When Music Speaks, Literally

When Music Speaks, Literally

I’m rarely blown away by a piece of music, but this week it happened. Stop reading right now and checkout this Peter Ablinger thing.

[Go, go…I’m serious]

Okay, are you back with me? I know I spent way more time clicking around his website than I probably should have on the company clock, but I couldn’t help myself. I just find this particular composer’s work completely fascinating. Thanks to Alex Mincek for turning my attention back to Ablinger. Previously, I had only heard his Grisailles (1-100) for three pianos, but now I’m a full-fledged fan.

So, as a composer who holds the opinion that music is incapable of communicating, you can imagine how bizarre it feels to have a piano actually talk to you in a comprehensible language. Mr. Ablinger, you’re a genius. While I was perusing his website, I felt multiple I-wish-I-had-thought-of-thats, the biggest composer-to-composer compliment in the known universe. However, when I played the Schoenberg letter for my boyfriend, he totally hated it. To him it was just a stupid gimmick that sounded ugly. Luckily, we agree on almost everything else, so I won’t hold it against him.

The whole ordeal of getting to know Ablinger’s work has been a pure pleasure for me, probably due in large part to the fact that we both share a similar concern when it comes to conceptual music processes—an approach not seen very often here in the States. Which makes me wonder, is the lack of interest in conceptual approaches to music a sociological incongruity or a generational thing? It seems that younger composers here in America have definitely absorbed and “gotten over” the implications raised by figures such as John Cage, but this doesn’t explain the overall lack of interest in the ideas and connections that lay far beyond the score.

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20 thoughts on “When Music Speaks, Literally

  1. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    Randy writes, It seems that younger composers here in America have definitely absorbed and “gotten over” the implications raised by figures such as John Cage, but this doesn’t explain the overall lack of interest in the ideas and connections that lay far beyond the score.

    I shouldn’t be trite, but it really is a “been there, done that” thing. Albinger isn’t quite so original. Even the talking instruments go back at least twenty years, probably more into the earliest of spectral thinking. I recall catching up to Barlow’s music in the early 1990s in Europe, where in a then ten-year-old piece the strings were harmonically tuned to speak actual words … handwritten, no tricks, no Midi pianos.

    As for getting over it, Cage’s “Notations” collection of composers’ scores is nearly forty years old — as old as you. Have another look at it. Two generations of composers already explored beyond the score, outside its edges, in dimensions of time and space. They still do. (And I even continue to do that, but as part of a widening rather than narrowing; the WAAM pieces for Seth Gordon are among them.)

    Some of the turning back inward to the score (and the turning back to performers, as has been noted in at least two articles in the past week) is indeed going beyond what the North American composers already explored once they ended their European flirtation. (Now certain schools are all in love with Eurospectralism all over again. Plus ça change…)

    In my view, Albinger seems to have fallen into a musical black hole where time has nearly stopped.


  2. rtanaka

    Conceptual art emerged at the beginning of the 20th century as a reaction toward representational artforms, which was considered to be mainstream at the time. In painting, instead of depicting recognizable figures (like people and objects), artists started to paint things in abstract relationships — like the drip-paintings of Jackson Pollock or the geometrical figures of Piet Mondrian and such. In music, the conceptual works of the New York School (whom has had direct connections with the Abstract Expressionists) and the integral serialists sort of followed a similar path. It’s been done and done for a while now.

    Conceptual works tend to create autonomous worlds within itself, which was supposed to, at least in theory, be an ultimate statement of individualism. Course, it’s really hard for people to get into this sort of thing because it requires such massive amounts of commitment on part of the audience. Representational art tends to be a lot easier to understand, although music is such an abstract medium to begin with that it often has trouble conveying direct meaning like a painting can. Still, if you look at how accessible works like Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf is, I think there’s something to be said about it.

  3. RT

    before the discussion continues…
    and to help those who might want to hear and learn more, it might be nice to have Peter Ablinger’s name spelled correctly.

  4. randy

    Hi Dennis. First I have to say that I totally respect the huge project that you’re undertaking this year…awesome. But I’m a little taken back that you poo-poo an artist like Albinger as a “been there done that” re-tread. BTW, as far as I know, the whole Schoenberg letter thing isn’t a MIDI trick…Disklaviers are much to slow to pick out the necessary notes to recreate the representative speech—he had hardware specifically built to realize this these types of timbres, but that neither here or there. But really the point of my post wasn’t there real point of bringing up Albringer.

    I’m also a huge, huge Barlow fan, and I don’t want to digress into a who’s more avant-garde debate. My interest in chatting about Albinger was definitely his total ouvre—the whole bit about taking reality into measurable chunks and spitting it back out in the context of music. I just really appreciated his approach in that respect. So, long story short, I’m not yet 40, and have Cage’s Notations book stamped on my Mills College library card. All that aside, I’m still wondering why this whole conceptual bent is so un-American right now. Do you have any inklings? It seems we’re on the same side of the conceptual fence so to speak do you think there’s a little bit of a lack luster acceptance of extra-musical concept in these neck of the woods, or am I way off here?

  5. philmusic

    As a composer, I’m more interested in results rather than in methods. The results of the work in question does not sound particularly new to me, so in this case I must agree with Dennis. That said, Peter Ablinger’s techniques may have many more facets and many more sonic possibilities.

    Phil’s Page

  6. philmusic

    “I’m still wondering why this whole conceptual bent is so un-American right now.”

    The Conceptual bent is extremly American right now-but not in music world, –in Art world!

    Randy? Don’t you read Art News?

  7. davidcoll

    our chosen history/past
    being from a different generation i suppose its a bit naive, but i find it very hard to sympathize w/a “been there done that” kind of attitude to john cage, because the real things to appreciate are not in the novelties of new musical textures- though they deserve merit- it is in the many ways he treated material, thus opening up ideas of form well beyond that prior to him. I think that for those thinking in these terms there is still very much to discover.

    However, for other young composers, their chosen past lies too much in the swapping and combining of attractive sounds, or that of persistent rhythm- with no real curiosity of how flexible material really can be. Too bad, because the sounds are SO PRETTY….sorry, haven’t had my coffee yet..

  8. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    …enthusiasm rubs my remaining hair backwards.

    David’s right. I have to admit to being far too glib about both Cage and Ablinger. It’s a trap that can catch people as they get older, and I fell into it. (Plus accepting the misspelled name. I hate that I didn’t check.)

    That said, I see many of these explorations as incremental at best, retrospective at least, and imitative at worst. It was already distressing that I and my generation, the post-Fluxus one, could make refinements but few real conceptual breakthroughs — or so it felt. It was necessary to learn about the past in detail while simultaneously turning one’s back on the past, again and again, or be sucked into it.

    It’s a habit, an addiction, even a kind of artistic schizophrenia to always be looking for something new while seeing the past rise unbidden into my work, and then realizing I am my own history weighting me down. In 1976, I thew that history aside by burning almost all of my work –40-plus compositions — in a public Detonacy (a term invented by Zoogz Rift).

    It didn’t work. Shaking that past isn’t so easy as lighting a match. Copies surfaced here and there, true, but the artistic memories were indelible. So those early influences (I was 20 when I bought that first printing of the Cage) continued to tether me like some sort of compositional one-trick pony. At the same time, that tethering bred a deep resentment for the past in which I am (and I am not unique; you all are) trapped.

    So on an evening just on the down side of a year where pushing my personal boundaries has become so difficult, it struck me that Ablinger — and Randy’s enthusiasm for his work — seemed like an enthusiastic resurfacing of, say, the ghost of Ockeghem, or the rush of television commercials with 1960s soundtracks. Ick.

    To Randy’s question about why this sort of conceptual art feels so un-American right now, I don’t know. It exists in many of the arts (as Phil points out) as a niche, but it seems to me — just guessing — that our cultural fascination with technology has facilitated (and perhaps this is what David was alluding to) a postmodernist musical culture whose visibility and user-friendliness are very high. Why create conceptual art and music when “real” (n.b. scare quotes) music is so simple to create (or just mash up) and so many performers are now involved in performing and collaborating on performance? (I would never have read an article like Brian Sacawa’s recent one when I was his age. Such performer enthusiasm and depth would have been incomprehensible.)

    Put simply, conceptual work such as Ablinger’s, it seems to be, is born from rejection, and we have entered a period of deep acceptance.


  9. coreydargel

    The artist Richard Serra once said, “The residues of activities don’t always qualify as art.” One major false assumption that people make about Cage is that he didn’t “care” about the resulting sounds of his chance operations. This is not true. Cage was deeply involved in the execution of his work, and if he wasn’t pleased with the sound-world that resulted, he would revise the terms and conditions of the experiments. So Dennis is right in the sense that it’s irresponsible to subject an audience to experiments that haven’t been tested, evaluated, and tweaked.

    On the other hand, the point is not that Ablinger’s ideas have been tried before by other people; the point is that he is exploring what, FOR HIM, is uncharted territory. And he is exploring it in a way that is very different from how John Cage, Pauline Oliveros, Christian Wolff, or anyone else would have explored it. To paralyze composers by suggesting they shouldn’t explore any ideas that someone else has already explored is downright poisonous.

    Last month I took a trip to Puerto Rico and visited the El Yunque Rain Forest. I hiked a trail alongside the La Mina river which culminated in a beautiful waterfall. Many people have hiked this trail before me. There are photos of it on the internet and in brochures. But I took my own photos and shared them with some of my friends. Now my friends want to go there, too.

  10. randy

    First of all, I’m SO embarrassed about get the name wrong, I just fixed the original post…please accept my apologies! Next, to Philip Fried, Art News? No, I don’t read Art News, maybe Flash Art or Frieze. And the last time I checked, conceptual practices in the visual art world have swayed to the new goth trend. Even the last opening I attended, With Teeth, was a showcase for low-concept goth. Yeah, the trends (goth, DIY, and concept) combine in the work of Thomas Hirshhorn and maybe Tim Hawkinson—his talking mop is another pontificating masterpiece. But all art aside, conceptual practices certainly aren’t trendy in music these days. Has it been relegated to a sound-art-only status, as in you’re either a composer or a sound artist, not both?

    To Dennis Bathory-Kitsz, I’m just speechless. I appreciate drastic gestures, but it doesn’t have to be so Vito Acconci or Chris Burden. But if burning the past helped you move forward, then more power to you. Really though, it’s your summation that haunts me:

    Put simply, conceptual work such as Ablinger’s, it seems to be, is born from rejection, and we have entered a period of deep acceptance.

    Like most people, I’m not really into rejection. It’s your poetically grim take on acceptance that I find intriguing. Surprisingly, I’m a rather positive thinker, so maybe the benevolent acceptance will cross-pollinate into a broader collective compositional outlook, including a few conceptualists like us.

  11. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    Corey, I didn’t mean at all that something had to be “tested, evaluated, and tweaked” before presentation … rather that, as artists following the Fluxus generation, many of us were left with the hard work of imagination having been done, and only incremental finessing, if you will, possible until we could get out from under that big shadow.

    I’m all for more rough-hewn or experimental work (however you define that) involving an audience or participatory public. Fun with failure, if need be.

    You misunderstand or I am unclear about my Ablinger dissent. Randy asked a question about the lack of stateside enthusiasm for Ablinger-style approaches. My feeling is that after three generations of such work, it no longer ‘signifies’ as it once did. Randy clearly feels otherwise, and may indeed be a majority inside our nonpop minority. It has nothing to do with whether for Ablinger himself his own work explores new territory, and everything to do with whether the prevailing creative winds in our microscopic culture have blown past his approach. That’s my perception — and not the feeling that as some sort of cultural commissar I would crack down on an Ablinger as a degenerate of nostalgic avant-gardism and inject him with creativity-paralyzing botox.

    (Heck, if that were the case, I’d be paralyzed from hairline to toenail.)


  12. Daniel Wolf

    There is a tremendous amount of conceptual and experimental music activity in the United States, but by and large, it falls under the music-institutional radar which still focuses upon music conforming at least to the external conventions and resources of symphonic and operatic genres.

    Just two examples: there is tremendous energy in the whole circuit bending and hardware hacking scene, and in new vocal music which both playfully and seriously engages the border between art/classical and popular musics. The independence of both these scenes from the structures and institutions of classical music making is marked.

    In the meantime, major orchestras and opera houses, when doing new music, go in the direction of what might be called, in an analogy to a theatre style, the “well-made piece”, mastery of traditional craftmanship and a guaranteed effective external form are more immediately valued over more fundamental explorations or challenges to tradition. Playing it safe is not a surprising mode of operation for large institutions, but it is surprising that activity in those institutions continues to receive so much attention, as if that activity is more likely to be interesting or relevant.

    The Cabrillo Music Festival is a prime example of what has gone wrong. Ironically, it is precisely in the years since Cabrillo has been identifying itself as a festival of contemporay music that it has turned away from promoting the experimental and west coast repertoire that made it a unique event in the Ameircan festival landscape. The “contemporary music” now played at Cabrillo is largely indistinguishable from that sampled on orchestral programs throughout the year along the other coast.

  13. philmusic

    Why are conceptual approaches more popular in the visual art world (theater/dance too), than in the music world here in the USA?

    In two words; training and technique.

    Many art schools teach conceptual approaches, most music schools do not. In American music education instrumental/compositional/theory “technique” is central to the learning experience. One learns to play one’s instrument through practice and study and get better. Its a life’s work. In the conceptual world good “musical technique” is just another style. For many musicians that’s the deal breaker.

    Actually think there are quite a lot of conceptual musicians out there (in the Twin Cities you would find some of them at Acadia on Tuesday nights), I think its hard for them to sustain their point of view.

    Phil’s Page

  14. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    Daniel writes, Just two examples: there is tremendous energy in the whole circuit bending and hardware hacking scene, and in new vocal music which both playfully and seriously engages the border between art/classical and popular musics.

    Good point about the level of activity there, but I’m not sure how much parallels what Ablinger is doing. But maybe that was the real question Randy was asking. Randy?

    And you’re also right that vocal activity seems to have serious attention as an experimental form — a good chunk of it being informed without being retro.

    Circuit bending, on the other hand, isn’t particularly new or experimental — it’s a postmodern version of 75 years’ worth of electronic music playing around with gadgets (in this case, postmodern = “don’t built it, buy it”). But it’s got a cool name.


  15. EvanJohnson

    As someone who happens to be getting deeper and deeper into Ablinger’s output at the moment, a word of caution about Quadraturen III; it’s a haunting piece, I think, conceptually interesting of course but even more memorable as sound; but, that having been said, it’s really best heard in the context of his other work. I don’t think it’s necessarily meant as a big statement; there are other pieces for that.

    Those who can hack through German are advised to read his allusive and insightful article “Metaphern”; and everyone should hear Der Regen, das Glas, das Lachen, Grisailles 1-100, and some of the IEAOV pieces, at least, before taking Quadraturen III as representative of the extent of Ablinger’s artistic concerns.

    Evan Johnson

  16. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    Evan, I admit to only reading half of Metaphern in the past few hours. Maybe there’s good stuff coming, or maybe my German isn’t quite up to the task. But the essay struck me as a collection of the kind of insights I heard all too frequently from acid trippers in the sixties — an “oh wow” text replete with self-surprises and pseudo-certainties. (Der blaue Himmel.
    Ich glaube der blaue Himmel könnte wirklich eine Hilfe sein bei diesem Problem. Natürlich ist er Raum (“space”). Aber das Blau!, das Blau assoziiert man nicht mit Raum, erklärt man nicht mit Raum. Nur faktisch, theoretisch, wissenschaftlich, was weiß ich – ist es Raum. und genauso ist es in der Musik. Klang IST Raum. Natürlich.

    What did you think were the major insights here? It seems to me these are insights (or better, reactions) explicated by others earlier, just as his music is music already done earlier. Do you not agree? Or are we simply speaking — you, Randy and Corey, and then I and perhaps Phil — across a generational divide whose perceptions can’t be reconciled?


  17. pgblu

    Remind me…
    Articulated by whom? I’d like to find out.

    Does anyone here know about Agostino di Scipio? Isn’t that a major ‘conceptual artist’? Gad, the term itself smells of the 1970’s (sorry)


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