Introduction by Roger Reynolds to the SEARCH Project.



The Possibility of Music


Richard Barrett


Copyright © 2002 Richard Barrett and the Composition Area, Department of Music
University of California, San Diego
Published by Permission

Online publishing and editing by Karen Reynolds
All Rights Reserved.


SEARCH EVENT IV, 3 March 2002, University of California, San Diego


The following TEXT was commissioned by the Composition Area, Department of Music, University of California, San Diego for its SEARCH initiative. The TEXT / TALK is copyrighted and appears in its original presentation here. While links TO this TEXT or recording from other sites are welcome, no part of this TEXT may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic storage or retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the copyright holders [Please contact Roger Reynolds: info@rogerreynolds.com to facilitate this.].



I should like to assume today that in discussing “the future of music” we are not talking about the future of popular music or folk music or jazz, but about “contemporary art music” in a sense which I hope I can gradually make clear in the course of this lecture. It might be said at the very outset that by thus restricting my purview to a very small proportion of the musical activity which is currently going on, I’m standing with one foot already in the ivory tower and preparing to step relievedly into its cosy interior. This may indeed be the case, but I prefer to think of “contemporary art music” not as another convenient category but, from a more idealistic standpoint, as describing those musics which refuse to be categorised, in other words as a phenomenon which is collectively not smaller but actually larger than the profit-friendly musics which seem to surround it, because of the breadth of its imaginative horizons, and the freedom we have, both as musicians and as listeners, to explore them. This is one of the few real freedoms available to us, after all.

What gives this music whatever importance it has had, or might have, is the potential it might evoke to inspire and open minds, in a way which is an authentic response to its own time. We might go so far as to call it “music of possibility”. Of course, many artists making “contemporary music” behave as if they were just as shackled to the institutions which disseminate their music as any provider of formulaic jingles for the advertising industry. This kind of thing is very often encouraged by the way that music is taught, and, in many cases, I believe, by the fact that composition is “taught”. Most composers, especially the most creative ones, will state that in their opinion composition cannot “really” be taught. Many parts of the world are thus provided with university music departments where people are employed to do something which most of them feel to be impossible. In saying this I’m not intending to cast any aspersions on those here present; the point I would like to make, in the context of a discussion of the future of music, is that it would be surprising if this anomalous situation were allowed by the controlling institutions, that is to say the providers of finance, indefinitely to continue.

I thought to myself that if indeed the future of this music is considered to be a fit subject for serious discussion, then somebody somewhere is probably concerned as to whether it actually has a future. This is another signal that we aren’t talking about the other types of music I mentioned before, which everyone assumes will carry on into the future in some shape or form. Music which is not fostered by commercial interests must ponder its own reason for existence, since this can’t be readily measured in euros or dollars. This seems to me not necessarily a bad thing.

Some would doubt that contemporary music even has a present: that both the music and the term “contemporary” have lost any illusion of relevance they might once have had, and thus are firmly relegated to the past. These are issues which must be taken seriously, and emphatically countered where appropriate. On one hand, no artist should be so arrogant as to ignore or disdain any changes in the world which are inconvenient to him or her, however precious and painstakingly-groomed one’s self-image might be. On the other hand, taking up an embattled and (by implication) apologetic posture can only lend impetus to the processes which would marginalise all non-commodifiable artistic activity out of existence. Regarding the future, prediction is not only a suspicious business in itself, but can easily take on the cast of a prescription, as we shall see; so I don’t intend to make any predictions myself. I do, however, have my ideas about what the possibilities might be, the alternatives which lie before us and between which we (artists) might have to make a choice.

In fact, these issues have been quite consistently in my mind in recent years. Since the mid-1990s my own compositional activity has almost exclusively taken the form of relatively large projects, each of which has required intense and extended periods of secluded work. This kind of concentration and the commitment it involves has (among other things) had the effect of altering my awareness of the nature of a composer’s relationship to the world. It has become ever clearer that the act of composition is less and less merely a matter of sitting at a desk, or taking a walk, or taking a bath, and immersing oneself in the task of forming, notating and eventually performing the work. There is also the question of consciously making a statement of faith in the viability of such music. To make a “music of possibility”, as I mentioned before, the possibility that our cultural enviromnet has not yet been polluted into irreversible barrenness.

It is of course a commonplace of every period in cultural history that complaints are made about the low esteem in which so-called high art is held by the people to whom it attempts to reach out. (“Reaching out” does not imply condescension as far as I am concerned, as I hope to be able to make clear.) In the mid-1820s, for example, we find both Beethoven and Schubert railing against the decline in standards of musical taste in the Vienna of their time - a time, by the way, which some tend today to view through rose-tinted spectacles as a paradise of musical Romanticism. John Reed points out in his monograph on Schubert, as a comment on a letter from the composer to his friend Franz von Schober in 1824, that “the prosperous middle classes, finding themselves free to exploit their artistic tastes, but denied all political power, seemed prepared to settle for a cosy accommodation with Metternich’s absolutism. The spirit of Biedermeier was in the ascendant, and Schubert was reflecting here on the position of the artist in a hostile and unsympathetic world.”

Are there any analogies to be drawn between Metternich’s Vienna and the situation in the developed countries today? It might be said that today we have all the benefits of democracy as well as the comfortable trappings of 21st century technology, to name only these; but on the other hand it is clear that the (unelected) shareholders of a fairly small number of multinational corporations probably hold more actual power than the majority of state institutions in the world, not to mention that this modern “democracy” generally consists of being granted the opportunity every few years to choose between representatives of a small number of political parties which differ little in appearance, less in policy and not at all in their capacity for dissembling and corruption. Like Schubert and Beethoven, we are living at a time in which revolutionary idealism, associated with the pivotal years 1789 and 1917 (and perhaps also 1968), has given way, especially among intellectuals, first to disillusion and finally to apathy, which has found its cultural symptoms both in the anodyne drabness of the Biedermeier period and the even more breathtaking superficiality of postmodernism. All of our freedoms, including of course the relative freedom of artists in our society, have at some time in the past been struggled for, and for the most part have been wrested from unwilling hands rather than granted by noble generosity. The liberation from “dogma” and “grand narratives” celebrated by postmodernism appears to be a freedom to recycle and cobble together from preexistent materials. I always thought freedom was a more dignified concept than that: the freedom to throw light on one’s own time by radicalising traditions - recognising the historical process while at the same time overstepping it, increasing (in however insignificant a way) the totality of human discovery and experience, rather than rearranging bits of it in a selfconsciously “clever” way. The arguments against postmodernism, I should stress, are primarily philosophical and political ones rather than aesthetic squabbles. In other words, while it would be inappropriate (and quixotic, to say the least) to deny that there should be room in the world even for one’s most despised bêtes noires, this should not be confused with the necessity to analyse and criticise the false consciousness which often lies behind them.

Indeed, from a committed artist’s perspective, the present period often seemed to have a nightmarish quality about it even before the current so-called “war on terrorism” began to break all the bounds of credibility. Hardly a day passes when one isn’t stopped short in astonishment at how successful and pernicious are the workings of hegemony, by which I mean those strategies by which a ruling class gains the consent of others by manipulating the terms in which political (and other types of) discourse may take place. Naturally, the permeation of these processes into the world of music is, in the larger scheme of things, so insignificant as to almost demand an apology for drawing attention to it (and thus away from full-blown social control, exploitation and the workings of the resuscitated “command economy”); while music is indeed my own principal field of activity, and no doubt the same goes for most people in this room, the danger of separating off one’s own “issue” from all the others, whatever that issue might be, is of becoming a willing pawn in this very game of “divide and rule”.

One example of the many-formed “workings of hegemony” in contemporary music should suffice here: the fact that “contemporary composition” must now be taken to encompass musical styles which blatantly ignore not just the last hundred years, but in some well-known cases the last five hundred or more; the commercial interests which make music available to most people rejoice in this new-found “accessibility” after the “dogmatism of the avant-garde”, so that, as far as the world at large is concerned, the unfortunate aberration of “serialism” and its various offspring have been put to rest, the purveyors of culture can concentrate on milking an audience instead of searching for one, and the (musical) world is once more reassuringly flat.

I don’t wish to enter into any arguments as to how “beautiful” or “spiritual” the music of (for example) Arvo Pärt might be; it just seems to me partly laughable and partly tragic that we should have to take such stuff into account when trying to think about “the future of music” at the beginning of the twenty-first century. To quote the English writer Paul Griffiths on the music of Pärt: “There is a great deal that something - what? - has forbidden it to say. Much that we know to be possible has been revoked [my emphasis], which places it in a very different category from music which may sound in some ways similar, but which was created with all [likewise] the knowledge and experience available to its composers: plainsong, for example, or Notre Dame organum, or Vivaldi”. This is an important point. The revocation practised various of our contemporaries is a guarantee that the music cannot be any kind of authentic response to its own time. His apologists might claim that this music isn’t even intended to be such a response, but instead opens a window onto times past when spiritual values were held in higher esteem than in our godless and confused epoch. But let us never forget that although the Middle Ages was the age of awe-inspiring cathedrals and gothic altarpieces and stained-glass windows and indeed much beautiful music which still speaks to us today (certainly more clearly than the vague anachronisms of Pärt and his colleagues), it was also, and at the time, I dare say, more obviously, the age of feudal servitude, of short life expectancies, of the Hundred Years’ War and the Black Death. And of course there are plenty of other fashionable revocations around.

This brings me to my first hope for the future, which is that this rubbish will before long be forgotten, cast aside or derided; but that is no consolation, nor ought it to be. This hope coexists with a fear that the processes I have mentioned, whereby any music which proposes an intelligent and involved reaction from its listeners is sidelined to the point of inaudibility. This could easily happen. In the “developed world” today, much of what goes under the heading of contemporary composition depends on some kind of “enlightened” financial support, from the state (in Europe), from academic institutions (in the USA) or from commercial concerns (in Japan and increasingly elsewhere). Most composers have depended on such support throughout the centuries. What is different now is that whereas Archduke Rudolf actually wanted more music by Beethoven, to listen to and to play, which is why he was in the business of sponsorship, today the people making the decisions are not those for whom the music has or could develop any importance. Neither the “typical Dutch taxpayer”, for example, nor, I suspect, the board members of the Fund for Musical Creation in Amsterdam can be presumed to have any particular interest in the music-theatre composition I was able to spend time writing in the late 1990s owing to the presence of a liberal state funding system in the Netherlands, where I was then living. In times of “economic downturn” such systems are of course extremely fragile. I suspect that they might be gradually and quietly dismantled in the years and decades to come, and the market will take over an even greater proportion of the “decisions” as to what is heard and by whom. And let nobody be under the illusion that this situation would put any influence in the hands of those who actually want to hear music. One of the central lies of capitalism is that it automatically confers choice on the consumer. The consumer is of course able only to make a choice between alternatives chosen for their profit-making potential, and this if he or she can actually afford any of these alternatives.

Looked at in this way, the prospects for the “professional” composer of non-commercial art music look rather bleak: on one side, a tenuous existence on the artificial life-support machinery of the state or whatever; on the other, a market-led oblivion. It’s no coincidence that, in the United Kingdom at least, a significant proportion of the “successful” composers of younger generations have emerged from backgrounds sufficiently wealthy to lift such cares off their sensitive brows. As far as I can see, speaking as one who unfortunately has no such safety-net, there simply is no solution to these problems within the present social structures. Any claimed solution will inevitably boil down to a cosmetic kind of tinkering which shifts a little bit of unfairness from one place to another. On the other hand, privation seems never to have succeeded in stopping all creative musical activity: not in the West, nor under the cultural dictatorship of the Soviet Union, nor in diverse even more inhuman environments. One of the many reasons why the historical memory of the Nazi death camps will occupy our minds for generations to come is that the SS indeed succeeded in extinguishing all human imagination, as is remarked explicitly and with an almost unbearable eloquence for example in the accounts of Primo Levi. I mention this in order to put the present discussion in a wider perspective, so that we don’t end up feeling too sorry for ourselves.

Probably the most important factor which marks out the twentieth century as a decisive period in musical history is the gradual intrusion of electronic technology into all areas of music-production. Other new technologies have previously had profound effects on the way music was conceived and practised, like the perfection of the violin in the 16th century and of the piano in the 19th, but I would venture to say that, in the long term, the advent of electronic music will have created more of an impact than either, if indeed it has not already done so.

The early twentieth century saw the development of a number of devices such as the theremin and ondes Martenot, which were basically conceived as additions to the preexistent instrumentarium of winds, brass, percussion and strings; the arrival of tape recorders in the 1940s, together with the feeling of having to make a clean break with the past which characterises much of early postwar composition, made possible a much more fundamental reassessment of the materials of music - materials in the sense of compositional ideas as well as in the sense of its physical paraphernalia. I should like to examine this matter a little more closely, with the help of two well-known examples.

Firstly, the group of composers in Paris around Pierre Schaeffer gradually built up an entirely unprecedented musical “vocabulary” based around the possibility of manipulating sound in an almost sculptural way: since a recorded sound becomes a physical, concrete object in the form of a length of tape which can be speeded up, slowed down, reversed and otherwise “processed”, the paradigm of musical material based on notation becomes an irrelevance. Schaeffer’s book Traité des objets musicals, eventually compiled in the 1960s, stands as a challenge to musicians to rethink both their craft and its aesthetic implications from first principles, although over thirty years later it has not achieved publication in any language other than its original French.

Secondly, the composers of electronic music, initially centred in the studios of the West German Radio in Cologne, began to see the possibility of generating sounds and compositions entirely by electronic means as offering a way to realise a structural precision far in excess of anything possible by mechanical (that is to say instrumental) methods. Although this dream gradually faded in the cold light of acoustical reality, this very process of discovery brought about the possibility of a shift in musical perception equal in magnitude to that which emerged from Paris. The subsequent history of electroacoustic music, in which these two strands eventually entwined themselves, has not exactly lived up to the grandiose dreams of its pioneers (even though a few very impressive compositions have emerged from these studios, and continue to do so), and this I believe has largely been due to the industrialisation of the technology.

The devices which have been developed in the meantime, for example keyboard synthesisers and samplers, and computer programs for manipulating control sequences and sounds, show very little influence from the new paradigms of the 1950s. In fact their increasing “user-friendliness” might better be termed “commercial-music friendliness”; it is no more straightforward now to use this technology for creative ends than it was in the beginnings, when composers were using equipment originally designed for purposes quite separate from composition or indeed music. For example, the arrival of electroacoustic-music technology made possible a decisive break with the organisation of time by means of binary subdivisions of duration, such as are fundamental to our musical notation; nevertheless, most “electronic music” that one hears nowadays, especially in the area of dance music, is built upon what are perhaps the most insistently binary rhythms which have ever existed in human history. Much of the currently-available “music software” gives the operator so much in terms of structural prefabrication that the musical results are generally arrived at by a process of arrangement rather than composition. The sales pitch often runs along the lines of “Realise your musical dreams, more easily than ever before” or “Program X gives free rein to your imagination”. What nonsense! In fact, options are taken away from beneath the composer’s nose. Naturally, there are exceptions: but these most certainly are exceptions in a situation where profit-margins have infinitely more influence than freeing the imagination. Here is another example of the illusion of choice, now extending to the composer’s choice of materials. First the instruments were industrialised, and now also the music itself.

Of course, the reasons for this industrialisation lie in the adoption of the new electronic technology by commercial music, and my purpose in dwelling on the subject is to point out that this technology has had its profound effects on this sphere of musical endeavour too, though in different ways to its effects on art-music creation, and this leads me to my second contemplation of hopes and fears for the future.

While many composers of art music continue to adapt themselves to new technology in ways which continue the journey into unknown worlds of sound begun in Cologne and Paris around 1950, the social structures which enclose their work remain much as before: the orchestras, opera-houses and concert halls of the 19th century still form the basis of those structures. In other words, the technology has had a radical impact on the paradigm of composition itself, not just on the field of possibilities envisaged by the composer, but also on the very attitude with which those possibilities are approached and utilised. (And this applies to the attitude brought to music using instruments and voices as well, as is paradigmatically evident from the work of Xenakis and Stockhausen in their differing ways, as well as many more recent examples.) This in turn has led to the inception of yet newer musical/technological applications from the art music world, beginning with the creative use of tape recorders and continuing through the architecture of sound synthesis, the theory and practice of using computers in music, and so on. The social position of the art music composer, however, has not (yet?) shifted to anything like as great an extent as a result of new technology.

In distinction to this, popular music has created its own performance modalities, independent of these institutions, by virtue of combining the functions of composer and performer, and using technological means to replace the large numbers of musicians previously necessary to create a full and colourful accompaniment and to fill a large hall with sound. Remember that, a century ago, both art-music composers such as Brahms and “pop-music” composers such as Johann Strauß, were writing for the same performing resources: the romantic orchestra and opera company. So the social position of the pop musician has undergone profound change as an effect of new technology, although the compositional paradigms in this area have remained essentially the same, which is hardly surprising since the emphasis has always been not on composition but on the flavour of the reproduction of familiar norms. Which is not in any way to deny the attractiveness of certain flavours, or their appropriateness in certain situations.

The challenge before art music composers is to develop independent means of production, presentation and distribution, and to do this for themselves, since very little assistance in this respect is to be expected from the commercial music industry (which of course constitutes an unavoidable source of institutional control over the pop musician).

There is some evidence to suggest that this might be happening. As a concerned individual, I have been attempting in a number of different contexts to address this issue. For example, since the late 1980s I have been composing and performing live electronic music, primarily in the context of the duo FURT (with Paul Obermayer): this is music which we conceive, realise and perform as a collaborative unit. More recently I have begun to be involved in other similarly-motivated collaborations, for example with the vocal artist Ute Wassermann and saxophonist Evan Parker. Alongside this, my activities as a composer of notated music have in recent years centred around a close collaboration with two performing ensembles, firstly the Elision group from Australia, and more recently the ensemble Cikada from Oslo; this year I have also begun what will be a series of collective compositions and performances with Ensemble Mosaik from Berlin. I have also been involved with both Elision and Cikada (and several other groups, less regularly) as a performer, in works by myself and others involving various electronic aspects. Aside from the purely musical possibilities inherent in working with the same musicians over an extended period of time, the fact of being for example a member of the Elision ensemble means that I have been able to break, to some extent, with the currently accepted “job-description” of a composer as someone who stands outside the practice of performance and is therefore at the mercy of changing tastes, trends and priorities of commissioning and performing institutions in general. To my mind there is no substitute for involving oneself in performance, for many reasons quite apart from this. My compositions are certainly less often performed than might otherwise be the case, since they depend to a great extent upon the personalities, abilities and commitment of particular musicians, including I suppose myself, and the resources of a particular instrumentarium. Nevertheless, one special performance (which also requires a special audience, of course), is worth a hundred routine ones. I hope that such developments as the composer/performer of experimental electronic music will blossom more widely as time goes on. However, the commercial dice are stacked against this possibility just as much as they are against the composer of orchestral music. What seems a more likely development is that, where orchestras are permitted to continue in existence at all, their repertoire will continue to degenerate into a highly-circumscribed mix of 19th century classics and the work of those 20th and 21st century composers who were and are willing to make the right concessions. Perhaps we stand at the beginning of a golden age for conservative contemporary composers of orchestral music. Now that the music of the 18th century and earlier has effectively ceased to be the province of the symphony orchestra, at least in Europe, and the early-to-mid-19th century composers are receiving increasing attention from specialist period performers, the orchestras will have to foster a new repertoire, and for preference a new repertoire which doesn’t sound too unlike the old one. There are hundreds of composers ready and willing to bridge this gap, armed with the kind of crack training in orchestration which is tailor-made for maximum sparkling effect in digital reproduction. This could well be the art music of the future. But I don’t see why it should detain us any longer for now: it seems generally to consist of highlights from certain early 20th century masterpieces (the ballets of Stravinsky being particular favourites), with added “special effects” inherited from the film industry. One of the “modernist” notions which has gradually been shunted from view by the present cultural hegemony is that structural depth and perspective have any value in music, that is to say that the intrinsic structures of music can be more significant to both senses and intellect than the extrinsic structures by which, for example, a composition is embedded in its social and temporal context.

One of the characteristics of 20th century musical experience in the Western world which Schaeffer in his Traité singled out as new and distinctive was the inclusion of musics from non-Western cultures. The presence of so-called “world music” in our cultural environment is a commonplace, almost as much in Europe as here. This phenomenon places Western musical values in a more objective light, and of course has introduced us to a rich diversity of musical traditions of which previous generations had only a vague and often distorted idea. Its influence on Western art music composition has already been deep and widespread. My next hope is that this should lead to a situation where Western musicians are content with a view of Western art music as just one of many strands which together constitute the world of musical culture. This implies not only a respect for other musical traditions as such, but also a respect for their own processes of historical change. We shouldn’t apply standards of “purity” to our appreciation, for example, of Indian or Indonesian music, as if they were immutable tokens of a golden age or an imaginary exotic civilisation, any more than we should to our own. This of course isn’t intended as an excuse for cultural imperialism, and the kind of destruction of diversity which we associate with names like Coca-Cola and Macdonalds. I mean to say only that we should not lament the fact that all cultures are in a state of evolution, or expect them to be otherwise. The crucial point is that musical cultures in the Third World shouldn’t be expected to be any better at fighting off the multinational entertainment industry than we in the “free world” are. And before we spend too much energy celebrating multiculturalism, it’s as well to remember that this phenomenon is, and for the forseeable future looks like remaining, restricted to certain parts of the rich world, while the majority of the world’s population is primarily concerned with surviving hunger or disease or poverty, or bombardment by proudly multicultural nations.

Another feature of today’s musical landscape is the development of sophisticated forms of musical improvisation. There might be a case for saying that Western music has on a number of occasions in history acquired an infusion of vitality from contact with more improvisatory traditions originating elsewhere. The impact of those musics which were created by transplanted African slaves in this country is too deep and important to require any comment from me, except to say that a crucial part of that impact lies in the area of improvisational practice. This applies both to the kinds of structural frame within which improvisation takes place and to the nature of the improvisation itself, both of which continue to be developed by those musicians at or near the still-expanding frontiers of the jazz tradition.

Naturally, there are many manifestations of improvised music today whose stylistic relationship to jazz is as distant (however essential) as their relationship to art music composition is clear. Conversely, I am certainly not the only composer who is committed to improvisation as a musical theatre of action complementary to that of notated work. I have already mentioned two of the results of this orientation: the electronic music of FURT, whose realisation is developed through improvisation and which involves no musical notation at any stage, and the instrumental parts of my notated works, which in their “tone of voice” owe far more to the instrumental practices of “free improvisation” than to any precedent in composed music. I always like to put this point in the simplest of terms: as a composer attempting constantly to work on learning the craft of music alongside its poetic dimension, indeed attempting to fuse these two elements, I am more interested in what an intelligent improviser has to say about a particular instrument, in terms of the sounds and energies of their music, than what any composer has to tell me about it as a machine for translating dots into notes. A consideration of such improvisational practice can lead to a “radically idiomatic” conception of instrumentalism, where the instrument/player combination itself, in all perspectives from ergonomic to historical, becomes the “material” from which music is shaped, either in real time or in notation.

Whether such an conception will become more widespread in the future is anyone’s guess: for me, it arises partly out of the necessity to emphasise the physicality of playing, the intimacy between player and instrument, between body and sound, since this is an area closed to electronic music. In electronic instruments, especially since the introduction of MIDI in the 1980s, there simply is no necessary connection between action and sound. The player/instrument intimacy may lose little in intensity by being transferred to an imaginary or “virtual” domain, but this intimacy must be “composed”, must be formed in all its facets by a deliberate creative act, if it is to exist at all.
On the whole, improvised music remains apart from the tendencies and temptations towards conservatism which are endemic in composed music. At least that is the case in Europe. I believe that the main reason for this is that it is much more difficult to achieve a wholesale commodification in a music which is by definition immaterial: for the most part there are no scores to form a material repository of a composer’s thoughts, added to which most players in and listeners to this music would agree that CD recordings represent only a very partial simulation of the experience of participating “live” in a music which is in a constant state of coming into being, which is to a crucial extent the product of a certain time and place and combination of personalities (including the audience, if there is one). It has been pointed out before that improvised music contains an implicit political message: that there is something about music which can never be bought and sold like soap powder, that this is a music of dissent by virtue of always slipping through the hands of those who would control it. Needless to say, as a result improvised music remains “underground”, and the difficulties faced by composers at present may be multiplied severalfold in the case of improvisers.

Nevertheless, these voices will not be silenced. I should not be surprised if their contribution to contemporary music-making eventually supersedes that of notated composition “as we know it”. One of the reasons for this is that the resources of electronic music technology, which are likely to play an increasingly large role as time goes on, lend themselves far more naturally to an improvisational treatment than to precise specification. Why? Firstly because the technology is constantly changing. A composition depending upon specific electronic equipment rapidly either becomes almost impossible to perform (because the necessary devices are no longer available), or requires periodical revision to incorporate new developments, or, worst of all, sounds unredeemably dated and clumsy. Secondly because in improvised music the frequently-encountered behavioural instabilities and unpredictabilities of the technology may be incorporated rather than immediately destroying the “accuracy” of the interpretation. Thirdly because electronic music, which we should remember is still in its very early historical stages, is at its most exciting when it incorporates a process of discovery: we hear this in the studio-composed classics of the 1950s, for example. In those days the composition of electronic music or musique concrète demanded laborious and time-consuming operations whose outcome was frequently disappointing but sometimes startling; now that such operations may to a great extent be carried out in real time, using the technological advances which have occurred in the meantime, we might hope to make those journeys into unforeseeable worlds in the act of performance.

Having characterised improvisation as implicitly a music of dissent, I should like to pass on to the explicit expression of radical political thinking in music. This is something we associate first with the music-theatre collaborations between Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht beginning in the 1920s, second with the idealistic association of radical (serial) musical ideas and radical (communist) political ones in the work of such composers as Luigi Nono in the 1960s, and third with the abjuring of “avant-garde obscurity” in the work of Cornelius Cardew and many others in the 1970s. Political changes in the meantime, of which we are all no doubt aware, have seemed to render the “engaged” composer somewhat obsolete: after pinning so many hopes on the outcome of the political unrest in Europe and the United States during the late 1960s, the majority of “radical” intellectuals have retired to comfortable academic positions on the sidelines, where their incredulity at having mistaken unrest for a revolution has found its concrete form in the discourse of postmodernism; and the composers in question have for the most part joined them. As if that wasn’t enough, many people on the left who ought to know better have interpreted the fall of the European so-called communist regimes in the late 1980s as an unwelcome but inescapable proof of the non-viability of socialism. Some of the responses from artists to the violent events of 2001 have been evidence of a further few steps in the direction of complacency and gullibility.

Returning to socialism, its beginnings may have existed for a handful of years in Russia immediately after the 1917 Revolution, but subsequent developments, brought on largely by the forced isolation of Soviet Russia, followed in a chain of tragic but inevitable events by the concentration of power in the hands of the ruthless bureaucrat Stalin, led to a very different system: a form of “state capitalism”, whose inertia and inefficiency relative to the market capitalism of the West eventually led to the hideous mess we have seen in recent decades. It is true that (very conveniently for some people) the ideas of socialism have been removed from the official political agenda. I allow myself to hope that this situation will in the long run prove to be temporary, as we can perhaps see beginning to happen in the “anti-capitalist” protests which have built up around various international summits in recent years. Looking from an artist’s perspective, social changes we can’t predict will no doubt find expression in artistic work, particularly in times of upheaval, and my feeling is that the prevalence of explicitly radical political content in art is at some point bound to increase again. Let us hope that, next time, there will be less wishful thinking and more fundamental change. After that point, and not before, we might eventually hear the presently unimaginable musical results of what Marx describes as “a higher type of society whose fundamental principle is the full and free development of every individual”. What I am always searching for, and sometimes finding, in the music of the past as well as the present, and in whatever comes next, is an intimation, through the very existence of art as a continuing human activity, that people are indeed capable of achieving such a society, however unlikely that might seem in our current state of alienation. This must be just about the most exalted state to which music can aspire.

I have mentioned a couple of times that I feel it inappropriate to indulge in predictions on the future of music, but prefer to confine myself to expressing an opinion on various possibilities. However, not everyone is as cautious as me in this respect, and I am sure that some predictions made by people in positions of influence are intended to achieve the status of self-fulfilling prophecies. I should like next to take a glance at one of these dangerous manifestations. I quote from the report of the “first meeting of experts” in an initiative called “Music for the 3rd Millennium”, the brainchild of the International Music council of UNESCO (this meeting took place in Amsterdam in the summer of 1997):

“In 1995 the International Music Council launched Music for the 3rd Millennium, a project aimed at mapping and debating developments in the world of music that might shape the future of musical practice. (...) Music for the 3rd Millennium proposed a strategy through which existing experience in mixing popular and traditional styles in music may be shared actively by educators and artists throughout the world. (...) Students train in new interdisciplinary art forms such as experimental film, performance, media art, sound sculpture, music theatre and new types of stage acts and approaches to music theatre are developed.”

Let me say before going further into this report that the vast majority of members of this working group seemed to be impresarios of various kinds, rather than artists of any kind, and that the author of the report itself, one Frans Evers, is a psychologist; I hardly need to point out, then, that their priorities in attempting to foster the “music of the 3rd millennium” would have to be rather different from those of the people who might be creating music in the future. The mixing of “popular and traditional styles” is obviously something which goes on all the time, and has always done so, from the incorporation of popular songs into church motets in the Middle Ages to the operas of Mozart and the crosscurrents between “vernacular” and “art” musics (in both directions) which are spread throughout musical history and geography. Why would a group of impresarios decide that this particular mixture should be encouraged in the third millennium? Could it have anything to do with making an easy profit rather than having to accustom audiences to new and unfamiliar ideas? Later on we read about a concert of electronic music, featuring the music of Luigi Nono among works by younger composers. “The evening”, says the report, “focussed on a programme of concentrated listening due to a lack of theatrical or multimedia oriented works”; elsewhere we see the music performed at this concert characterised as coming from an “academic music aesthetic which can reduce one’s attention to a one-dimensional, purely auditory, cognitive cerebral reflection.”

I don’t feel it necessary to comment further on such an astonishingly ignorant statement. To summarise the report as a whole, it identifies the problem as the dissociation between gesture and sound which it claims is a necessary corollary of the widespread use of electronic instruments in current music (and which I’ve already mentioned in another context), and the solution as the abandonment of music as an autonomous artform in favour of absorbing it within some kind of multimedia show. Since the music under discussion must avoid “cerebral reflection” at all costs, we must assume that it is the cluster of current styles in dancefloor music which is intended. It is not the prospect of media-mixing which worries me; such things, once again, have always gone on, producing indeed such forms as opera and ballet. Nor is it the prospect of stylistic crossovers, as I just explained. No: what concerns me is firstly the devaluation of music per se into some kind of “soundtrack” to something else, secondly the way in which an agenda of self-interest has been dressed up as an objective prognosis, and thirdly the fact that this pernicious flatulence has emerged from an organisation with such a high international profile. Let us hope that either it is ignored, or that musicians continue to forge their own future irrespective of the pronouncements of peripheral characters, or preferably both. The main body of the report, however, could be read as an elaborate and confused gloss on the proposition that music for dancing (which in any case isn’t intended to function autonomously) should be performed at dances. How enlightening.

Of course, the future of art music remains open despite the aforementioned attempts to practice “cultural eugenics”. If I have offered hopes and fears rather than predictions, this is in order to emphasise that what ends up happening is to an important extent our own responsibility. Musicians should surely commit themselves with renewed energy and optimism to the search for forms of music which unify the emotions and the intellect. This is the least that people deserve; and they may not indefinitely be satisfied with so much less, even if the agenda-controllers, the captains of hegemony, hone their techniques and exploit their stooges to an even greater degree than we see at present. I wouldn’t wish to hold up my own thoughts or activities or future plans as exemplary; they are no more than my own “music of possibility”. We should all try to learn what we can from one another in this connection.

It is surely the case, as I mentioned previously, that music (creating and listening) is one of the most highly-evolved functions of which the human mind is capable, and is therefore a token of a more highly-evolved society than the one we presently endure. While many of the issues I have tried to confront here might tend to give the impression that I am resigned to my own avowedly “non-commercial” music appealing to an extremely limited audience, this is a question neither of resignation or élitism. This music is for anyone, to the extent that such a statement has any meaning in the divided societies which we inhabit. Anyone can understand it. Whether they wish to engage with it to the requisite depth should be up to them. The fact that it is not up to them is a symptom of the stultification practised by late capitalism. The resulting breakdown in communication is indeed tragic, but it is by no means the only tragic consequence of the present situation, and by no means the worst one. Its solution will be found, and I think we must hope that it will be found, in a domain other than that of the composer’s worktable. Thank you for listening.

(1998-2002)