Progress is forgetting: A note on musical style

Daniel James Wolf

If progress is just an order of succession (e.g. ...Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven,...Bruckner, Mahler, Schoenberg...), then it is simply a matter of accounting and has all the interest of last year’s tax statement. If we wish to assign any value to a particular progression, then the matter gets much more complicated and perhaps more interesting. The best qualitative measure of our progress may well be the sum of our forgetting whatever progression we find ourselves in. Forgetfullness might be the essential quality of musical style in our time.

Progress - whether in time or space - is measured in our consciousness from the subjective distance between origins and destinations. Music theories are largely built upon ideas about distances between acoustic materials. Older theories, like older musics, emphasized the relatedness of materials when viewed from a given origin, usually in terms of rational proportions or approximations thereof. Newer theories and musics, in an accelerated age, oriented toward destinations rather than origins, emphasize more distant relationships with the object of making those distances shorter. Forgetting becomes a factor x in revaluing classical proportions. The idea: what we remember of our origins declines in direct proportion to the the closeness of our destinations. John Cage: ‘Music also is a means of rapid transportation’. Or, music is a means of forgetting. The more rapid our transportation, the smaller the perceived distance between stations. La Monte Young: ‘Contrast is for people who can’t compose’. Contrast is disappearing everywhere, the factor x is constantly increasing.

The Pilgrim’s Progress. Before the 20th century, the word progress was used most often to indicate personal growth or achievement, particularly spiritual. It was either Blake or Goethe who first gave the word progress a technological edge, but it is certainly Edison, Ford, and Gates who have reduced the term in mass comprehension to the sense of differentiating the accelerating generations of technological change. John Cage, at once an inventor’s son and a one-time student for the Methodist ministry, himself an inventor (the prepared piano) and a consultant of oracles (the I Ching), a great admirer of both the technologist Buckminster Fuller and the Zen Buddhist Suzuki Daisetz, was torn between these two views of progress. N.O. Brown called Cage ‘a living oxymoron’. The last, ‘number’ pieces seek a balance between the progressive discovery of new yet primitive musical forms, and a new, very personal content, indeed a new style.

Every aspect of our modern technology allows for a more vivid representation of the past and of distant places. However, the increase in the volume of information present about the past or about distant places comes only with an increase in the accompanying noise which makes the qualities of historicity and alienness ever less vivid, and our ability to discrimate historicity or alienness is ever more handicapped. For a time, music existed in the physical space bordered by silence and noise; now it also embraces and actively explores these extremes. Understanding the content that is carried or masked by noise is increasingly as important as the physically undistorted content; the articulative power of silence becomes ever more pronounced.

Progress, connotating novelty depends upon forgetting, or not knowing what has happened before or elsewhere. Harmony was able to function because the listener remembered the tonic; a disfunctional (or Cage: anarchic) harmony depends, or will depend upon the newly aquired skill of forgetting, or not ever knowing, the tonic. With a tonic undefined, masked by noise, erased by silence, or forgotten, sounds of definite pitch, noises, and silence are equally accessible at any time.

The ‘series about composers’, MusikKonzepte began its progression with Debussy. Has there been much progress from his heroic generation? (Ives and Mahler with their vivid theatres of acoustic memory, Satie’s imagined Gnossiene or Debussy’s re-creative encounter with Javanese Gamelan at the World’s Fair). The contructive awareness of the other, whether ancient or alien, was the initial spark that made music modern, for Monteverdi as much as for Debussy.

Stravinsky to John Cage: ‘I never liked Schoenberg’s music because it was not modern.’ Schoenberg’s music was not modern because its syntax was entirely within its tradition. The paradox: Schoenberg’s heroic struggle to remain part of this tradition, to progress by establishing his position in a historical progression, came at the price of making that tradition static. The reification of a technique to insure the hegemony of that tradition deprived it of any historical dynamic. The twelve-tone row, projected onto the matrix of all 48 forms no longer has a prime, or initial form. In twelve-tone technique there can be no progression among rows, only a consumption of 12-tone aggregates. It is seriously tempting to identify this phenomenon with capitalist accumulation and concentration. Schoenberg’s music may move the listener emotionally, but it doesn’t transport; never mind Berlin or Brentwood: his music never left Vienna. Or rather: Vienna went wherever Schoenberg went.

The Rake’s Progress: Stravinky’s non-expressive musical cosmopolitanism (manifest, as Stravinsky himself joked, in a form of musical necrophilia), in contrast, became a device to free him of a Schoenberg-like responsibility to a tradition. For Stravinsky, modernism was a form of rapid transport in musical time and space, and composition for him meant finding new syntactical relations among existing materials, accustoming one to the alien while restoring strangeness to the familiar. His two most radical scores date both from 1920, travel in opposite directions, yet illustrate the same point. The Symphonies d’instruments à vent (in memoriam Claude Debussy) have no direct precedent or referent in musical history and are enormously difficult to analyse with regard to form, tonality and orchestration. Yet, at all points, the listener to the Symphonies must make music-historical and -ethnological references to get any hold onto the music. On the other hand, the <<Ballet avec chant>> Pulchinella (Musique d’apres Pergolesi) is superficially an objet trouvè, but the authentic, lyrical material from Pergolesi continually melts away from the listener’s recognition into absolute Stravinskian invention. To listen to Pulchinella, one has to forget how to listen to 18th century Italian music; to listen to Stravinsky one has to abandon chronological, genealogical, and ethnological expectations; Stravinsky’s music progresses by force of personality alone without a bit of anxiety.

1997. In the old court city of Yogyakarta, Java, I met the ninety year old composer and musician K.R.T. Wasitodiningrat the retired leading musician of the lesser Yogyanese court of the Paku Alam and the founding music director of RRI Yogyakarta, the state radio station. I had many questions about the innovations in Javanese musical practice in this century, as he was a central protagonist and last witness to the creative exchanges between the four courts of the cities of Surakarta and Yogyakarta during the 1920’s and 30’s.

Javanese traditional musicians present a formidably conservative face to the world, publicly supressing the massive changes that have taken place in the tradition and downplaying the role of individual composers in initiating these changes (a series of books ‘about composers would be unimaginable there). In this century, Javanese have in fact largely forgotten how their music was formerly made, and in forgetting reinvented their tradition. Classical pieces were assembled into extended suites, vocal passages were superimposed or inserted, the elaboration techniques used by individual instruments were extended and ‘completed’ to match a new theoretical model. Certain of the techniques are like an exploded version of medieval cantus firmus, others have - within the pentatonic environment - a level of sophistication on a par with western counterpoint, and are extemporized very much like basso continuo. Yet, Wasitodiningrat rejected my description of these innovations as ‘composition’; they were only ‘styles’. From this Southeast Asian definition, most compositions of the last century in the Northwest Asian tradition would be subsumed into the category of style; for in order to be a new composition, the underlying material (I think he had something in mind akin to a Schenkerian Ursatz) must be entirely new. Thus Schoenberg and Stravinsky each represent varieties of stylistic but not compositional progress, the former, chronologically within a single tradition, the latter, anachronistically among several cultures, while the formal innovations found in late Cage, Feldman, Xenakis,or Jo Kondo, in the acoustical studies of Alvin Lucier or the sonic meditations of Pauline Oliveros can be heard as new compositions within new styles but, when absent a progression, not necessarily as progress.

for H.-K. Metzger & Rainer Riehn, MusikKonzepte Band 100, "Wie heißt Fortschritt?", January, 1999