December 10th, 2007


From Stockhausen to stock repertoire

In 1995 BBC Radio 3 sent Karlheinz Stockhausen -- who died the other day -- a package containing recordings by Aphex Twin, Plastikman, Scanner and Daniel Pemberton. Dick Witts (formerly vocalist in The Passage, an excellent experimental pop group in the early 80s) then interviewed Stockhausen and asked what advice he had for the young composers. Stockhausen said they should give up repetition, likening the constant iteration to the sound of "someone who is stuttering all the time". The youngest of the artists, Daniel Pemberton, responded that Stockhausen's music wasn't bad considering the time it was made (the 1960s) but wished that the German "would use more basic repetition".

Mark E. Smith once sang about how his band The Fall had "repetition in the music and we're never gonna lose it", even inserting a joke about "the three Rs: repetition, repetition, repetition". But I wonder if Stockhausen wasn't right; I wonder if repetition hasn't been the death of pop music. Not just repetition on the simple formal level of the loop, the beat and the groove, but the bigger question of repetition of gestures and sounds from pop's own past. I wonder if it isn't precisely repetition -- and technology's ability to help us repeat ever-more-accurately, in ever-higher definition -- which has made pop music, in fact, "lose it".

Today pop music has become a slow-moving interpretive art, a classical art involving more renovation than innovation, more repertoire than research. In fact, I used to think that the R in A&R stood for "research" (Artists and Research). I soon discovered it stands for "repertoire". It's an interesting word, a word that entered English from French in 1847. It means a stock list (a canon) of dramas, operas or musical works a company can perform. A repertory theatre company (called a "stock" company in the US) is one, usually based in a small town, with a list of plays they're ready to perform, a stock list.

A music industry that poured as much money into artistic research as into, say, the quest for perfect sound might have brought pop music to a place beyond repetition -- a place as splendidly future-oriented as the ones Stockhausen discovered. Instead, pop music is caught up in the epigonal anxieties I've described here before; a fear of repetition leading to the fulfillment of that fear in the form of ever-diminishing circles yielding ever-smaller artistic returns. Think of pop radio, with its ring-fenced playlists of evergreen retro classics. Pop now has an iconic, canonical tradition more hidebound and static than 19th century classical music ever was.

Somewhat unexpectedly, technology has restricted pop's artistic development rather than facilitating change: new media like CD, mp3 and You Tube accelerated a "total recall" state in which nothing could ever get lost. A sort of "archive fever" was the result -- endless recycling of past glories, endless Top 10 lists, endless academic dissections of decades'-old minutiae, and yet more of the anxiety that we'd never be able to outstrip the magnificent achievements of the canonical past. Increasingly, our artform has become a retrospective one, an interpretive one like classical music. The emphasis has switched from big paradigm shifts (the last were perhaps punk and hip hop) to small nuances of interpretation, embroideries on blueprints handed down through an electronic version of the academy, stocked with a heritage of digitally-archived tradition. Put this together with the logic of a cultural era (postmodernism) which made endless recycling and retro-conservatism intellectually respectable, and the effect has been stultifying indeed.

It isn't just that we've swung away from research and towards repertoire, or that we all stutter now with repetition. It's also that we've forgotten how to forget, and forgetting is tremendously important. This is a point that came up in an interesting talk given by film director Mike Figgis as part of BBC Radio 3's recent Freethinking Festival. In a 44-minute lecture entitled Too Much Culture, Figgis advanced the idea that our inability to let things go -- he used the image of a lake, able to collect new water from streams, but with a dam blocking its output to the sea -- is doing us harm. Here's what he had to say about popular music:

"The 1950s was the birth of rock'n'roll. And let's say we can argue that the king of rock'n'roll is Elvis Presley. One of the most famous actors of that period is Marilyn Monroe, but there's also James Dean, there's Marlon Brando, and any number of other figures that we would now call icons. And they were recorded in the 1950s. And I wonder why, fifty years on, 2007, when you go to an event, say popular music, we're still seeing Elvis Presley. We're still seeing someone accompanied by two guitars and a bass and drums, and a chord structure which is pretty much three chords and twelve bars. There's nothing wrong with rock'n'roll in its limited way. But fifty years on they're still wearing the same clothes. They're still singing the same songs. And they're still trying to look like Elvis. Think about it -- it's jeans, it's leather jackets, nothing's changed. Now let's take 1957, say, and go back fifty years. That would be 1907, right? Can you imagine in 1957 the youth wanting to look and sound like someone from 1907? It's unthinkable. Because that seems like the dark ages. That's prehistoric, baby. So why? Why suddenly are we stuck in 1957? And I think the reason why is that we've become the prisoner of this reproductive image of ourselves, and we can't let it go."

Thanks to our conservative tastes and our advanced technology, we can't forget, can't purge, can't let stuff flow and go, can't rip it all up and start again, an act of destruction which is crucial to all acts of new creation. I don't entirely agree with Figgis -- I think "ubiquity is the abyss", in other words, total recall is a form of forgetting, and I think that formats today are much more frail than we think (look at CD-ROMs and websites, here today, gone tomorrow) -- and I think he underestimates the fact that 1957 to now is all part of the postmodern period, and that's why it all feels so similar, but that we're about to leave it and make something new.

But I think it's true that we're now in an age where popular music, once a low and scurrilous and delightfully ephemeral, expressive and effusive medium, has become a new sort of academicism. "But Nick, it's not as if you're going into museums and seeing Cramps shows exhibited there, is it?" Well, actually, yes, it is. On Saturday I went to see an interesting show at Kunst-Werke, a show of re-enactments and restagings called History Will Repeat Itself. In one room they had Jeremy Deller's re-enactment of The Battle of Orgreave (the confrontation between Margaret Thatcher and the National Union of Mineworkers) -- directed, incidentally, by Mike Figgis. Right next door was File Under Sacred Music by my friends Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard. It's a recreation of a legendary Cramps gig at the Napa State Mental Institute. And here it is on video in a museum, recreated (interpreted) by actors, presented as high art.

It's even happened to me -- recently I told you how surprised I was to discover that a casual concert I played at an art opening in Vienna was to enter the exhibition at the Secession. A looped video archived and monumentalised the performance mere hours after it happened. That's fast! But in another sense, it's respect, repetition, repertoire and repertory. And when that happens to your medium, everything slows down.