This is a long overdue review for a piece I saw in June at Hackney’s Apiary Studios: MAS Productions’ Lady Vendredi’s Urban Rites: Battle Cry! The results of a week-long, intensive workshop in ‘Secular Ecstatic Art’, this was a chaotic and riotous music-theatre-happening led by Lady Vendredi (the Afrofuturist alter-ego of performance artist and musician Nwando Ebizie) and her band The Vendettas. It was also fantastic, although — as a thoroughly immersive and genuinely genre-ambiguous performance — I’m going to have to resort to my own very personal experience of the event to try and explain why it was so good.
As someone who’s internalised most of the dominant left-wing art and theory positions, and equipped myself with all the necessary critiques, it is relatively rare for me to feel challenged by an artwork. I’m talking about those artworks that really force you to consider, redefine and justify your attitudes, in the way that so much art would like to do. For this reason, I’m especially excited when I find one which, like Battle Cry!, seems to demand critique and then immediately resist it.
I need to have some serious problems with a work in order to bother writing a bad review these days. It has to really rile me on an ideological level. I’ve actually seen quite a few operas so far this year that have tried to engage with ‘contemporary events’, and ended up demonstrating some pretty odious politics (and the subjects are never actually very contemporary either), but they were productions far too small to be worth engaging with. Tansy Davies’s ‘9/11 opera’ Between Worlds is not a small event; it is a major ENO/Barbican co-commission, a nationwide media event, a huge undertaking that deals with one of the most epochal events of our time, and it’s been pretty well received. I saw it on Sunday afternoon, and I have serious problems with it. So I’ve written a very bad review. Here goes…
Between Worlds depicts the events of the 9/11 attacks by focusing on five characters who work in the WTC: four white-collar professionals and a janitor. They start their days, leave their homes and arrive for ‘an important meeting’ in a conference room which is suspended – as the middle section of a three-tier set – above a milling chorus on the ground (who variously represent their loved ones, a grieving crowd and a sea of dead bodies) and below a higher tier on which a mysterious, Shamanic countertenor sits and interjects periodically. The characters are only very vaguely differentiated, primarily in relation to their absent families. They experience fear and confusion when the first tower is hit, attempt a failed escape, express their regrets, call home to leave a message of love, and finally accept death. We hear almost nothing about the details of the events as they unfurl. Continue reading
This was the dissertation I wrote for my Art & Politics MA at Goldsmiths. It was an attempt to think through the idea of critique in relation to music, as well as an excuse to listen to loads of ‘political’ music from the late 20th century.
(You can download it as a PDF here: DOWNLOAD)
This dissertation attempts a critique of music’s potential for critique, focusing in particular on the extent to which music can make a critical intervention within an ‘extra-musical’, socio-political situation. I begin by outlining some of the ways in which political music has attempted such an intervention over the last century, focusing on three musical ‘affordances’ which can be used to argue both for music’s political potential and its essentially apolitical nature. I aim to show that it is always possible to ‘listen in spite of’ any political content, as a result of a self-definition of ‘the music itself’, which necessitated the turn to ‘immanent critique’ by the ‘critical composition’ movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s. By identifying certain transcendent criteria within this musical auto-critique, I suggest that this approach also artificially limits the critical potential of music, through the affirmation of an uncritiqued definition of ‘music’ through which its auto-critique remains possible. Instead, I propose an alternative model of musical critique which acknowledges and makes use of these limitations, which can be related to what Harry Lehmann has called ‘critical modernism’. While still limited, this model is more reflexive and more adaptable than some of the previous strategies of musical critique.
Can Music (Still) Be Critical?
While the title of this essay promises a critique of musical critique, one of the main objects of this critique – the historically-recognised category of ‘critical composition’ – is in fact defined by its concerted attempts at auto-critique, meaning that this essay will partly be a critique of music’s critique of itself. I aim to explore the limits of music’s criticality, particularly in relation to the possibility of music making a critical intervention into what we might recognise as the ‘socio-political’ sphere. The idea that music can be ‘political’ – can be somehow ‘to do with’ politics or broader social issues, or can even function as an agent for change in an ‘extra-musical’ sphere – is as widespread as it is contested, but the notion of ‘political music’ has a particularly ambivalent relationship with ‘critical composition’. In some ways, the music that is most actively self-critical is also the music that is most sceptical towards its wider ‘political’ potential. Continue reading
Posted in theory
Tagged Adorno, Björk, Corey Dargel, critical, Dancer in the Dark, Habermas, Johannes Kreidler, Lachenmann, Lehmann, music, Nicolaus A. Huber
I realise that the biting point has been getting rather weighty and theoretical of late. There’s plenty more of that to come, but I’m taking this opportunity to say a few quick things:::
1) We do intend to do more reviews, only we haven’t seen much recently, and what we have seen hasn’t been remarkable. However, to keep ourselves informed – and anyone else who cares – we’ve started a listings page for music in London. Criteria for inclusion are basically the same as the criteria for the We Break Strings book: new ‘composed’, ‘acoustic’ music, produced outside of big institutions or performed in unusual spaces, but with plenty of exceptions. Get in touch via email if you have any suggestions for events or nights to include. When there’s something worth writing about – musically or politically (not that we really see a difference) – then we’ll endeavour to write about it.
2) A few more of those ‘why does everyone hate new/classical music?’ think-pieces have emerged over the last few months, but I think I’ve pretty much said everything I can on the subject. I feel like my opinion has completely changed, in that I no longer feel invested in that ‘debate’ at all, but this doesn’t mean that I agree with most of the jaded brigade. I’ve collated all my responses in the essays/articles page.
Ditto, in general, for ‘indie classical’, ‘neo-classical’, etc. There’s plenty about that stuff in We Break Strings, which we’re currently trying to get distributed further afield. However, I was struck by my reaction to this video and article from Boiler Room/Joe Muggs, about their recent ‘Stay True Germany’ videos. I always find it interesting to see which fuzzy grouping of artists will be included when someone does a round-up of this or that ‘underground classical’ trend. I quite like the video, which focuses on Hamburg, maybe because it has a seemingly quite random distribution of people with different things to say that nevertheless adds up to something (also the cheeky Marx/Engels/Lenin busts in Carl Craig’s studio). The article is even broader and fuzzier, but rightly so: if this is a movement then it’s certainly a fuzzy one. Continue reading
This is the transcript from an hour-long talk I gave at the 2014 UNM festival in Malmö, Sweden. The theme of the festival, and of the talk, was ‘Music Resistance’. In my review of the festival, I explore some of the ways in which some of the pieces in the festival programme engaged with this theme. This talk was written during the festival, and was partly inspired by this programme, so I’ve indicated examples where relevant that link to my review. The talk also followed lectures by Johannes Kreidler and Jennifer Walshe, and preceded a debate with UNM composers on the theme of music resistance. As well as an attempt to engage with, unpack and explode this idea, the talk functions as a revision of some of my previous ideas – particularly ‘the manifesto’ of 2011 – and should function as the most direct statement of my particular critical/artistic ‘project’ to date.
This is an attempt to tackle the subject of ‘music resistance’ head on. I should affirm, to begin with, the importance of the notions of ‘reflexivity’ and ‘situatedness’ to my position, which I will continue to return to.
I have come to understand my practice (both critical and compositional) in terms of a BELIEF IN THE POSSIBILITY OF POLITICAL MUSIC. What is most important to me is the political potential of music. I have taken this on as my own system of valuation – as opposed to more familiar ways of evaluating whether music is ‘good’ or ‘successful’ or ‘valuable’ – but I hope that I’ve done so reflexively, in as full an awareness as possible of my adoption of these categories, what they mean: what ‘political’ means, what ‘potential’ means, etc. This is not an arbitrary thought experiment though; it is a way in which I personally evaluate art. I believe in the possibility of art to change subjectivities, to change the way we perceive the world, the way we relate to the world, and thereby change the world. Continue reading
the biting point was invited to talk at the 2014 Ung Nordisk Musik (UNM) festival in Malmö. The festival was held during the final week of August, and took as its theme ‘Music Resistance’. It showcased recent compositions by thirty-five young composers – seven from each of the five Nordic countries – alongside talks by Jennifer Walshe, Johannes Kreidler and myself, and a debate amongst the participants on the subject of the festival’s theme. The music was consistently fantastic and the event as a whole was pretty inspirational, not least because of the framing theme and its political implications.
This article outlines some of my experiences from the festival, in terms of this theme. I discuss some of the pieces that seemed to speak to this theme most directly and powerfully. The ‘Music Resistance’ theme wasn’t an explicit guideline for the submission of scores, nor was it an integral part of the selection process, but was instead used mainly as a basis around which to curate the lecture/debate events. It is somewhat indicative of the present state of composition (in these countries) then that the final selection included such a diversity of compositional strategies of resistance.
Since 1946, UNM has been held annually, as a space for young composers to share their work and their ideas, develop relationships across borders, and foster an international artistic community, which was very much in evidence this year (a shared fluency in English was certainly a huge benefit here). As a platform for new music, it seems pretty exemplary. Concerts are free, open to the public, and vary in format and scale, with some very effective gallery-style performances as well as more traditional set-ups. The freedom given in terms of forces, duration and style – determined only by the predilections of each country’s panel of judges – led to a diverse musical programme. As an institution, it is as ‘grassroots’ as such a festival could be, with an organisational board comprised of young composers and musicians from each country, who hold open meetings in which the year’s jury members (as well as new board members) are proposed and elected. The call for scores is open to anyone under the age of 30, or still in music education, who is a national or legal resident of that country. As an organisational structure for a new music festival, it felt markedly different from the dynamic of artistic directors and big-name curators. Continue reading