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Fail Better: The Music Of The Future
Robert Barry , April 9th, 2017 08:21

In an extract from his new book, The Music of the Future, published by Repeater Books, Robert Barry considers the possibilities of a criticism that shares the qualities of music and the reasons why that idea might not always be welcome

It’s about a quarter to eleven on the third of May and I’m at a bar in Zagreb’s Studentski Centar. Built in the mid-Thirties for the city’s international economic exhibition, since 1957 the complex has acted as a cultural hub for the University of Zagreb. Eighty years ago, the atrium in which I’m standing, along with the &TD Theatre by its side, were part of the trade fair’s Italian Pavilion, designed in jutting modernist concrete blocks by the Florentine architect Dante Petroni. Today, it is playing host to another kind of festival: Izlog Suvremenog Zvuka, the ‘Showroom of Contemporary Sound’, a week-long programme of concerts, talks, and art installations bringing together cutting-edge composers and improvisers from throughout the world.

Over the next few days, I will see and hear artists determinedly pushing at the limits of music from all directions, scoring flickering choreographies of light bulbs, dancing oblique high-wire semaphores with the buzz and fizzing of tasers, collaging the quotidian noises of the city into a propulsive soundscape made magical by the transformative powers of digital manipulation. But right now, we are in a gap between gigs. I’m sipping from a bottle of beer and talking to a local computer programmer and PhD candidate called Antonio Pošćić. Inspired by the concert that just finished, we’ve got into a deep conversation about writing, music, and code. He’s here to review the festival for a blog about free jazz; I’m here because earlier this afternoon I gave an hour-long, rather rambling, and only occasionally coherent lecture entitled ‘The Music of the Future’.

In my lecture at the Academy of Music across town, I had tried to trace a line from an article published in 1852 that fingered Robert Schumann, Hector Berlioz, Franz Liszt, and Richard Wagner as “literary musicians,” occupied equally with writing critical texts about music as they were with writing music itself, to contemporary composers like Holly Herndon and Jennifer Walshe, who are engaging the transformative potential of the internet through the music they write and the statements they make about that music. I wanted to plot the points of a kind of speculative continuum, in which reflection about music, in and through the most important media of the day (from mass publishing to the world wide web), was wielded as a tool to reshape musical practice and carve out a path towards the future of the art form.

But having made the possibly ill-advised decision to talk from memory, without a script or even so much as a hastily scribbled note, and a little nervous about speaking in an academic context quite apart from my usual habitat of pop-culture websites and glossy magazines, I had ended up veering about a little chaotically from one idea to the next, descending into long tangents and looping back to key points I had neglected to cover earlier in the speech. Afterwards, people told me it had been “interesting,” if not always totally understandable.

I was even less prepared for the questions that followed. Not so much those from the audience at the lecture itself. They were fine. Smart, interesting, challenging, engaged, and few in number. All good. What caught me off guard was the – on reflection, probably inevitable – line of questioning from people who hadn’t come to the talk itself but had simply taken its title at face value.

I soon found myself in the middle of an interview with the Croatian national broadcaster, a mic thrust at my face. The disarmingly cordial interviewer smiled asking, “What will be the future of music?”

“I’m not a fortune-teller,” I started to protest. “What I’m interested in, really, is the way composers in the past have used the idea of the future to effect changes in the way people think about music that we can still feel today.” And already I can sense a certain look stealing onto the face of my interrogator. It’s a look that, as a journalist myself, I recognise well. It says: how am I supposed to make a bloody headline out of that?

But talking to Antonio in the bar on the night of the lecture, full of the confidence of that second (or was it third?) bottle of Ožujsko, it suddenly occurs to me how to express the point I was trying to get across in my presentation earlier in the day. I cut my new friend off mid-sentence, rather rudely, and start yabbering at him like a cattle auctioneer on a first date.

“I think what I was driving at, earlier,” I start to say, “is some idea of a music that would be sufficiently self-conscious to work as criticism – and, by extension, I suppose, a kind of criticism that could at least aspire to some of the qualities of music.”

Antonio’s brow furrows slightly at this. I plough on regardless. “The important thing about composers like Wagner and Liszt is not just the music they made, but all the various fictions circulating around that. That stuff isn’t getting in the way of a proper understanding of some supposedly real or authentic Wagner – it’s actively producing all sorts of interesting directions of its own. We need people – whether critics or composers or other artists – to make these kind of stories and confabulations up, to make mistakes and get things wrong. People should be abusing each other’s work, jamming it up against things it wasn’t supposed to go anywhere near – just as we’d expect artists to use technology in ways it wasn’t intended for, against the grain of its manufacturer’s intentions – because often that’s where new ideas and new directions come from, from failure and misuse, and general misapprehension.”

The next day Antonio emails me a quote from Tom Arthur’s thesis, The Secret Gardeners: An Ethnography of Improvised Music in Berlin (2012–13): “Despite a small selection of dedicated online blogs and specialist publications,” Arthur writes, “criticism was on an extremely small scale, and many musicians lamented ‘the abysmal quality of journalism’ … few musicians looked to critics for input into their work, with very few following the press on a regular basis, and most taking the opinions of their colleagues more seriously.”

“Well,” I write back, a little tongue-in-cheek, “we can’t expect every critic to be a great artist… Then again, maybe the musicians were wrong – they resented the local journalists for misinterpreting their work. But in the end, maybe the fiction is more important than the reality.”

There is a short story by Ray Bradbury called ‘The Toynbee Convector’. First published in Playboy magazine in January 1984, it describes the visit of an eager young journalist to interview an old man, known as the Time Traveller. A century before, this Time Traveller had apparently returned from the future – from, in fact, the story’s own present day. He had seen the future, he claimed, and it was bright. He even brought with him samples, “tapes and LP records, films and sound cassettes” as proof of the golden tomorrow he had glimpsed from a machine of his own invention.

Inspired by his evidence, the people of the world had built the very future he promised. They had “rebuilt the cities, freshened the small towns, cleaned the lakes and rivers, washed the air, saved the dolphins, increased the whales, stopped the wars, tossed solar stations across space to light the world, colonized the moon, moved on to Mars, then Alpha Centauri.”

The day of the young journalist’s visit is the anniversary of that auspicious journey to tomorrow, the very day he was said to have transported himself into, a century ago. As a crowd gathers outside to await the appearance in the sky of the Time Traveller’s younger self, he finally admits the truth: “I lied.”

“Yes,” Antonio says to me when I mention Bradbury’s story. “I get your point. It’s important to believe and continue talking about these ideas. Otherwise we might get stuck in a loop of negative feedback, a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts. That is to say, a utopian vision of music criticism needs to exist before it can begin shaping music.”

I often wonder how Bradbury imagined his Time Traveller filling up those “tapes and LP records” supposed to be from a hundred years time. What materials could he have used, gathered from his own past and present, and collaged together into something resembling the future? Pictures, films even, you can understand how he could have faked. Bradbury had been to Hollywood. As a teenager, attending Los Angeles High School in the mid-Thirties, he used to rollerskate around Melrose Avenue, Figueroa, and North La Brea, in the vicinity of the studio lots, hoping to catch a glimpse of a star.

At the time he wrote ‘The Toynbee Convector’ he was still two decades from getting his own star on the pavement of the Hollywood Boulevard, but Bradbury had seen half a dozen of his stories get turned into films, and many more become TV – he even adapted Moby Dick for John Huston. Suffice to say, he knew plenty about special effects, about how cinema was nothing but lies, twenty-four frames a second. But how could an LP lie?

Sitting at his writing desk in the Cheviot Hills in the early Eighties, feeling, perhaps, a little like his Time Traveller, that “everywhere was professional despair, intellectual ennui, political cynicism,” what had Bradbury heard that made him think someone could fake the sounds of the future?

Despite my protestations during that interview in Zagreb, music has a long and deep connection to the crystal ball. In his book Noise: The Political Economy of Music, Jacques Attali contends that, from earliest times, music participated intimately in forms of ritual, acting as a herald, the promise of the possibility of a new society to come. For the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, music is itself a form of myth, albeit encoded differently from language. In the Western Christian tradition, the predominant form of myth-making has been concerned with the past. It spoke of the origin of things, and legitimised the enduring power of the priesthood and the nobility.

In Italian operas of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, this kind of mythic legitimation is set to music: works written at the behest of the sovereign would inevitably clothe the figure of the monarch in ancient dress, representing him onstage in the semblance of some semi-divine being or classical hero. But during carnival festivities, the order of social power could be inverted. The music of carnival gave life to the suspension of all the usual hierarchies. This is why works like Josef Haydn’s Il mondo della luna or Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, whose stories derive from the carnival tradition of the Commedia dell’Arte, directly dramatise this upending of social norms. The triumph of servants over their masters, youth over age.

The members of the Florentine Camerata, who developed the first operas at the end of the sixteenth century, were also amongst the first authors of musical manifestos to explicitly invoke the modern. But Giulio Caccini’s Le nuove musiche and Vincenzo Galilei’s Dialogo della musica antica et della moderna still somehow managed to cast their innovations as reconstructions of ancient Greek practice. They had no examples at hand to base their “reconstructions” on. None had survived the centuries. In the absence of any antique model, the Camerata confabulated their own history, and secretly made the first truly modern art, unburdened by any real historical precedent. They built myths about their own music.

In the intermedi the Camerata wrote and performed for the wedding of Fernando de’ Medici and Christina of Lorraine, mythology is staged as a series of dramatic tableaux depicting the ‘Harmony of the Spheres’, ‘Apollo’s Battles against Python’, the ‘Realm of the Spirits’, the ‘Rescue of Arion’, and so forth. Across six short pantomimes, with orchestral accompaniment, elaborate stage effects and machinery, dance numbers, chorus, and solo arias, Caccini, Galilei, and their colleagues cleared a path for the first operas of a decade later, staging myth through music and music as myth. It may be that Vincenzo’s son, Galileo Galilei, the man probably responsible more than any other for the broad brushstrokes of our own picture of the cosmos, learned to conceive of the universe as an organic totality whilst playing the lute at these intermedi as a young man. His first view of the galaxy was from the orchestra pit.

Around the time of the French Revolution, a strange reversal starts to take place. Though the architects of the guillotine spared no occasion to rhetorically clothe themselves in the outfits of ancient Greece or Rome, the substance of their emotional appeal to the French people dealt not with the past but with the future. Hence, Robespierre, on the eve of the reign of terror in 1793: “The time has come to call upon each to realize his own destiny. The progress of human Reason laid the basis for this great Revolution, and you shall now assume the particular duty of hastening its pace.” In the words of the historian Reinhart Koselleck, “For Robespierre, the acceleration of time is a human task, presaging an epoch of freedom and happiness, the golden future.”

Few citizens of Robespierre’s France conjured the image of that golden future as vividly as Charles Fourier. His writing, by turns lucidly critical and utterly surreal, provides a direct access to the mythic subconscious of Europe on the cusp of modernity.

Fourier grasped eagerly at Robespierre’s promise of self-determination. Over the course of the 1790s, he wrote hundreds of letters to various departments of the new government, suggesting improvements to this or that public amenity. Finding his efforts routinely spurned, he eventually gave up on adapting the world he was given and decided to make one up of his own. The phalanstère of Fourier’s imagining, elaborated over a series of visionary texts and tracts between 1808 and his death in 1837, was like tomorrow’s Eden: an earthly paradise, at once both the distantly projected eighth stage of a mammoth thirty-two phase, eighty-thousand-year future history, and, somewhat confusingly, always just around the corner – already, in fact, long overdue. Reading Fourier can be rather like reading philosophy in another dimension, tumbling across the political tract of some fictional character from an imaginary world. Like much good science fiction, one is surprised, having followed for a time a seemingly straightforward scientistic discourse, to suddenly find oneself launched off a precipice, onto an unknown planet, faced with anti-crocodiles and lemonade seas, deep into a discussion of the erotic life of the solar system. But what gradually becomes clear is that his whole project is structured by music.

The key thing for Fourier was never to rely on people’s “better natures,” but to cater for human passions in all their singular messiness. In the Fourierist phalanstery, there was a place for every perversion, an ideal task suited to each taste, such that every citizen could take pleasure from work that also contributed to the health of the community. This took a phenomenal effort of organisation. But he knew such coordination was possible because he had seen it night after night in the orchestra pit of the theatre. The passions, he believed, could be harmonised, just like a musical scale.

Fourier loved the opera and went whenever he could. With his oft-repeated encomiums to “knight errantry” and amorous intrigues, one is apt to suspect that his idea of utopian life is drawn straight from a libretto, complete with trios, choirs, and soloists, labouring in fine costumes, and all perfectly choreographed as a never-ending corps de ballet. In the disciplined togetherness of dancers and orchestral musicians, he saw the means by which the growing child could “learn to subordinate their movements to the unitary proprieties.” Hence the opera, in Fourier’s new world, was to be more than mere entertainment, but a “material school”, an institution in which all the faculties would be developed equally through active participation in the “material culture” of the community. To the daily life of the phalanstery, the opera house was “as necessary,” Fourier maintained, “as its ploughs and herds.”

But Fourier’s prescriptions went unheeded. By the 1830s, small children had taken to pointing at him in the streets, shouting “Voila! Le fou!” Having declared that the melting of the polar icecaps would soon release a purifying fluid into the world’s oceans and turn the water into “a sort of lemonade,” his public reputation was at a low ebb. He did have his followers, both in France and abroad. In the years after his death, several attempts at Fourierist phalansteries were established in America – at Utopia, Ohio; La Reunion, Texas; Red Bank, New Jersey; and Brook Farm in Massachusetts. None lasted more than a few years. And every one of them neglected what for Fourier had been the crucial thing: the new world’s musical underpinnings.

Keen to distance themselves from the more eccentric side of their Master, the American Fourierists emphasised his critique of capitalism and his social egalitarianism over the lemonade seas and musical games, the complex divisions of his octave of passions. Only many years later did the Surrealists, André Breton and Georges Bataille, realise that these two sides of Fourier were inseparable. “If it is possible to regret it has not engendered more positive results,” wrote Bataille of Fourier’s system, “how can one not recognise that poetry alone could be their initiation?”

Fourier’s poetry may have fallen on deaf ears, but we can still hear its traces, rippling through the musical history of the nineteenth century and beyond. In Berlioz’s futuristic fantasy of a musical city called Euphonia, whose every waking moment was spent in preparation for its annual opera festival. In the very real opera festival created by Wagner at Bayreuth, which transformed the small Bavarian town into a secular temple, dedicated to music. On every occasion when large numbers of people gather, in a place not quite city and not quite countryside, to set aside the usual rules governing social discourse, and organise their coming together around music instead. Whether consciously or not, such moments have just a touch of the phalanstery about them – even if the lemonade seas have all too often become rivers of slurry and cold lager. So, with all that in mind, the next time I was interviewed in Zagreb, and asked about the music of the future, I found myself a little better prepared.

“Festivals like this one,” I said this time, “could be building the foundations for the future of music. Events like this, not governed by the commercial imperatives of record labels and talent agencies, nor by the territorial policing of academic departments – offer up a space for musicians to come together in a kind of free association, to present their work and ideas and make surprising connections across disciplines. In a way, what’s important here is not any of the individual performances, but the conversations that take place amongst artists between the shows, the fictions and fissures that open up in the gaps between styles and approaches. There’s a model, there, perhaps, for some kind of community, a promise that society is possible.”

Over the pages that follow, I won’t be presuming, like Ray Bradbury’s Time Traveller, to provide a map for the way music should develop and transform itself over the next century. What I want to present is something more like a history of failures – failures to meet the impossible challenge of the music of the future, to summon up a whole world in a verse or a song. But this succession of failures nonetheless left their marks on the way we continue to think and feel about music. They opened up spaces of possibility, through reflection, dialogue, new work and ideas. And with that, maybe there’s a covert challenge, following Samuel Beckett, to “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

The Music of the Future is launched this Wednesday at Cafe Oto Project Space and is available now, published by Repeater Books