November 28, 2003

The Bloodlessness of Intellectual Composition in an Ultra-Violent Age

As ridiculously pretentious as it may seem, yesterday I was looking for a title to my new piano piece, in an essay by Artaud, "Toute L'ecriture" I believe it was, and came across the phrase, the bloodlessness of the intellectual. We'd just been listening to Xenakis, Jonchaies, and I began thinking, why is it that after the early 20th century pieces, and a few Xenakis pieces, that contemporary music in general is so lacking in energy, barbarism, passion?

How can we listen to Le Sacre and think that's the end of any road? How can we listen to Jonchaies and not be startled at its elegant simplicty and horrific violence? Why are there no intellectuals doing super-violent electronic music, which of course is capable of incredible noise ranges? In age of ultra-violent terrorists, continuous war, pop music that is louder and louder have the intellectuals become mere reactionaries in their pursuit of ultra-refined music? Why are there no composers today producing hard-slamming complex and intense music worthy of our desparate nervousness?

I'm sure a few of you will say to yourselves, he's equating repetitive barbarism with passion simplistically. I've considered that, and I just can't bring to mind, any truly gigantic violent moments in recent music. Maxwell-Davies? typically meanders, Lutoslawski, his symphonies and Chains often merely meander without truly producing the musical orgasm I'm considering. Messiaen? The staticity of his time prevents the drama from occuring which is necessary for the big moments and Turangalila was 60 years ago! ;-)

There are a few moments in Notations where the violence is there, but in a 1 minute piece! What am I forgetting? Are we that musically impotent today?

Are we just incapable of dreaming? Controlled by academic fashions?

What happened to our ooooooomph?

Posted by jeff at November 28, 2003 04:27 PM

Trying to be new kills most music. The basic mechanics of musical drama are well understood and have been for hundreds of years. All too often avantgarde composers, IDM producers, electronic experimentalists, punk rockers and jazz musicians (to name a few) make the mistake of throwing out those mechanics when they strive to explore new territory in their music.

Posted by: matthijs at November 29, 2003 01:53 PM

Jeff probably has a point. People who want to get orchestras to play their stuff (which, I think, is a more to-the-point characterization than "intellectual" of the guys he name-checks in this piece), if they're successful, do stuff that won't drive away the orchestras' audiences, which are indeed to a large extent "reactionaries in ... pursuit of ultra-refined music." But there's plenty of "intellectuals" (meaning, to me, people for whom music is art, not commerce) working in other configurations doing anti-bloodless work. Just in the Bay Area improv scene we have Rubber O Cement, Moekestra!, the Splatter Trio, among others.

Posted by: Tom Duff at December 1, 2003 12:22 PM

Moekestra! (I thought it was Moe!kestra?) is great. I'm curious, though, why the hard-slamming music has to be complex, as well. Not that I'm advocating simplistic music, but I find the assumption that good new music will perforce be complicated puzzling.

Posted by: ben wolfson at December 1, 2003 06:03 PM

When have intellectuals ever been, er, blood-ful?
What exactly does bloodless mean to you? As equally violent as the age?
What is gained by being musically violent?

Are you searching in the right place for what you are looking for? I think Tom Duff has a good working definition for intellectuals for your purposes. The intellectuals you might be looking for are the likes of Kevin Drumm, the stuff being released on Mego Records, maybe Autechre.

Or maybe you should <gasp>look into the world of rock n' roll</gasp> at the likes of Sonic Youth or the Japanese noise phenomenon: Merzbow, Melt Banana...

(When are terrorists not super-violent?)

Posted by: sem at December 3, 2003 10:50 PM

I'd say Autechre is the prime example of bloodlessness in electronica. If pressed hard enough, I'd probably even say Sonic Youth can be pretty bloodless as well (starting with Daydream Nation).

Posted by: matthijs at December 4, 2003 03:34 AM

matthijs, would you care to elaborate? I don't necessarily agree or disagree with you. With regard to Autechre in particular, I have frequently read reviews that seem to mention the almost mythical frustration with the direction of their later albums. However, no one ever goes into any detail on this subject (beyond vague references to how the newer sounds tend to be more abstract). If you happen to be a person of this persuasion, please allow me to recontextualize and appropriate one of the forgotten aphorisms of our recent times: "...won't you back that ass up."

Posted by: sem at December 4, 2003 09:48 PM

They're neither sonically interesting enough to get away with shoddy structuring (Oval, Carsten Nicolai, Pan Sonic) nor structurally seductive enough to get away with using generic sounds ( Plaid, Boards of Canada, older Autechre ).

IMHO, anyways.

Posted by: matthijs at December 5, 2003 07:09 AM

I appreciate the sincere answer.

Posted by: sem at December 5, 2003 06:50 PM

In response to the 'what intellectuals have ever been super-violent artists' question, hell, I list them in the initial post! Xenakis, Stravinsky, even Messiaen wrote tremendously violent music that not even rock has come near. The piece, Jonchaies which you may have heard is as brutal as any piece ever written and it was written by a greek computer programmer/architect/statistician.

As far as the bloodlessness of Autechre goes, I've always considered them to be clever guys playing on the edge of popular electronic textures, always avoiding really saying anything or making any impact. I do like some of their music, but I would have never considered them in this discussion, cuz I don't feel there are any electronic artists in the more popular experimental realms that even come close to Le Sacre or Xenakis. I mean horrifically violent music... something again, worthy of our times.

Posted by: jeff at December 6, 2003 09:38 AM

Leaving aside the issue whether violence in music as a norm is a good idea, your statement "Xenakis, Stravinsky, even Messiaen wrote tremendously violent music that not even rock has come near" suggests you may wish to brush up on your knowledge of hardcore and punk rock. Sure, 99.999% is merely loud without having even a hint of violence and aggression, but to say that Xenakis and Stravinsky out-violence Minor Threat, Cop-era Swans, Discharge (on "Why"), early Negazione, etc, is, excusez-le-mot, nonsense.

I do agree with you, however, that I've yet to hear an electronic album that has the same level of sick aggression as "Cop" or the same vicious anger as Minor Threat. Nor have I heard anything that's even remotely as unsettling as "Jonchaies".

Finally, as far as Autechre is concerned, your statement "I've always considered them to be clever guys playing on the edge of popular electronic textures" is spot-on: there's a whole army of bedroom producers out there who are much further left-field than they are, but for some reason their hodgepodge of randomly strewn together mainstream electronica fare is considered to be "experimental" by an inordinately large number of music fans.

To me, they're like sympho - not the least bit clever and forward-thinking, but incredibly pretentious nonetheless. Bwegh ...

What electronica needs right now is its own punk to get rid of the staleness and pretentiousness. It's starting to smell bad.

Posted by: matthijs at December 7, 2003 06:50 AM

A brutal style (for lack of a better term) is a recurrent trope in new musics -- think of the generation of Antheil, Cowell, Ornstein and Varese and then recurrences with the west coast percussion school (Cowell again, Harrison, Cage), the electroacoustic works of the ONCE group (anything by Mumma, or Ashley's _Wolfman_) or in the 70's/80's guitar bands of Chatham, Branca et al. One might also add the industrial elements of early Soviet experimentalism or Nono's concrete works. In a lesson once, Gordon Mumma & I came to an agreement that there simply wasn't enough "ugly music" out there, but I believe we both heard ugliness in that context as a particular surface quality, not as a negation of the beautiful.

If bloodlessness, on the other hand, refers to a failure to go to extremes, then I'm decidedly in the camp of the extremists. But extremes will also include the extremely soft (Feldman), the sweet (try the "cold blue" school of minimalism), the satirical (try anything by Boudiwijn Boukinx, Clarence Barlow or Chris Newman), or even an extreme but subversive moderation (I've long dreamed of writing a very long piece with only one dynamic, mezzo.)

The bulk of music-making, however, will remain repertoire building rather than genre-defining. Extremes are rare places and hard to stake; bloodlessness may simply be the normal state of affairs.

Posted by: Daniel Wolf at December 7, 2003 02:53 PM

regarding: "What electronica needs right now is its own punk to get rid of the staleness and pretentiousness." I would recommend looking into an artist like Kevin Drumm (also mentioned earlier), especially in a live setting where the artist is controlling the decible level. Aside from the (?seeming?) cacophony of distorted digital feedback are the unbelievably piercing high pitches that only computers seem to be cabable of generating. Here is a quote from the press release for his album titled Sheer Hellish Miasma:

"The extreme end of anarchic electronics and possibly a hint of nordic musical violence is present throughout the much of the disc."

I really think that the music you seek is out there...

Posted by: sem at December 7, 2003 03:07 PM

Yeah I've heard enough violent noise music to understand that that's not what I seek. I seek instead, what Daniel was describing, extreme ugly but in a compelling sense. Not gabber or noize beats, I want the music to have a form which suggests sophistication and mastery over the violence. Something punk, with its mundane chords and beats cannot do for me.

And I don't want anything that will cause ear damage! That isn't art for me, that's offensive and ignorant of the capacities of the human. If I want ear damage I'll do it myself, something I actually am good at.

The Russian primitivists, like Mossolov or even Ustvolskaya with her barbaric repetions could easily be transplanted into electronic sound. But Daniel's point that artists that can effectively produce good extreme art may just be rare.

Who's doing it now? I heard the new Sciarrino piano pieces a few weeks ago and while barbarically cluster chordal, seemed to produce no real sense of violence. Steve Martlandt I checked out last week and bored me to tears.

I have a bootleg recording of early Branca. Thanks for reminding me of his early work, Daniel.

Posted by: jeff at December 7, 2003 05:58 PM

I think this discussion is in bad faith. Searching for musical extremeties will only result in a self-destructive cycle for the art. Music was built from the ground up, and of late being driven back into the ground. Every song you will ever need is already in you.

Posted by: r4l9 at December 7, 2003 06:17 PM

"And I don't want anything that will cause ear damage!"

I don't think you want to use the word 'violence' then. Look at the following definition of violence from meriam webster's online dictionary. All 4 definitions contain mention of injury, damage or some kind of permanent alteration. (admittedly this reference source may represent conservative, moderate bloodlessness)

Main Entry: vi·o·lence
Pronunciation: 'vI-l&n(t)s, 'vI-&-
Function: noun
Date: 14th century
1 a : exertion of physical force so as to injure or abuse (as in effecting illegal entry into a house) b : an instance of violent treatment or procedure
2 : injury by or as if by distortion, infringement, or profanation : OUTRAGE
3 a : intense, turbulent, or furious and often destructive action or force b : vehement feeling or expression : FERVOR; also : an instance of such action or feeling c : a clashing or jarring quality : DISCORDANCE
4 : undue alteration (as of wording or sense in editing a text)

I find it hard to divorce the notion of violence from some kind of permanent, irreconcilable damage.

I do also like Daniel Wolf's description music lacking extremes (not to mention this whole discussion; I have a new list of names to take to my local music library for listening...).

Posted by: sem at December 7, 2003 09:41 PM

autechre has lot of ooomps. It is intense but
soul-touching and soothing at the same time.
I think it is not difficult to imitate xenakis vibe but I don't want another 20c style brutalness.

Posted by: ari at December 12, 2003 02:39 AM

Yes Kevin Drumm, at least check out "the inferno"
not punk or ear damage imo
a cut above the rest as far as noise sculpture goes.

Posted by: AgentA at December 29, 2003 09:37 PM