating, indescribable, unsettling, prodding the listener to abandon every notion they previously held about the possibilities of music. It’s clearly loved and hated at the same time, and Mann described how it encouraged him to get on a plane and come argue with Gaburo, and argument that continues sympathetically after his death. Sitting on a stool, Mann offered his latest argument, which he called “The Art Of The Diff,” something newly completed but with elements of previous work like “a history of grammar” and the example below. While it’s not clear to me what he and Gaburo argue over, his use of language seems both sympathetic to and different from the composer. The wonderful combination of mutterings and gestures, the sense that we are watching someone in the process of thinking and trying to put those thoughts into language, seem in line with Gaburo’s work, and Mann uses much more specific material, that is words that we recognize and that have a real meaning. But he shifts the concept and context around him as he speaks, himself at the still center while we whip around trying to find or bearings. I do not know what to call it, but it has a magical effect, and is full of charm and human values.

“Maledetto” was not performed (you can listen to it here and read Gaburo’s notes), but there was a performance of his “Ave Maria,” Warren Burt played, via projection, a realization of a text piece he had recorded, and Issue Project screened an amazing and mesmerizing film, unfortunately not currently available, that Gaburo made of one of his text pieces in performance. The piece instructed the three performers to each take a children’s rhyme, “London Bridge” was one of them, and substitute a regular pattern of phonemes, vocal sounds and even body sounds like snapping and slapping, and perform them with the regular cadences of the originals. The work, and the film, alternated between the three performers in sepia-toned close-ups, revealing their physical humanity but cloaking their identities. This is very difficult to perform, and the results were virtuosic. Watching and listening was incredibly disorienting at first, like being spoken to by a space alien, but the repetition, and Gaburo’s true genius, worked on the language centers in the brain, so that the listener could gradually discern a structure and a purpose, and then began to look forward to hearing the next repetition as small revelations piled one upon the other. What Gaburo managed was to rewire the brain from the most basic materials, to return the brain to a fundamental state, free of the clutter of civilization and culture, to make music as if for the first time in history. An extraordinary concept and achievement, and radically simple.

UPDATED: Added photo of McClure’s projector set-up

UPDATED II: Ferrari piece now strictly identified as “Tautologos III,” as per David Grubbs via Nick Hallett

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Revolutionary Chic

David Byrne and Brian Eno have a new record, available today.

Perhaps it will be good. “My Life In The Bush of Ghosts” is decent enough – more on that later – but the free download song off the new record is decidedly ordinary. That probably would surprise a lot of people, but it shouldn’t, because the two are relatively ordinary musicians. But this post is not about them so much as about the relativity of the avant-garde.

This article about the two, and their collaboration, takes as implicit that their connections to the avant-gare, which completely mystifies me. This is not a complaint about Eno or Byrne. They do what they do well. Although Talking Heads never spoke to me much until “Speaking in Tongues,” where they became good musicians and made good music, I have many Eno recordings I enjoy, and his last record is really pretty damn good; he has great ears and great taste. But I first heard his name back in high school, when people were talking about this totally avant-garde record, this idea of ambient music meant to be part of the environment. It was totally avant-garde!

Of course, it wasn’t. Well, if all you knew of music was pop and rock, it certainly was. And for the majority of listeners and critics, music began only in the 20th century and the only music that exists is rock and pop. When I first heard of “Music for Airports,” I had already known about Satie, so this idea was nothing new. And when I first heard The Talking Heads, I had already been playing free jazz, so again, nothing new.

The avant-garde as a movement in music really came into being in the 20th century, prior to World War I, and by that I do not mean that the directed development of music reached an ultra-extreme point, but that there was a conscious effort, begun by the Futurists, to destroy the previous history of music and start it again from a non-musical basis. Since that time, there have been a variety of attempts to put the possible future of music at some point far outside the contemporary limit of tradition; George Antheil based a career on it, the beginnings of tape and electronic music, the methods of Xenakis and Scelsi, all of these were truly avant-garde rather than logical next-steps in the progressive accretion of musical knowledge. What makes the avant-garde so vital is that, as T.S. Eliot pointed out, the tradition of an art form eventually reaches that outlying point and incorporates it, and so no artists is ever totally outside the tradition. The avant-garde is literally out front, waiting for the rest to catch up.

The same is not quite true for pop and rock music; these are forms with limited possibilities for expansion, and their history tends to be circular, recycling older styles in new packages. This is because, like non-Western “classical” music, the purpose of rock and pop is mainly social, so there are constraints on what is accepted, since the point is popular acceptance. Classical music is absolute music, it exists for itself, and so can attempt and incorporate anything that works. So the idea that Brian Eno would, in a pop music context, make a record that had no words, was quiet and was not meant to draw attention to itself, seemed more than a little odd, but in the history of music, the all-encompassing history, there was nothing odd or even new about it. In fact, this has been a long-time social purpose of music, and so fit perfectly well into the pop world. Eno, and Eno and Byrne together, have shown the pop world different ways to think about pop music, which makes for more interesting listening for us all. But avant-garde? No – neither starved for this.