Post-Concrete Music

Despite being a cool, avant-garde guy, I am a college professor, and the semester activity is at its height. You wouldn’t want to hear what I’m up to this week – faculty evaluation committee meetings, written justifications for replacing retiring faculty, queries from prospective students – it would bore you to tears. What makes me so sure? It’s boring me to tears.

But the upside of committee meetings is that they give me plenty of time to think about my blog, and I have been thinking. Experimental musician/reader William Lawless had a query:

Something I haven’t seen you discuss – and that also seems absent on sites like New Music Box – is the kind of music that’s being released by outfits like Erstwhile, For4Ears, Grob, and related labels. This music is going by names like electro-acoustic improvisation and lower-case sound (and filed under genres, if you can call them that, of “post-AMM” or post-concrete music). The aesthetic here is pretty hardcore improvisational, but not exclusively: Polwechsel comes to mind as a composing group whose sound nevertheless is squarely in this aesthetic. And Cage and Feldman seem to come up again and again as a cited influence for much of this music-in artist interviews, in liner notes, and in online discussions by fans and critics. (And correct me if I’m wrong, but there’s a counter-gesture, too, on the part of many contemporary classical musicians who incorporate improvised passages, concrete elements, non-canonic instruments like electronics or sheets of metal or what-have-you.) So my question is, how do you see this new stuff fit into the contemporary (and/or academic) classical scene – if one can imagine this homogeneity, at least for the sake of discussion? Do you see these musical worlds communicating with or influencing each other in any valuable, innovative ways?

By interesting coincidence, this question came the same week that student Matt Wellins brought just such a quartet to Bard, actually four European laptop performers who had never performed together as a quartet before: Peter Rehberg (who goes by the name Pita, at times), Thomas Lehn, Marcus Schmickler (who occasionally goes by the name Pluramon), and Gert Jan-Prins. I’m not very hip in this field, but enjoyed what I heard. It always seems to me that this kind of music seems successful when the players know enough to make it subtle. When you have a million possibilities and use a hundred in the first minute or two, the music gets boring very quickly. When the laptop performers have enough self-discipline and knowledge of interesting software capacities to bring about slow, interesting transformations and unusual textures, the results can be quite lovely. Beyond those criteria, though, I do have a little trouble telling one group from another, and I feel like I’d need to have a better notion of how the software operates than I do in order to offer a detailed critique. I certainly have no principled objection to the music, but as with DJs, I’m not sure what criteria one would use to claim that one group is better than another. And I do appreciate it when I don’t have to wear ear plugs. I’m 48 and getting a little old for the unrestrained noise business, but my sympathies are still with it.

My long-term historical doubt about electronic improvisation is the same as with regular free improv: I don’t get a convincing impression that sustained self-criticism is going on, that improvisers listen to each other perform, hear and identify things that don’t work well, and keep refining their techniques to make the music more powerful. Perhaps the mindset of this kind of sustained self-criticism only comes from a world in which pieces of music are semi-permanent, replicatable entities. But it’s why, after writing extensively about free improvisation in the 1980s (unsympathetically, some thought, but I took pains to discuss performances I liked as much as those I didn’t, and it seemed to me the very fact that improvisers found that “unsympathetic” was a sign of their unwillingness to self-criticize), I pretty much decided to leave that scene alone.

But Lawless goes on to wonder: these “post-concrete” composers are heavily inspired by the musics of Cage, Feldman, Varèse, and a lot of people in the composing world. Are composers likewise inspired, influenced by (I’m beginning to hate the ubiquitous word “influence,” but that’s a blog entry for another day) the electronic improvisers?