No Common Practice: The New Common Practice and its Historical Antecedents

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have speculated about the recent transition from the bipolar geopolitical order of the cold war to a new, supreme sovereignty of transnational economic forces, which they call Empire (Empire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000). Though the authority of the nation-state, they claim, continues to diminish in the face of these supra-national networks, new political controls and regulatory mechanisms continue to rule the social modes of production and exchange. These controls are necessarily decentralized forms of authority, which is how Empire’s sovereignty remains naturalized, unquestioned. The universal claim of Empire to absolute sovereignty is produced through the unpredictable, chaotic, and even contradictory operations of multinational capitalism—a universalism produced not by creation of a “common language” (like that of the early common practice period or its latter-day extension in the form of serialism), but through the regulated creation of difference. This analysis of the current state of global affairs and its impact on global culture is in line with the ideas of Fredric Jameson, who has argued that the oft-celebrated difference, hybridity, and syncretism of the “postmodern” is nothing more than one characteristic of late capitalism (Postmodernism, Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham NC: Duke University Press, 1991).

The recent style that surfaces regularly in discussions of a “new common practice” is known as “totalism.” Compared with serialism or other modernist attempts at achieving a universalized musical language, totalism’s claim to common practice status may be more in line with the trajectories of recent social and economic forces. In his invaluable history of minimalism in the U.S., Kyle Gann (2001) describes totalism as a sort of “third stage” of minimalism, largely the product of a generation of composers born in the 1950s. Their music combines the limited harmony of postminimalism with complex rhythmic operations, but also evokes the “total” in its attention to the “total organization” of pitches and rhythms as well as its total embrace of a wide range of musical influences: African, Asian, rock, pop, European.

In short, Gann writes, “there’s something for everyone,” which positions totalism for insertion into a world market much more smoothly than that earlier, now outmoded attempt at a universal musical language, serialism. One way the movement accomplished this was by making a key alteration to earlier minimalism: shorter pieces. As Gann points out in “A Forest from the Seeds of Minimalism,” late minimalists “tended to work in shorter forms…15 minutes rather than 75 or 120, and with more frequent textural variety” (1999). Unlike many of the unwieldy pieces from the 1960s and 1970s, these works fit easily onto compilation recordings or concert programs (like those of the Bang on a Can marathons, for example). But they also kept one aspect of that earlier minimalism unchanged: the pulse, making the minimalist language, according to Gann, “surprisingly easy to reconcile with pop and world music idioms…. It was almost a clean slate begging to be written on.”

Like the labyrinthine structures of late capitalism, the unending pulse of totalism extends out in all directions and is a neutral grid for connecting musical traditions from all over the world. (When I discussed this idea with the writer Steve Key, he wondered if this unstoppable pulse might be termed “the heartbeat of Empire.”) Resonating with Hardt and Negri’s description of Empire as the all-encompassing political economy of free-market humanism (as maintained by proxy-institutions like the U.N., the World Bank, and the United States), the pulse of late minimalism provides the unquestioned ground for the intersection and consolidation of widely disparate cultural traditions. Gann cites several examples: Michael Gordon‘s Trance (1995), wherein a complex texture of rhythms culminates in a climax of sampled Muslim and Buddhist chants; Janice Giteck‘s Om Shanti (1986), “a Sanskrit-language prayer for AIDS patients couched in Balinese textures”; Guy Klucevsek‘s Viavy Rose Variations (1989), “based on melodies from Madagascar”; and Gann’s own use of Hopi and Pueblo Indian musics in Mountain Spirit (1983).

Equating the steady pulse of totalism with the metastasized operations of multinational capital might be overstating a bit. After all, if the notion of a well-defined and -bounded culture is a thing of the past, various forms of interculturalism should not be surprising, and in fact, may even be encouraging. However, when that interaction consists of the extrication of certain technical processes at the expense of other deeply-embedded social meanings, the exchange looks more like a subsumption of differential cultures than an exploration of their musical and political linkages, something like an abstraction and re-coding in universal, naturalized terms, to allow for easier exchange in a streamlined musical marketplace.

From No Common Practice: The New Common Practice and its Historical Antecedents
by Benjamin Piekut
© 2004 NewMusicBox

Page 4 of 512345