New music versus new labels

Jim Denley

Matt Earle, impermanent audio, March 26 2003

Matt Earle, impermanent audio, March 26 2003

Matt Earle, impermanent audio, March 26 2003

There is a notion current in contemporary experimental music that you can define a musician as ‘new’ or ‘old’ school. Is this division real and helpful? Is there a paradigm shift here? Or is the division a construct of a cocooned scene, inbred and preoccupied with its own little twists and turns?

We also have labels ascribed to the so-called new schools: ‘minimal’, ‘reductionist’, ‘New London Silence’ and ‘New Berlin Silence’. Wittgenstein once said:

Either a thing has properties which no other thing has, and then one has to distinguish it straight away from the others by a description and refer to it; or, on the other hand, there are several things which have the totality of their properties in common, and then it is not possible to point to any one of them. For if a thing is not distinguished by anything, I cannot distinguish it—for otherwise it would be distinguished.

You can imagine what an affront it is to experimentalists to be distinguished as ‘old school.’ So are there distinguishing features to the new school? What Wittgenstein says lends some weight to the idea that a real schism is taking place. So are there defining features to music of the early 21st century? Should we be making distinctions, and are the labels good?

Darn negative labels

Reductionism, outside of music, is associated with neo-conservatism (and experimental music has always situated its ethical and philosophical soul to the left). It suggests fewer events per minute. This begs the question, “What is an event?” In non-notated music there is no easy tally.

Reductionism could mean limiting certain parameters in the music and allowing others to flourish. But all music limits some parameters and concentrates on others. You would never label Western classical music ‘melodically reduced’, or Indian music ‘harmonically challenged’; it’s too darn negative. I don’t believe that a trend towards reducing or minimising is the thing that makes the ‘new’ new (although there is some quite stark work).

One such work was performed in February 2004 by Basque musician Mattin and Sydney-based Matt Earle as part of Sydney’s What is Music? festival. Mattin employed computer feedback using an internal microphone and Earle was using a no-input sampler. They produced blocks of loud sound and abrupt long silences. It was impossible to distinguish Mattin from Earle; they were not playing individual lines.

One could only describe the resulting sonic material as reduced if you heard the blocks as simple events (you would have been bored out of your brain). If you listened carefully you could only describe them as immensely complex; it was beyond my power of analysis. They were sound events across the frequencies all at once and none of the fleeting particles of sound were long enough for me to define; they seemed to be weightless, but too interesting in frequency to be described as ‘noise’. They composed open ended, chaotic systems which interacted with each other in ways that they didn’t want to predict. To suggest this is minimal seems silly.

In one view there were myriad events per minute, in the other there were about 4 events over 40 minutes. But looked at from this minimal or reduced perspective the work made no sense at all. It was not minimalism that was giving the work its power and novelty.

Subminimal minutiae

A more scientific use of the term ‘reductionism’ means trying to explain phenomena in terms of its smallest or simplest constituents. It seems misguided to say musicians are breaking musical phenomena into their smallest constituents in order to explain them, because explanation isn’t the function of this music. But just as physicists have been inspired to understand the nature of matter by colliding particles at faster and faster speeds, musicians are focussing on sonic material. Was Mattin and Earles’ search analogous to the search for the Higgs Particle?

I’d like to think now about the trumpet playing of Axel Dörner. I sent a CDR of myself and Axel to Martin Davidson of the Emanem label because he had released a CD of the group Lines in 2000, which included Axel and me. The new duo seemed a logical extension. He wrote back:

I am afraid it’s too subminimal for me. 30 years ago, I used to like it when people used to go to that area during performances, but they came out of it when they had exhausted the possibilities. I don’t find much of interest in extended performances which limit themselves to that area.

I respect Martin’s honesty; he made and named a distinction, but what could he mean by “subminimal”? Presumably we explore an area so lacking in input that ‘minimal’ is too weak a term. So I listened as dispassionately as I could to the CD concentrating on Dörner’s contribution.

We hear huge flexibility in the duration of the units of music. There is the potential for the next bit to be as long as it needs to be, not shaped by the limitations of phraseology based on breath. Silences are part of the music and can be as long as they need to be. The underlying rhythmic pulse of the music is unpredictable but much calmer and more patient than improvised instrumental music from 5 years ago. Frequencies are often at the extremes of what is possible on a trumpet. Many of the complex events are multi-frequency and inherently polyphonic. They are not drones; these events are dancing internally. Dörner employs glissandi and microtonal movement when he plays a solid tone, so we hardly ever hear a discrete note; frequency-packed noises yes, but notes that are employed in a system and organised on a time line to produce a melodic unit or phrase, never.

I would say his music is the opposite of submiminal (and I certainly don’t remember hearing anyone sounding remotely like him 30 years ago). There’s too much undefined ephemeral phenomena and hence the number of events per minute is indeterminate. Just like Matt Earle and Mattin, he asks you to listen deeper than the surface. He wants you to follow the short-lived, high-pitched whistle tones at the edge of the noise; he wants you to juxtapose that with the low growls at the bottom of his range.

Martin Davidson may be judging the CD as bad, but I think he is listening in the wrong direction. More evidence of a schism, and hence a need for new terms? But how useful is a term like subminimalism?

The note split

Is another definition of the new possible in a rethink of the role of frequency and the abandonment of conventional notions of melodic and harmonic systems? We find now an interest in frequencies at the extremes of the listening spectrum where they don’t function within conventional systems. In the mid-range there is no reference to the well-tempered scale and its harmonic constructions, only the harmonic potential of feedback. The smallest particle of sound is no longer the note; the note has been split, and the focus is on ephemera. Minutiae are of great interest; musicians are going microscopic, focussing on tiny fissures and amplifying them.

It is not only the note that has been split. In the 80s and 90s the use of samples, concrete recordings within a piece, was an important feature. However, appropriation has all but disappeared from the new. Not that samplers or recording devices disappeared; as we saw from the performance of Mattin and Earle, these instruments have stayed and proliferated. But here there is a focus on going inside the sample, and inside the sampler, making something from scratch rather than making new things from old. I find this tendency touching in its positivity.

With Will Guthrie’s Building Blocks (Antboy 4) we hear 3 works that cannot be broken down into units—the music is not constructed using conventional phraseology, or episodic form. He employs battery-operated vibrators, and mechanical devices, as well as haphazard sounding and promiscuous attacks with his hands, playing a multi-layered and eccentric array of percussion. There are no sequencing engines here; by deploying mechanical devices Guthrie has multiplied the attacks to uncountable events per minute and allowed himself to create polyphony. The effect is an escape from any personal touch or expressionism; he sets up long events and sculpts the music from its one moment of attack and eventual decay or stop in one sweep.

Of course, dispensing with conventional phraseology and the discrete note has been going on for decades. The work of Austrian trombonist Radu Malfatti is an example. But Malfatti set his fleeting sonic quarks in a pool of silence. Axel Dörner confidently asserts that you can create big sound objects, and Guthrie, Mattin and Earle make their blocks gigantic. These are significant changes that leave listeners from the old school scratching their heads, hence the negative terms ‘reductionist’ and ‘subminimal.’

There is a ‘new.’ There are now too many practitioners for anyone to have an authoritative overview, but the new has been named, because it can be distinguished. Whether the labels are good enough to stick remains to be seen.

RealTime issue #65 Feb-March 2005 pg. 41

© Jim Denley; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2005