Monday, June 10, 2013

guest "Musica Globalista" post for Bruce Sterling's Beyond the Beyond blog at
September 2, 2011

by Simon Reynolds

This is the last in this summer’s series of guest blogs from me c/o Beyond the Beyond. But before I hand over to Geeta Dayal, I’d like to say ‘big up’ to my host Bruce and close out with something of an epic: a sprawling almost-essay looking at Retromaniacal-parallels in a realm of music that’s outside my customary remit–contemporary classical composition.


Last week I stumbled across a piece by New York magazine’s classical music critic Justin Davidson, a critique of what he termed “a new New York School” of composers whose eclecticism and border-crossing echoes the downtown movement of the 1970s. The article is actually several months old (but in this atemporal world, who cares?) and reading it I was immediately struck by the convergences with Retromania’s concerns.

The piece’s subtitle is: “An omnivorous generation of composers could use something to rage against”. Davidson vividly and not unappreciatively describes the music made by a new breed of “composer-performers who go merrily Dumpster-diving in styles of the past and of distant parts… These composers in their thirties worry less about categories, narrative, and originality than about atmosphere, energy, and sound. .. they churn out somber symphonies, wry pop songs, laptop meditations, filigreed chamber works, endearing études, and occasional film scores. This cornucopia of new music seems perpetually promising. It bristles with allusions and brims with ambition—yet it somehow feels stifled by all that freedom.”

One of the composers focused on in the piece is Tyondai Braxton, whose 45-minute suite Central Market is “a high-voltage score for orchestra supplemented by amplified and effects-enriched kazoos, electronically tricked-out voices, piano, a pair of synthesizers, and six electric guitars… The music pounds through a sequence of musical landscapes with the manic intensity of a movie foot chase. Insistent syncopations, deliberate sonic overloads, whistled melodies, music-box tinklings, jaunty motifs that repeat and trip over themselves—Braxton grinds these ingredients together with the exuberance of a sorcerer on speed. The piece is euphoric, crazy, and irresistible.”

Sounds eminently resistible to me, to be honest! Regardless of whether you enjoy the work or not, “Central Market” appears from Davidson’s account to fit the profile of what I’ve termed “hyperstasis”: a syndrome that affect music at all levels from the individual works, to the style/oeuvre of specific artist, to entire genres/scenes/fields of sonic endeavour. The hallmark of hyperstasis is restless energy and a fluid but ultimately facile transition between styles/modes/moods – facile because related to digiculture’s facilitation of long-valorised-in-music-criticism techniques of hybridization, mix-and-blend, versatility, stylistic range, etc. In hyperstasis, creativity rends itself apart in a paroxysm of optionality, it’s wracked by a sort of frenzied indecisiveness, a fervour of non-commitment.

Davidson makes the digiculture connection himself, talking about how composers like Tyondai Braxton ”use computers as compositional tools and alchemizers of sound” and observing that “for the YouTube generation, technology… grants entrance to a virtually infinite thrift store of influences.
A century ago, Bartók had to haul his gramophone through the mud of Moravia to learn about folk music. Now a curious kid in Brooklyn can track down an Azerbaijani song in seconds. Today’s styles need not be born of deep experience; they form out of collisions that bypass history and geography. No combination is too weird.”

“Nonsectarianism” is Davidson’s term for what popular/semipopular/barely-popular music critics like myself would probably call impurism. Being a sectarian and a purist is invariably regarded as a negative, for reasons I explored a decade ago in an essay called “Pure Fusion: Multiculture Versus Monoculture” (which you can find in the Bring the Noise collection recently put out in America by Soft Skull). But it is way too easy to equate “nonsectarian” and “impurist” with musical virtue. As Davidson astutely notes of the new New York composers, their “freewheeling mash-ups aspire to hip nonsectarianism, but the results can prove shockingly tame.”

Worse still, with the musical past’s archives splayed open, there is a constant temptation to regress: “Their range of choices oppressively wide, several composers have taken comfort from the past, masking retrenchment with style and panache.”

By the time Davidson is writing about “well-crafted but oddly familiar works [that] display the virtues of facility, versatility, and curiosity, but… also showcase a group that seems disoriented by its own open-mindedness”, or noting that “rules can be a crutch or a cage, but they can also act as stimulant… Despite their gifts and alertness to the moment, [these] composers seem muffled, bereft of zeal. What they badly need is a machine to rage against and a set of bracing creative constraints”, I’m imaginary-high-fiving the dude.

Tyondai Braxton is better known as former member of Battles, a fact that leapt out at me because I’d only just got around to reading the Battles cover story in The Wire from several issues back. Here too I was struck by the band’s post-everything omnivorousness and the way both their aesthetics and their ethos echoed progressive rock and jazz fusion. Writer Daniel Spicer points to the way Battles draw on “elements as disparate as Tropicalia, soca, Techno and synthpop”. I feel queasy already.

One of Battles, Ian Williams, observes that “if you think about the music that was available to experimental people and cool hippies in the 70s, it was probably classical music, jazz, and rock, right? And Prog came out of that. With the internet, everybody’s exposed to World Music now, and a much wider wealth of influence that come from everywhere. The library that people are exposed to is much bigger now.”

I enjoyed the previous Battles album Mirrored, but on the new, Tyondai-less Gloss Drop, the results of all these inputs leans to the ludic(rous), the kind of chops-heavy comedy prog purveyed by Primus.
What Davidson, Spicer, Williams, are all talking about is the notion expressed at the start of Gang Gang Dance’s recent Eye Contact album: “I can hear everything. It’s everything time.”

But–as the fusion and prog analogies show–it’s actually been everything time for rather a long while the only difference is that it’s cheaper (virtually costless, thanks to file-sharing) and easier (thanks to digiculture) to access that Everything.

What is significantly different now is the factor of atemporality. Earlier phases of hybridity and eclecticism tended to have an orientation to the present: prog had its classical-music recursions and folk flavours, but for the most part Seventies progressive minded musicians were doing their fusing with stuff that was current or from very recent and usually black music.

So Led Zeppelin got inspired by The Meters and James Brown, while The Police drew on contemporaneous reggae/ (Intriguingly both Led Zep’s James Brown pastiche ‘The Crunge’ and “early Police” crop up as comparison points for Battles in the Wire piece). Fusion aka jazz-rock aka jazz-funk was entirely about jazz responding to contemporary black dance styles or Latin/world influences, and also engaging with the latest technology (synths with Weather Report, Herbie Hancock etc).

Much the same applies to postpunk and early Eighties art-pop: Talking Heads responded to current or relatively recent recordings by Parliament-Funkadelic and Fela Kuti; New Order were inspired by Italo-disco and the club tracks emanating from New York, and so forth.

These kinds of real-time transfers of ideas occurred at all levels of pop music, in fact, not just the self-consciously arty, progressive-minded sector: a band of such lowly ambition as Foghat imitated Larry Graham’s slap-bass techniques on “Slow Ride”!

What gradually developed, with the passage of time, was the onset of atemporality: more and more elements in a new band’s make-up cease to relate to the present genrescape and instead involve rummaging through the archives.

This started to take effect even before the Internet took off, on account of crate-digging, esotericism and obscurantism, and the burgeoning reissue industry. A band like Tortoise was an archetype of mid-Nineties, just-pre-Internet nu-fusion: they had current influences (some hip hop, some math-rock) but also dub, Ry Cooder, Morricone, marimba-pulses via Steve Reich, etc. A vigorous brew at first, soon to droop into a sort of Spyro Gyra for Wire readers.

What is different about music now is that open-minded, curious musicians are responding to and fusing with influences from all across music history and all across the globe. This ought to provide them with a palette of infinite possibilities. And for those who are very creatively strong, who have a filter, having such a superfluity of launching pads and diving boards works out well.

But most artists aren’t strong enough to withstand such an influx.

What is so interesting about Davidson’s piece on new classical is that it shows how the possibilities and problems of post-broadband music-making are manifesting all across the musical spectrum. I suspect similar forces are at work – sometimes vitalizing, mostly vitiating – in metal, but I wouldn’t know. It is definitely happening with dance music especially with the area I’ve kept an ear trained on, i.e. the post-dubstep zone.

Here the exact same hyperstatic symptoms that Davidson diagnoses in modern composition can be seen leading to a similar predicament: a diverting but directionless impasse. A seeming heterogeneity that conceals a fundamental homogeneity (traceable back, ultimately, to the nature of digital sound and its structuration protocols.) Paradoxically, it is the more insular, technologically-retarded scenes (footwork in Chicago now, hardcore rave in the early 90s) that produce a better outcome: a seeming homogeneity that masks genuine hetereogenity and forward-tilted strangeness.

The other thing worth saying about these nu-fusion or “superhybrid” styles/scenes is that their very rhetoric and philosophical repertoire has a pronounced “retro” air. These ideas and ideals have been around for what feels like forever! “New New School” nods to 1970s downtown New York in the Seventies , the post-Fluxus fluxed-upness and post-Cage uncagedness of minimalism, performance artists, and such edge-of-punk / outskirts of No Wave figures as Glenn Branca, Rhys Chatham and Arthur Russell.

Justin Davidson’s piece seems to have garnered a slew of annoyed and outright hostile responses from the modern composition community. One of the more measured responses, “The New Challenges of New Thinking”, appeared in Zeitschichten.

Peter Gilbert précis-ed the anti-Davidson stance: “He is called out as being an old school modernist, entrenched in a decrepit idea—that making something new requires rejecting the formerly new”, with commentators dismissing Davidson’s verdict of “a neither-here-nor-there absence of motivational direction” as mired in subjectivity. (Cue a twinge of déjà vu/writerly solidarity in me!).

Gilbert situates the conflict–and the annoyance–in terms of a generational shift. “The thirty-somethings of today… are the second generation of the everything’s-okay, no-style-can-hold-us ethos. For us this thinking is more normal than revolutionary, though we don’t take it for granted—I think we still own our omnivorous tastes with (probably unnecessary) pride…. the core ideal of nonsectarianism has almost complete ascendency now.”

Gilbert astutely notes that the musical radicals of the past who broke down aesthetic barriers created a world where there are in fact no barriers: “the power of their vision led to the open-minded future they wanted and subsequently (unintentionally) denied their students the opportunity to similarly respond”… As a result, the last ardent rigor… has dissolved into transition”.

But (as Retromania argues) the trouble with this state of endless “transition” is that it looks a lot like the way fashion operates. Or indeed how high finance operates. Where no value is immune from being abruptly and utterly devalued.

What this means is that the principles and practices of “flux and mutability” have long ago shed their former subversive and utopian charge. Worse than that: they have become inverted, to the point where if anything they suggest the static and dystopian. Because in some fundamental and profoundly perturbing way, “flux” and “mutability” are actually isomorphic with the economy, characterized as it is by precariousness and the imposition of “flexible” work patterns.

This idea seems to lurk underneath Gilbert’s concluding remarks, where he writes about how “there is something different about this world where everything goes. We, the thirty-somethings, seem to largely be ardent believers of the new order and we readily shoot down dissent, but, as with anything relatively new, there are aspects and consequences of the changes in culture that we can’t yet fully anticipate or understand.”

All that’s solid melts into air, innit.

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