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Music Unbound - Forum







Resuscitating Art Music (NARAS Journal), John Steinmetz

Some scattered notes referring to John Steinmetz's Resuscitating Art Music ... 'the ability to pay attention has become endangered. As a result, art forms that require the audienceis attention are endangered, too....'

Having been away from the music scene for about ten years I feel like someone who, after serving a sentence in prison, comes out and doesn't recognise the world.

With one of the first bands I used to play with (in Italy in 1969) we were mixing Zappian rock with Indian, Arabic and African melodies, contemporary a-tonalities and sharp free jazz, plus live acting, machinery noise and film projections. People coming to our gigs would think we were mad and yet they would listen and discuss.

The concerts of jazz and rock musicians were crowded with enthusiastic and attentive audiences, often unaware that the same musicians were, more often than not, ignored in their own countries. The same people would be found in the audience of contemporary and electronic music, only 'straight' classical had a specific and limited audience.

'World music' was hardly available in recorded form and often it came only as tapes recorded 'in the field' by travellers. There were various radio stations broadcasting non commercial and unusual music (they probably all went bust for the lack of advertising!). Despite the insularity and relative backwardness of Italy at the time, music was socially very important and young people were living it, using it, participating in it in a way that I canit see today, not even in the presumedly more advanced England where I am living.

The first impression is that all that is left of that social sense of music is the fact that it serves as a means for aggregation and stress release.

Typically that generation used to sit and listen to the music as a ritual, not as a background, as a subject worth of exploration and deeply linked to a more general theoretical discussion. Is it the lack of time that makes it so difficult now? Is it a general shallowness that overtook content in music, reflecting the change in society? Is it that the mass will never be allowed to develop a critical and refined sense of music, just as in the centuries past a certain kind of music (and art as a whole) was only for the rich and nobles? Are these bourgeois reactionary thoughts?

Zappa, Gentle Giant, Van Der Graaf Generator, Soft Machine, Henry Cow, Feminist Improvising Group, Flying Lizard, Matching Mole, Tuxedo Moon, Faust, King Crimson, Can, Devo, DNA to mention but a few (and wildly assorted) that first come to mind, were all recognisable from the first few phrases. Today I struggle to distinguish between most of the young bands and, when I feel that what I am hearing is boring, recycled and monotonous, I am seized by the doubt that I am aging and not able to feel the sense of the present anymore.

When, in the late 70s, music started to reduce its structure to Tum-Cha TumTum-Cha I got really worried, when it shrunk further and only Uhmpf Uhmpf Uhmpf Uhmpf were left I gave up. Music hooliganism is what it feels to me, a blind obtuse attempt to drown the noise, speed and shallowness of the society we live in with louder, faster and shallower sounds. The noise surrounding us and the need to overpower it with even louder noise - mind: I like the sound of noise when it has an inner architecture - The compulsory fast pace we have to keep up with also means no time to spend in listening, understanding, paying attention and drawing personal conclusions.

What was developing (particularly in the 70's) into an interesting merge of different styles, open to influences of all kinds, was slowly drowned by a uniform rhythm that didn't leave space to variation and composition. Was that because of the need to seamlessy mix tracks in clubs? Was it a commercial choice? Is it that the industry thought it dangerous to stimulate the young brains? Is it that music shifted from the state of art and social statement to pure commercial product? Can it be considered simply as a tool for trance in the new version of tribal ritual gatherings? I have often been told that the full power of techno, hip-hop, rave music et al can only be grasped and appreciated under the effect of drugs, this sounds rather absurd as, in my old fashioned conception, if anything music itself is a powerful drug that can instigate fancyful flights of imagination; it would be sad if drugs were used as a means to make up for lack of content.

What also bugs me, as a person before than as a musician, is knowing that for the vast majority of the world population it is still (perhaps even more than it was) impossible to be concerned with anything more than surviving for another day; surviving from starvation, illness or the neighbours hand. Can we afford to be concerned with the state of art music in the face of this reality?

The lack of background to enable comprehension is certainly a major problem but who is to say that some more complex understanding is necessary? How can one think to impose this concept on someone who canit be bothered? How can the seed of curiosity be planted if it doesn't happen at school and in the environment where children live?

The role of technological development in the music's change has been dramatic. The power made available by the new tools is enormous and, theoretically, should have enabled more variety and richness. In reality the impression is that the result has been quite the opposite. If 20 years ago one would have recognised the musician, often now only the tools are recognisable. Again, it may be my unfamiliarity with today's popular (in its literary sense) music, but I am really struggling to listen to everything with an unbiased ear and, inevitably, only find interesting music in areas that are only for a minority, an Elite that is not too dissimilar to the royal and bourgeois restricted audiences of a century ago. The present reality is a 'racist' (in its widest sense) condition that reserves art in general to a mostly middle class white audience.

This is not to say that there is no interesting music being produced today, the contamination between rock and jazz, classical, contemporary and world folklore resulted in beautiful and compelling works: Kronos Quartet, Bill Frisell, John Zorn, Don Byron, Hilliard/Garbarek, Material are the first few examples that spring to mind. The traces of composers like Reich and Cage as well as those of the German electronic pioneers can be detected in some of the music in the clubs too. This makes me think that maybe minds are opening up again, after the flattening of the 80s, and more people are beginning to cross borders in exploratory sonic research which can only lead to positive results. The fact is that it is really hard to discover these works, it is almost impossible to hear these artists broadcasted on the radio for instance; they are not part of daily reality, they represent again the music of an intellectual minority and this is sad, it feels like a total failure of what was seemingly achievable 20 years ago. Or maybe this is just a naive and idealistic opinion.

Music doesn't need to be cerebral and abstruse to be good but, at the same time, it can't be reduced to a primary beat. Primitive in a purist sense is good, what isn't good is primitivism as a recession phase of our capacity for articulation. If language is what distinguishes our species the impoverishment of language, be it verbal, musical or any other form of expression, is something to be worried about.

Is this whole discussion an irrelevant concern or are there many who share it and are doing something about it? What is a musician, composer, producer meant to do if they want not only to survive with their music and share it with likeminded people but also diffuse it and make it reach wider audiences? Is this a sort of 'colonialist' intent, wanting to go and impose my/our taste to what we consider the savages and convert them? Is this a snobbish attitude? I hope (and believe) not.

I would really like to hear other points of view on these subjects. While I am undergoing an 'intensive care' to fill my ten-year gap in music (and music technology) developments any exchange of opinion with people involved in music creation would be very welcome.

Roberto Battista (liquid Light interactive multimedia and electronic publishing, UK)

-- Roberto Battista
posted 11/10/96