Sound Commitments: Avant-garde Music and the Sixties: A Review

A review for the journal of improvised and experimental music, Signal to Noise. Originally published in their Summer 2009 issue. (To read more of my published essays, click here.)

Sound Commitments: Avant-garde Music and the Sixties, edited by Robert Adlington (Oxford UP, 2009, $29.95 PBK).

Flow, Gesture, and Spaces in Free Jazz: Towards a Theory of Collaboration, Guerino Mazzola and Paul B. Cherlin (Springer, 2009, $69.95 HBK).

Recent years have seen a growing revaluation of the 1960s, both in the sphere of political theory where philosophers such as Slavoj Zizek and Alain Badiou have attempted to reclaim and rethink the revolutionary consciousness of that period, and in the arts, where excavation of the work of radical artists in the visual arts, film, literature and music continues. The “excesses” of the sixties were disavowed by many in the conservative period that began in the 1980s as a moral, political and artistic failure, but in the wake of the global collapse of financial markets and the neo-liberal ideology of globalization, there is a real urgency in looking at the paths not taken, in order to be able to illuminate possible futures.

Sound Commitments seeks to explore the avant garde in music from the point of view of social, aesthetic and political theory, with a renewed interest in the music and musicians whose work participated in the broader political movements that strove for a revolutionary change in global society. In particular, as the intro says, the book asks “how could avant-garde musicians make a meaningful contribution to social change if their music remained the preserve of a tiny initiated clique?” This is an important question, and the book explores, in a variety of situations, what happened when musicians committed to a tradition of aesthetic experimentation growing out of the twentieth century avant garde, stretching back from Satie or Schoenberg through Cage and Stockhausen, confronted radical mass political movements, who demanded a music that spoke to the people. In some sense, the avant-garde never recovered from this confrontation, despite numerous heroic individual efforts, retreating instead into populist and ultimately commodified forms or a defiant marginality that preserved aesthetic dignity at the price of real engagement with the masses, if that word makes any sense today.

Those moments of encounter include: minimalist fiddler/philosopher Henry Flynt’s affiliation with the communist Workers World Party in the mid-1960s and his famous demonstrations against Stockhausen in New York; the work of composer/improv collective Musica Electronica Viva in Rome in the late 1960s, bringing experimental music to prisons and various public spaces; a concert in Amsterdam in 1968 held by various young Dutch composers in solidarity with the events of May in France, including Misha Mengelberg; the presentation of Steve Reich’s tape collage “Come Out!” at a concert in solidarity with the Harlem Six, a group of African-Americans wrongly arrested in a riot in New York; Luc Ferrari’s tenure as director of a community art center in France in the late 1960s, and his tape work Presque Rien; the ONCE group festivals organized in Ann Arbor including Robert Ashley and Gordon Mumma; the performances of Japanese avant garde musicians at the Sogetsu Art Center in Tokyo. The book also includes a dryly humorous account of the difficulties faced by the US state department in sending avant garde composers out as cultural ambassadors to various countries, at a moment when the decidedly For Export category high cultural category of the Classical seemed to dissolve.

Unfortunately, the book, which has its origins in an academic conference, doesn’t rise to being more than the sum of its parts. The material is always interesting, and the authors are adept at pointing to what the crisis of the avant garde consisted of, but there’s little sense of how the crisis, which is one that we still inhabit, might be resolved, or even what the trajectory of many of the musicians was, beyond the limits of “the long 1960s”. With the exception of Sumanth Gopinath’s excellent musicological/political reading of Reich’s “Come Out!” the writing is not theoretical or “avant garde” enough and feels distant, if respectful. And of course, there’s plenty that doesn’t get talked about: the “Third World” avant-gardes, in particular in North Africa and South America; the relation between the avant-gardes and rock’n’roll, which saw former classically trained musician/composers from Darmstadt and similar locales forming and joining rock bands at the end of the decade; the commune scenes around the globe and the folk/avant/rock hybrids that they often produced; drugs, spirituality and sexuality as revolutionary practices co-emergent with avant garde music.

One could draw a number of conclusions from the book. That the shift from anarchist or New Left political positions in the late 1960s towards Maoist and other far left positions often forced musicians and composers back into reactionary musical forms with little pay off in terms of engaging the people. On the positive side, it also knocked a few more nails into the coffin of the Western classical tradition, for those who refused to buckle under often ended up making experimental rock rather than “avant garde music”. But rock, along with jazz and contemporary classical retreated over a period of decades, willingly or not, into being “just music”, presented in reified forms at the endless experimental music festivals which so many European states sponsor today. At the same time, the negotiation with “the audience”, albeit fragmented into a thousand micro-audiences, continued and continues today. The anarchist ethos of the mid-1960s became punk in the 1970s, with DIY working as a compromise between autonomy and entrepreneurship, and situationism functioning as a rationale for seeking mass market success, but also delivering the occasional shock right into the heart of the society of the spectacle. It is hard to see today how music could in itself start a revolution (except as a disingenuous marketing ploy aimed at jaded consumer palates), yet as Sound Commitments repeatedly points out, this is exactly what many musicians believed in the 1960s, and they acted on it. And the invitation remains open to try it again, differently …

Mazzola and Cherlin’s Flow, Gesture and Spaces in Free Jazz takes a different approach to the avant garde, proposing “geometric theories of gestures and distributed identities, also known as swarm intelligence.” The book is a real mess, written in poor English, packed with eccentric digressions, unexplained formulas, and a dubious politics that too quickly tries to resituate free jazz away from its African American origins as a part of German romanticism! Having said that, there are some original ideas here too. Mazzola is a trained mathematician and physicist, as well as a jazz musician, and author of a 1300 page treatise called The Topos of Music, that proposes to understand music through the complex geometric science of topology. It all comes down to the problem of how you represent something that appears to be unrepresentable — beyond orthodox musical notation, beyond conventional linguistic description, and even mathematical formulas. At its most profound, it is an attempt to think what music is — notably a music, namely free jazz, that refuses all the structures that Western art music is built around, while possessing a high degree of mastery, purpose and value. What Mazzola and Cherlin (a colleague at the University of Minnesota) come up with is a three part theory that considers how the collaborations and improvisations of free jazz work, through creating new kinds of spaces, through the concept of the gesture, which is carefully distinguished from a rule, using the work of French philosopher Gilles Chatelet, and through a theory of flow. Despite the poor prose, there is something admirable about Mazzola and Cherlin’s tenacity in keeping true to what their own vision of what free jazz is about, in spite of the poverty of official languages in tracking it.

Mazzola and Cherlin would benefit from reading the writers in Sound Commitments, and probably vice versa. By stripping music of its sociality, beyond the immediate circle of those who collaborate in making it, they risk reducing music to a form of computer programming, in spite of their best intentions. Space, flow and gesture are all historically contingent, as is free jazz — it makes a difference who is listening, where and when and there can be no abstract scientific theory of what makes “good jazz” or “successful improvisation”. The audience participates in the creation of meaning and value too, often despite itself. The problem is pointed to in Sound Commitments — the relation of the music to actual listeners is complicated, and the question of idiomatic forms of improvisation like flamenco or raga or other ethnic musics, which Derek Bailey pointed to in his own writing about improvisation, looms over any notion of the avant garde today. What if “free jazz” meant jazz in a free society? On the other hand, the writers in Sound Commitments could benefit from Mazzola and Cherlin’s commitment to the science and philosophy of sound, and consider the ways in which revolutionary music must be more than a set of radical social propositions, and must at some level be an intervention in the materiality of sound also.