Pushing the envelope

A composer of music has to be aware of, and to have a penetrating insight into, all the factors which converge to an ideology in the cultural make-up of his contemporaries. He has to come up with an idea, a musical idea, which just passes the accumulated past by not exactly belonging to it, by not conforming to its approved laws, by labeling its claim to eternal validity succinctly as a mere ideology.

That’s the pioneering electronic composer Herbert Brün, in a book I came across while brushing up on the op. 27 Variations of Webern: The Computer and Music, edited by Harry B. Lincoln (Cornell University Press, 1970). As you might expect from a 1970 survey of the topic, it’s not terribly practical, but it’s a fun snapshot of the state of the art at the time. The big advances in computer analysis are programming the machine to recognize basic relationships that would be obvious to a human observer, and computer composition is limited to fairly simple stochastic operations (no one’s yet quite sure what to make of Xenakis’s Musiques Formelles).

In the midst of all this, Brün’s contribution, “From Musical Ideas to Computers and Back,” bursts forth like a Roman candle. Ostensibly a proposal for a program of computer composition research, it’s also a philosophical tract and a historiographical analysis of musical style. Equating musical styles with compositional systems, he points out that any system is ultimately a way of limiting the vocabulary of available sounds. As such, any system contains only a finite number of possibilities, and as more and more information is extracted out of the system, the possibilities decrease. Brün characterizes the life-cycle of a given system/style as four stages:

  • Experimental: the first stab at decreasing the chaos of available information by limiting choices.
  • Speculative: the system matures to the point that likely avenues of development begin to be perceived.
  • Reflective: the system is completely defined, even if all the possible information has yet to be extracted. “Speculation is gradually replaced by variation,” as Brün puts it.
  • Administrative: “the now wholly communicative system at the same time becomes wholly uninformative.” All possibilities are exhausted; all that remains is rule-based note-spinning.
  • Brün clearly thinks that Western music has reached the “administrative” crisis point:

    Recent developments in the field of musical composition have shown that the limited and conditioned system of acoustical elements and events, considered musical material for several hundred years, has now entered the administrative stage, where all further permutations will no longer possess any new meaning. The degree to which contemporary composers are consciously aware of this fact may vary widely. But equally widely varied are the signs giving evident proof for the growth of at least an intuitive suspicion that the system of well-tempered pitches, harmonic spectrums, and harmonic time periodization has had its day, and has now become so thoroughly organized that nothing unheard and unthought of could possibly find, therein, its communicative equivalent.

    At its core, this construct echoes the mythical musical march of progress a little too much for my taste, but it’s nothing if not provocative, and it’s a particularly intriguing framework to think about decadence, artistic stagnation, and the sprouting of various neo-this and that movements.

    But really, like the rest of Brün’s work, it’s the tone and sheer scope that I love. The rest of the articles in The Computer and Music are academically careful and reasonable—when the authors do venture to make predictions or try to characterize the importance of their research, they’re appropriately modest and qualified. Not Brün. He can’t seem to get through more than a couple of paragraphs without putting the topic at hand into the widest possible philosophical and historical perspective. The quote at the beginning of this post is immediately expanded into a set of trenchant and broad verities that are worth quoting at length:

    Whenever a man finally recognizes and understands the notions and laws that rule his behavior and standards, he will, usually, honor himself for his remarkable insight by claiming eternal validity for those notions and laws, though they be ever so spurious, ever so limited to but temporary relevance. Ideologies flourish on retroactively made-up beliefs which are complacently proclaiming to have found the truth, while skeptics are already busy looking for it again…. An idea, on the other hand, usually challenges the adequacy of using approved criteria as standards of measurement, and expressly demonstrates the irrelevance of the approved in questions of desirability concerning changes of state or law. It is for this that ideas come under attack; not for being good or bad, but rather for uncovering the impotence of persisting ideologies. To cover this shame, the ideologically possessed apostle finds himself frequently provoked to advocate indifference, complacency, corruption, or even murder. Often enough, unfortunately, such a defender of an expiring ideology, by proclaiming it to be nature’s own law, succeeds in contaminating the more gullible of his opponents, who, unaware of their defeat, then begin to retaliate in kind. The most contagious disease in our human society is the agony of dying ideologies.

    Brün, who fled Nazi Germany in 1936, studied with Stefan Wolpe in pre-independence Israel, spent a summer at Tanglewood, then bounced around Europe before settling at the University of Illinois in the 1960s, always believed that composers had an almost moral obligation to work outside their comfort zone, to constantly demonstrate the bankruptcy of any sort of dogma, to prod those of us in society to reach beyond what we already know or think we know. “If a composer takes a political view of his role in society, he may see that a certain lack of new orders is not only threatening his own system, his ego, his biological existence, but the biological existence of his contemporaries and neighbors,” he once said. “He may say that this society, as it sees itself, will now not give any more new answers to repeated questions. It needs an input which will change it just that much that the next time a certain set of questions is asked, it will give new answers.” That’s awfully close to my ideal of composition, regardless of style or vocabulary.

    Brün is compulsively quotable; you can start with a sample of writings and interviews posted on the Brün website (which also contains many of his graphical scores, including Mutatis Mutandis #12, above). Not much of his music seems to be online, but you can hear a quartet of works, including the seminal electronic piece Futility 1964, on this archived program from Brown University’s BSR radio (it’s in the midst of a lot of college-radio musique concrète hijinks; Futility 1964 starts at the 7:26 mark). And here’s a YouTube snippet of an undated but characteristic Brün lecture; he starts from a pregnant, unexpected linguistic observation, then, when you finally think you know where he’s going, he takes off in another, even more provocative direction.

    Seven years after his death, Brün is mostly known only to electronic-music specialists, which, given the breadth of his ideas, is a shame. My sense is that the current new-music ethos is in retreat from Brün’s tough, wildly ambitious idealism; the most common goal seems to be to carve out a little space of order and beauty in the midst of a chaotic world. Brün would insist that you could change that entire world with every single note you put down.

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