Remarks on Music and Listening

What follows are interview extracts broadcast as part of the BBC Radio 3 series, Sounding the Century, and reprinted in Settling the Score:  Journey Through the Music of the Twentieth Century, ed. Michael Oliver (London: Faber and Faber, 1999), pp. 308, 313, 314-15, 318-19.


The Walkman is commonly abused because it seems to subtract people from social life. Actually the experience of the Walkman, the intoxication of the Walkman, comes from the fact that the user is not withdrawn from the scene they're walking through, or the tube train they're sitting in. The Walkman-user is often creating a kind of chance collage between the sounds that are filtering through and are partly contingent and the organized sound that they're hearing. There is a sense, therefore, of the recorded sound, which is fixed and complete and perfect, being deliberately exposed to the chance of what might happen. In the Walkman we have a perfectly ordinary and very casual coming together of the impulse to wards absolute technical perfection that we find in CD technology, in which what we hear has never really taken place in any here and now - it's a purely artificial sound - and the aesthetics of John Cage, who wanted music to be an exposure to the here and now, to the chances of what happens to happen; there is a great hunger for that contingency. We've become much better at making swift links and snatching at continuities than living with growing organic wholeness, but we've also become much better as listeners at tolerating openness and chance, and at living in a world of multiple stimuli.


There were pockets of the popular in which a certain kind of work of inquiry was done on behalf of serious music. Jazz has always performed that function, as the place where classically trained musicians went off and made discoveries in their lunch hours or in the evenings, and certain areas of rock music have also performed that function, so there will seem to be much more complicated links than we ever imagined there would be when we look back over the century. Certainly jazz, certainly some areas of rock music, some areas of improvisational  music, and of course, most particularly in the last twenty or thirty years of the century, the influx of non-Western musics.

A concert composer like Toru Takemitsu has been very influential, for example in his film scores, by the Japanese fascination with noise. Rock bands in Japan have had an abiding fascination with noise really for the last decade or so. It's as though these musicians have wanted to find, first of all, unsuspected passion and intensity and beauty in noise and, as it were, to encounter a kind of painfulness which music traditionally has had nothing to do with. Music has had to do with difficulty surmounted, and I think there's been an exposure to the sheer difficulty of absorbing what is painful in sound. The best example of a contemporary British musician working at this kind of interface and also crossing between concert music, tape music and the electro-acoustic tradition is John Wall, in works like his CD Fraktuur, where there's a folded spectrum of sounds running from the grinding of scratched vinyl all the way through to the sweetest combinations of sounds characteristic of the string quarter, and he creates a continuum, a vast sound palette, moving from one end to the other.


What arrived at the beginning of this century was recorded music. It began as a way of controlling, in a sense maintaining, music in its place. In its audiences and modes of distribution recording has been largely a conservative force over this century. The phonographic revolution foreseen by Edison never took place because phonography became gramophony: it became the distribution of already recorded sounds (and has still not recovered). But as recording itself has become so much easier and recording technologies so much cheaper, the phonographic revolution is now again taking hold. This means that music is not being produced in a number of defined and authoritative centres, and radiating out from them, but is being produced in lots of different places for lots od different occasions, and this means that the syntaxes of relationship between music and other social forms and activities are becoming much more diffuse. Music is not any more taking place on the occasions and in the reserved places where it has customarily taken place. Music is everywhere in contemporary mass culture, but the meanings of music are now under active and experimental investigation.

Take the interest of composers like John Zorn in this new genre, the imaginary film score, for example, his Spillane, which seems to tell some wonderful disjointed story - a film noir without any story and without any film. And there are other composers working along these lines; Roger Doyle is another example. So music, which has throughout this century known its place, is starting not to know its place. Music, which has settled into particular kinds of locations and occasions (notably, of course, when we're talking about serious or classical music, the concert hall), has begun to migrate to other places. Music has always been a matter of convergence of techniques and materials and persons; music has always come to a point, but now it is undergoing a massive dispersal. It is appearing in different contexts, performing different functions, and this is fundamentally changing the character of music. Music has hitherto been thought of as an art defined on its own terms, an art with its own rules, and thus the very epitome of aesthetic autonomy (literally 'giving itself the law'). The definition of music as the highest form of art because it doesn't refer to the world and refers only to itself is breaking down.

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