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

There are a few interrelated ideas embedded in fantasies of the historical, universal potential of late minimalism. First, there is a yearning for the new common practice, which seems to be a misplaced longing for superseded social modes of production, for an idea of unified culture strangely out of date. Second, there is the desire for the kind of unmediated relationship with an audience that composers of the common practice period are thought to have enjoyed. This desire misses the fact that there are many audiences in the current moment, and even “difficult” avant-gardes enjoy a community of supporters (which is admittedly not the one Gann would wish for totalism). Furthermore, insofar as there might be a large, modern-day American “Audience” analogous to that of the early common-practice period, classical music’s claim to an unmediated relationship with that group was long ago ceded to rock and popular musics. As the musicologist Robert Fink has pointed out, composers these days who are looking for a air of authority or “authenticity” are more likely to strike the pose of “rock star” than “conductor” (“Elvis Everywhere: Musicology and Popular Music Studies At the Twilight of the Canon,” American Music 16/2, Summer 1998, pp. 135-79, see also Bang on a Can’s discussion of marketing in NewMusicBox).

Finally, lurking behind the fantasy for a new common practice (based on late minimalism or anything else) is the desire for a new canon. The objections to canonization are well known and probably don’t need to be re-hashed here. But one pitfall worth mentioning is how canonization draws boundaries around a set of ideas, thereby deflecting attention away from historical processes in favor of musical objects. This unnecessary and sometimes arbitrary “fencing-in” has the potential to redirect a critic’s gaze away from important historical, social, or economic flows.

For example, although Gann momentarily mentions the important roles played by Asian and African diasporic musics in the rhythmic stress of minimalism, he is at pains to derive this interest in rhythm almost entirely from the Euro-American experimentalist tradition (see “Minimalism and the American Rhythmic Tradition”). This leads to the odd assertion that Terry Riley and La Monte Young “thought they were starting from scratch,” despite those composers’ oft-professed indebtedness to jazz and Indian classical music traditions. The sentence that Gann fantasizes might appear in a music history text in 2110—”Our current musical language arose in the 1960s and 70s…”—might be described as representing an immaculate conception model of musical genesis, wherein minimalism is thought to have dropped from the firmament instead of being the result of several overlapping cultural currents.

The “Common” Audience-with-a-capital-A that is thought to have existed in the first common-practice period is no longer socially or economically extant. What about “Practice” in the context of the contemporary global moment? In the original common-practice period, there was a practice to the “practice”: students were taught species counterpoint, fugue-writing, and the rules of functional harmony. Even in its latter-day attempt at extension, legions of composition students were well-versed in the practice of serial techniques. But what would a practice of today’s syncretist musical “language” be? A general attention to the “round the clock diffusion of all music of any time and origin,” in the words of Alvin Curran, might be a place to start, but I cannot imagine a process whereby this could, or should, be codified into a set of “common practices.” The scope of such an activity is potentially never-ending.

Perhaps it is more realistic if the individual routes traced out in the open field of cultural production can remain just that — individual. In Alvin Curran‘s over-the-top manifesto, “The New Common Practice” (MusikTexte 53, March 1994, pp. 35-38), he defines it as: “the direct unmediated embracing of sound, all and any sound, as well as the connecting links between sounds, regardless of their origins, histories or specific meanings; by extension, it is the self-guided compositional structuring of any number of sound objects of whatever kind sequentially and/or simultaneously in time and in space with any available means.” While I question his embrace of everything “…regardless of their origins, histories or specific meanings…” for the same reasons I resist certain aspects of totalism, the valuable insights of Curran’s definition include his attention to “connecting links” and the allowance for a “self-guided” approach. But his “anything goes” vision remains utopian unless or until it is co-opted by others who would translate that vision into a practice (understood in terms of skills and techniques, like the common practice of old). This re-inscription of his musical call-to-arms undermines, or even reverses, his actual proposal — from “anything goes” to “anything goes like this.” In Alvin’s view, today’s music (“a baby learning to walk”) is too rich, diverse, and formless to be confined to anything resembling a canon or common practice. As I remember it, his approach to composition is the same as his approach to teaching: no rules, or rather, no necessary rules. Scored, improvised, electronic, acoustic, installed, performed, anything—Alvin’s expectation was that you would do whatever it took to get your idea across, preferably “full-assed.” His New Common Practice is nothing more than No Common Practice. What else could it possibly be?

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

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