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.
I arrived in Malmö with a few half-developed ideas of what I was going to talk about. My main concern was that the new music situation in these countries – the kind of music produced by these young people – would be completely different from the situation in the UK that I was used to. I’d just spent a few months researching new music trends in London (for the We Break Strings book), and theorising these trends in relation to the particular cultural and political circumstances of that city. I was concerned that the significant differences in (and between) the politics and cultures of the Nordic countries would similarly engender different trends, and require different analyses in terms of their ‘resistant’ qualities. In many ways, this turned out not really to be the case. The young composers at the festival seemed pretty similar, in general outlook, musical aesthetics and political attitude, to the London composers I know (although the five days I spent in Malmö hardly compare, as a case study, to my twenty-six years in London). Still, it was a strong enough concern that it came to determine the direction of my talk towards the idea of ‘situatedness’ and the question: ‘Resistance to what?’.
As well as the London research, my mind had been reformatted by my Masters thesis title – ‘Can Music (Still) Be Critical?’ – and the talk I eventually wrote was an attempt to include all of these theoretical/historical moments as evidence of the possibility/necessity of resistance (to something) as a composer. You can read a transcript of my talk here.
It was a treat for me to hear two of my favourite contemporary composers – Johannes Kreidler and Jennifer Walshe – draw connections between the resistance theme and their own work. This took a very different form in both cases: in Kreidler’s ‘Sentences on Musical Concept Art’ lecture, he not only described but advocated an approach to composition which clearly has the capacity to engage broader political ideas (I talk more about Kreidler’s work in my thesis, which I’ll post soon). Meanwhile, Walshe’s advice was more practical: a flexible, enterprising and subversive attitude towards the institutions within which music is produced (commissioned, performed, recorded, distributed) that she compared to ‘hacking’. This is the approach that informed her Grúpat collective of alter-egos – a platform for her incredible prolificness and refusal to be consigned to any medium or style – as well as her work across a huge range of media platforms (including her Snapchat project: THMOTES) and the DIY attitude behind her ‘Do It Anyway’ SPOR festival curation.
There’s a lot to say about the examples both Kreidler and Walshe set in terms of creating the conditions for the possibility of radical and political musical production today. But the festival programme itself proved just as instructive. As it progressed, more and more instances emerged of pieces that seemed to illustrate or illuminate different stages in my thought process. I think this is a testament to the success of the festival, and to the composers’ music, in that it shows new music capable of fulfilling what I consider the real role of art: to act as a gateway to new thoughts, ideas and subjectivities, creating unexpected links between sensory experience and interpretation that allow us to expand and enrich our understanding of the world in ways that would otherwise be impossible. I am delighted, then, to be able to explore a huge range of approaches to music and resistance, just by discussing pieces from the festival.
[Spending time with composers did force me to consider how much I care about the violence of the critic, especially one like myself whose ‘agenda’ differs quite significantly from the frames of comprehension through which most audiences encounter new music. But, clearly, I maintain the courage of my convictions. It is a challenge, and can feel uncomfortable, but that itself is important. This should be reaffirmed: interpretation is a terrain for struggle.]
Resisting the Composer: Max Wainwright (SE) & Jeppe Ernst (DK)
There were various cases of music implicated in resistance on its own level, in terms of an interior politics of musical production (albeit with a good deal of analogical/allegorical potential). This is actually one of the ways in which an artistic avant garde can be conceptualised: ‘musical works’ can exceed, evade or expand their definition as ‘music’ (or ‘works’) by resisting previously ‘necessary’ qualities of their medium (tonality/organicism/contiguity), systems of interpretation/judgement on the part of their listeners, or relations of production (and accompanying ideologies) with regards to composers or performers. One approach that exemplifies this legacy of resistance is the composer resisting their own power/control over the performer/piece. There were two pieces programmed in the first of the concerts that exemplified this route: one ‘positive’ in its approach, and one ‘negative’.
Max Wainwright’s living character was described as a ‘question about the nature of: live performance, intuition, control and drone music’. The composer lies on the floor on his back, between several loudspeakers, clutching a small console box to his chest. He fiddles with three or four knobs on the box and then clicks a switch to bring forth a heavy electronic drone. We listen to the drone for a period of time, before it is switched off, the composer reconfigures the knobs and a new drone is established with a new contour. This is repeated several times; the composer is unable to see the knobs but shifts the parameters intuitively. In this way, the performance entails a statement about the responsibility of the composer, even as his control is radically limited. We watch him make decisions before us, and he presents himself as responsible for the results: localising the drones on his body and appearing as a focus for our reactions, whether it be pleasure or annoyance, boredom, confusion. It is a performance of ‘responsibilisation’ – a term I use in my talk – and a commitment to his own actions even as the mechanism of the piece attempts to erase himself as a freely-acting composer in the usual sense. The composer affirms this in his biography: ‘Currently, I am working on different aspects of control – over myself, time, and sounds – and how to restrict my options during performances to limit my residual musical thinking and to unlearn what musical culture has taught me.’
Most of all, there is a humility to Wainwright’s performance, as he lies prostrate before us, which is directed not just to the audience but to the sounds. Even as human actions, decisions, creation, ‘music’ is renounced, the physical facts of the sounds are reaffirmed, as are the listeners’ immediate, intuitive relationships to them. What does it mean for a composer to appear so humble in the face of sounds? I touch on this in my talk, because I consider it a potentially problematic trend (if no more so than the general internalisation of the lessons of post-structuralism across our culture).
Later in the concert, Jeppe Ernst’s Rekviem (Part One: The Hysterical Treatment) provides a perfect response to this problem. It is, in some ways, the double of Wainwright’s piece, but also the opposite, in that it implicates the composer in an overtly sexual gender politics. Again, a man enters and lies down before us, but this time he is completely naked and lies on a table. Three women attend to him, and towels give the tableau the appearance of a massage parlour. A large score is laid out above his head. Fixing intently on the score and synchronised with each other, the women begin to touch the man with choreographed precision: rubbing him, tickling him, stroking him. The impression is of a scored massage procedure, with the women’s actions precisely prescribed. From rubbing and stroking, they precede to scratching and slapping. One of the women clutches his testicles and counts a number of beats. The whole procedure is performed with the familiar resigned and deadpan accuracy of the contemporary music performer whose fidelity the score is the more apparent the less they embody any sense of real purpose to the often bizarre and whimsical instructions.
The man appears as the absolutely passive recipient of the women’s actions, but also in the central presence of the score, which is also an analogue for the male composer. The performance moves from the enactment of a ‘menu’ of sexual ‘treatments’ – the enumerated and codified gestures of desire and intimacy – to the punishment of the man, but a punishment that is meted out according to the score of the male composer. It is the perfect representation of the score as locus of power, buried within a context (of sex work and BDSM) in which the ‘subversive’ performance of power is often constructed as a spectacle to satisfy more rigid underlying power relations. In this way, Rekviem is the performance of a feminist piece as scored by a man, and is doubly self-aware. The ironic lack of humility on the part of the composer here is underlined in his notes, in which he bluntly states: ‘The piece is to be understood as a composition for an instrument’.
Already by this point in the festival, I was wrapped up enough in the challenge of formulating my own argument that ‘music resistance’ came to determine my experience of pretty much every aspect of the week. A case in point came directly after this first concert, when my boyfriend and I stepped out of the venue onto a street along which a huge motorcade of cars was speeding. Every seat in every car was occupied by a keffiyeh-wearing protester (presumably Arab), spilling out of the windows, waving Palestinian flags and giving peace signs. There must have been at least forty of these cars, a constant flow, passing in small groups along the empty road, honking and shouting, so that the rampaging procession nevertheless took at least five minutes to pass us by. Not having checked the news that day, we feared the worst, although it turned out to be a celebration of the ceasefire agreed on August 26th. This spectacle of sound and speed, tearing through the late evening in a quiet corner of a troubled city, made the idea of any kind of ‘resistance’ occurring in the little rooms upstairs at Malmö’s Inter Arts Center seem momentarily very distant.
Extra-Musical Interventions: Hampus Norén (SE) & Henri Sokka (FI)
As the festival progressed, though, several pieces did attempt to make a more explicit intervention into an extramusical, political realm. Hampus Norén’s electroacoustic piece REVA was probably the most forthright of these interventions. The piece takes its title from a joint operation by the Swedish police, prison and migration services, checking ‘right of residence’ documents alongside ticket inspections in the Stockholm underground, in order to ‘boost the effectiveness of enforcement of deportations’. Seemingly similar to the recent UKBA raids at London stations, the enforcers have been accused of racial profiling, and the Swedish media have reported cancer sufferers without a residence permit who do not dare to take the underground to go to hospital for fear of being caught in one of these checks.
Norén’s piece is a montage of spoken testimony and environmental sound that has been subtly enhanced into a tense ten minutes of documentary hyper-realism, suggesting the exhausting and traumatic procession of affects that the illegal migrant experiences in a state of constant fear and fugitivity. Heavy breathing, blood pulsing and footsteps establish the listener in relation to an unseen protagonist, who is shunted unpredictably between plateaux of sound. The piece derails any sense of shelter and stability that might be heard in field recordings of lapping waves, a nighttime exterior, the rain on a roof. Each new environment is charged with the anticipation of forced escape, so that the transit between otherwise placid sonic environments becomes fraught and every rustle or crunch is perceived as some oblique warning signal.
The distillation and reproduction of these environmental sounds works to defamiliarise them, rendering them potentially hostile and always in need of attention – something to be hyper-aware of at all times – in the way that the threat of deportation charges the otherwise everyday experience of urban transit with immediate danger. But the false security that these sounds might produce in their realness are merely a temporary shelter at the centre of the piece which begins and ends with a sonic panic that consumes a stable sense of location. The deafening noise of flight which bookends the piece removes any sense that this transit is calculated, bringing it back to a position of traumatic fear and paranoia which is underlined by the voice in the recording:
When I wake up in the morning I’m thinking at which station the police will be waiting for me? Sleeping in the night, thinking: tomorrow, if I go into town, they will get me. You can’t live like that… I don’t have my homeland, I have nothing. In Afghanistan, in Sweden… Nowhere.
Within the temporary shelter which the piece appears to produce – standing in for what must be perceived as a necessarily imperfect, fragile and ephemeral platform within which the migrants’ own voices can be heard – Norén sets up what I perceive as two other critical oppositions, which posit in microcosm a couple of the ways in which music and sound can critique on its own terms. The fraught sound world of the migrants and their testimony is overlaid with (but not entirely separated from) another account, this time of a round-the-world ocean voyage from 1978. This entirely different experience of international travel, an inverted migration for the purposes of exotic adventure and leisure with its attendant ocean sounds, bleeds into the account of the migrants, whose relationship to the ocean sounds and their dangers must be so different.
Later on in the piece, we hear two recordings rewound and played back from a tape deck. The first is harp music – poignant and pathetic as it sits nakedly on the sound stage, alongside stifled cries and the thickness of the atmosphere – before it is cut off; the second is a brief recording from inside an airplane during a recent deportation: desperate screams and authoritative voices. These two symmetrical events could constitute between them a self-critique of the piece, or political music in general. Not only does the fragment of music, and its foregrounded intrusion/insubstantiality via tape playback, contrast with the life-or-death urgency of the sonic environment as a locus for warning signs. The reproduction of documentary sound, in the imperfect fidelity of the tape, within a piece that already reproduces documentary sound seems to stage the limits of sound as a medium for the ‘bringing to light’ of real, past injustice. The frame of the electroacoustic field – in time, in space, in frequency – is captured for a short while by the voices of the marginalised (an ephemeral asylum) before the unseen fugitive is pursued once again out of the frame of audibility and the piece ends.
Inextricable from the piece was the composer’s own post-performance address, explaining some of the content and context for non-Swedish-speakers like myself, with an emotional intensity that transformed the whole event, bringing it crashing down into Malmö’s own unsettled social life, with its concentration of antisemitic Far Right groups and the recent knife attack by fascists on a group of feminist demonstrators on International Women’s Day. As a forceful, deeply personal presentation of earnest belief – commitment – in the possibility of political music, it was unanswerable.
Political content was invoked in a number of other pieces in different ways. Henri Sokka’s affirmation that his choice of text for There Will Come Soft Rains impinged on climate issues nudged the otherwise straightforward Romantic imagery of Sara Teasdale’s 1920 poem into an urgent contemporaneity.
I think this quiet gesture actually speaks to the quite fascinating possibility that what has been for a while a fairly safe, permissible, even conservative programmatic realm for music, that of nature, has become politicised. Not only would it be eminently satisfying for the discourse of Romanticism to regain some of its original radicalism, but it speaks to the tenor of the time that Teasdale’s words can be preserved intact – ‘Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree, If mankind perished utterly; And Spring herself, when she work at dawn, Would scarcely know that we were gone.’ – and suddenly appear at the heart of the mechanisms of global policy: think tanks and summits, quotas and treaties, all desperate and seemingly feeble responses to florid Romantic ultimatums.
Invocation of nature in music not only has extensive precedent but, through many composers’ efforts to re-situate music in ‘natural’ physical phenomena, there is something ‘empirical’ about music’s having to do with nature, rather than its having to do with anything political, social, etc. I tend to find some such experiments tautologous – finding the nature in music, and musicalising it – as if music could or should ever be scientifically valuable on those terms. Sokka’s piece can, instead, be heard to join previous composers who attempt to find the music in nature and musicalise it – i.e. providing an image of nature, via the music of nature. So we return to the politicisation of the representation of nature through music, intriguing because perhaps the very distance between the ‘thing’ and its representation – unlike a photograph or a field recording – means that the mediation is always an issue, it cannot hide itself. We are invited to consider this mediation – this representation – for its imperfections and untruths, like the seemingly bucolic, ‘timeless’ agricultural landscapes which efface the artifical, industrial dynamics that have shaped them and continue to change them (which is actually the subject of one of my favourite films: Patrick Keiller’s Robinson in Ruins).
Composing against the Content: Kaj Duncan David (DK/UK) & Kristin Boussard (SE)
Another piece involving borrowed speech was replacement 1 [the things I say will not be wrong], by Kaj Duncan David, for piano trio alongside extensive samples from a 1972 lecture by Karlheinz Stockhausen. While Norén constructed a precarious, embattled space for the presentation of his marginalised voices, David’s piece reproduced Stockhausen’s speech in order to gently, wryly undermine it. Stockhausen is responding to a question from the audience following his lecture to the Oxford Union on ‘Four Criteria of Electronic Music’; the questioner asks about the potential ‘dehumanisation’ of electronic music, both as a medium and in terms of possible content: ‘If the art doesn’t have the potential of touching basic human concerns, such as love, hate, you know, these kinds of things, can it live? Is it really valid art?’ Stockhausen’s answer is predictably outrageous in its sub-Nietzschean crypto-fascism: ‘It is certainly a mistake to consider all human beings equal…’ etc. He suggests, citing Sri Aurobindo, that his music is written for a new race of ‘supra-humans’ that is on the verge of ‘evolving’, and leaving the majority ‘fearful’ that ‘they might not make it’ to this higher plane of being.
This speech provides the skeleton of the composition around which David’s trio (performed by the peärls before swïne experience) provide a light, deadpan commentary. Rather than pouring scorn on the composer’s pomposity or unearthing the depths of horror beneath his words and their connotations, the piece resists the sentiments of the composer (and any more general pretentions on the part of modernist music or other ‘advanced art’ to universal value or truth) through a kind of subversive feedback mechanism. Stockhausen’s speech on the value of his own art – or the image that he wishes to construct of that value, inaccessible as it is to mere humans – is in turn rendered as a musical work. As a tape piece, performed via a sampler, it is a kind of ‘electronic’ music although Stockhausen’s voice itself provides both a degree of ‘humanity’ and ‘content’ that the composer tries to proscribe, even as its deadpan self-referentiality locates it uneasily with the humanism that the questioner advocates. The music which cloys to his speech cheekily undermines his own supra-human conceits by composing out his thoughts in a medium which he simultaneously rejects, but at the same time it purports to reproduce those words as its own content (i.e. the exposition of Stockhausen’s views are central to the piece, a fact that is emphasised in the title). In this way, it mocks not only Stockhausen’s approach to his music, and his generally disgraceful worldview, but any kind of positive ideology of music’s value. This is music as a kind of constructive negation of meaning. Placed alongside the recorded speech – which is organised sound in time as a more controlled, more deceptively transparent medium of communication – music restores the nonsensical to what is effectively a stream of nonsense (Stockhausen’s lecture) that attempts to capture and encode another stream of nonsense (electronic music) in order to cultivate an ideology of radical misanthropy and social Darwinism.
The relation between political content and the musical medium was probably most unusual in Kristin Boussard’s Ecdysis. Written for two male voices and a small wind ensemble, the piece is an attempt to compose around – or through – a striking performative gesture: the two male singers (Emil Roijer and Mathias Monrad Møller) sing mouth-to-mouth, locked in a kiss for the majority of the piece. The singers’ muffled voices maintained their discrete identities within a duet whose tones – filtered through an assemblage of bodies – were mirrored and elaborated by the voices of the assembled wind instruments.
Neither title nor programme note refers to the implicitly resistant qualities of the gesture. Ecdysis refers to the shedding of skin, framing the performance in terms of the vulnerability of the singers, both in terms of the bodily dimension of their sound production (adjoining the intimacy of their internal instrument to that of another) but also, surely, as people and as men, within a public situation. Public displays of same-sex intimacy are charged with confrontation at the best of times, but the gay kiss is also a kind of iconic ritual. I remember the media announcements of the first gay kisses on various television channels, broadcast at certain times of day and in various long-running soap operas, etc., as the breaking of seemingly quite physical boundaries: the systematic occupation of the medium.
As a sign of resistance, then, the same-sex kiss maintains a huge investment of symbolic value (and can still be used as a form of ‘direct action’, even in the UK – as in the case of the recent ‘kiss-in’ at a Brighton Sainsbury’s). But Ecdysis maintains this performative gesture as a pure icon, rather than unpacking its content, and in this way the gesture actually risks resisting its assimilation into a coherent musical performance. For me, Ecdysis was about an attempt to fold a tenacious musical ‘problem’ back into a context of ‘normal’ musical performance. One of the most striking aspects of the performance was the two tall mirrors flanking the performance area, the symbolic potential of which was overridden by their sheer pragmatic value: they were necessary in order for the two singers to watch the conductor. The accompanying sound world seemed both determined by the strange, magnified noise of singing through someone else’s mouth, and determined to render it into something more conventional than it threatened to become. For me, the final impression was of a performance carefully constructed to resist its own derailing by the problematic (resistant) gesture: an assimilationist performance perhaps, comparable even to the refitting of heterosexual marriage around gay couples, in order to ‘re-capture’ all resistant queerness. As with Jeppe Ernst’s piece, the patently constructed aspects of this – which can be mapped more generally onto the apparatus of musical control in classical performance practice – remain manifest in all their problematic dimensions. Only, in this case, the performers hold the balance of power, engaging in a subversion of performance practice which cannot fully be contained.
Resisting New Music: Joakim Jalhed (SE) & Marcela Lucatelli (DK/Brazil)
Two pieces performed towards the end of the festival attempted resistance on an even more ‘meta’ level. Rather than presenting politically ‘resistant’ content, or intervening in the relationships of power and control at play in musical production, Marcela Lucatelli and Joakim Jalhed present two divergent instances of ‘anti-music’, which satirise the potential of new music to make any kind of effective resistant gesture, even within its own sphere.
Jalhed’s video piece imagiMusic: Basics, presented in the form of a recently discovered VHS of a late and hitherto unknown project by John Cage, imagines a sort of ironic endgame to Cage’s conceptual musical philosophy. The notes read as follows:
imagiMusic, the latest in recreational home products from trusted silence makers and cultural innovators Cage Corp. Have you ever wanted to make music out of thin air, or come up with artistic ideas on a whim? Look no further! imagiMusic is an all encompassing training suite to help you create any sound art imaginable – anywhere, anytime. Use of imagiMusic is also applicable in health care and rehabilitation including, but not restricted to, cases of depression, cancer, narcolepsy, insomnia, coma and tennis elbow.
The piece is a brilliant pastiche of an ‘80s corporate video, which teaches the audience to produce an array of increasingly bizarre sounds in their imaginations, employing tacky visuals and animations, before finally combining these sounds into a silent suite. The ‘music’ is all internal and imagined, but is indisputably vivid and absolutely hilarious; sounds are established, honed and recalled with a certain animation as visual cue. As the animations are wryly combined, the sounds are developed into a multi-textured orchestration, albeit all in complete silence.
The raw concept itself works perfectly, and is surely in keeping with Cage’s own light-hearted approach to his musical conceptualism. Yet what really makes the piece is its satirical contextualisation – the ‘Cage Corp’ references – which link the practice of ‘immaterial’ musical production to both the ‘postmodern’ turn within broader processes of production – liquid, flexible, cognitive – and a related interest in a kind of New Age, self-help approach to health and fitness, as well as spiritual, emotional ‘health’. In my talk, I (quite irresponsibly) chucked in the word ‘responsibilisation’, referring obliquely to a Foucauldian trend in which individuals are encouraged to take responsibility for their own welfare – health and happiness – in keeping with political ideologies of individualism, as well as ‘relativism’, the ‘death of the author’ and the celebration of the open text. It’s up to all of us to interpret it as we like, and take from it what we can. No-one can tell us categorically what something ‘means’, not even the artist. I was excited to see Jalhed’s piece, then, because it explicitly makes the link between Cage – whose work promotes this kind of openness, and the validity of the individual’s subjective interpretation – and similar, broader trends in production (and consumption).
imagiMusic is a kind of cultural/artistic self-help course, which valorises artistic production on the level of the individual imagination. It is both emancipatory, in that it frees musical production and appreciation from all material production (i.e. sound), but it is also absurdly prescriptive, and in this way it resembles similar ‘immaterial’ spiritual and emotional projects, which deign to teach us how to be ‘true to ourselves’, authentic, genuine, free, etc., but at a price. Despite its amusingly dated aesthetic, the critique that the work poses remains very current, in that it appears to posit a kind of new market of music that doesn’t yet exist, that needn’t exist: ‘speculative’ music, akin to the virtuality of the financial products, our reliance on which caused the 2008 crisis and will continue to cause us further crises. It is not a total attack on Cage, but rather the construction of a situation in which his breakthroughs have been captured and recouped, channelled towards banality and profit rather than emancipation.
Marcela Lucatelli’s TUNING TIME was one of two pieces which, for me, seemed almost to make the whole festival collapse, by destabilising the assumptions which form its foundations. Within a sculptural performance space, the three percussionists of Hidden Mother perform a drone with parameters dictated by long multi-coloured graphic scores suspended from the ceiling. The composer, dressed in a horse mask, counts up from zero, while a projected video alternates a countdown from one hundred, and scenes from a seemingly disconnected performance involving body paint. A balloon is suspended above a ladder. The space is littered with various other disparate objects.
It presented itself as the kind of live-art-informed experimental music that treads a fine line between anarchic freedom and cliché. I myself have worn the same brand of horse mask in another piece, with similar intent, and I’ve seen it appear in countless other contexts, to varying effects. I have to say, though, my experience of TUNING TIME was nothing short of revelatory. To begin with, I approached it – like any good, generous, informed listener – eager to mine it for potential meaning, invest it full of potential readings, and – of course – to try and fit into my own overall narrative about ‘resistant’ music at the festival. Looking at the audience members across the room, I was sure they were doing the same. We had over twenty minutes to parse the work, to think of clever interpretations, to arrive at the correct overall judgement that might separate two near-identical pieces into ‘effective’ or ‘ineffective’, depending on how knowing, how referential, how assured, how committed it appeared in its recycling of the mess of signifiers which, many decades ago, broke the artistic work beyond repair. Was it ‘pretentious’ or not? This sometimes becomes the only question when confronted with such a work.
From the start though, the piece evaded such attempts to read it and categorise it. It invited us to see structures and frameworks, but refused to run its course in the way that we expected. At the same time, its ‘free’ elements were far from anarchic, and seemed carefully prescribed, albeit not according to the patterns initially suggested. There were instructions embedded in the score to discount previous instructions, to move against and override any previous logic. At one point, there was an orchestrated and ironically pointed moment of faux ‘resistance’, in which one player left his instrument chanting: ‘Music resistance, music resistance, I am resisting, fuck the rules, this is music resistance’, or something similar – itself a gesture clearly written into the score. The countdowns were erratic, and began to stop, skip or move backwards, troubling what seemed initially to be our navigating thread through the whole confounding experience. There was a strong sense that the composer was simultaneously parodying both freedom and control, punishing the audience for expecting anything, for taking anything seriously, for accepting any governing logic or giving over to any desire concerning the completion of gestures.
The humour was intense, but very dry – not anarchic, but a parody of an expectation of anarchy. It was the video that did it for me, showing apparently deadpan performance art, surely not a joke, surely something to try to admire and interpret, despite its place within a performance that seemed to be chastising us for attempting just that kind of engagement. When the conclusion approached, it was unbearably delayed, following countless false endings, swamped in bathos. Lucatelli, in the horse mask, climbs the ladder to burst the balloon, the lights turn off too soon, nothing happens.
Here was a piece whose resistance was highly ‘situated’, and turned against its own context and audience. The listener, desperate to find value and meaning in every piece, is made aware of their own desire to understand and categorise a piece – to fit it into some sort of aesthetic logic – in order to judge it unequivocally. In refusing our attempts to do so, it challenges us to dismiss it, yet leaves us feeling uncomfortable. Obviously, this review is just such an example of an attempt to contain it, albeit as pure negation.
Resisting UNM: Hafsteinn Þórólfsson (IS)
It was the volume and diversity of pieces that made UNM such an invigorating experience. It’s the first time that it’s been financially possible for me to attend a whole festival of new music of this calibre, and I found the resulting experience one which exceeded the sum of the various outstanding parts. I relied heavily on Alain Badiou for my talk, and I found myself thinking of him again in relation to this observation: that the ‘universal truths’ emerge from a body of artworks as the ‘subject’ of that particular truth. The curation of the UNM programme left enough to ‘chance’ that it didn’t attempt to force any particular truth, and yet it was far from arbitrary. Hearing it and contemplating it as a whole – as an aesthetic moment – enabled a far richer range of reflections than are possible in an explicitly biographically-, thematically- or historically-curated programme. I suppose this collection of pieces as ‘subject’ was defined as much by that apparently ineffable yet endlessly critiquable parameter of ‘value’ or ‘quality’ as much as any governing notion of ‘young’ or ‘Nordic’. That these were the ‘best’ entries, corresponding to a collectively constructed system of judgement, permitted their collective identity as a coherent subject for aesthetic consideration.
It is on these terms that I’d posit that the most resistant piece, in many ways, was actually one which refused either explicit political engagement or problematised the politics of musical production and performance. Hafsteinn Þórólfsson’s Hidden People was the other piece that seemed to threaten the internal consistency of the festival as an aesthetic institution. It involved three sections taken from a larger-scale composition, which tells a story from Icelandic folklore, through orchestra, choir, narrator and amplified vocalists. The piece is aimed at a young audience, and employs an unapologetically tonal language, delivering the epic story in cinematic style, with a range of affects (grief, fear, bellicosity) reflected straightforwardly in the music, and the vocal writing informed by lyrical folk melody. In any other context, the piece might appear unremarkable – an effective composition to enliven a traditional tale, aimed at young people – yet within the UNM festival, it stuck out quite shockingly, through its sheer refusal to accept any of the basic tenets of post-post-modern compositional practice. I actually found this effect quite ennervating; it went beyond any of the more ‘avant-garde’ pieces in its capacity to shock, and demonstrated that acts of resistance differ in form, depending on their situation. As I say in my talk, it is worth interrogating what is assumed (post-Schoenberg, post-Adorno, post-Lachenmann) to be a somehow objectively resistant style of composition. While such strategies as atonality, improvisation and noise can appear resistant when inserted into the machinery of the culture industry, they can act as hegemonic when placed within other situations, and risk wielding undue power over that situation without necessarily contemplating or justifying their domination.
The debate that followed my talk – which we tried to focus around the cluster of questions emerging from the statement: ‘(How) can (classical) music be a tool for (political) resistance?’ – was both excellent, and frustrating. Personally, I had a great time (of course), but it took a while for the group as a whole to emerge from the mire of theory into which I’d just rather cruelly immersed everyone. Much of the discussion was aimed at refining the terms of the debate – in particular, the meanings of the words ‘political’ and ‘resistance’ – which is to be expected, since it is in arguing over these very definitions that we can try to pinpoint the extent to which we can answer in the affirmative. How would we need to define ‘political’ in order to affirm that music can have a political dimension? And if we were to define ‘political’ in this other way, would it still be true? How might we then redefine ‘music’ to help us imagine such a possibility? Of course, it is always possible to define ‘political’ in terms that include whatever music you might be making. It is far harder to begin with a particular definition of politics – a particular requirement of a resistant music – and then speculate how to achieve this, and how necessary such a music might be.
I imagine the reactions to the subject amongst the UNM composers were similar to how they’d be amongst London composers. There seemed to be an almost universal acceptance (amongst those who spoke up) that music could be resistant, and political, in some sense, and that some music should attempt such an attitude. It was the idea that such an approach might be necessary that was contentious, of course, and there were some good exchanges between the more politically-committed in the room, and those who remained skeptical about the potential of art to make a difference on that level, or who might wish to assert a more autonomous or universalist approach to their work.
The discussion was best when it came to the more practical and everyday. This was exemplified in an impassioned speech by Jennifer Walshe about the continued gender inequality within musical institutions, which applied equally to the festival. Most poignantly, it cropped up again on the final night of the festival, when the retiring chair of the Danish UNM committee – Martin Stauning – impressed upon the group the precariousness of the festival’s future. The 2014 festival had almost been cancelled, due to funding shortfalls, and had only been saved at the 11th hour by an emergency grant. It was very moving to consider this group of young artists in this light, to consider that every year involves a struggle – sometimes small, sometimes significant – to reassert the continuing value of their shared, transnational project, in an increasingly indifferent culture.
There was some discussion about the extent to which ‘resistance’ needn’t always mean pushing against something; it could mean standing one’s ground, staying sturdy and rooted in the midst of rapid changes (even becoming a sort of conservatism). As I mentioned in my talk, this form of resistance is something which all composers working in the contemporary world must already be aware of. The solidarity that UNM affords for young composers in these countries is a great example of the kind of organisation around which this resistance can be concentrated, and it is a testament to all those involved that the festival remains as open, accessible and horizontal as it appears to be. But in the event of continuing cultural changes surrounding the valuation of art and the availability of public funds, even in the social democratic idylls of the North (!), there may be a time when some aspect of the festival must be compromised, or the model forced to change. The need for music resistance is never far away.
For another review of the festival, concentrating on many of the same pieces that I discuss, check out Ingeborg Okkels’s report on seismograf.org (in Danish).
For some videos of UNM composers discussing the theme of Music Resistance, check out the UNM Sweden YouTube channel.