Where do we go from here? Towards theatre. That art more than music resembles nature. – John Cage[1]

Over the past several years, a turn has taken place among artists working in the tradition of European art music, or “new music.” Young composers are rejecting the tight corsets inherited from the modernist musical avant-gardes of the 20th century, and performers are stepping out of the shadow, no longer mere mouthpieces for composers’ work. Many practitioners are now experimenting with expanding the realm of composable material, addressing the visual realm, and taking a stance towards social and political struggles.

The exploration of these practices characterizes the DMU contribution to Revisiting Black Mountain. Each project is an attempt by the students to find alternative ways in which the insights of European art music can integrate themselves with other forms of artistic production, and be used to address artistic interests beyond the purely autonomous musical listening experience. The goal is not to find some new narrative, another banner under which one can feel safe, but to make conditions for creating knowledge that undermine the very possibility of containment as we have known it in European art music until now.[2] This creates a situation of constant flux, instability, and risk-taking, concepts at the core of each project, and is a sign of healthy questioning of and active experimentation with the discipline’s tacit knowledge.

This approach did not emerge from thin air; it can be traced back to the experiments with aleatoric music and chance procedures that John Cage undertook during his visits to Black Mountain College, which he subsequently took with him to the Darmstadt summer courses as of 1958. Darmstadt by that time had already emerged as an unlikely but crucial meeting place for the composers of the European avant-garde, a position it arguably still holds. Resonating with practices such as those of Mauricio Kagel, Dieter Schebel, and Vinko Globokar, this performer-centered attitude would prove for many to be an attractive alternative to the alienating and dogmatic style of the so-called “Darmstadt school,” with the recently-deceased Pierre Boulez (†2016) as its foremost spokesman.

We can see this “performative turn” continue with the generation of students produced by this first wave of composers. Their works, with all the diversity of their individual personalities, embraced many different forms of musical composition’s material expansion. Many, such as Manos Tsangaris, turned to creating large-scale music theatre productions, while others more subtly applied musical thinking to everyday situations, as can be seen in the work of Carola Bauckholt.

The current moment is remarkable for the increasing interest in performative and music theatrical works at both festivals for new music, as well as increasingly in museum contexts.[3]

It is also marked by distinct and significant contrasts to the approaches of current practitioners’ teachers. Most significantly, the youngest generation has escaped a reactionary mode; rather than rejecting the approaches of their predecessors, they seem to embrace an expansive pallet of compositional possibilities in order to realize their creations. Practitioners also are thinking less about older musical forms and roles: rather than producing discrete “operas” or “symphonies,” performance-specific forms are developed that respond to the exigencies of their surroundings. The same goes for old hierarchical divisions into composers/performers, etc., who find themselves more negotiating different skill sets rather than authority. Practices are often also engaged with social or political struggles. Rather than insisting on their autonomy and distance from politics, they use artistic methods and tools to enter into the fray.

If many of these developments sound to some ears as more at home in the late 1990s or early 2000s, then they would not be mistaken. Due to new music production being a discipline perhaps better ensconced in the academy than any other (itself the result of several interesting historical developments we cannot go into here), it has often operated with a delay in respect to its integration of ideas from critical theory and philosophy in comparison to other art forms such as the visual arts or theatre. If music practitioners are beginning to process the euro-centrism of their institutions and can(n)ons, then it is in a way reminiscent of the ethnographic and post-colonial turns of the 90s. If they similarly are moving beyond the primacy of text towards musical expression through a variety of media, then it in many ways resembles the post-dramatic theatre of around the same time.

This is not to say that European art music is “behind” on some path towards artistic salvation— let us not forget that it was Cage’s criticism of the Darmstadt avant-garde for their innovation-oriented thinking that so inspired our own projects here. Rather, it is the product of its environment, and practitioners have invested their time elsewhere. From experience, this usually means spending a great deal of time on craftsmanship and emphasis on quality within a given aesthetic framework, something which can be a unique quality of many musical works.

To relate this back to the topic of Revisiting Black Mountain, the goal of the project is ostensibly to return to the debates both at and about the historic college in North Carolina. BMC is often regarded as the ideal arts school avant la lettre in debates about educational reform in the arts, and in particular in light of the Bologna Process and the implications of tertiary education in European arts school such as ours.

Perhaps it makes sense here to repeat again a specific historical event at the college as a kind of refrain. The chance procedures John Cage developed and used with students at the college would prove highly influential for an emerging American style of performance, and was a radical departure from both Schoenberg and the Bauhaus ideology with which émigré teachers, among them Joseph Albers, were acquainted.[4] We continue to struggle, more than 60 years later, with similar questions regarding the fate of music after the Second Viennese school; one does not need to look far to find instances of musical conservatism on the rise.[5] Though both our historical and geographical contexts are of course different, perhaps revisiting the experiments and philosophy of both Cage and the many artists associated with him can help us on our way towards the performative musical practices of the future.
Brandon Farnsworth

[1] John Cage, “Experimental Music,” in Silence, ed. John Cage (Wesleyan University Press: Middletown, 1961), 12.

[2] Irit Rogoff, “Creative Practices of Knowledge,” September 26, 2015, Hamburger Bahnhof, YouTube video, 39:17, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uCn8sq98sro

[3] For a few recent examples of theatrical works in museum contexts by composers from the New music tradition, see Simon Steen-Anderson Run Time Error (2009 –), recent works by Ari Benjamin Meyer, or the meteoric success of Samson Young with projects such as Liquid Borders (2012 – 2014) and Canon (2016).

[4] Eva Díaz, The Experimenters: Chance and Design at Black Mountain College (University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 2015), 56.

[5] New Yorker music critic Alex Ross says, “the classical concert situation has become even more conservative over the past 100 years. We think of it as some sort of remnant of the 19th century, but in fact our way of doing things is more confining […]. We have created a parody of these austere, serious rituals which practically did not exist in the past.” Alex Ross in unpublished interview with Brandon Farnsworth, 11 May, 2016, Zurich, Switzerland (with permission).