Buddy Guy, “Hard But It’s Fair” (1962).
(2’28”, 4.5 MB, mp3)
Back in 2008 I wrote about the web site for Grey Area Art Space Inc. This was the artist-run space in Melbourne where I got my start in making exhibitions and giving performances. The collective and their exhibition space was wound up in early 1999, but the little website for the gallery just kept on going. At the time I wrote last it had stuck around for almost ten years unattended, log in and password long forgotten, almost entirely intact. “I wonder if it will last another ten years?” I asked at the time.
It turned out that the stray query I’d received in 2008 was the last time I was ever asked about exhibiting in a long-defunct space. I’d check up on the site every now and then to see if it was still there and it always was, until last weekend. After 15 years of uninterrupted rest it was finally cleared away on 31 January 2014, along with everything else hosted on the server.
If only I’d contacted them in November, I might have been able to preserve the web location in perpetuity. As I feel partly responsible for this I’ve uploaded a mirror onto my website, complete with the original tilde in the address. If you want a brief journey back in time please visit http://www.cookylamoo.com/~greyarea/.
Because no-one wants to be just adequate.
A couple of weeks ago I saw the JACK Quartet play at Wigmore Hall. The stand-out pieces began and ended the concert: I finally got to hear Ruth Crawford Seeger’s superb String Quartet played live. I’d never heard Horațiu Rădulescu’s music played live, either, and his 5th Quartet “before the universe was born” – consisting pretty much entirely of harmonics played on retuned strings – was also an exceptional experience.
You can read that review for more about the concert; but at half-time I pondered over my overpriced-but-actually-rather-drinkable shiraz about a discussion earlier that day, about “experimental” music, which I wrote about last week.
Then, I had another thought. Just before the break the quartet had played Julian Anderson’s Light Music, a piece he had written in his teens. Only recently performed for the first time, it’s the earliest work the composer keeps in his oeuvre. Strongly influenced by the spectralist composers (Rădulescu and French composers of the time), the piece is technically fine, sonically interesting, pleasant overall but a little shapeless, and it starts to drag. Each section seemed to carry on a little too long, exploring and assessing each new effect.
By contrast, Crawford’s quartet always feels as though it is over too soon. I always wish there was more of it, that each section could just keep going. In some ways it seems as though this feeling is part of the music’s subject: the final movement is structured so as to preclude the possibility of continuation right from the start.
Which is the more experimental work, in the conventionally understood sense of the word? Anderson’s piece embraces the newest musical thinking of its time; Crawford’s predicts future musical thought. But which piece presents us with more experimentation? The Anderson quartet is struggling to accommodate new material; Crawford’s material is held in absolute control.
Too much, too long: it seems to me that this is the true defining condition of experimental music. Each new discovery is presented with some degree of excessive emphasis, partly out a didactic need for exposition and partly out of uncertainty of its own success.
It’s a problem I’m aware of in my own music: the nagging sense that this thing is of less interest to the listener than it is to me, that they’ve picked up on it quicker than I thought. Remembering that thumbnail description of Cage’s music of always having either too much or not enough happening in it, I err the other way and present excess with a kind of Beckettian obstinacy (“I’m doing it on purpose.“)
I would not be displeased with a concert that programmed two performances of Crawford’s quartet.
Had a discussion with some people last week about “experimental” music. I think everyone knows what this means, kind-of, sort-of, but lots of people don’t like it. Because I’m impressionable, whenever the term comes up I think of John Cage’s statement on the subject, from 1957: unfortunately I only ever remember the first part where he says he used to object to the term and forget that he immediately goes on to say he no longer does. He then goes on to talk about music being nothing but sounds and tells the story about the anechoic chamber again and I kind of blank on the rest of the talk. After that, all I’m left with is Cage’s initial objection, “that the experiments that had been made had taken place prior to the finished works, just as sketches are made before paintings and rehearsals precede performances.”
Surely every success is the consequence of a series of failures, and any “experimental” art presented to us is in fact the result of a successful experiment, to some extent. Really, I don’t have a problem with the term because everyone knows what it means, kind-of, sort-of, and we gotta use words when we talk to each other. My problem is this: I keep hearing people saying that a Good Thing about experimental art is that the failures can be as interesting as the successes. I really don’t think this is true.
Firstly, there is the objection already mentioned, that the failed experiment is not presented as the finished work – the finished work is a successful experiment made as a consequence of the failed experiment. But when people cite failures as being potentially productive as successes… does this ever actually happen? There are fortuitous accidents, but that’s a different matter. The “useful failure” seems to be a case of the arts borrowing a concept from science that doesn’t really fit. The most glaring difference is that scientists want their experiments to be replicated by others; artists do not. Artists don’t present a new work with the proviso that it’s actually no good and provide detailed instructions on how it was made, in the hope that someone else will use this method to make a better piece.
Given that artists keep it to themselves, do they ever make an experiment that fails in a way that turns out to be interesting? Again, I’m not talking about fortuitous accidents, I mean failure. An artist makes an experiment that fails, but that failure itself leads them to some sort of creative breakthrough (“not doing it that way” doesn’t count). Can anyone think of examples where this has happened?