Opening-up to Openness in Music

Since putting the word ‘openness’ in my Twitter bio I’ve been asked on numerous occasions, online and in person, what I mean by this. In fairness, the idea’s been gathering steam in my compositional practice over the last couple of years, so I’ve been discussing the matter on the back of other mentions, too.

It turns out there’s a lot to say about openness, and it’s really not a new topic. As I sit here now Eco’s 50-year old tome The Open Work stares down at me from a high shelf – a book I really ought to re-read. I’m not going to squeeze all my thoughts on the subject into one blog post – that’d be silly. I’ll write a few of them over the coming months, probably years, especially in relation to individual projects as they take form. There are several in the offing that ought to generate some activity fairly promptly, so watch this space!

This post is a kind of personal introduction/contextualisation for the things I’ll post in future. There are lots of little bits-and-bobs I feel I ought to say that I can’t see fitting easily into posts of a more specific nature. So I’ll post them here, comfortable in the knowledge I’ll always be able to refer back to them at a later date!

Research ‘Errors’

In one of those glorious, slightly bitter moments when hindsight teaches you a lesson, I discovered that I really should’ve spent my years as a postgraduate researcher investigating openness. Instead I opted to look at narrative, trying to re-position it and subvert its structuralist foundation. Yes, it was rather like banging my head against a brick wall, thanks for asking! While the whole escapade was informative and interesting, I think I let my compositional practice suffer in an attempt to tie everything together – a worrying fact when you consider my PhD was in composition! I’m not saying my work was awful, my time ill-spent or my PhD undeserved – not in the slightest – but having stepped away from the field of research and the whole business of academia I see now that the ideas I really wanted to grapple with were in the domain of openness and not, as it turns out, in the domain of narrative.

A lot of music I was beginning to listen to at the time really got me thinking about ideas that later fed my interest in openness. Particularly memorable is my sudden foray into glitch music. Glitch’s use of the ‘error’ as a source of material, and in some cases a mode of action, has obvious ties with Lachenmann and the musique concrète instrumentale acolytes. Indeed, some of the most commercial glitch music (Christian Fennesz, for example) clings to tried-and-tested modes of presentation in much the same way that Lachenmann’s music clings to traditional western notation (albeit extended) and a very conventional concert set-up. But for some artists – Derek Bailey, Phil Corner, Christian Marclay and a long list of others – making use of the ‘error’ has been about opening new worlds and, perhaps more importantly, being open as a performer and a listener right from the get-go. (Incidentally, I happen to like the music of Lachenmann and Fennesz a lot, but I think a distinction between them and the others is an important one to make).

Around the same time I began a concentrated period of reading about noise, glitch and their supposed historical root in mid-century experimentalism. Now, I’m no big fan of histories (truth told I really despise them), but looking at mid-century experimentalism from this perspective, rather than seeing it tacked onto the history of the ‘great’ western tradition, was very interesting.

As I recall, everybody seemed to be reading Heggarty’s Noise/Music at the time, and plenty of people were talking about Kahn’s Noise Water Meat. I still have these books and they’re certainly worth reading. Two other publications have really stuck with me: Kim-Cohen’s In the Blink of an Ear: Toward a Non-Cochlear Sonic Art and Kelly’s Cracked Media: The Sound of Malfunction.

Kim-Cohen opens with something of a disclaimer:
In the Blink of an Ear is not a survey. Nor is it, properly speaking, a history of the sonic arts. Its primary concerns are not chronology, comprehensiveness, or connecting the dots.
What struck me about this book was its focus on the experience as a thing in itself and not something utterly dependent on a pre-existing frame of reference. He looks at models in other art-forms where a similar respect of ‘the experience’ is paramount. There’s also an interesting, even moving account of Stephen Vitellio’s World Trade Centre Recordings. Going back to his opening disclaimer, Kim-Cohen presents a series of ideas very openly and does so in a way that lets his readers make connections themselves rather than having canonical lineage rammed down their throats.

Kelly’s Cracked Media does this even better and is particularly notable for its accessibility. Now, accessibility is a horribly abused word and one I don’t like to use much. Nevertheless, I can’t think of a better one. There’s no doubting the author’s intention to provide a critical overview of glitch music, but he manages to go about this in a way that requires very little knowledge of the subject. Put another way: he enthusiastically makes the field interesting without undermining objectivity or expecting his readers to bring a lot of information to the table. There’s something very open about the way it’s written. And it smells good – it’s got that coffee table book scent. So that’s nice.

The performative aspect of these books I found very engaging – they’re interesting manifestations of the open, experience-first subject they cover. I became hooked on the idea that experiencing something from within, on my own terms, was far more stimulating than observing something from a distance on terms inherited from elsewhere. This also meant acknowledging that ‘the experience’ is very fluid. The relationship between sound/music, the experience of art and people – all people – is one that’s become very important to me. There’s also a wonderful disconnect between glitch/noise/ experimentalism and the rhetoric upholding histories, styles, genres and other things that I personally have little time for.

Open and Closed

How is this different from older ways of performing and listening to music? Surely people are free to experience any music in any way they like? Well yes they are – this lack of control is one of the great things about all art. But I firmly believe that the usual methods of making music are geared towards something else entirely. Blame the cult of the virtuoso, blame celebrity, blame commercialism, or blame the culture of pseudo-nostalgia promoting a 'proper canonical order of things' always to be honoured, understood and adulated. Blame whatever you like. The fact is that the normal concert experience is, in most cases, a pre-written contract.

This brings me to an important point. In lots of the conversations I’ve had about openness I've been struck by the sense of binarism it seems to engender, which is not something I’m keen on. A few people have even become defensive, apparently on the basis that music not branded ‘open’ must therefore be ‘closed’, which would be a negative thing. Am I being accused of dismissing older music and traditional performance formats? For that matter, do I dismiss older music and traditional performance formats? No I don’t. Certainly I think they’re steeped in a culture that makes open experiences harder, but I don’t dismiss them out-of-hand. Old music and the whole notion of staring at a stage aren’t automatically ‘closed’, even if that’s the way we normally treat them.

This is a huge subject and something of a hot-topic as performing institutions search desperately for new ways to engage audiences. I’ll definitely deal with this in due course. In the mean time I’d say the biggest enemy to openness is reverence, which is intimately intertwined with the position composers are seen to occupy within the traditional institution.

What is Openness?

Talk about music and openness and a few things spring to mind instantly:
  • Open notation
  • Open instrumentation
  • Open form
Certainly, the first two are important to me and my practice. I’m less keen on the idea of open form, simply because I’m not keen on the idea of form, which I think runs contrary to the idea of openness.
If open music and open performance are about the experience then we really have to think about whose experience that is and how different experiences can interact in the same space. For that matter, we have to think about who we are treating openly. Again, one of the great things about art is that interpretation of an artwork is always an open thing at its most basic level (i.e. before domineering cultural factors intervene). But what about the other relationships that make a performance a performance? I’m not just concerned with the relationship between an audience member and their interpretation of the performance. What about the relationships between composer, performer and audience? What role does the score play (if there is one)? What’s the relationship between a performer and their instrument? How do performers interact? And when does an identifiably open experience turn into an unhelpful free-for-all?

I’d say one of the most crucial aspects of openness in music is avoiding exclusivity. I don’t want to use the word ‘inclusive’, which has suffered the same terrible fate as ‘accessible’, but there’s a lot to be said for dropping some of the pretenses associated with new music and with the institution of ‘classical music’ as a whole. There’s nothing wrong with encouraging people to think, but there’s something horrendously exclusive about requiring your audience/performers to know the work of ‘writer-x’ in intimate detail (if I see another programme note droning on and on about Deleuze I think I’ll scream*). Denying the value of amateur music-making is equally exclusive – while I don’t see many people sidelining amateurs publically, the industry’s value system is really quite clear in this regard. Being truly open means dropping these kinds of expectations and conventions. In doing so we can (potentially) open the world of new music to more people, not to mention reinvigorate the interest of stalwarts.

Tentatively, I’ll say that openness in music is about:
  • Adaptability
  • Constant re-connection
  • Invitation
  • The overall artistic and human experience
I’m still working on that list, which is being thoroughly informed by my musical practice. I certainly wasn’t thinking on these terms when I wrote my first open instrumentation work, "… I want to know about the lull in the storm" in 2009 [score | details]. That was a completely practical decision – I wanted to write two pieces for two different workshops but didn’t have time! The idea resurfaced in 2011 when I wrote Image, Music, Text [score | details]. But it wasn’t until relatively recently that openness as a holistic approach has really taken flight with me. There was very definitely a period of struggle with subconscious concerns about openness and my habit of writing fairly run-of-the-mill concert music throughout between 2009 and 2013. For sure, there were some notable pieces in that period, particularly for solo piano [score | details] and At this point add the extra ingredients [score | details], as well as those already mentioned. The real breakout came last year with Personal Space, which perhaps forced the relationship between ‘open’ and ‘closed’ a little, but worked extremely well nonetheless [score details].

Let’s see what the future brings…

If anyone’s interested in any of the books mentioned, here are the references:
  • Eco, Umberto, The Open Work, trans. by Anna Cancogni (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989).
  • Hegarty, Paul,Noise/Music: A History (New York & London: Continuum, 2009).
  • Kahn, Douglas, Noise, Water, Meat: A History of Sound in the Arts (Cambridge & London: MIT Press, 1999).
  • Kelly, Caleb, Cracked Media: The Sound of Malfunction (Cambridge & London: MIT Press, 2009).
  • Kim–Cohen, Seth, In the Blink of an Ear: Toward a Non–Cochlear Sonic Art (New York & London: Continuum, 2009).

I’d also recommend these:
  • Cox, Christoph & Daniel Warner, eds., Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music (New York & London: Continuum, 2008).
  • Szendy, Peter, Listen: A History of Our Ears, trans. by Charlotte Mandell (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008).
  • Young, Rob, ed., Undercurrents: The Hidden Wiring of Modern Music (New York: Continuum, 2002).
[space height="90"]
*Disclaimer: I’ve got no problem with Deleuze, with people reading Deleuze, with music written with Deleuzian ideas in mind. I do have a problem with the (often poorly hashed) readings of Deleuze forced on audiences for no good reason. If I wanted to think on those terms I’d be reading the books, not a programme note. I’m not innocent in this regard – I’ve done it myself (not with Deleuze, but using the same principle). It’s embarrassing. Everyone should stop. Now!