Monday, March 12, 2007

The End of the History of Music

In my blog post from yesterday, “Free Jazz and the End of the History of Jazz,” I wrote of free jazz and totally free improvisation as the end of the history of jazz. In speaking of the “end of the history of jazz,” I was drawing on, among other things, the writing of Arthur C. Danto on visual art which presents a Neo-Hegelian view whereby the grand trajectory in art is movement toward a zero degree difference between art world and real world. I argued that in Free Jazz we see the emergence of this zero degree difference between intentionally produced sound and noise.

In the previous post, I was also concerned with jazz as a specific mode or form of music and was also interested (following more the work of another Neo-Hegelian art critic, Clement Greenberg) in the history of the development of an element essential to jazz in particular, free improvisation, the development of which led also to the development of free jazz and Danto’s zero degree difference between art world and real world.

Here, I am interested in placing the history of jazz within the history of Western Art Music generally. Jazz is a particular mode of music with its own unique history, both in a sociocultural and an art historical sense (with the art historical sense the main focus of the previous post). At the same time, jazz exists and has always existed in relation to other forms of music.

Free Jazz in particular was part not just of the historical trajectory of jazz but also simultaneously part of a broad set of developments in western art music from roughly the 1950s through the 1970s which taken together brought about the end of the history of music by reaching zero degree difference between musical sound and random noise, albeit doing so via different routes.

The aleatory music associated with composers such as John Cage came close to this, in much the same way that Marcel Duchamp’s urinal did in visual art – aleatory music could be looked at as “ready made” or “found” aural art. This is taken probably to its extreme form in Cage’s Four Minutes and Thirty-Three Seconds of Silence, where the musician “plays” silence and where ambient sound is the music. Olivier Messiaen’s notations of bird song represent a very different example of found music. Where aleatory music takes noise and presents it as musical sound, Messiaen took patterned sound (i.e. music) produced by non-humans and presented it via human made instruments as human music. In either case, Cage’s and Messiaen’s music stop subtly short of the zero degree difference Danto has in mind; just as with Duchamp’s urinal, there is no or little difference in these cases between already existing phenomena and art objects or phenomena, but only because found phenomena are presented as art. They don’t involve the creation of art as art which is indistinguishable from phenomena existing aside from art.

Where free jazz reached the end of the history of jazz and of western art music via the development of a key element of jazz (free improvisation) to its logical conclusion, certain trends in classical music reached the end of the history of classical music and of western art music at about the same time via the development of a key element of classical music (scripted programming of music, and the gradual elimination of the freedom of the composer with a sort of musical determinism) to its logical conclusion, with this especially associated with total serialist composition and musical experiments of composer such as Karlheinz Stockhausen or Gyorgi Ligeti.

Notation or scripting of music, at least in minimal ways, goes back at least to the Middle Ages in Western art music. We see the beginnings of the restriction of freedom of the composer and a musical determinism at least by the time of J. S. Bach’s work in the early 1700s. The logical end point of this can be seen in the development of Arnold Schoenberg’s early 20th century compositional ideas in total versions of serialism in the 1950s and 1960s, associated with composers such as Pierre Boulez, where a scheme to determine all the elements of musical composition would be set, with the resulting composition being the resulting working out of the scheme. This sometimes resulted in brilliant, unconventional and surprising music, but it also often led to music which was conceptually interesting but indistinguishable to listen to from random noise. While not an example of serialism per se, a similar effect is reached with Ligeti’s musical experiment Poeme Symphonique for 100 Metronomes. As the title implies, the piece consists of 100 programmed metronomes allowed to play simultaneously until all wind down. It’s a conceptually brilliant experiment in extreme polyrhythm (at moments, the rhythms that manifest are fascinating) and in pushing music to its limits, but for most it’s not a piece for repeated listening.

The end of the history of music is reached with the production of musical art which is utterly indistinguishable from random noise. This can be reached through total freedom, as arguably happens on some Albert Ayler recordings, or it can be reached through total determinism, as with Ligeti’s piece for metronomes, but either way the result is the same. (Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of both Ayler and Ligeti, but some Ayler tracks and some Ligeti compositions are not for most to listen to repeatedly, and in both cases, for me the most appealing works are those which stop just short of total chaos, or which, having already achieved that, simply move on to making good music.)

As I wrote in the previous post, and as Danto has written of visual art, the end of the history of western art music is not a bad thing, nor is it the end of western art music. Instead, it entails a freeing up of composers and musicians from participation in an art historical trajectory. One quite pleasant effect of this is that, although some musical ideologues do still tediously hang around, the dogmatic ideological conflicts that so polarized both “classical” and “jazz” varieties of art music in the 1950s through at least the 1970s seem truly to be falling to the wayside bit by bit.

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