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February 2010
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Mon, Dec. 10th, 2007 03:53 pm
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.


Tue, Dec. 11th, 2007 03:18 am (UTC)

from wikipedia:

In November of 1995, "The Wire" wrote an article entitled "Advice to Clever Children".

A package of tapes containing music from several artists, including Aphex Twin, was sent to the German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen.

Stockhausen commented:

"I heard the piece Aphex Twin of Richard James carefully: I think it would be very helpful if he listens to my work Song Of The Youth, which is electronic music, and a young boy's voice singing with himself. Because he would then immediately stop with all these post-African repetitions, and he would look for changing tempi and changing rhythms, and he would not allow to repeat any rhythm if it were varied to some extent and if it did not have a direction in its sequence of variations."

Aphex Twin responded:

"I thought he should listen to a couple of tracks of mine: "Didgeridoo", then he'd stop making abstract, random patterns you can't dance to."


The rest of the article is online somewhere. The songs of Aphex Twin that Stockhausen was to listen to were Ventolin and Alberto Balsalm, from what has turned out (I think) to be the high point of Richard James' career, "I Care Because You Do."

jordan fish
Tue, Dec. 11th, 2007 04:01 am (UTC)

we're about to leave it and make something new.

hope to hear more about what you think this might be!

Tue, Dec. 11th, 2007 05:21 am (UTC)

Some people think "this" is this:

ReplyThread Parent
Tue, Dec. 11th, 2007 05:58 am (UTC)

When are people going to get beyond this argument and realize that tools are tools and something good can come out of anything as long as one finds expression in it, either as creator or audience? Hierarchy of quality does exist but defining it as anything more than how we see it from our own perspective is no different from the canons set down by stuff old geezers of the past. Thing is, I can even dig what a lot of those geezers said/say because they often have valid points, but they often are so full of themselves and their cosmically justified opinions that it turns off the rest of the world from exploring things for themselves.

Tue, Dec. 11th, 2007 11:29 am (UTC)

I agree Stockhausen was one of the greats. Listening to some of his music again, I find most of the "classical instruments play serial music" pieces - say Kontra-Punkte - now feel quite backward-looking and conservative - too much in the shadow of Webern, too locked into Darmstadt and the 1950s. The pieces that mean the most to me are pretty similar to your list: Hymnen, Gesang der Junglinge, Kontakte, Stimmung.

I once read Steve Reich being quite critical of Stockhausen. Reich implied that Stockhausen would listen to American composers not yet known in Europe, such as Morton Feldman and LaMonte Young, and steal their ideas for a piece or so. "Stimmung" is his LaMonte Young piece, suposedly. I don't know if this is fair or not...

alin huma
Tue, Dec. 11th, 2007 11:51 pm (UTC)


Tue, Dec. 11th, 2007 11:56 pm (UTC)

Which musicians/groups would you say are doing something new, denying this repetition?


Wed, Dec. 12th, 2007 09:07 pm (UTC)
Something New

Asa Chang & Junray

ReplyThread Parent
Sat, Jun. 21st, 2008 06:58 pm (UTC)
Re: Something New

Xiu Xiu?

ReplyThread Parent
Thu, Dec. 13th, 2007 12:06 pm (UTC)
Momus - |Ocky Milk| - The Birdcatcher - overplayed in my head

Can you please say me name of song with woman vocal , what played in The Birdcatcher from Ocky Milk album before , after and inside your main theme?