Musings on art.

Avant - Gardening:

                                (work to be done in the...)

After all this time, what are we to make of the post-war European avant-garde, which has vanished from the surface of our artistic lives but still has its hands firmly round our ankles as we try to swim along? Long since unfashionable, its ghost still swirls eerily about in the eddies, refusing to die. How did we get here?

It’s always difficult to re-grasp the flavour of a vanished historical period; but some are more than usually difficult. I was born just after the war, in Dover, which for a while had been the front line. Bomb sites were everywhere, smashed buildings routine. Whole streets were just shells of buildings, half the seafront a blackened deserted ghost town through which the seagulls screamed. Everybody and everything was exhausted, utterly worn out. People who’d lived through it simply wanted everything to keep still, a quiet life; any peace at all, never mind if it’s the wrong kind.

The fifties, following, were indescribable; it simply isn’t possible to convey to anyone who wasn’t there just how flat, grey, depressed, etiolated, energyless it all was. Those passive-aggressive pastel colours typical of the time say it all; they manage to be both wet and angry at once   -   a weak snarl from barely-moving jaws. The only thing the fifties had going for them was that you could feel the sixties coming somewhere in the distance.

And of course, this was an un-invaded country. How much worse must it have been in mainland Europe?

First visiting Germany in the late sixties and going to a swimming pool in Krefeld, I was struck by how many people there were lacking limbs; this was almost never seen in an English pool but here there were obviously so many that they’d just stopped noticing, it was routine. And in Köln, early seventies, on a visit to the WDR radio studios, innocently asking the way in the street I was subject to a torrent of screamed abuse such as I’ve rarely encountered. Things were still very delicate, even after twenty five years.

Cut back to prewar clips of everyday Germany, songs praising The Leader by name, using a debased, sentimentalised version of the language developed by Mozart, Schubert et al, poisoned immediately and irrevocably by the mere contact. Recall Boulez, who had a (slightly) less trying war than some, commenting that regular rhythms in music always reminded him of marching feet. Recall Xenakis with half his face blown away, having had to fight first the Germans and then his supposed allies. You can quite see why the more astute amongst the survivors wanted another attempt at Year One, starting from nothing, everything swept away: the old modernist slogan Make It New! took on a resonance indeed quite new, and quite chilling.

So these folks, traumatised and damaged to the last degree, started in to work on their wrecked garden. Let’s cut out everything with bad associations, everything that let us down, everything unreliable. What’s the first thing to go? Why, people of course.

This wasn’t merely a willed decision; something in the zeitgeist supported it. Growing up in the taken-for-granted wreckage of Dover, it wasn’t till many years later that I noticed a natural inclination I’d then had, to make “pictures with no people in”. I   -   and many others   -   would draw or paint landscapes, machinery, almost anything, carefully removing all traces of humans. Late in the fifties, having lived in steelworks Sheffield and moved back to Kent, I painted at school for those who’d never seen such things a large northern cityscape, trams, factories, cooling towers: and   -   it was later noted   -   not a person in sight.

Discussing this more recently with my partner, immediately afterwards we listened to a broadcast, Harrison Birtwistle speaking of his childhood, describing a project he’d had for a stage work: an opera, with no people in it, nobody at all on stage. “Hah!” I chortled, “case rests!” The evidence for this approach is everywhere, once you start to look.

So: no people. And therefore it follows: no “expression”, no “feeling” of the kind that had shown it could so easily be turned into Hitlerian praise; no singable musical lines, that’ll be safest. “Eviter absolument” (says Boulez at the start of his 2nd piano sonata) “ce que l’on convient d’appeller les ’nuances expressives’ ”: “Avoid absolutely what are conventionally called ‘expressive nuances’ “. What instead? Ah yes, stars and snow crystals, you know where you are with them, they’re reliable. And indeed there’s a long, honourable, non-neurotic tradition of getting these things into your music, going back forever via the “music of the spheres” and Pythagoras. What could possibly go wrong?

It quickly became apparent, as the Darmstadt summer school became the epicentre of this activity, that we were dealing not primarily with exploration but with ideology; adherence to the new ideas wasn’t merely interesting, it was obligatory, as the tenets of religions are obligatory. To break faith with the avant-garde was to break faith with the persecuted, the war dead, the whole vile filthy business; even to question the frame of reference put you morally on the wrong side. OK, new artistic movements have often had a certain evangelical quality; but this was extreme, just as the war had been extreme. Maxwell-Davies has spoken of attending one of the summer schools of the time, and being severely castigated in the highest moral terms for allowing a chord of F-minor to show itself somewhere.

But of course you can’t live out in space permanently; you freeze. Composers began to smuggle “people” back in covert, disguised ways. Still hankering for the expressionist (that is, romantic) gestures of the early century? Put bits of “expression” into numbered boxes that can be treated statistically! Dissect anything singable on the statistical grid of the “the series”! But do it equivocally (how Stockhausen was castigated for allowing a real voice into Gesang der Junglinge, though that voice was constrained within an inch of its life!) Recall that in the early days of the newly-technically-possible “electronic” music, there was a battle between the French “real sounds” approach of Musique-Concréte, and the German approach of “pure” synthesised sounds untouched by human hand; the “pure” approach won of course, and we only have to look at the vituperation which Boulez poured on to the Musique-Concréte exponents (“cupboards labelled ‘Aeolian Sound’ and similar drivel”) to see why. Schaeffer and the GRM were marginalised and then un-happened; which is why Boulez was later able to start IRCAM as if out of nothing . This approach still held sway at Utrecht’s Institute of Sonology in the seventies; it was only many years later that I discovered how interesting some of the GRM stuff had actually been.

The immediate war-trauma and neurosis slowly started to recede, but moral habits die hard; the attitude remained. And there were undeniable benefits in some of the techniques, in that they allowed you the composer to surprise yourself, catch yourself out. If you hand over significant portions of your invention to an arithmetical system, much of the result will be garbage but a surprising amount will be useful. I’m characterising “serial” systems as essentially statistical, by the way, because in the vast bulk of cases they were being used (contrary to the original intention) in un-hearable ways with a purely statistical result, as a quick trawl through Die Reihe   -   the movement’s flagship magazine of the time   -   will demonstrate; Kagel’s essay “Translation - Rotation” [Vol 7] will serve as a particularly unhinged example (so unhinged that I’ve sometimes wondered if he wasn’t taking the piss   -   and he may well have subsequently claimed this).

The “systems” approach of the original avant-gardists slowly aligned itself with something different, the whole popular myth of Sciencey Progress. This of course had been going on for most of the century and didn’t definitively collapse until the end of the seventies. Remember all that Dan Dare stuff about the wonderful Sciencey future, the flying cars, atomic power too cheap to meter, “The Boys Book of Wonder & Invention” (etc etc)   -   the whole Men Like Gods attitude going back to HG Wells and beyond? Music built with arithmetical systems could easily be given a suitably shiny surface and sent out under this banner, though it often had to be smoothed down a lot in the process as this audience liked their Modern not too difficult and uncomfortable, please.

Meanwhile a rearguard action was being fought as the “moral” camp was suborned by Latter-Day Marxism. We’d already had any amount of stuff about the “inherent democracy” of tones in the series, all equal, no hierarchies (key centres = dictatorships!) and now came the next move: Zap the bourgeoisie with nastiness! Ugly noises further the revolution! This line of thought is traceable to Adorno, who was also quite clear that we must like Schoenberg and we must dislike Stravinsky (missing out in the process any notion of “playing with meanings” because if you do that Stravinsky becomes rather interesting); it survives   -   at least in niches   -   to this day.

Still another gravitational centre warping the avant-garde’s orbit was the post-war invention of “youth culture”, accompanying the belated European adoption of consumerism. In terms of the avant-garde, this manifested itself as an adolescent attraction to anything loosely describable as “weird”, because such things served as an index of one’s own specialness and acuity and (more importantly) mummy and daddy didn’t like it. A general “Hey, look how surreal we are!” set in. By the end of the sixties, Stockhausen and a few others had achieved almost pop-star status on the basis of this (quite erroneously: Stockhausen hated the term “surreal”, at least as applied to him). My suspicion was (and remains) that almost nobody in those enthusiastic audiences had the faintest idea what was actually going on or was capable of evaluating it; “Weird” covered everything, Stockhausen, Hawkwind, you name it… but finally, the notion is very easy and doesn’t get you very far. This approach also is still with us   -   you can still get by on the basis that your work is “weird”, never mind whether anything’s actually happening.

These survivals (“nasty noises further the revolution!” and “weirdness rules!”) bring us to a strange point in the story, namely the stasis which set in sometime in the early seventies.

As the Darmstadt trajectory collapsed gently back to earth again around 1972, universities across the globe were just beginning to realise how well the systems approach   -   now transmuted into overt counting and stats analysis   -   fitted their programmes. As the summer schools died or went off to pursue “the weird” wholesale, the whole former agenda was taken up academically with the greatest enthusiasm. And because universities have a lot more influence than niche summer schools, this set a tone, which (again) is still with us, underneath; in the “classical” world, there remains a certain feeling that it is morally necessary to justify your lack of interest in “systems”, even though nobody any longer remembers why (“Where did those notes come from? Your reason?! Your reason?!”) And because this is no longer the avant-garde as such but a university, there’s no particular reason why it should change or progress. So it stays the same; many departments give the impression of having been arrested like insects in amber sometime in the early seventies.

This collates with another curious general manifestation of the twentieth-century “modern”: just how old it is.

Recall, in 1790s Vienna, Baron van Swieten rushing round to his friend Haydn one day in the greatest excitement. “Look!” exclaims the Baron, “I have found some fine old music! Isn’t it wonderful?!” The “fine old music” in question turns out to be by Handel, who’d died just over thirty years previously. So in that age, when news could travel no faster than a stagecoach, thirty or forty years was enough time for something to be forgotten and rediscovered as “fine old”. In our age on the other hand, with telephones, broadcasts, the internet & the web, where news can spread across the planet in seconds, the same things artistically still count as “modern” which counted as “modern” in 1905. Schoenberg’s music from the first decade of the century, paintings from his contemporaries, still count as “too difficult for most audiences”; too modern. Gestures from Dada around 1920, from later twenties work, from the Surrealists in the thirties, all still count as the last word in “modern”. We are still being asked to venerate Duchamp’s urinal (“the most important sculpture of the twentieth century!”) after all this time; worse, we find it necessary to mount endless re-runs, as if Duchamp hadn’t got the message across the first time. There is a curious feeling of being suspended in time, most eerie and discomforting.

Meanwhile, the classical “new music” world is still almost entirely taken up with sub-expressionist “gestures”. We are invited to admire composers producing what is essentially early-Berg plus water; for these people, nothing seems to have changed since 1910 (unless you count the chance to exhibit your contemporary relevance by writing “about” drug use; just ignore Wozzeck. And Dickens).

This suspended animation doesn’t apply everywhere, of course. All the time the Darmstadt school was busy with “pictures with no people in”, a disparate, overlapping set of movements usually lumped together and dismissed by the Musical Establishment as “popular” music(s) - pop, rock, jazz, etc etc - was busy taking for granted that “people” were the starting point (however eye-wateringly, squintingly narrow this view sometimes may have been). Occasionally these worlds would collide: some jazz player, busy being as “expressive” and people-ful as he knew how, would suddenly cross a boundary and be taken up by an audience as “weird” and therefore Very Modern; the strangest combinations and mis-combinations emerged from these collisions. This kind of thing is still with us although, as with the other survivals, all the stuffing has been kicked out of it and the general impression now is one of energy and vitality terminally depleted.

One should not pass by without noting the interesting avant-garde subset of “Experimental” music, a fringe of a fringe. Small and decidedly not perfectly formed, frequently pettily irritating but capable of useful insights from strange angles, this dis-unified congeries rightly resists any attempt at classificatory characterisation (that was part of the point). What concerns us here is not so much outcomes as the frameworks within which people operated, which at bottom frequently turned out to be not wildly dissimilar to those of the avant-garde proper. Surveying this corner of the paddock, we might be tempted to say Yes, here were some of the only clues as to how one might move on from the systems and ideologies of the avant-garde without simply falling back on the already-known; but then we recall that Experimental musicians were as likely to invoke systems and ideologies as anyone else   -   though the meal appears differently cooked, the ingredients are similar. Owing to this disparity, academic ossification was slower to take hold; but take hold it did. You can now learn carefully in a degree course the proper way to subvert bourgeois values; like everything else   -   punk, Mozart string-quartets, heavy metal, ornamentaion in Couperin   -   it is now a historical discipline, something you can be taught how to do rather than inventing for yourself. As I write, I note the appearance of a “punk” band in the Eurovision Song Contest (2015).

Following on the vicious, blinkered materialism of the eighties, a serious loss of nerve set in. Attempts were made in the early nineties to re-run previous historical occurences by decree (“the summer of love”). The decade started on that slow convergence with the grey conformity of the fifties which has held sway to the present (only this time, of course, you can’t feel the sixties coming). There was a brief flare-up of interest around the millennium; suddenly a number of people   -   Aphex Twin, Squarepusher, Venetian Snares and others   -   were producing a form of electronic music mutated out of the “dance” of the time, deploying extremely interesting sound combinations having some connections with fifties electronica but completely free of the religious/ideological baggage of the time. This could have gone somewhere but unfortunately remained niche, possibly because it could never quite shake off its 16-bar grid “dance” origins.

And behind the whole of this later period   -   from the eighties to the present   -   loomed the dead hand of the Age of Management and the academic-Theoretical movements which bolstered it by down-playing Skill of any kind: nothing means anything, the creative act is a basically random affair doable by anybody and doesn’t matter much, the really important people are the Critics (managers) who will deconstruct it all for you silly children and lead you to the promised land where all are equal in meaninglessness   -   though as usual some will be more equal than others. Fortunately there are signs that this period is coming to an end, the denigration of skill being a sterile luxury which can only flourish in times of surplus and which disappears when things get difficult.

So where are we now? The ground has been well and truly turned over, fertilised, aerated by the Great Post-Traumatic Movement. What do we have to show for it? How shall we sum up?

An academia frozen in time. A classical world of gestures, gestures, more romantic gestures; behind it, a fading thralldom to systems; in the far distance, Darmstadt upheld unchanged by the “New Complexity” people. A once-powerful, partially entertainmentist popular movement completely outside the above, though now with its energy gone. “Nasty noises further the revolution” still clinging on in niches. “Weird” as prevalent as ever, for unchanging reasons. An overall sense of utter stasis; at best, the feeling of a swimmer slopping up and down in the wash after the ship has gone by, treading water whilst the screaming seagulls pick over the jettisoned waste fragments. A century, more than a century, of the same identical “modern”.

Should we deplore the lack of any unified approach, the minutely fragmented landscape in which we work and for which Pluralism seems far too coherent and focussed a word? Probably not. Should we regret the forelock-tugging academic conformity, the multiple-choice willingness to be spoon-fed, the lack of energy, the etiolated uninventiveness? Decide for yourselves. I know what I think.

Your music, your art, will be a function of your world view, whether you think you’ve got one or not. I’d guess that not much will happen until someone, or several someones, takes the trouble to look very very hard at what they think they think. You can’t write Fugues without a sense of a world in common as context. You can’t Rock if you don’t understand you have a body. Whatever you make, if it isn’t just fakery, will come out of whatever you’ve lived your way into and then bothered to notice.

Meanwhile, for the first time in my life, “youth” is no longer defining itself through music. The sale of ring-tones overtook the sale of music some while back. Looking at the music, you can see why.

A nodal point, a zero-crossing.

High time for things to move on, don’t you think?