Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Two Worlds

by Taku Sugimoto

What I am going to write here is: What is the distinction between the two worlds of art? What is happening in the boundary between them? And how is the transition from one world to the other made? It may not be easy since the distinction between these two worlds, that I am going to mention here, is rather vague. In order to avoid waking a sleeping dog, I will try to focus on talking about the music - especially about a particular field that is called 'experimental music' or 'improvisation', or more precisely, 'Onkyo-style improvisation'. My purpose here is to think about the reason of the current stagnation of this music scene.

However, I am not totally sure if I can have a clear judgment on the question: Is it possible to classify everything (even the music which is supposed to belong to the above-mentioned genre) into these two worlds that I have in my mind? So I may try to keep the issue rather vague in an arbitrary manner - but I will also try to be assertive in a way to make the point.

Meanwhile, "distinction between the two worlds" may be a somewhat strange concept in this issue - not because one world seems to support the other or both worlds seem to need each other, but because it seems to me that each of these two worlds belongs to a different dimension in the first place, so it seems impossible to conflict with each other.

To make it convenient, I will call the two worlds as 'something solid' and 'something attractive'. 'Something attractive' means everything but 'something solid', and 99 percent of music belongs to this category - that are predominantly popular in general. Already at this point, I can predict various objections and rejections from readers, but I think I should not wimp out here. Of course I am completely aware that this classification (and what I am going to write here) might be horribly extreme and dangerous - but I chose to start from this point. Otherwise, I could not find a clue on how to start or how to develop my story at all.

As a start, I can say that Derek Bailey belongs to the world of 'something attractive'. There might have been the time when he was not (perhaps for sure!). But from the present point of view, it seems difficult to say that he was recognized to belong to the world of 'something solid' - since we cannot listen to his music in the same way as we used to do any more. The way his later works were received after a certain period of time was completely that of "something attractive". The reason why I am critical about his later works is because I don't think he ever tried to search for alternative ways or even felt the necessity of doing it, when the general recognition of his works started to be stereotyped in a certain context. Bailey was obstinate. He didn't hesitate to stop going for the general recognition as "one of the most avant-garde guitarists among many others". Bailey's self-parodying way of applying (or being applied!) and Duchamp's "Boîte-en-valise" in which he contained the duplication of his past works are completely different.

I cited Bailey as a start since I think we can see the boundary of the two worlds here. Originally, my idea in this essay was approaching this issue of the classification of the two worlds as just a matter of form. It was Tsunoda's question that triggered me: "In the world of art, why do execrable works tend to be more supported by the overwhelming majority than solid works?" His words synched with my long-term question on this issue, and I thought I should tackle it finally. But then I realized that it couldn’t be ended with just talking about the superficial differences of two worlds.

My initial interest was carried toward the question: "How is an artwork (or an artist) recognized?" Bailey appeared on the scene with his one and only style. The quickest way to attract people's attention in a certain field is to acquire a unique style with a strong impact. Of course Bailey had it. But the real strength must have been somewhere beyond that. It could have been the appearance of genuinely innovative music that held potentials beyond just "a new style of performance". However, Bailey ended up allowing the general recognition that just covered the style of his performance. At that point, his music became something applicable.

As a more familiar example, it may be inevitable to say that the area of improvisation called "Berlin Reductionism" had been just scattering around the applicable materials, if we see it from the present point of view. I will discuss the details later, but there was no real reinvention either in the form or the structure. Of course, there were the attempts of bold expansion of the usage of musical instruments and the ways of playing them, as you can see in the achievement of Axel Dörner, but it was nothing beyond the succession of the "special technique (and its tone)" which contemporary classical musicians like Lachenmann had tried already (although I have to admit that there was a certain newness in the way of incorporating the technique as a main feature into improvisation.)

However, in the case of both Dörner and Lachenmann, the form and the structure that supported the music fundamentally were outdated. The newness of the materials distracted us from the most crucial part - genuinely innovative music should have a new form and a new structure, which is unfortunately rarely found. Dörner did not have them, but Bailey had them once - he had a new form, a new structure, new materials, and he knew how to combine them all.

Improvisation which emphasizes the materials tends to be swayed sensuously both by the performers and the audience, and tends to go toward the direction of pleasing the sensation. Performances that only emphasize the materials (or textures) tend to focus everything on the stimulation, meditation, pleasantness and catharsis just like the CGI and SFX of today's Hollywood movies do to us. They tend to be received like that, and this is the entrance to "something attractive'. And in order to make use of the materials efficiently, the next step many musicians started to move into is the realm of 'composition'.

At first, these musicians started collecting a certain quality and quantity of materials. In their compositions, the desired materials were the ones that had a strong impact so they could appeal enough on their own. Otherwise, the similar effect could not be attained. In terms of controlling the materials, every composition may have this similar aspect, but in those musicians' concepts of compositions, the 'effective material' meant something that had a powerful magnetic nature itself. And their compositions that best took advantages of these materials were the ways they could apply each material into some conventionally-known methodology or format. That was more likely the concrete control rather than abstract control. The methodology or format could be anything - improvisation, rock, jazz, or contemporary classical music. The materials to be applied could be anything as well - Bailey (or Bailey-style performance), Dörner (or Dörner-style performance), some regular loop, noise, records, silences - anything with an established status could be used. Which means, however innovative the performance was, the material itself was unable to escape its destiny to possibly end up with the material for some DJ. This is the start of 'transition'.

I think that the so-called 'Onkyo-style improvisation' which I myself was involved with was about the (rather delicate) layers of the performances and the materials that were based on each musician's uniqueness. From the methodological point of view, it was not so different from what the European free musicians including Bailey had aimed for. The difference was just the texture of the materials (though I must say the difference was significant).

Next, there appeared another style called "random improvisation'. This was more like the methodology that emphasized the spaces between sounds. But here again, it still contained the overconfidence in the materials. By trying to present each material separately from the previous or next material in the context (which I doubt would be possible), there was a risk that the materials became even more emphasized. Sometimes there was some interesting effect that was born in the contrast between the sound and the silence, but when it failed, the only thing that was worth listening was the material only (at least, to me). That was the possible risk. And once it failed into that, it was not so different from self-DJ. (If you narrow down the materials, there is always a limit. The issue is how to define the randomness. In the end, it is difficult for a musician to get out of the randomness that feels right to him/her. But this is another issue.)

I am not saying that the above-mentioned approaches were all in vain. I think that they were necessary in some way and there were some great achievements as a result of those approaches. However, "improvisation which emphasized the texture" is completely stuck in a dead end by now. It had already come to the point where no methodology can make a profound change in this field of music in its context. The CDs produced in this genre (and other genres as well) everyday have the same contents basically - the only difference is the combination of the musicians, which cannot be no more than objects for a small group of curiosity seekers. But why is this kind of music is acquiring more of an audience now than it used to have? Isn't that just because there are more curiosity seekers than before?

Then, how should we define "something easy to understand"? Perhaps it means some conventionally known form. Of course, every form is meant to be renewed, but since the renewing process happens very slowly and gradually, the original identity of the form will stay the same. For example, how can we define the music called "jazz"? Today, "jazz" must mean something that keeps changing as time goes by while keeping a certain particular form. Most jazz musicians seem to try to incorporate some new elements into their music, believing that it has to have a certain form as jazz but it is also necessary to add something new in line with the times. What is being incorporated there are generally some unique styles of performance or new materials. As for the structural change, the only thing they can adopt might be something like a bluff or just a seasoning - since any structural change beyond that could violate the form. Whatever the genre is - in the field of rock, folk or contemporary classical music (it can be classified in smaller categories), in every genre that has a history, similar changes are happening.

"Material" can also mean a certain set form. The material can be applied in any genre of music - free jazz, techno, funk, Onkyo, noise, ... and anything. There are good matches and bad matches among them. If too many materials are applied in the music, it may lose its original identity (though it can be said that this is a new genre of music). What is required for the contemporary music craftsmen is the skill to incorporate the materials into the best combination. In a way, they are tailors. Some tailors have good taste, some have bad taste. There may be even a great tailor among them. However, not every piece of music is in the hands of the tailors.

From here, I want to talk about the less than one percent of the music I mentioned before. About five years ago, I went to the composer Antoine Beuger's concert. There was no one in the audience besides the organizer and some musicians involved (including me.) The concert was five hours (still a shortened version of the composition), and half the piece was with silences. Even in the part which some sounds were involved, Beuger read the text from Spinoza's Ethics, one word in every eight minutes. It was a hard experience. (It was Antoine Beuger "calme etendue" - 'spinoza'.) No one may want to come to such a concert. If they knew the content, they would be even more hesitant to come. It seems not so fun. But in reality, it was not like that at all. What I experienced during the concert was a quite bizarre sensation. I still remember that the sound of the entrance door opening felt like some art object that I could feel in my hand. I am not going to describe what I felt from the concert further here, since the way people may feel about the music would be different depending on the individual. I rather want to talk about the more important and crucial matter - that the form, the material and the structure of this kind of music are all in a close relationship to the extent that none of them can be separated from the others. This will help to explain what the difference between the music represented by Beuger and other cheap music that is just easily influenced by the atmosphere of the music of Beuger and such.

Is there any element, in the above-mentioned Beuger's piece, which can be applied to other music? First, let's look at the form in which the part of sounds and the part of silences come alternately. It might be possible within a certain range. If it is about 10 seconds (or up to 30 seconds) sound part and silence part to use alternately, it could be applied in rock or jazz without so much hesitation. But it is impossible to extend each (sound and silence) unit to 10 minutes, and considering that the units will be used repeatedly, the duration will end up to be beyond the limit. Meanwhile, in Beuger's piece, the length of each unit is almost 30 minutes (or more or less depending on the performance), and there is a fair amount of the repetition of the alternating units (or we can say that the repetition is almost the only thing happening). So the overall scale is very different.

How about the structure of Beuger's piece? The voice during the sound part and the density of the silences must be the core of the structure. But this structure is closely connected with the form in which each unit changes its content, so if you try to take out the sound part only to apply to some other form, it will be a completely different music from the original piece. It might be possible to apply the idea of "one sound in every 8 seconds" to some other form, but then it will lose its advantage of the original structure. (But there are so many pieces of music that incorporate something like that - with slightly altered rules like changing from 8 seconds to 7 seconds, from one sounds to two sounds. Most of those musicians are just trying to randomly incorporate some interesting idea like that into some outdated style without thinking so much. This ends up in a not-so-different-from-old-stuff kind of music, because they are lacking in their own ideas.)

The last thing is 'materials'. In the case of this Beuger's piece, the materials are his own voices. Voice is not regarded as anything so new - it is everywhere now. I think that Beuger himself did not give so much absolute meaning to the material itself regarding this piece. His material here seems to be more like the material in an abstract sense, like the pitches and the instrumentation in normal compositions. Actually, this piece has various versions for different instruments. What Beuger wanted to try in this piece was, I think, to see what kind of differences could occur when it was performed with different instruments in various versions. This concept is clearly different from the idea of bringing something new to Onkyo music by incorporating some ear-catching material needlessly. To me, it seems that the Beuger's piece showed us a new way of dealing with the materials with a question: Is it possible to maintain the identity of the music even if the material part is undecided?

In compositions like Beuger's, the form, the structure and the materials form the originality of the piece by closely connecting with each other, even though part of them can be applicable. It is not like just one of the elements sustains the composition. On the other hand, if Axel Dörner plays trumpet in his familiar tones, it will be recognized as 'Dörner's sounds' in whatever situations they were heard - in a rock band, in a jazz band, in a techno band, or in a microtone improvisation - because only the materials and the styles of the performance are connected with his music. From this point is a problem. Once improvisers are recognized by a certain amount of people, most of them start wandering around here and there simply carrying their own materials. They start trying a bit of this and that. The more unique their materials and styles of performances are, the more they tend to have a false illusion that they can play their music wherever they are (or that their unique materials are contributing to the current music scene). They may say, "I am pursuing various possibilities", but what they actually do is often just incorporating their materials into different forms. Even when they play in different genres, it is nothing more than taking out their materials from different drawers. Dörner also plays jazz, which is not so bad, and also he has a good sense for improvisation - but after all, there is nothing beyond that. There is no potential in this style in a true sense.

Materials include the performers' styles as well, of course. However, when they bring those materials into (so-called) improvisation sessions, many of the cases tend to fail into random use of them. Or some musicians may try to incorporate their materials into some conventional form (the improvisation they are doing itself is already a conventional form), in order to make their materials sound as effective as possible. In doing that, they seem to try to increase their prestige under the name of 'composition'. But in most cases, the results are musically even inferior to the previous step (the improvisation in which musicians just present their materials). But in reality, somehow this kind of music seems to gain a wider audience.

What kind of style do these musicians stick to? In terms of the nature of the styles that can be fit in any kind of genre (if they try), what on earth is the difference between their styles and something like Eric Clapton's guitar style or Frank Nagai's singing style? Doesn't the original sense of "style" suggest how the whole music should be? 'Unique style of performance' can bring newness temporarily, but it is difficult to achieve successful results musically in a true sense. However, many musicians are engaged in making disastrous music without realizing that. They are just blindly pursuing for some new materials and new styles of performance, to apply them to various forms. Isn't it always the repetition of that? In the so-called Onkyo improvisation scene, there were perhaps fewer flavors of personal egos in musicians' materials, but their aggressive attitude trying to present their materials was not so different from the other improvisers (most of whom are disgusted by Onkyo improvisers). In fact, there are even many worse examples in Onkyo improvisers than the others.

As I repeated to say, while the materials are constantly replaced with others, the most crucial thing (music itself) has not changed at all - especially in the improvisation scene. Perhaps this is because the form of improvisation is basically sustained by musicians' ad-lib reactions and their instant ideas (i.e., should I react or not, should I make sounds or not, should I keep silence or keep making sounds, etc.). If not, they may think about adopting a vague common aesthetics (considered as the highest common factor shared by the participants) in the background of the music. The so-called 'minimal improvisers' (perhaps I am considered as one of them) seem to have this tendency. Many of these improvisers seem to be influenced by only the aesthetics and the atmosphere of Wandelweiser's musicians represented by Beuger and Radu Malfatti, directly or indirectly.

But recently, I started to rethink that there might be some other way, too. It must be something that derives from the "vague common aesthetics considered as the highest common factor shared by the participants", but in the mealtime, musicians should be more aware of the form and the structure while re-examining their materials with displacing the context, so they can grasp the whole music. Doing this in improvisation instead of composition must be the key to break through the stagnation. Of course it has to bring different effects to the music from what compositions do. I would like to pursue this topic on the potentials of improvisation further sometime in the future.

- January 2006

(Translation by Yuko Zama)


1. Derek Bailey, 1975 (unknown)
2. Stefan Thut with Antoine Beuger (Silvia Kamm-Gabathuler)
3. Taku Sugimoto (Yuko Zama)

1 comment:

Bhob Rainey said...

"Should I react or not, should I make sounds or not, should I keep silence or keep making sounds"

These are still fundamental questions in improvisation. What's missing, and what makes them seem cheap in this context, is the Why? "Should I react?" can easily be answered by "vague, common aesthetics" that the improvisor is largely unaware of. And so, those vague, common aesthetics are perpetuated, usually in a watered down form as a kind of surface style. If the questions of reaction, of sound/silence, of timbre and force and pitch, etc are confronted with other questions of form, structure, scale, intent (for instance), and those further questions are integrated as part of the practice of improvisation, I think there is a different recipe at work.

This integration is difficult and rare and prone to failure as much as any other improvisational strategy. But, to me, it is the one, significant, worthwhile challenge that improvisation, more than any other methodology, offers the musician.