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5 September 2008

Is It All Just Stuff?

Genres, tension and language in contemporary Australian sound arts

Sonia Leber and David Chesworth, <em>The Persuaders</em> (2003), installation view Image: Sonia Leber and David Chesworth, The Persuaders (2003), installation view  
© courtesy of the artists

When completing my undergraduate degree at Melbourne University, it often seemed as though I was living through an age of death. Modernism, painting, the novel, Communism – even history, according to some, had apparently 'ended' and all we were left with was the unfinished business of 'real' history, isolated to little pockets of backwardness, scattered about the globe. Today it seems that some people would now like to put the word 'genre' out in the boneyard along with everything else, as we hurtle madly into our ever-expanding post-postmodern world of the 21st century.

It is certainly true that pure genres have rarely, if ever, existed, and now that the contemporary sound arts are such a fluid realm, one wonders if older terms are really applicable. Even so, how do we discuss the work of such contemporary Australian composers as Anthony Pateras or Nigel Helyer, for example, without invoking earlier ideals of symmetry, balance and counterpoint as well as more recent notions about the use of texture, density and clusters (even if only to highlight how both artists transgress such earlier musical concepts). Australia has indeed a venerable precursor for such generic mutation in the person of Percy Grainger, a musician widely renowned for his exceptional live and recorded piano recitals of such giants of romanticism as Franz Liszt and Robert Schumann, as well as for his idiosyncratic concept of 'Free Music' and gliding tones which, he felt, might enable whites of the New World such as himself to experience some kind of ecstatic fusion with musical force and primitive 'race memories' in such a way that it would, ironically, collapse all such distinctions of genre, music, self and race into some kind of Dionysian glob of pure experience. There remains much to admire in Grainger's idea of a musical form as 'free as water' which would ripple past and trickle through every genre known to humanity – despite his, at times, dubious racial politics.

No musical culture has ever produced an entirely 'pure' form.The issue, then, is what is the utility of rhetoric and classification within contemporary sound arts, and where does the use of such terms become fundamentally counter-productive? Whether one wishes to distinguish between, for example, rock'n'roll and jazz, or between sound art and gallery installation practice, it is always possible to find exceptions to the rules that one applies. Australia's Jex Saarelaht is an exceptional jazz keyboardist, for example, though he is better known in popular circles for his work with everyone from the 1980s blues-punk band Harem Scarem to Kate Ceberano. No musical culture has ever produced an entirely 'pure' form. Almost any genre can therefore be said to contain at least some points of overlap with almost any other, even if only at the level of rhetoric and description (i.e. through the use of such terms as hard, loud, angry, soft, light, exotic, 'primitive', and so on, into infinity).

Nevertheless, this is not quite the same as saying that 'everything is anything,' as some doomsayers watching the spread of cultural relativism and multiculturalism have at times suggested. Rhetorical distinctions are an important if not essential part of arts and music criticism. In writing this piece, it has indeed become apparent to me just how complicated it is to apply cultural terms across genres and periods. While some musical terms, like neoclassicism and romanticism, are relatively transparent in their meaning and readily apply across a range of materials (poetry, painting, music), this is less true for many other key musical terms of the 20th century. Even so, without a functioning language about culture and music, it is impossible to create a meaningful debate or exchange, not only at the level of criticism, but also in musical culture itself. The relationship of Grainger to European, Amer-Indian and Pacific musics would have been completely different and probably considerably less productive, if Grainger had not started with the supposition that these non-canonical forms were fundamentally different from the music he had previously been exposed to as part of his classical training. His novel compositional practice began, then, as a kind of musical conversation about this difference – although it is fair to say that Grainger and most of his peers tended to reshape folk, ethnic and other non-academic musics in their own image, with Grainger himself positing the exploration of such forms as a method whereby one might rediscover a lost 'Nordic' or 'Anglo-Saxon' spirit in contemporary art music. Even the much vaunted Peter Sculthorpe tended to draw on elements from Indonesian, Sino-Japanese and Australian Aboriginal motifs in such a way that they became fundamentally interchangeable 'primitive' admixtures within the structures of Western tonality.

Far from being antithetical to music, as many unreconstructed romantics are endlessly asserting, language lies at the heart of composition itself. For a more radical approach, in which such influences are appreciated to be, on some level, fundamentally unassimilable for the Western canon, one must look to less well-known artists, like the contemporary Australian shakuhachi player Anne Norman (who has made some interesting dialogical works also drawing on European Renaissance traditions), Machine For Making Sense or the Australian koto player Satsuki Odamura. To put it simply, rhetoric – and so the deployment of genres, stylistic terminology and other classifications – enables the very process of thinking about positive and negative qualities in music and culture, about the possibility for tensions and fusions between forms and traditions, for antitheses, explosions and transgressions. Far from being antithetical to music, as many unreconstructed romantics are endlessly asserting, language lies at the heart of composition itself.

The problem is, perhaps, that we are so used to thinking in a rather primitively anarchistic or neo-romantic manner about language as being somehow the opposite of a natural flow and a coming forth of intuitive musical progression, that we have forgotten the poetic possibilities of language itself. As the likes of James Joyce and Antonin Artaud have amply demonstrated, it is possible to write and think using language in ways which are not necessarily conservative or restrictive. Grainger, for his part, researched ways of aligning musical form with ancient biblical recitation, while the collaboration of Jude Walton and Hartley Newnham on No Hope, No Reason (Melbourne Festival, 2004) employed the flattening of linguistic intensity and of meaning within postmodernist poetry to structure their strangely ornate yet depersonalised musico-dramatic form. Dots'n'lines may have become the dominant way in which academic musical language is supposed to be expressed, but many of us have forgotten that using, say, a visual score of swirls of colour, swooping lines or other forms of transcription (David Young's recent use of pictographs, for example, in his wonderful Val Camonica Suite), is no less 'linguistic' than any other form – that is to say, both use an implicit and at least partially structured system to represent something other than themselves (namely music).

All of which is a complicated way of saying that I personally still need my genres, and I think most other people do, too, much as they might not like to admit it. I recall long debates with percussionist Sean Baxter about how, if at all, one could describe a universal system of musical quality if we both accepted that we both had good reasons for liking the various forms of music we each enjoyed, even if these two selections did not always intersect. We never could agree on how this might be done – hell, we could not even work out how to fully classify Sean's ever-morphing band-collaboration under the moniker of Bucketrider (whatever it was, Sean was sure it was 'core,' be it jazzcore, grindcore, avant-core, you name it)! Without genre and description, though, we could not have even begun this conversation, and Bucketrider itself probably could not have existed. To be sure, one person's soundscape is another person's piece of performance art; one listener's experience of the Buckets as post-punk noise art was another listener's perception of more delicate textures and clusters such as one finds more pronounced in the work of Young or Chris Dench.

For all that though, provided one can and one does explain why one thinks that any given piece of music may be described, for example, as avant-garde dub, better than it may be classified as a neo-minimalist work having more in common with early David Chesworth, then these terms do indeed have great utility. The discussions which have gone into the production of this article have certainly helped me! They help one to articulate themes and structures, points and convergences, as well as precedents and influences, accidental similes and mistaken, artificially generated confluences or inconsistencies. Language enables one to explore the work and one's reception of it, and so generate new tensions or perspectives which may in turn generate new works of art and new conversations about them. A whole new range of 'cores'!

I recently had another spirited debate with the editor of this volume about whether composing material solely on paper using notes and staves was still a valid way of working in this world of amplifiers and sophisticated acoustic knowledge, or if such an approach is basically outdated. The fact that this debate has significance demonstrates that the stories about 'the Death of the Genre' have been much exaggerated. The different nuances implied by the terms scoring, composition, sound art, installation, improvisation, harmony, counterpoint, and so on still very clearly matter. Musical purity may have finally gone the way of the dodo, but then it never really existed in the first place.

But language itself is not the enemy. It is perhaps worth recalling that, when the Futurist Luigi Russolo first proposed his famous, all encompassing noise-art form, he did so alongside peers such as Filippo Marinetti and Velimir Klebnikov who advocated using 'words in freedom' both within abstract recited poetry and sound-poetry, but also in forms of typography which turned letters and words into visual images. Echoes of these ideals may indeed be found in the work of Sydney's Amanda Stewart. These artists wished to release the power of language through such techniques, and it was then the energy of this force of language, of terms and of linguistic materials which drove much of the 20th century avant-garde, be it the Futurists or John Cage (famously described by Susan Sontag as an attempt to test the limits of language to such a degree that language could come to include silence as a positive presence in language and enunciation).

Australia has indeed several artists working in this mode today, the vocal cut-ups and electronic collisions of Pateras and Robin Fox (notably 'Vox Erratum' off their Coagulate CD) as well as Stewart's work bearing more than a passing similarity to such classics of European concrete poetry as Artaud's To Have Done With the Judgment of God (1947). We should, then, continue to use both genres and words to generate freedom in sound art, to smash anarcho-electronic-post-punk-Futuro-grindcore-symphonic-madness-and-atonal-punctuations-within-neo-romantic-stops all together such that they not only blend into each other, but like the jagged edges and sharp, distinct, rippling lines and planes of Futurist and cubist painting, that these radically distinct musical forms and genres still retain aspects of their distinctiveness, generating unstable tensions, differences and antagonisms, even as they strive for unity. Then is not so much the death of the genre we should strive towards, but rather an explosion of genres, words, terms and sounds.

Sonia Leber and David Chesworth, The Persuaders (2003), installation view - image courtesy of the artists.

Dr Jonathan Marshall is a Research Fellow at the West Australian Academy of Performing Arts, working on issues related to performance and culture in history and the present, especially the relationship between medicine and the arts. Marshall is also a practicing critic and contributing editor for the national arts journal of RealTime Australia.


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