S&H Conference review

 

Second Biennial International Conference on Twentieth-Century Music reviewed by Tom Perchard

This busy conference, organised by Keith Potter, brought together over 150 musicologists from Europe and America. Plenary sessions included two round-table discussions, one each on performance practice and historiography, as well as keynote lectures given by Brian Ferneyhough and Richard Middleton. Each day had several other panels running parallel, and these smaller groups addressed issues of musical analysis, history and performance.

An American delegate remarked that this was the first time she had attended a musicology conference with any kind of performance element, and one day was given over entirely to issues of performance practice and politics. Most provocative was Ian Pace's paper, 'Reassessing Unconscious Conventions'. Pace suggested that while much contemporary music has a critical function, one that directly addresses the music's social and artistic context, performers often allow received notions of 19th-century performance practice, like 'beauty of tone', to pollute a 20th-century aesthetic. Some performance techniques, said Pace, insulate art music from its social context by creating a 'tradition of safety' that strips performance of risk and denies the performer's capacities of instinct and criticism; he singled out the pianist's conservatoire-taught arm positions which, while reliable, 'rein in dynamics and articulation'. Pace suggested that a more dangerous performance technique would demand a different sort of involvement with the work, where aspects of an interpretation would be determined during performance rather than during practice.

This spur-of-the-moment approach may have suggested a certain musical sympathy between Pace and the improvisers with whom he shared the first round-table, yet this circular and occasionally bad-tempered discussion succeeded in highlighting divisions rather than unities. Having begun with a series of overly defensive statements from the panel, the session saw Pace take the position of musicology's us to Eddie Prévost and John Tilbury's improvising them. Often echoed by Tilbury, Prévost criticised the institutional neglect of improvisation as a valid musical practice, describing the improviser's method of 'heurism and dialogue' as 'a defining ritual of understanding' foreign to notated music. But misunderstanding flourished, and as more and more delegates sought to prove that, in fact, some of their best friends were improvisers, Prévost and Tilbury expressed worry at the prospect of improvisation becoming an area of scholarly analysis rather than practical activity.

The eventual failure of this round-table was a shame: the relationship between the notated and the improvised needn't be as antagonistic as it was here. Indeed, Brian Ferneyhough's keynote lecture suggested a mode of construction and criticism that might have interested both groups, an aesthetic on the hoof. The composer began by exploring Adorno's famous maxim that 'to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric'. Having delivered this ultimatum, said Ferneyhough, Adorno's own subsequent activity, and his insistence on the value of art, suggests that he meant to promote either hypocrisy or endless self-flagellation. Ferneyhough suggested that today's composers face a similar choice; they can either attempt to appeal commercially, or else retreat to a world of inalienable (and maybe unsaleable) morality. Neither option 'retains plausibility', said the composer, and a 'third way' must be sought. Yet a synthesis of the intentionally accessible and the wilfully self-reflexive would be the worst of both worlds, a 'plurality-lite' that would only succeed in disengaging the popular from its populace. Instead, Ferneyhough suggested a re-thinking of the 'critical work', where these 'referential' and 'discursive' features meet and engage: where actual composition no longer relies on inherited styles or techniques, but on methods improvised or drafted-in to answer the demands of a work's specific social and aesthetic context. Our 'cultural bemusement' can only be transcended by such an operation of exploration, said Ferneyhough, and that exploration's goal is ultimately to 'write poetry that doesn't speak in the voice of Auschwitz'.

Discussing artistic imperatives using the language of genocide is a late 20th-century luxury, but Ferneyhough was never going to lapse into mid-century do-or-die heroics. In the 'Exile and Suppressed Music' session, Erik Levi skilfully demonstrated how such imperatives had grown out of the murderous hysteria of the Nazi era, and how racism had gentrified itself into a cultural mandate. Levi's study of the suppression of musical modernism in 1930s Germany analysed the content of festival programmes and music magazines of the era, showing the speed at which Nazi ideology permeated and transformed a once-cosmopolitan musical culture.

The austere rationality of the post-war Darmstadt school is often characterised, in part at least, as the result of a reaction to the Nazis' brutal Teutonic Romanticism. In a later session, Paul Attinello presented a paper, written in collaboration with David Osmond-Smith, which explored the ways in which sexuality rather than history helped shape the musical outlook of some avant-garde composers, particularly Boulez and Bussotti. Combining history, analysis and gossip in about equal measure, Attinello suggested that while the closeted Boulez aestheticised his sexuality in an act of 'discretion through abstraction', Bussotti's outrageous camp cause tensions at Darmstadt, his activities prompting compositional responses from such 'discomfited heterosexuals' as Stockhausen and Berio.

Attinello was keen to communicate on his own terms, and drew on cultural theory only when provoked by questions from the audience. Even then, brief references served as acknowledgements of and ciphers for others' thought and research. A little of Attinello's scholarly modesty would have made Richard Middleton's keynote lecture more digestible. In his paper, 'Popular Music Studies: a Difference that Makes a Difference?', Middleton aimed to explore a theme that he saw as having 'replaced such concepts as "dialectic" and "autonomy" as key tropes in discourses around culture and history'. Middleton plotted three main 'axes of difference' which he suggested separate forms of pop music from 'art music' (and implicitly, other forms of pop music). 'Simplicity' of construction, 'Otherness' of origin and 'The Voice' thus became points of theoretical contact with various musical genres from around the world, Middleton's examples here spanning township jazz and chart pop. Although delineating an essentially relativist project, Middleton's 'axes of difference' could be seen as an attempt, if not to universalise, then to de-fragment difference, and to divert popular music studies away from what he called its 'excessive localism'. In tracking the courses of popular music studies rather than those of the music itself, Middleton, almost self-admittedly, had not described emergent 'differences' or changing relationships between musics, so much as the changing terminology and critical apparatus used by western culture to measure such relationships. And while the post-modern academy that Middleton described may be vehemently anti-racist, anti-sexist and anti-colonialist, the feeling remained that its studies may just form a newly self-conscious 'Orientalism' of the sort so vociferously criticised by Edward Said, a thinker who received a name-check.

Perhaps because Middleton's subject matter is so rarely associated with academic thought - by anyone, not just elitist academics - he seemed to wear his learning heavily, and the weight of his armour of protective jargon and reference sometimes toppled him over. Questions remained: does any Cuban not armed with a check-list of politically correct post-modernisms really see traditional Son music, as Middleton suggested, as articulating difference because it represents a culture of machismo re-located to a post-feminist world? Perhaps. Does anyone worry about the Academy's neglect of popular music except the Academy? Probably not.

Middleton's problems were methodological rather than ethical, but the conference also had its fair share of academic chancers, those who arrive at pop looking for niches rather than knowledge. In the sessions on rock and jazz, two American analysts, Guy Capuzzo and Matthew Santa, used Riemannian theory to analyse chord progressions in early 90s American rock and the music of John Coltrane respectively. The analysts' grasp of history and context was weak, and their algebra proved nothing except that they had no understanding of how rock and jazz musicians really approach their musics. Like the check-shorted Chucks and Marlons who do Buckingham Palace and Stratford-Upon-Avon in a day before going to Edinburgh to soak up the ancestral ambience, they were tourists, with absolutely no empathy, understanding or appreciation of the music about which they were speaking; instead of fudge and kilts, though, they each got to take home a CV entry. When studying musical forms which thrive outside of official institutions, academics need to learn where to draw the line between interest and co-option, between understanding a music and 'winning it' for themselves - in practical terms, how to sit down and shut up.

There were two evening concerts. In the first, many of the players who had spoken at the Performance Issues Round Table got to put their money where their mouths were. The concert opened with a two-piano and electronics improvisation by Sebastian Lexer and John Tilbury, and the second half featured the London premiere of Ferneyhough's Opus Contra Naturam as well as pieces by Scelsi, Skempton and Tom Johnson The highlight, though, was Mieko Kanno's first public appearance as a violist, and her performance of Scelsi's darkly impressive Coelocanth. The other evening concert featured John Lely's realisation of Cage's Musicircus concept, here called Three Walks, a Londonese Circus on Dark Lanthorns. The environment of recorded street sounds and mesostics, together with live musicians, was spoilt a bit by some self-conscious audience behaviour, and the balance between live and recorded sound was not what it might have been; but Cage's happenings rarely happen, so it was good to see one materialise here.

The conference's strength was in its numbers, its many speakers representing such wide-ranging interests. This variety may have meant that there was little scope for heart-felt, single-issue, intra-clique fighting, but even if it wasn't always provocative, it was never cosy.

Tom Perchard


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