Music and Utopia
The importance of utopian ideas in music changes over time as it
does in society. What does retain constancy however is the occurrence
of what I would call the "utopian moment", the motivation
to bring something forth from within the ever growing density of
possibilities, something that is yet un-thought of, yet unfulfilled,
unperceived, and perhaps at times even unwanted.
The progress required in moving from the sketches and general formal planning of the pre-compositional phase to the actual writing out of the musical score is mirrored in the progression that moves from the reading of that score to its execution in the act of performance. In both cases an imaginary "script", mediated by different modes of notation, is to achieve a preliminary concretion: from the vast repository of pre-compositional ideas a musical score is extracted that concentrates the still largely utopian content in a focal point and fixates it through musical notation. Similarly, the execution of the score by the performer is a realization of notated ideas: its placement-in-time as currently sounding music. If the utopian content of these compositional processes would be conserved in unmodified form throughout these progressions, then composers would find themselves in a very unfortunate position, since the henceforth perpetually vexing discrepancy between score and performance - imagined and sounding music - would solipsistically isolate the ideal, but unrealizable musical score in the mind of its creator.
The point is therefore for the composer to utilize the "utopian moment" as ignition - as "inspiration", if you will - for beginning the work. Then, during the process of composition and concretion -
pre-composition -> score
score -> performance
- eliminates the (conceptual) utopian content by turning it over to its concretion as art.
And as if this were a facile process! That's why doubt, the tentative, and perhaps even the experiment are often more productive than the rigorous pursuit of utopian content; at least as far as the conventional understanding of the term utopia is concerned: something that can be clearly envisaged by the mind and that is either secretively or militantly (as ideology) thought of as ultimately realizable. The totalitarian resonance that resounds in this definition of the term is reductive and largely excludes - in the realm of art at least - the idea of the "utopian moment" where the idea is not realizing the utopian content but transforming it into concretion as a work of art.
Utopia of distant sounds
Composing, understood in the context of western music, is always a more or less violent struggle between systems of rules found within the available material and personal freedom. The musical conscience is under the permanent obligation to redefine itself radically - a completely utopian project In a society that imitates and represents itself, proud of viewing itself as its own projection, composed music must insist on finding its own relationship with the world. It must invent its message simultaneously with its language and hope to be received by as many people as possible before the rapidly advancing atrophy of listening becomes a chronic condition.
Art - as I would want it to be understood - does not strive to
reiterate what is anyway and merely affirm it in its existence,
but always seeks to express something previously un-thought of by
activating the potential of the "utopian moment".
In recent years musical applications of computer science have played a leading function in the desire to systematize, formalize, and even automate compositional processes. The models and structures used in this field are based on detailed analyses of the physics of sound and sound behavior on the one hand and criteria of aural and cognitive human perception and orientation on the other - a combined science known as psycho-acoustics. The speed and scope with which these scientific insights have been recently integrated into the compositional processes of specific composers or even certain aspects of the general practice of music certainly represent a productive and dynamic development that sheds new light on the ancient quest for a universal language as basis of science and music.
It is the positivistic insistence, however, with which (already!)
implementations of scientific insight are insisted upon, that increase
the risk of writing music which largely suspends aesthetic reflection
in favor of a scientific zest and fascination. Compositions made
up of fast-paced series of acoustic realizations of scientifically
derived models or structures - usually quite impressive to hear
at first instant - often seem to try to cover up the underlying
lack of creative ideas, which prompts composers to rigidly derive,
transcribe and fixate musical structures with great technical competence,
without however, being too much concerned with their aesthetic relevance
The contribution of the universal computer in the field of composition
could really be revolutionary. Besides its uses as an instrument
for analysis, transcription, modelization and simulation in the
disciplines of sound research and psycho-acoustics the commercial
applications of this medium has profoundly influenced the practice
of music. Software like "Virtual Composer" and "Instant
Music" guarantee users - even those with no previous knowledge
of music - the instant production of a piece through the assembly
of ready-made components. In the broadest sense this heralds the
de-hierarchization, even democratization, of the activity of musical
composition. Perhaps the question to ask is no longer what will
make music new but how and by whom it is renewed. Everybody will
compose their own musics - and as cyber-composers distribution will
not be the problem.
My personal hearing-utopia would be a mode of listening that would be able to abstract from cultural predetermination or habit and thus would remain open. Its openness would differ from Nietzsche's ear in that it is able to listen without being constantly (pre-)configured, and to make autonomous and creative aesthetic judgments by defying obedience.
First published in: "Universalmaschine". Frevert, T.;
Schwarte, L., Ed.
© Peter Grahame Woolf