Getting Off Topic

I got into a lively argument with my girlfriend the other night about the validity of the “topic” in contemporary music—in other words, whether material with conventionalized extramusical connotation has or should have a place today. (What can I say? We’re two peas in a pod.) The second question, whether the invocation of topoi in new music is nothing more than an intellectually lazy shorthand, is one we could debate at great length and probably with no shortage of rancor. But the first question, whether musical topics are still in evidence among contemporary works, is hardly a question at all, as a piece I heard last night demonstrated quite clearly.

Now’s the time to offer a hat tip to Tim Rutherford-Johnson of The Rambler; if not for his post on last night’s Michel van der Aa portrait concert, part of the Philharmonia’s Music of Today series, I wouldn’t have had any idea it was even going on, and I would have missed out on some very cool music. The program’s two pieces by van der Aa—Just before for piano and electronics and the remarkable Mask for chamber ensemble and electronics—were swarming with topics. Although I certainly wouldn’t accuse van der Aa of “intellectually lazy shorthand,” some of the specters he raised were more haunting than others. The piano piece made use of several pretty boilerplate pianisms—frenetic high-register typewriter barrage (the “hysteria” topic, maybe) and slow dissonant contrapuntal quarter-notes (the “wandering” topic)—that I’ve heard in more than a few works for that instrument. The chamber piece indulged in a few similarly pro forma passages, notably spiky pseudo-counterpoint in the clarinet and strings.

I suspect, however, that van der Aa is at some level aware of his material’s topical implications, because their subversion is what makes his music really shine. Both pieces came alive when the composer acknowledged that the conventionalized textures were just that and tore their fabric with startlingly diatonic, static redactions—suddenly the spiky pseudo-counterpoint is overtaken by an oppressively calming organ-like chord from the laptop and a muffled metronome, for instance. Van der Aa takes you to the outpatient lounge, whether you want to go or not, and what seemed like a concert hall is revealed to be a sort of cultural psychiatric ward. Moments like these, when the pieces seemed to be medicating themselves, were quite magical and more than slightly frightening. That’s a good thing.

11 thoughts on “Getting Off Topic

  1. Lisa X

    Hey Colin, I’m embarrassed to say but I don’t really understand much of your post. I can’t even guess at what you mean by “material with conventionalized extramusical connotation”. And I don’t understand your use of the term topoi in relation to music.

    Also, I read things like “boilerplate and “pro forma passages” as the harshest of criticisms. Do you mean it that way? Or are you saying that he uses some unbearably conventional tactics intentionally and plays with expectations?

    Reply
  2. TimR-J

    Hi Colin – thanks for the link. FWIW I think that’s a pretty fair commentary on the pieces: someone I spoke to the other night (who didn’t like the second piece at all) said it reminded him of sub-Boulez noodling. I disagree with him, but here you’ve helped articulate part of the reason why: there’s something about Aa’s manipulation of material through the electronics that gives the music a self-critical edge. (Without the elecs then it would be pretty thin, I think. But that’s good – the elecs are integrated rather than just a funky gloss.)

    Reply
  3. colin holter

    By “conventionalized extramusical connotation,” I want to raise the possibility that just as certain gestures and textures in the 18th and 19th centuries were understood to evoke extramusical situations–the “hunt” topic, the “pastoral” topic, etc.–we today might have some types of material common in new music that do the same thing. For instance, we have Koyaanisqatsi, Three Tales, and a host of television commercials to thank for the link between motoric, shifting harmonies and the topic of global interconnectedness and postindustrial society. The topics I pointed out in van der Aa’s music are ones I’ve encountered before, and (judging by program notes, titles, etc.) they usually seem to carry the same associations from one piece to the next.

    “Boilerplate” and “pro forma passages” are criticisms, sure, but they could be a lot harsher! To my mind (and based on a very small sample of the composer’s work), the challenge to van der Aa will be to preserve the uniqueness of his delightfully “weird” moments without settling for the rather prosaic “normal” material that the weird moments need to pop out of.

    Reply
  4. William Osborne

    In my view, the problem with Colin’s observations is that his definition of topoi (“material with conventionalized extramusical connotation”) is too broad. This describes such a wide range of musical gestures that the definition becomes difficult to apply in meaningful ways. The nature of these “conventions” would need to be explored and more precisely defined. We would need a clearer definition of what these “extramusical connotations” are and how they are formed. And we would need to know more about how they evolve historically and socially.

    To briefly illustrate the point, a piano part with a “frenetic high-register typewriter barrage” is not necessarily a topos, because there are many significant variations in how such passages can be composed, and some might not be recognized as having symbolic meanings or pervious associations. And even more, there is a huge variation in how such passages can be given contextual meanings in the larger structure of a work.

    In general, the blanket idea that topoi in themselves are problematic ignores the historical reality that many of the world’s greatest musical works could be at least partially defined as the structuring of symbolic musical gestures. I think this is especially true toward the end of musical epochs where musical gestures were to some extent codified, such as with the post-romantics. The music of composers such as Mahler and Strauss are laden with Austro-Bavarian musical topoi. It is not only the elegance with which the are re-created, but even more, they way they are contextualized and structured into larger musical statements that make the works of Mahler and Strauss great. (The same could be said, for example, for Bach’s use of well-known hymnal melodies.)

    We seem to be in a similar period with post-modernism, where many modernist gestures seem to have evolved codified meanings. Works such as Berio’s “Sinfonia”, Cage’s “Aria”, or the “quotes” in the works of George Crumb are examples of how topoi are structured into profound musical statements.

    I think the art of composition has always been more about how musical topoi are contextualized into larger structures, rather than the attempt to create absolutely new materials devoid of associations. For example, Salieri’s basic musical themes were probably not especially inferior or more “typical” than Mozart’s. It was Mozart’s over-all fluency and grasp of musical structures that clearly defined his work as far superior. Mozart could play with topoi while Salieri’s music gives more a sense of juggling them. In general, structure has always been the superior art to the creation of musical gesture.

    At this point in the history of Western music, I wonder if any sort of new musical gestures devoid of some sort of historical, symbolic associations could even be created – hence the ethos of post-modernism.

    William Osborne

    Reply
  5. rtanaka

    At this point in the history of Western music, I wonder if any sort of new musical gestures devoid of some sort of historical, symbolic associations could even be created – hence the ethos of post-modernism.

    It seems to me that part of modernism’s project was to attempt to completely remove symbolic gestures from art. What the streams among the avant-garde (both serialism and the experimental music tradition) seemed to have had in common was a rejection of the representational, partly fueled by our cultural war with the Soviet Union. They seemed to strive for something pure, objective — the idea that sound was something that could exist within itself without any referencing the past. Hence the focus became more on the gesture, the process, texture — sounds for sounds sake — rather than any implicit meanings or connotations that might be carried with them.

    It’s sort of weird because on one hand the avant-garde often accused those who utilized representational meaning as being “conservative”, while on the other hand, the “conservatives” (even though they were not) accused them of being conservative for obstructing progress by distracting the public with incoherent neologisms and obscurized writing styles. You see similar arguments being thrown around in fields like philosophy too.

    So okay — if gestures don’t contain any inherent meaning, then words don’t really mean what they say they mean, so is there any point in saying anything at all? Or maybe we’ll say something using words but mean totally the opposite, like in satire and in sarcasm. People tend to tell me that our generation tends to be overtly sarcastic and ironic — well, that might just be the culture that we’ve developed as a result of recent historical developments. We have the Simpsons, Daily Show, South Park, The Onion…in music, John Adams probably comes to mind as being the most prominent example.

    It’s a weird world we live in.

    Reply
  6. William Osborne

    So okay — if gestures don’t contain any inherent meaning, then words don’t really mean what they say they mean, so is there any point in saying anything at all? Or maybe we’ll say something using words but mean totally the opposite, like in satire and in sarcasm. People tend to tell me that our generation tends to be overtly sarcastic and ironic — well, that might just be the culture that we’ve developed as a result of recent historical developments. We have the Simpsons, Daily Show, South Park, The Onion…in music, John Adams probably comes to mind as being the most prominent example.

    Forgive me if I write a long post, but this is a complex topic, and I want to try to clarify my thoughts about it as well. If you haven’t already, you might want to explore some of the ideas of the French sociologist, Jean Baudrillard, whose books became popular in the 1980s. He claimed that we live in a world so completely shaped by the carefully constructed images of marketing and the media that reality itself has become a “simulacra.” A simple example is the way Nike ad campaigns turned their shoes into status symbols. The “reality” represented by the shoes goes completely beyond their function as footwear and exists only as pernicious ideas put into young people’s heads. This also shapes the artificiality of the shoes’ industrial design.

    The large, space-age fins on cars in the 1950s are also a vivid example of marketing and simulacra. Or to bring the idea closer to the NMBx community, Apple did the same with its computers which are no longer so much superior to PCs as they are symbols of superiority. You mostly buy industrial design and status. Multiplied millions of times over decades, these marketing and media memes have coalesced to create a new, all-encompassing world reality of their own. We live in a world of simulacra whose depths we no longer fully comprehend.

    This world of simulations deeply affected music. How often do we hear a genuinely acoustic sound track for a pop song, instead of the canned loops of drum machines simulating acoustic instruments? Eventually samples were created to simulate earlier synthesized simulations, until the “sound” we accept is almost entirely artificial. At this point, real drums might sound ridiculous. What do most pop singers sound like without the massive studio processing of their voices? This is why almost all of them lip sync when performing “live,” since the vocal processing on their recordings can’t actually be done in real time. The fans do not want to see the real person, they want to see the three dimensional simulacra which has become the public’s reality. The world we now live in is not so much counterfit as a hyper-reality created through simulation. Drum machines are more authentic than drums, and Jon Stewart, Colbert, and the Onion are more authentic than Ted Koppel or Katie Couric.

    In this sense, Baudrillard said that even the Iraq War never happened. We perceive it only through the simulacra of the media (embedded or not) — a plastic-wrapped, CNN, MSNBC, NYT hyper-reality coming right through the screen you are staring at this very moment. (In spite of presumed world shattering threats from Iraqi terrorists, no war was ever declared, the country was not mobilized, no victory or defeat ever experienced, etc.)

    It is thus little surprise that Adam’s music theater works are described as CNN Operas (which to many Europeans is somewhat akin to saying “Pravda Operas.”) He composes simulations of events that were simulated or “mediated” realities to begin with. In short, his works are simulations of simulations. I haven’t yet figured out how to put it in words, but his music is also by necessity a simulation of music that accompanies a simulation of simulated world events. Perhaps we could call it reality according to MIDI. Then Alex Ross wraps it up in plastic and sticks it into our New Yorker lunch boxes so that we can all simulate being cultivated patricians. (I do not necessarily intend this as a criticism, but rather as a portrayal of the theoretical complexities of contemporary culture.)

    A more easily understandable example would be the way Colbert imitates O’Reilly, and is thus an imitation of an imitation journalist. When reality becomes mediated by the media, and thus a simulacra, we take comfort in simulacra that parodies the extremes of the simulacra. This also explains media like the Onion and Jon Stewart. With a kind of Orwellian irony, we think we emerge from our delusions and touch reality when we create a simulacra that makes us laugh at the “original” simulacra. Unfortunately, that is not true. The simulations have gone on for so long we no longer remember anything but simulations. This is the theme presumably addressed by the film “The Matrix,” though Baudrillard correctly noted that “The Matrix” is exactly the sort of film the matrix would create – a simulation of escape from the simulation.

    All of these ironies only add to an ever spinning historical vortex of simulations within simulations within simulations. Humor about journalism has long since become but one more part of the simulacra. Meanwhile, Lucy, Desi, Jerry, and Frasier have become our friends, even our home life.

    Presidential campaigns become marketed constructs that create carefully calculated simulations of candidates quite removed from the political machines that that will actually take power. Any candidate who shows his or her real face will almost certainly lose. It is sort of like the way we buy cellophane wrapped steaks. If we actually had to experience the full reality of the industrial production and slaughter of animals we would probably eat a lot less meat. Same story with war. Reality is a drag. Long live the simulation. Where are my Madonna CDs? “Yes we can.”

    Baudrillard says protest only strengthens the simulacra, because it addresses the simulacra on its own terms. To throw rocks at police at a WTO conference, for example, replicates the violence of Globalism and thus validates its methods and worldview. The simulacra absorbs the stones and shoots them back at humanity with double the power.

    Only what Baudrillard calls “singularities” can create change – events that do not oppose the ruling paradigm but exist so completely outside its norms that they show us a completely new world. An example might be the birth of Christianity in the Roman Empire. (That also illustrates how singularities eventually become simulacra and the arbiters of power themselves.)

    What would a singularity in music be – a gesture or form or theoretical concept with no associations and no references to the current norms that would effect fundamental transformation? How many singularities have existed in the history of music, and how did they shape its evolution? I think this is why music so often deals with symbolic gestures that already have historical contexts. Genuine cultural singularities are extremely rare – and extremely transformative.

    William Osborne

    P.S. And of course, I too am a video screen simulacra. The real Bill Osborne has never been here….

    Reply
  7. William Osborne

    So okay — if gestures don’t contain any inherent meaning, then words don’t really mean what they say they mean, so is there any point in saying anything at all? Or maybe we’ll say something using words but mean totally the opposite, like in satire and in sarcasm. People tend to tell me that our generation tends to be overtly sarcastic and ironic — well, that might just be the culture that we’ve developed as a result of recent historical developments. We have the Simpsons, Daily Show, South Park, The Onion…in music, John Adams probably comes to mind as being the most prominent example.

    Forgive me if I write a long post, but this is a complex topic, and I want to try to clarify my thoughts about it as well. If you haven’t already, you might want to explore some of the ideas of the French sociologist, Jean Baudrillard, whose books became popular in the 1980s. He claimed that we live in a world so completely shaped by the carefully constructed images of marketing and the media that reality itself has become a “simulacra.” A simple example is the way Nike ad campaigns turned their shoes into status symbols. The “reality” represented by the shoes goes completely beyond their function as footwear and exists only as pernicious ideas put into young people’s heads. This also shapes the artificiality of the shoes’ industrial design.

    The large, space-age fins on cars in the 1950s are also a vivid example of marketing and simulacra. Or to bring the idea closer to the NMBx community, Apple did the same with its computers which are no longer so much superior to PCs as they are symbols of superiority. You mostly buy industrial design and status. Multiplied millions of times over decades, these marketing and media memes have coalesced to create a new, all-encompassing world reality of their own. We live in a world of simulacra whose depths we no longer fully comprehend.

    This world of simulations deeply affected music. How often do we hear a genuinely acoustic sound track for a pop song, instead of the canned loops of drum machines simulating acoustic instruments? Eventually samples were created to simulate earlier synthesized simulations, until the “sound” we accept is almost entirely artificial. At this point, real drums might sound ridiculous. What do most pop singers sound like without the massive studio processing of their voices? This is why almost all of them lip sync when performing “live,” since the vocal processing on their recordings can’t actually be done in real time. The fans do not want to see the real person, they want to see the three dimensional simulacra which has become the public’s reality. The world we now live in is not so much counterfit as a hyper-reality created through simulation. Drum machines are more authentic than drums, and Jon Stewart, Colbert, and the Onion are more authentic than Ted Koppel or Katie Couric.

    In this sense, Baudrillard said that even the Iraq War never happened. We perceive it only through the simulacra of the media (embedded or not) — a plastic-wrapped, CNN, MSNBC, NYT hyper-reality coming right through the screen you are staring at this very moment. (In spite of presumed world shattering threats from Iraqi terrorists, no war was ever declared, the country was not mobilized, no victory or defeat ever experienced, etc.)

    It is thus little surprise that Adam’s music theater works are described as CNN Operas (which to many Europeans is somewhat akin to saying “Pravda Operas.”) He composes simulations of events that were simulated or “mediated” realities to begin with. In short, his works are simulations of simulations. I haven’t yet figured out how to put it in words, but his music is also by necessity a simulation of music that accompanies a simulation of simulated world events. Perhaps we could call it reality according to MIDI. Then Alex Ross wraps it up in plastic and sticks it into our New Yorker lunch boxes so that we can all simulate being cultivated patricians. (I do not necessarily intend this as a criticism, but rather as a portrayal of the theoretical complexities of contemporary culture.)

    A more easily understandable example would be the way Colbert imitates O’Reilly, and is thus an imitation of an imitation journalist. When reality becomes mediated by the media, and thus a simulacra, we take comfort in simulacra that parodies the extremes of the simulacra. This also explains media like the Onion and Jon Stewart. With a kind of Orwellian irony, we think we emerge from our delusions and touch reality when we create a simulacra that makes us laugh at the “original” simulacra. Unfortunately, that is not true. The simulations have gone on for so long we no longer remember anything but simulations. This is the theme presumably addressed by the film “The Matrix,” though Baudrillard correctly noted that “The Matrix” is exactly the sort of film the matrix would create – a simulation of escape from the simulation.

    All of these ironies only add to an ever spinning historical vortex of simulations within simulations within simulations. Humor about journalism has long since become but one more part of the simulacra. Meanwhile, Lucy, Desi, Jerry, and Frasier have become our friends, even our home life.

    Presidential campaigns become marketed constructs that create carefully calculated simulations of candidates quite removed from the political machines that that will actually take power. Any candidate who shows his or her real face will almost certainly lose. It is sort of like the way we buy cellophane wrapped steaks. If we actually had to experience the full reality of the industrial production and slaughter of animals we would probably eat a lot less meat. Same story with war. Reality is a drag. Long live the simulation. Where are my Madonna CDs? “Yes we can.”

    Baudrillard says protest only strengthens the simulacra, because it addresses the simulacra on its own terms. To throw rocks at police at a WTO conference, for example, replicates the violence of Globalism and thus validates its methods and worldview. The simulacra absorbs the stones and shoots them back at humanity with double the power.

    Only what Baudrillard calls “singularities” can create change – events that do not oppose the ruling paradigm but exist so completely outside its norms that they show us a completely new world. An example might be the birth of Christianity in the Roman Empire. (That also illustrates how singularities eventually become simulacra and the arbiters of power themselves.)

    What would a singularity in music be – a gesture or form or theoretical concept with no associations and no references to the current norms that would effect fundamental transformation? How many singularities have existed in the history of music, and how did they shape its evolution? I think this is why music so often deals with symbolic gestures that already have historical contexts. Genuine cultural singularities are extremely rare – and extremely transformative.

    William Osborne

    P.S. And of course, I too am a video screen simulacra. The real Bill Osborne has never been here….

    Reply
  8. rtanaka

    I mentioned this earlier in private, but I’m mostly skeptical if the idea of the singularity (as Baudrillard puts it) can really exist. Revolutions are revolutions because they revolt against a pre-existing idea of its time. It doesn’t come out of nowhere.

    The most successful example of an revolutionary idea put into practice during the 20th century is Marxism. It inspired, and continues to inspire people into taking arms toward its cause. (In fact, just recently Nepal was successful in establishing a communist government by overthrowing the former powers.) But even then, Marx’s dialetical materialism was a direct response to Hegel’s dialectical idealism, so it can’t really be said that it was a singularity. And if history is any indication, it’s easy to see that the ideals of even the noblest of intentions often go sour when power and money is involved.

    It seems like a lot of the modernists thought escaping from symbolism would revolutionize society, but in hindsight it probably didn’t have the exact effect it was going for. I think this is largely why a lot of composers are turning back to tonality, because it’s at least a system you can use to make commentary on something that actually exists in society.

    Reply
  9. William Osborne

    I can hardly blame you, Ryan, for having troubles with Baudrillard’s conceptions of “singularities.” His descriptions seem so unclear, and to my knowledge he did not give us a single example of a singularity in all of his writings. That seems like poor philosophy, and even poorer sociology. Like so many of the continental philosophers, we are left wondering about what they are actually trying to say.

    Baudrillard did explain that “difference” and “singularities” are two different things. Differences and protest are merely reactions against a ruling paradigm that address the paradigm using its own terms. Singularities are ideas so new that they share no common concepts or terms with the previous paradigm.

    From this perspective, Marxism and serialism were not singularities, but merely differences. Marxism is immersed in the concepts and terminology of capitalism, and about putting capital in the hands of the working class. Serialism was a system for the avoidance of tonality, and especially in its early forms often defined its methods in anti-tonal terms (no octaves, no repetition of phrases, avoid triads, etc.)

    Marxism and serialism illustrate how difference often collapses back into the foundations it shares with the paradigm it rebelled against. With singularities there is no turning back. After Galileo we never again thought the earth was the center of the solar system. After Einstein, we never returned to a Newtonian understanding of the universe. After a singularity, return is impossible.

    There is an interesting cross-current going on here with Frank’s blog. (BTW, I sent in my comment about simulacra and singularities about 24 hours before Frank posted his comments about musical singularities, but the AMC server was down all weekend, and on part of Monday and Tuesday, so my post only appeared a few hours ago. In fact, Trevor is still working on the glitches of the temporary machine they are now running. I just want Frank and others to know I am not shifting his topic over here, because my post above was posted before Frank’s appeared.)

    Anyway, Frank provides some very interesting examples of music he sees as singularities. Is there no turning back afer In C? Rhapsody In Blue? Porgy and Bess? Or are these only variations of a tonal and rhythmic system we have used for about 500 years?

    Can any form of artistic expression have effects so profound that it changes the paradigms of our worldview with the necessary radicality to be a singularity? For example, events like the advent of Buddhism, and conceptions of a heliocentric solar system, or the explosion of the atom bomb created singularities — events that changed the paradigmatic existence of humanity. Which works of art have done the same?

    One might also ask if any new singularities are even possible. Some have suggested (especially on the libertarian right) that history has ended because there will never be a force capable of replacing the victory of market capitalism, the final, eternal paradigm. (Ha, ha.) Baudrillard seems to almost agree, as if we are trapped in a paradigm, a “Matrix” from which escape is almost impossible, and which has a totalizing control over almost all of our thoughts and actions. Under this kind of rule, the “individual” can no longer exist:

    “Today we speak always of the individual, the rights of the individual and so on. The individual is not the subject, the subject is over. The individual has no originality, it is a particular molecular fragment of an ensemble, and when you are in this system you are not a subject anymore, you can be individual as an abstract configuration, but you are a pure operation, deducted from the functioning of a system. You are a by-product of the system as individual, instead of a subject with thoughts that generate actions.”

    “…you are pure operation, deducted from the functioning of a system.” Sounds like serialism doesn’t it. And now, in reaction, we think embracing the marketplace will save new music. How ironic.

    We are all, in effect, cyborgs, not because of the metallization of bodies, but because of the programmability of our minds. We might ask who the artist-hero will be who will shatter this paradigm by creating a new singularity, but thinking in terms of artist-heroes is actually a part of the paradigm that is ruling us.

    William Osborne

    Reply
  10. jchang4

    Music with topics is irrelevant? What is this cockamamie nonsense?!

    [Sorry, just looking for an excuse to use the word "cockamamie."]

    Reply
  11. rtanaka

    We might ask who the artist-hero will be who will shatter this paradigm by creating a new singularity, but thinking in terms of artist-heroes is actually a part of the paradigm that is ruling us.

    Well, the solution is to just stop looking for them. Heroes and geniuses are social constructs and will always be, and the majority of the time (especially if they’re getting a lot of publicity) they turn out to be hoaxes. The world needs more good people, not ubermenchens.

    Reply

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