the biting point in 2013: The Rest is Noise

The Southbank Centre’s The Rest is Noise festival started last weekend and I am terminally ambivalent over it. Sure, there are some really exciting, exclusively 20th-century concerts lined up – a pretty rare thing, and I’m sure they’ll bring in big new audiences – but I also think there’s a significant compromise involved. Either way though, it’s such an interesting opportunity to think about how music is branded, how modern art in general is conceptualised as a state-subsidised social provision, and about music’s relationship to its ‘historical/biographical context’ of composition as opposed to concepts of ‘universality’, or even other ‘contextual’ paradigms (contemporary reception, for example).

I’ve posted about the festival before: it represents a year-long programme of concerts, talks and events, a collaborative venture between the Southbank Centre, London Philharmonic Orchestra, the BBC and the Open University, which periodises 20th-century music into week-long, chronologico-thematic mini-programmes, each including a set of concerts involving a huge range of ensembles (subsuming much of the standard Southbank rosta), along with a weekend of talks.

The Museum Brand

We can assume that the festival as a whole was envisaged as an experiment in a relatively new branding strategy to attract audiences to the supposedly ‘risky’ and ‘difficult’ music of the 20th century, which is often resistant to the usual ‘Classical Greats/Maestros and Masterpieces’ labels. It’s not technically a completely new and crazy tactic; it’s a common approach in modern art exhibition, for example. To generalise, it’s the kind of curation strategy in art that separates the ‘museums’ from the ‘galleries’. Rather than the ‘White Cube’, ‘art-speaking-for-itself’ of standard classical ‘gallery’ programming, this is the info-packed, periodised and thematised ‘museum approach’.

It is actually fairly new for classical music. True, there are normally some elements of the ‘museum’ from concert to concert, with programme notes and historically-informed performance practice and the kind of ‘curator’ concerts which aim to ‘make a case’ for obscure juvenilia from Great composers’ least significant years (I touched on these elements in my discussion of postmodern historicism and ‘heritage’, in opposition to the more modernist conceptions of essential musical autonomy). But for the museum to be such an explicit, foregrounded and totalising force – the unapologetic curatorial strategy of a whole year of music – is surely unprecedented.

The strange fit of this strategy with respect to classical music begins to show when you consider just how much money you would have to spend if you want your ‘journey through the 20th century’ to take on any actual shape, in the way that it does if you read Alex Ross’s book. The answer is a lot of money (there are £500 year-long festival passes, which are ‘good value’ but also considerably more than the price of Ross’s book)This is, of course, due to the fact that listening to a piece of music takes time, while you can ‘journey’ through art history pretty quickly, depending on your own mobility. The overarching ‘progression’ throughout the whole year, and the interlocking of all the various events, is really driven home in the textbook-style programme and website, but in order to get any sense of this musical ‘century’ – which is quite meticulously programmed, I have to say – you’d have to go to a lot of concerts.

The Universal and the Particular (or, The Base and the Superstructure?)

So we can interpret the festival as an attempt to test a quick and effective way to package modern music programmes ‘accessibly’, to find a new (less classically-smitten) audience, to incorporate enough blockbusters (New World Symphony, anyone? (?!?)) to keep the core audience engaged, and to do it in a way that demands multiple ticket purchases in order for the event experience to function ‘properly’. Sneaky sneaky…

All this means that most of my main reservations about the structure of the festival as a whole – what is excluded (not only musically but historically), how things are framed, what is privileged etc. – arguably won’t be registered on the level that most people can afford to experience the event, i.e. at the level of the single concert. And don’t get me wrong, I have a lot of reservations about the structure of the festival, in particular about 1) branding music in this ‘historicist/biographic’ way, and 2) approaching history in this totally reified one-thing-after-another greatest-hits theme-park way. But I’m yet to decide how I feel about approaching a single concert as themed around a particular socio-political idea as pinpointed in time and space, which quite a few of them genuinely are. I think on the whole it’s a good thing, but maybe not as good as using a concert to approach a socio-political idea as it is manifested across different times and spaces (i.e. Leftist music from 1920 to now, nationalist music from the end of Imperialism to Perestroika, imagining nature musically across the 20th century: things like that (which may well have already been done), but with each necessarily including contemporary manifestations of the same theme).

What do two world wars, votes for women and a moon landing sound like?

– publicity for The Rest is Noise festival on Southbank Centre facade

Let’s return to those reservations though (because you know I love a gripe). the biting point has called, in the past, for a greater appreciation of socio-political and broader cultural factors in approaching classical music. Our complaint has been aimed at the privileged ideology of classical music as essentially transcending ‘worldly’ concerns – so universal that its ‘truth’ or ‘meaning’ must be situated way beyond its particular material/historical context, to either ‘the human condition’, or ‘the spiritual’, or some other vague ‘universal’ ‘outside’ of individual human experience, or even to a total absence of meaning. This complaint was made, in particular, against the limiting impact of this ideology on conceptions of what new classical music could/should be, and the role that new music could/should have in our society.

Having said all that, my main reservation in The Rest is Noise principle, contrary as it may sound, is actually that it is too specific. It not only pins musical compositions to singular circumstances in history, but also to singular biographies of dead composers, and their purported relationship to these circumstances.

I would certainly allow that music is more universal than that. As I see it, the whole point of (good) art is that it renders sensible/perceptible(/audible) some previously unseen/unseeable ideology, relationship, dynamic, drive, force, aspect or quality (sometimes called a ‘truth’) which cannot otherwise be sensed or acknowledged in the material, everyday world. Even reactionary (or ‘bad’) art involves some laying bare of ideology, of assumptions or of prejudices – its own particular ‘truths’ – through that key ‘poetic’ process of ‘subtraction’. It operates between the ‘universal’ and the ‘particular’, pertaining to neither extreme as a reified field of signification, but always (dialectically) mediating between the two. The philosopher Alain Badiou, in a series of 15 Theses for Contemporary Art which I love and have been quoting a lot recently, said:

Today art can only be made from the starting point of that which, as far as Empire is concerned, doesn’t exist. Through its abstraction, art renders this inexistence visible. This is what governs the formal principle of every art : the effort to render visible to everyone that which for Empire (and so by extension for everyone, though from a different point of view), doesn’t exist.

(By ‘Empire’, he means something like ‘the contemporary imperial force of multinational capital’. See here for more explanations, if you’re interested.)

This is a good injunction for new art (and music), but was it true for the art of the day? And, could that music in its re-performance – its ‘reactivation’, which is surely the closest we can get to its ‘essential’ substance (i.e., in sound, in time) – have the same effect? Can it show us something about our world that is denied by the surface-level ‘reality’ of ‘Empire’, of the status quo, of hegemony, of liberal-democratic capitalism?

The one-dimensional view of music-in-history, as something which might illuminate one of those key Hollywood ‘moments’ of the 20th century (or at least the ‘moment’ as experienced by one dead artist), denies the music’s continuing power as art (as defined above and in the Badiou, since this is what I think art should be/do).

History of Music vs. Music of History

I admit, I’m sure that no-one involved in conceiving the festival would deny that the contemporary audience’s reflection on the relevance and relationship between these historical events and their current situation is obviously a key aspect of presenting the music in this way. But this aspect should be at the absolute forefront of this kind of historicising art festival. By organising both the music and the history in such a fully-integrated, large-scale, highly teleological, highly narrativised structure, these possibilities are largely disabled. The result is a kind of play of signifying between ‘music’ and ‘history’, each referring to each other and invoking each other, locating the other within itself in a pre-loaded way, as a sort of foregone conclusion. The actual point of why a composer might want to write music in the first place, this ‘third’ domain of explication and reflection within the triangulation resulting from the intersection of art and history – which is, incidentally, that ‘difficult’ part of music so resistant to branding and so frightening to audiences, and the source of all art’s most powerful and radical political potential – risks being explained away or ‘filled in’ by tautological ‘background details’.

[Radical side-note (ironically aligned to the Right): And sure, potentially this aspect of the music will ‘speak for itself’, and perhaps the rest of the museum branding strategy is purely to trick the public – who have been trained to understand and trust only the one-dimensional language of publicity and commerce – into exposing themselves to this otherwise inarticulable factor which is the raison d’être of art. But (again with the But…), there are ways in which to encourage an engagement and understanding of this aspect of the art, and there are ways in which to obfuscate it, to pretend it isn’t there or isn’t important, or to suggest to the audiences that all you need is enough biographical details and some black-and-white photographs to ‘understand’ a piece of music completely. The former strategies are, I believe, the key strategies of a politically-potent music and my theory is that they must be couched within some frame of ‘newness’ or contemporaneity: alongside new compositions or with new staging techniques or interspersed with contemporary media, etc. The latter strategies are, dare I say it, attempts to disarm all political potential from this art, to remove all its utopian vision/drive towards change/radical difference/withdrawal/revolutionary engagement/conflict with the status quo. So it isn’t actually surprising that it represents the new tactics of a big, central state-subsidised arts institution which, conscious or not, will automatically be inclined to serve the interests of the ruling classes…                  (There, I said it.)]

At the heart of The Rest is Noise dilemma is the festival’s (necessarily?) ambiguous, self-contradictory conception of the relationship of music to history, retrospectively and as ‘consciously’ constructed and mediated throughout the 20th century. The programming (of the first half of the festival at least) is greatly skewed towards 1) ‘Great’ events (the World Wars, Stalin, the end of Empire), and 2) the broader ‘cultural zeitgeist’ as manifest in art and popular culture (expressionism, the ‘Jazz Age’, Surrealism in Paris, cabaret in Berlin, etc.). There is little (musical) consideration of all the stuff in between: socio-economic factors, everyday lives, class relations, technology as it pervades society, transformations in work, in leisure, in the media, in the way that we relate to our environment, our psychology as individuals and groups, etc etc., which not only ‘leads to’ these great events, but also manifests the effects of such great events in cultural zeitgeists.

(And this is part of my standard criticism of all music that resists interdisciplinary engagement with more linguistically/visually ‘specific’ media, ‘on principle’ (i.e. because of some belief that ‘good, real’ music doesn’t ‘need’ any other discipline to do what it’s ‘supposed to’ do, or whatever…(still trying to get to grips with this ideology. Heavy stuff…)))

Now, perhaps this will all be relegated to pre-concert talks and weekend ‘events’. And, obviously, any purported ‘history of the 20th century’ must necessarily be extraordinarily narrow to fit into a few weeks of concerts and 45-minute talks (not to mention the ridiculous problems of trying to tell the ‘story of a century’ through an art form endemic to only two continents (and ghettoised within a few urban centres in a few countries within these)). But I think it also comes down to the music which, as I’ve said before, very rarely explicitly engages with any of these ‘in-between’ concerns, with ‘materialistic’ concerns perhaps, but tends to surrender official autonomy only in broad responses to grand events and semi-autonomous responses to the aesthetic aspects of more engaged artistic movements in other media. (For example, I’m intrigued to find out how a talk on the highly-politicised but visually-focused Surrealist Manifesto will fit into a discussion of the concerts programmed in the ‘Paris’ week. Will it be just a tokenistic thing? Will they start discussing Adorno? Is it all just for ‘local flavour and colour’? Or are the audience supposed to figure out the connections all for themselves? We shall see, I guess…)

The Musical Story of the Music of the Century of Music

As a good way of summing up, I want to draw attention to a few quotations from the opening pages of the festival’s programme, which should illustrate why I find this whole thing so interesting:

1. Alex Ross, quoted saying:

I wanted to tell the story of the 20th century through its music.

2. Jude Kelly, artistic director of the Southbank, calling the festival:

A ground-breaking programme of concerts, talks, dances, films, debates and exhibitions that lets us see music in the round; that brings in the history of science, technology, philosophical and political movements; that gives people the chance to really delve into the ideas and individuals that shaped the 20th century and the music that was its soundtrack.

3. Timothy Walker, artistic director of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, writing:

Even if the composers of the last century claim to have written ‘music’ rather than a reflection of events, there can be no doubt that their work is a product of the socio-political environment of which they were a part and that we sense both prescience as well as inspiration.

Here are three extremely different ways of framing the relationship between ‘music’ and ‘the 20th century’. Which will it be? The ‘story’ of the 20th century ‘through its music’? Music ‘in the round’ (i.e., ‘contextualised’ on all sides)? The 20th century ‘and its soundtrack’? Composers ‘reflecting’, ‘foreseeing’ or ‘inspired by’ events? Or these events ‘producing’ the music?

I think this very multiplicity of relationships – some appearing contradictory, all potentially valuable – say a great deal about the immense difficulty of constructing a festival in this way, and about the need for keeping a critical awareness of its elisions, assumptions, prejudices and ideology. In all, The Rest is Noise represents a very interesting experiment in music programming, even if it is a desperate scheme by a nervous institution to maximise ticket sales from an audience enamoured with postmodern ‘period flavours’ and colourful Hollywood nostalgia for those days before the ‘End of History’.

A few other thoughts:

  • Talking of ‘music in the round’, some of the London Sinfonietta’s contributions come from their Landmarks series – a collaboration with the director Netia Jones – which ‘sets musical works and movements in the culture in which they originated’, through multimedia projections. I’m interested to see this but also fairly ambivalent, for all the reasons outlined extensively above. Does a simultaneous, performative multimedia aspect, rather than a more narrowly didactic series of ‘talks’ and framing explanations, allow for more links to develop between this ‘original context’ and what the work might be able to tell us about our contemporary situation – our context? Does a simultaneous, visual rather than discursive ‘unfolding’, placed alongside the music, allow the triangulated ‘explication’ (the ideology of the aesthetic) to loom larger in the room, or does it risk simply suggesting 1:1 explanations for each piece (i.e., this piece is ‘about’ this one specific place at this time, and can only be interpreted as such)? Perhaps it just depends what other media they choose to include; it’s hardly a neutral process.
  • Can you imagine if they did a ‘history of the 19th century’ programme? Or a ‘history of the 18th century’? I reckon people would think that was crazy (not least because we don’t need any more of that music programmed, thanks). But I don’t think it’d be any less valid. In some ways, music in those centuries was more tightly linked to the kind of ‘great man’ history which The Rest is Noise emphasises, with all its actual material ties to aristocrats, to empires and kings and the power of the church. It was more functional as well (unlike a lot of later 20th-century music which purposefully exempted itself from a public, non-academic audience). However, I think the real factor here is that this is the music which is perceived to be ‘universal’ – ‘absolute’, ‘abstract’, etc. – and I think the pre-existing audience would find a lot of problems with an attempt to link it to specific historical moments and trends. So where do 20th-century autonomy and universality principles sit in relation to 18th/19th-century autonomy and universality principles? Are they comparable? Are they attempting the same things? Do they achieve the same things? Do they have similar political potentialities? Are they both susceptible to co-option by reactionary ideologies and to instrumentalisation by the ruling classes, etc.? (questions questions questions…)
  • Is The Rest is Noise the desperate instrumentalisation of the increasingly venerated yet notoriously ‘unframeable’ 20th-century music by the cultural establishment, music whose very radical ‘inaccessible’ autonomy continues to make it unpalatable and unusable by the conservative classical fans who feel validated by the ‘transcendent’ emptiness of ‘their’ music?
  • Or should we just put our optimism hats on and consider the festival as a wholly positive institution, encouraging the conscientious of 20th century music concerts finally, not just slipped in as filler between Bachs or Haydns, and possibly setting a happy precedent for future years, by proving that dissonance isn’t so financially ‘risky’ after all? And then, we can trust that the true radical ambiguity of music will mean that some progressive aspect of the work will always still slip through all the explaining and contextualising, in that way that it’s generally supposed to?
  • Also, we were supposed to be exploring the musical century through ‘race’ and ‘sex’. So, does that mean… women? Cos… to be honest I think the idea that a festival of classical music might suggest what ‘votes for women might sound like’ is kind of taking the piss. Maybe there could be a discussion or two about why there are basically zero women in the programme?
  • Bitching aside, I’m reeeally looking forward to Shara Worden doing Seven Deadly Sins. And Les Mariés de la Tour Eiffel. And the Aurora Orchestra playing Antheil. And Modern Times with live accompaniment.
  • Most of all though, I’m looking forward to September. The real truth of the festival will come out once it gets past 1950. Music from the first half of the 20th century was never that inaccessible or unappealing anyway, and the historical events are much bigger, more colourful and more extensively Hollywood-ised. The way that the festival organisers deal with electronic music and total serialism, the complicated politics and philosophies around Darmstadt and Fluxus and the Scratch Orchestra and ‘experimental music’, to what extent they bring in pop music, and whether they make any attempted investigation into neoliberalism or state capitalism or Maoism or the May revolts: these are the things I’m interested in. The simple links to political/economical history often disappear in classical music around these times (as they’re superseded by pop music), so the manner in which the organisers attempt to associate the two must certainly become less intuitive. And what music are they going to choose from the ’80s and ’90s? And how will they manage a ‘political’ approach as they get perilously close to the present day? How exciting, I can’t wait to write another ridiculously long a priori assessment in September…
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3 Responses to the biting point in 2013: The Rest is Noise

  1. Enjoyed this post. I always think it’s revealing when music is described (as Jude Kelly does above) as a ‘soundtrack’ to something else. This word reflects film’s status as the ultimate art form of capitalist modernity and is used by those accept even life/history itself aspiring to the status of film, a verisimilitudinous simulacrum, for which music functions only as an unheard background pointer to emotional states.

  2. Pingback: the biting point in 2013: UPCOMING EVENTS |

  3. Pingback: Feminist Music at the Southbank: I. WOWhat?! |

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