In Conversation with Christoph Cox

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Christoph Cox

An interview with the editor of Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music

Molly Sheridan: The book includes many of the heavy hitters of musical thought, yet ultimately it’s quite readable. What sort of readership were you aiming for while you edited this collection? How did that influence your selections?

Christoph Cox: We really hope for several different kinds of readers. There’s a growing interest in what we call “audio culture”; and we wanted to offer a book that gathered together key texts in this emerging field. We wanted it to be a book that would interest non-academic music and sound art enthusiasts who devour magazines such as The Wire or Signal to Noise. But we also hoped to attract an academic audience. In a way, we see the book as falling strategically between these two domains. We hope that, for the general reader, the book reveals the rich genealogies of contemporary musical practices and highlights the theoretical, conceptual, and philosophical issues at work in these musical forms. But we also hope that it helps to unsettle the moribund categories and habits that define what “Twentieth-Century Music” or “Contemporary Music” mean in the academy.

Molly Sheridan: A book is one thing, but has the time come for the academy to shift its focus? Will it move naturally that direction? Should the academy be on the cutting edge or should it stand back a bit?

Christoph Cox: The relationships between the academy and non-academic music and art are complicated. Dan and I constantly shuttle back and forth between these domains (Dan as an academic and an artist, I as an academic and an independent critic and curator). Both of us have an interest in bringing the resources of each to bear on the other, though we’re also happy that the two are distinct, that the circles only partially overlap.

The academy can be a very stuffy place. Music history and musicology, for example, are deeply conservative disciplines that are wedded to very traditional conceptions of genre, formalist conceptions of analysis, and linear conceptions of history. For the most part, they are pretty far out of step with what has been going on in music for the past several decades (at least). My own field, academic philosophy, is also (especially in the U.S.) a very conservative discipline that tends to conceive of philosophical thinking as a sort of analytic science, rather than as sort of synthetic art.

On the other hand, the academy is also a place where important and exciting theoretical work is being done, work that we think is of real use in helping to think about and make sense of the noises that surround us.

For myself, I’m not content to leave the academy alone and let it become moribund. I’m interested in opening it up to new forms of musical thinking and making. And, by the same token, I think that the worlds of experimental music and sound art can benefit from the kind of conceptual work that the academy can offer.

Again, it’s this shuttling back and forth that I think is important, with each domain breathing new life into the other. I think that a total separation between the academy and the non-academic world of music would be a bad thing, as would be a total identification of the two (though, thankfully, no one really has to worry about this latter possibility!).

Molly Sheridan: The topics and the writers are a diverse bunch, and yet connected in an avant-garde, downtown sort of way (no essays by Milton Babbitt here, for instance). What were the aesthetic boundaries of the book? Why?

Christoph Cox: The book includes a lot of stuff. But it certainly excludes a lot as well. We wanted to give a sense of the authors, texts, and ideas that actually circulate and have currency in experimental music and sound art networks today. So, for example, Cage and Stockhausen get included while Babbitt and Boulez do not. Babbitt and Boulez are hugely important composers and thinkers who have done wonderful work. My co-editor Dan Warner actually studied with Babbitt and admires him greatly. But Dan’s own work is symptomatic of what has happened in the world of vanguard music. These days, Dan performs live improvised computer music and produces sound installations that owe much more, conceptually and sonically, to Cage than to Babbitt. The impact of Cage and Stockhausen has been felt far beyond the domain of avant-garde classical music; while that of Babbitt and Boulez (despite Babbitt’s fondness for jazz and Boulez’ collaborations with Frank Zappa) have remained fairly tied to that lineage and tradition.

The book is essentially interested in networks and genealogies—the way that apparently disparate practices connect (HipHop and minimalism, Stockhausen and Aphex Twin, free improvisation and drum ‘n’ bass, etc.) via shared concepts and lineages. If you extend those connections far enough, nearly everything will be included. We just wanted to give a sense of some of the connections that are particularly strong and intriguing in audio art today.

Molly Sheridan: Audio Culture straddles time periods/movements and effectively juxtaposes them in thoughtful ways. What is your impression of how writing and criticism on music in recent years compares to earlier decades?

Christoph Cox: In the introduction to the book, we talk about the ways in which the new sonic sensibility that informs audio culture today is no longer analog — a continuous, linear unfolding—but digital—a set of random access alliances and affinities that have little respect for traditional historical and generic boundaries. The Internet, the shuffle function of CD players, hypertexts, etc. all have this kind of structure.

In the early 1980s, drawing examples from botany, philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari constrasted the lateral, hyper-connective structure of the rhizome (for example, grass or crabweeds) with the hierarchical, branching structure of the tree and pushed for structures of the rhizome type. I think this contrast is helpful for sorting out different ways of thinking about music history and criticism. One can take something like “classical music” or “jazz” and treat it as a more or less unified form with a more or less coherent history and development. Or one can consider the myriad connections (actual and possible) between these forms and forms of very different sorts. The former kind of history and criticism is what one finds in a book such as Robert P. Morgan’s Twentieth Century Music (which, despite its title, all but excludes any discussion of jazz, rock, so-called world music, etc.). The latter kind of history and criticism is what one finds in the work of a writer such as David Toop, whose books are massive rhizomes in which all sorts of musics and concepts are made to connect. It seems to me that Toop’s way of doing music history, criticism, and theory is both more appropriate to our time and also more productive than that of a more traditional music historian such as Morgan.

Molly Sheridan: We keep hearing that music has fallen off the radar for a large number of otherwise culturally aware people—but if this book can be taken as evidence, there’s no shortage of interesting ideas floating around. Still, the audience for new music is perceived as much smaller than the one for new art, dance or theater. Do you agree/disagree with that perception? I realize that’s ultimately a huge and complex question, but if there’s an aspect you’d care to dive in on…

Christoph Cox: There are, of course, very different sorts of “new music.” Those who lament the lack of audience for “new music” are generally referring to the tradition of the classical avant-garde steeped in serialism—folks like Babbitt, Wuorinen, and Ferneyhough. While interesting and important in a number of respects, these composers, I think, don’t have a great deal of relevance within today’s musical culture.

But that’s one particular segment of music and one particular segment of “art music.” There are other composers who have remained relevant or who have become newly relevant within the new audio culture. Classic minimalism (from Reich and Riley to Conrad, Dreyblatt, and Palestine) continues to be a powerful force. Morton Feldman is cited left and right by artists working outside of the classical tradition and the academy. In fact, the whole American experimental tradition (e.g., Cage, Feldman, Wolff, Behrman, Lucier, Oliveros, etc.) continues to be highly relevant and to have an honored place in the new audio culture. The same is true with figures such as Varèse and Xenakis.

The difference, I think, is that this latter group of composers has been drawn into alliances with musicians and musical practices outside the domain of classical and academic music. Minimalism has become allied with Techno and post-rock. Varèse and Xenakis have been celebrated by noise artists and by experimental Hip Hop producers. The British and American experimental traditions have become powerful forces within improvised music.

Again, I think it’s insularity and linear traditionalism that kills music and thought. Conversely, it’s alliances and cross-fertilizations between heterogeneous fields and practices that give new life. And, indeed, it’s these sorts of networks, alliances, connections . . . rhizomes! . . . that define the new audio culture.