Why cat videos are awesome: New Music, Score Follower, and YouTube

Why cat videos are awesome: New Music, Score Follower, and YouTube
by Michael Lewanski

The history of music is also the history of the circumstances of its production.  

This statement, I add hastily, is not meant to take anything away a from a l'art pour l'art (that is, “art for art’s sake”) way of talking about or interpreting music (one which focuses on its intrinsic value or asserts that it is its own justification, separated from how it came to be)  -- such an approach has numerous and obvious benefits in terms of understanding how music does what it does.  

It’s just that it seems to me that a tacit, unthought ethos of “art for art’s sake” unconsciously underlies a vast majority of our cultural conversations about music among musicians and audiences alike. Musicians do this all the time: at its best and most sympathetic, they pay attention to a work's form or harmony according to guidelines they learned in school.  Or perhaps they evaluate the professional skill of performers during a concert.  I would even argue that musicians in a rehearsal complaining that a piece is not well-written for their instrument, or saying that they like playing new music but don't like listening to it are extensions of this basic attitude.  And concert-goers regularly make some version of these statements: “I just like the way it sounds” or “I don’t understand it but I like it."  Paraphrasing Dahlhaus, even the habit of not paying attention to the meaning of the words of Schubert songs is the same basic attitude.  (And it may often mask an economic-ideological function, following Marx -- music as a thing for relaxation, something to help you take a break and not think too hard… in short, a commodity, a sit-com, a piece of furniture, that by its nature as photographic negative, reinforces the system that makes commodities possible.  Don’t think it’s coincidental or accidental that Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer has “ars gratia artis” when the lion roars at the beginning of their movies.)

Anyway, I don’t want to get hung up on that, because there are good sit-coms and nice furniture in the world; and, like I said, there’s a lot of merit to a l’art pour l’art approach.  I want to claim, simply, that it’s not the only approach; the problem for me is that it is tacitly prioritized over many others.  A more realistic interpretative stance, it seems to me, is one in which we attempt to hold contradictory frameworks in our head simultaneously.

Let me, therefore, make some broad assertions about other ways of thinking.  

Lots of music, for a very long time in European history, was written (by which I mean both “composed” and “written down”) for performance in church.  The church had a particular use for music, thus enabling its development from plainchant to organum to polyphony over the course of many centuries.  Which is say, something about its use-in-church-ness ends up defining the way it sounds, what form it takes (masses, motets), its musical architecture (church modes and their descendants), its instrumentation (rather, that it tends to be for voices), and the circumstances of its performance.

The Enlightenment, and the development of 19th century industry, brings along with it various notions of bourgeois freedom and self-determination.  People can pay for stuff.  "Those that had some leftover wealth want, not only to pay for stuff, but also to show that they can pay for stuff, because flaunting their wealth is a sign of their status."  It seems sensical that an industry would develop to allow the middle class to affordably have music in their households, in their chambers… so we get “chamber music.”  Such a setting also enables an intimacy that other venues might not allow; that, in turn, enables the rise of connoisseurship, as well as a trend in chamber music for compositions to be more affectively complex than the public statements of symphonic music.

While one might argue that pop songs are three minutes long because of shortened attention spans, it seems to me that an equally plausible argument is that it has something to do with the fact that 78 RPM records last three to five minutes.  (Not that these arguments are mutually exclusive; it’s just that it’s easy to blame kids these days and to forgot that making those kids how they are these days may have been a calculated decision and had a particular mass-produced, real-world object associated with it.)

All of the above paints with a very broad brush and without much nuance.  But while the precise details of these historical claims can be debated, it would be hard to question a basic, general premise: the historical, on the ground, nitty-gritty, stuff-in-the-world, accidental-thingy-ness aspects of musical production are deeply related to the content of the music itself -- its form, its timbre, its affect, etc.  As Jacques Attali (in Noise: The Political Economy of Music) put it, more specifically about instruments themselves, “Beethoven’s Sonata no. [sic] 106, the first piece written for piano, would have been unthinkable on any other instrument.  Likewise, the work of Jimmy [also sic] Hendrix is meaningless without the electric guitar, the use of which he perfected.”  (I like this juxtaposition of “high” and “low” culture because it accords with a subtext of this essay.)

I don’t mean to suggest that this stuff-in-the-world quality of music is a detraction.  If anything, it’s the opposite, because it means music is always related intimately to life.  (Tangentially, there is so much hand-wringing in professional music performance circles about new music and its “accessibility” that I just can’t figure out.  What could be more accessible than the stuff being made in the world by your fellow humans?  But also: why do we expect that new pieces must be instantaneously fully comprehensible?  Nothing else in your life is, from the behavior of your co-workers, to the stuff your mom says, to why this stoplight is so long, to why you did that dumb thing last week that surprised even you.)

And so, here we are in 2015.  We at Ensemble Dal Niente were approached by the team behind Score Follower/Incipitsify, an organization that “makes recordings+score videos of modern compositions and posts them to their YouTube channels.”  They wanted to commission a new piece of music.  When I first heard about this, it seemed incredibly bizarre and unlikely -- a YouTube channel wanting to commission a piece of music.  YouTube is hardly 10 years old, and it is full of cats doing cute thing, too-much-information confessionary videos, commercial music, highlight reels of athletes, all six Star Wars movies playing at once, family vacations shot on iPhones, grainy academic lectures, Mozart vs. Skrillex, high school orchestra concerts, cartoons, and people going Super Saiyan; in short, the strangest, most beyond-imagination collection of diverse, life-affirming weirdness that human culture has ever created.  But this is why a SF/InciP commission makes so much sense -- because that is exactly our experience of life in 2015, and it seems a trend unlikely to go in the opposite direction (assuming, as I should not, that a cataclysmically violent political-military disaster won’t occur).  

Something in US culture today allows an organization to arise that wants “to provide access to a type of experience (viewing a score while listening to the recording) only otherwise available to the privileged (students/faculty who happen to be affiliated with a university that has a large catalogue of new music scores).”  Of course, one might argue that the very ability to read a score is itself privileged. One would not be wrong.  However, let us not use the political history of cultural institutions to hamstring the future.  The recent history of (much but not all) new music, is, as SF/InciP’s website hints, a history of privileged people having access to things that are privileged in multiple sense: the (physical) location (of their performances and notated materials) in a fancy university/concert hall, the hermetic code of their notation, even the language and style of their discourse (omg, and isn’t “discourse” such a word that would appear in such discourse).  Ironic for a field with so many Marxists, new music for so long had such reified character -- where it came across to an outsider as a thing, an already-fully-formed impenetrable and uninterpretable object, profoundly unrelated to the world that made it and to the circumstances of its production.

In a world full of increasingly more humans, ever-more-rapidly-developing technology, and ever-less trustworthy institutions, it only makes sense that a complex, long-developing, multi-step process of putting “modern compositions” -- or, to use a term that is no less problematic because of the seeming simple claims it makes, “new music” -- out there to be listened to, looked at, demystified, misread weakly or strongly, accords with the character of current social development.  From a strictly personal point of view, I’m super excited to be the conductor of an organization that would embrace such a project.

To take it a step further, this process of “putting stuff out there” changes the character of the art that is made; it becomes part of the circumstances of the production of music.  I’ll take a risk and offer a bold prediction -- one of the sort that can be empirically proved wrong (making me look like a idiot) in September 2016, when we play the new piece.  A characteristic of the winning work will be such that it could only have been conceived, following Attali, because it was commissioned by a YouTube channel.  Its online-media-ness will somehow, in some way I don’t yet know, be thematized and audibly/visually? instantiated in the work’s form and/or character and/or materials and/or whatever.  It won’t just be a piece that simply says “I’m a regular old concert piece” because, first of all, there are no such pieces and it is ideological to think there are; and secondly, because it will have been conceived under circumstances that precludes such an artistic statement.   I can’t wait to hear and see what that is.

Visit Score Follower/Incipitsify's Indiegogo Campaign here to read more about this commissioning project and to make a donation!