Can composers afford ethical distractions?

Matthew Lorenzon, Metropolis Music Festival

Grumbling away beneath the glitzy headline “The Sound of London Now,” the underlying theme of the Metropolis New Music Festival was the musician’s responsibility to society and the environment.

The theme was not thrashed out in pre-concert talks or panel discussions, nor in interviews or advertising material. Completely absent from the public image of the festival, it was instead provoked by the subjects of the pieces themselves or by throwaway lines in program notes. If the ‘gently provocative’ approach to ethics does more harm than good, would a polemical or strictly unethical artistic practice be preferable? Can a work be gently polemical, or must it adopt a ‘critical’ tone?

Mira Calix

Mira Calix raises ethical questions in an almost imperceptible manner, drawing you into an enchanted sphere of electronic and instrumental susurration before whispering a message in your ear. Her intimate concert, Looking for Cowslips, in the Melbourne Recital Centre Salon drew inspiration from the nature-themed poetry of Alice Oswald. In withdrawing her book Memorial from the TS Eliot prize in 2011 because of the prize’s questionable sponsors, Oswald described poetry as “the great unsettler.” Calix’s compositions for strings, winds, voice and electronics provide unsettling settings of unsettling poetry, raising the question, in existential more than political terms, of humanity’s relationship to nature.

In a more concrete, jubilant form of charm offensive, Calix presented her short film “Fables: The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” a one-shot melodrama performed by a cast who have all experienced homelessness. Calix’s approach to ethical questions is to inspire empathy, to sensitise you to the issue at hand. Despite the gentle surface of her music, it ‘takes sides.’ Problems arise when the same tactic is used with a bomb or the slaughter of an animal with the aim of ‘raising the question.’

Matthew Herbert

In Matthew Herbert’s albums, music and ethics function like the two independent hemispheres of the brain, with the technology of the sampler acting as the corpus callosum making them appear as one walking, talking, contradictory being. Herbert leaves it up to the audience to determine the relationship between the two, such as in The End of Silence, a concert made entirely out of a six-second sample of a pro-Gaddafi war plane bombing Ras Lanuf in 2011. At one moment, startling in its beauty, the roar of the jet plane is transformed into the breathy tone of an alto flute and a lyrical melody is played by keyboardist Sam Beste. The ambivalence I felt towards this sound was calculated; as the program reads: “On first hearing the recording is terrifying, but at the end of the program once Herbert has finished mixing, layering and manipulating the sounds will you still feel the same way?”

There is no doubt that Herbert intends to be critical of the former Gaddafi regime because he says that the Ras Lanuf sample “punctures the safe veneer of distance” between us and the “atrocities committed by dictators in the Arab world during the Arab Spring.” Nevertheless, there is nothing in The End of Silence, neither its militaristic dance beats, its flute-like melody, nor its eerie ambience, to suggest that it is not a paean to the war plane, a song of thanksgiving to pro-Gaddafi forces. We could very well say that it follows in the futurist tradition of praising the power and majesty of the noise of war. I felt very differently about Herbert’s second concert, which was made entirely out of sounds recorded during the life of a pig destined for the dinner table.

I have to confess that I am uniquely unqualified to write about meat; apart from a recent foray into seafood I have never eaten it. Chef Jesse Gerner, who cooked some pork at the back of the stage during the concert, would do a better job reviewing a concert than I would reviewing a steak. Despite wrangling with the ethics of leather, I have never consciously excluded or abjectified meat from my identity. It is perhaps for this reason that I was so moved by the sound of an organ animated by a mixture of pig’s blood and air that played as the thick smell of cooking pork wafted over the audience.

Why would I allow the sound of the blood-organ to resonate with me emotionally on the one hand and set up a wall to the plane-flute on the other? It could be because of a discrepancy between the values I attribute to human and non-human life, a discrepancy I would not reject outright, but would be surprised by its magnitude. It could also be because of the scarcity of ‘tone’ in One Pig, the sounds of pig-life consisting mainly of almost pitchless noises. Or could it be because of the difference between the sound of a weapon and that of a body? The sound of a weapon implies an action that could be taken or stopped, demanding a response from the listener. The sound of a body implies a deed already done, the passive evidence of violence. This is exactly what was missing from One Pig: the sound of the weapon. The nonchalance with which the audience picked at the crackling cooked during the performance sums up the net effect of Herbert’s latest provocations: far from provocative, they are desensitising entertainment.

Thomas Adès

Composer and conductor Thomas Adès eschews ethical considerations from music. An intense and world-weary Adès looks out from the cover of his book of interviews with Guardian music critic Tom Service. Inside Adès juxtaposes semi-philosophical platitudes with genuinely stimulating musical observations. The ‘semi-philosophical,’ or more correctly ‘anti-philosophical,’ tone is not accidental for a composer who read logical positivist philosophy and had his own late-Wittgensteinian epiphany at the age of 14. To Adès “ethics are a distraction an artist cannot afford,” along with metaphysics, epistemology, the lot. Adès’ anti-philosophy leads to some contradictory beliefs as he wants to protect music from its context and ethics, but does not want to define what music is. He will say that Wagner’s music is inherently political with the notes being “born wearing little uniforms,” even though he will gladly adopt a Wagnerian style because “the [musical] material is fascinating.” Or he will claim to compose completely instinctively according to the “magnetism” of the notes, avoiding the topic of style and technique, while also shirking his own agency in determining the direction of the notes: “My material does not exist in physical reality…These notes are not objects that are in front of you—although in another sense it helps to treat them like that; maybe they are, in fact, a sort of invisible object.” Adès wants the musical autonomy of a Platonist philosophy without the apparent restrictions of a positive definition of music.

Adès has a point though, whether you are a Platonist or not, ethics complicate the creative process. However, should an issue form a source of inspiration, the musician should at least do some soul-searching and make a point about the issue lest the relationship of the music to the issue appear parasitic. As Mira Calix has shown, this does not mean that a piece has to be ugly and therefore critical. Without some sort of commitment there is always the risk that the composition just repeats the bombing, or the killing, on the imaginary level.

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and Melbourne Recital Centre: Metropolis New Music Festival, 8–20 April

RealTime issue #115 June-July 2013 pg. 45

© Matthew Lorenzon; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

6 June 2013