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Friday, July 24, 2009

Artist's Statement: Driven by Sound

The 20th century saw an unprecedented expansion of musical invention, the most notable of which were what I call the hidden and obscure arts of neo-medieval post-serialism derived from Webern and Varese. The great music of the 20th century is full of remarkable works that are sometimes frightening in their originality and daring. A new kind of beauty can be found in these works for the curious and persistent listener.

But what about the music of the future? If the 20th century raised questions about the relation of music to psyche, perception, number and social theories, will the music of the 21st century ask different questions? What about "New Music" in the 21st century?

When people ask me what kind of music I write, I say "New Music." I do not mean avant-garde, experimental, serial, neo-romantic, post-modern, minimal, maximal, etc. These are 20th century terms. No. I mean, "made recently." But we need more than simply "New" in a society dominated by marketing. My term for the new music of the 21st century is "New World Music."

At the beginning of the 20th century, Russian painter Kandinsky described three "mystical necessities" that define artwork of lasting value: The Personal, The Ephemeral, and The Eternal.

1. Every artist, as creator, must express what is peculiar to himself (element of personality).
2. Every artist as a child of his time, must express what is peculiar to his own time (elements of style ...)
3. Every artist, as servant of art, must express what is peculiar to art in general (element of the pure and eternally artistic which pervades every individual, every people, every age, and which is to be seen in the works of every artist, of every nation, and of every period, and which, being the principal elements of art, knows neither time nor space.)"
[from W. Kandinsky: "On the Spiritual in Art"]

I believe there is a well-spring of desire among the public to hear new music that takes these responsibilities seriously, that engages with society through its expression, that has immediate impact yet sustains a lasting impression due to its intrinsic value. In short, music that ignites the flame within because it is a gift to listeners, music without borders, "world music." Popular music fanatics receive this gift from their artists regularly since good popular music so easily communicates personality and style.

It is the artist's sensibility to the third "mystical necessity" that has the potential to secure his work as art of lasting value. Kandinsky's "art in general" is what I would call "World Art," knowing "neither time nor space." "World Music" means music that transcends boundaries and cultures, that synthesizes the musics of the world into a global expression. This already happens in much popular music, where the mixture of musical personalities and styles, from within and among different cultures, is increasingly common. Yet this merging generally eludes New Music today.

The 20th century was a century of experimentation and reaction. The scary first 15 years of the century brought us unprecedented musical invention in the works of Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Webern, Varese, Ives and others, to which the rest of the century responded. The obscure hidden voice of the 20th century began with chromaticism, which begat atonality, which begat 12-tone music, which begat serial music, which (justifiably) spawned several reactionary movements of which three are the most visible: 1] towards improvisation and arbitrary musical organization (or none at all); 2] towards referential music, of which neo-romanticism was the first "ism"; and 3] towards music based on phenomenology, the study of sound organization ideas and sound itself and their effect on experience and consciousness. The third of these trends is a holistic path that embraces Kandinsky's three necessities, principally because it is based on sound perception and the psyche.

Most music of the world is organized with melody, harmony and rhythm. The New World Music I want to hear and to write will embrace the realty and potential of these powerful aspects of music and will also integrate those advances of the last century that best enhance and intensify cultural and musical experience. Audiences will listen for more than the traditional elements, to experience a music of many voices, rhythms, harmonies and textures, to experience the physical power of sound and the cultural power of events driven by sound. This will not be a secret society music. There may be hidden voices, mysteries, and obscurities within the music, but they will not obscure the music's power. Composers face a challenge: to give to the world the gift of music, the gift of culture - beyond the personal, beyond the ephemeral, toward the eternal.

Copyright © 1995 & 2008 John Oliver


  1. Harry Partch is another interesting musician from the 20th century who challenged conventions and did not evade the social circumstances of his time.

  2. Hi John, strong line of thought, thanks! Not only is the Kandinsky-quote still very striking, I also agree completely that new music of the 21th Century must deal with the multi cultural and globalized merging of traditions. The multicultural society is probably the greatest challenge to Western art music in the 21st century. The emerging structures in society motivate an artistic paradigmatic shift and puts great demands on composer’s and performer’s sensitivity and creativity. In order to operate on ethically and artistically credible grounds, new music has to establish new points of contact towards other musical forms of expression:

    "On a more serious level of reflection, with our Western societies being more and more multi-cultural there are new problems facing composers. These problems represent the societies in which we live. The problems of multi-cultural living are plentiful and serious. Playing together, like living together, is always a negotiation between facts of diversity. Composers can take part in these negotiations by facing the ensembles and the inherent aesthetic, technical, and social problems, with a note by note sensitivity that creates positive points of reference in their work, or not." (Stefan Hakenberg, German composer quoted from a lecture at a UNESCO conference in Seoul.)

    A multi-cultural society like the Swedish presents many paradoxical situations to a musician or concert organiser:
    - There is no single “native” musical language. Sweden hosts a substantial audience for traditional music from many parts of the world, for instance from Vietnam. In the city of Malmö, the Iranian-Swedish cultural society is one of the largest, even running its own school of music!
    - A global perspective is needed on the development of our national culture. For the further development of Western art music, the dialogue with music from other cultures needs to take place on the highest possible levels. In other words, cultural exchange needs to go beyond superficial borrowing and move into mutual learning. But also, even if the new directions in Western art music would build on development in dialogue between artists of different cultural backgrounds but living in the west, in order to secure artistic quality, a global perspective needs to be added.

    One of my projects that attempts to deal with these issues is the Vietnamese/Swedish group The Six Tones (a project running since 2006). The Six Tones is an attempt to merge traditions of improvisation and composition in Vietnamese and contemporary Western culture, For further reading (and concert videos) about the project, check this new online article:

    Talk soon,
    all best!

  3. Hi John,

    As I think I mentioned to you, your Kandinsky blog entry, when it was up at MySpace, got me thinking about the subject so much that I wrote 3 blog entries of my own on the topic… Long winded, I know, but if you or anyone else would like to read them, here are links:

    Kandinsky's Theories (1)
    Kandinsky's Theories (2)
    Kandinsky's Theories (3)

  4. I agree with Paul that Partch was someone seeking to free himself from the constraints of style and touch this universal, or "world" music. By creating tunings and instruments that would technically exist outside society's norms, he challenged each of the three necessities. Partch also reminds me that there is one aspect missing in the Kandinsky triumvirate: place. For me, a sense of place has had a big impact on my work.

    "Every artist as a child of his time, must express what is peculiar to his own time (elements of style ...) – and place?

    In the case of Partch, his place played an important role in his music (the heat of the desert, the wandering from place to place).

    "Place" first reverberates us when we experience it, then exists in memory. (I think of Gaston Bachelard's book "The Poetics of Space" in this regard.) And it is this memory of place that can have an influence on musical composition and performance. Yet musical memories are planted in early childhood acculturation and become, through practice or repetition, part of a kind of body memory. So in Kandinsky's time, he separated the expression of "personality" and "style", whereas in current urban culture, one's personality may be in constant flux (if one chooses to enter the stream), and so the expression by the artist of personality and style may become confused.

    (I wonder if the translation "must" might be better served by the word "will", as in "Every artist, as creator, will express what is peculiar to himself." this removes the imperative from the statement and opens it up to discussion.)

    I wonder if we live in a time where the first two of Kandinsky's three "mystical necessities" are disappearing in relevance, to be replaced, in the momentum of the merging world culture, by the primacy of the search for the "pure and eternally artistic." (But how do "we" define that?)

    If one believes that the artist is a "servant of art," (rather than the servant of vanity, or consumerism, or other extra-artistic matters), then one can see how personality and style are a given in any point in history – they will always be present to a greater or lesser degree of prominence. It is this illusive search for "the eternal" (that which touches beyond our close circle of friends, our immediate culture) that marks the project of art-making of serious intent.

    As Stefan remarked, there is no "native" musical language in any society any more. As Walter Zimmermann pointed out, all music is Local Music. So how can we search for the "pure and eternal"? Just as there is no "native" music, there is no pure and eternal music, at least not that any single person could define. It's all in flux. When Stefan says "composers can take part in these negotiations by facing the ensembles and the inherent aesthetic, technical, and social problems, with a note by note sensitivity that creates positive points of reference in their work, or not", he has identified the method for creating a situation in which some sincerity may begin to grow.

    The success of the expansion of the New World Music will depend on the participating composers and performers being able to put their own personality and style in the service of something larger than either of these. Personality and Style will need to coexist as twin babies in the arms of the nurturing Eternal Mother. May I suggest that the baby's first act is to touch, and the mother's first act is to sing. Thus, at the core of the Eternal World Music is rhythm and melody.