The Book Cooks
From Chapter 1: Schism
The success of the Tate Modern, since its opening in 2000 on Bankside, is indisputable. Transformed from what was a miserably blackened, imposing but ignored husk of a former power station, it’s now one of the vital engines in Thameside London’s regeneration as one of Europe’s main tourist attractions, linked by a new pedestrian bridge and nestled amid a flotilla of new restaurants. Much of its success is down to the dark, contemporary arts of marketing and (re)branding and to the enterprise and zeal of Nicholas Serota. It has a nice selection of drinking and dining options and commanding views. However, the Tate would not, could not be the phenomenon it is today had there not been an acceptance by the general public of contemporary art in all its forms – abstract, conceptual, non-figurative, collage. You could send out all the emails you like, flag up the featured artists in as whimsical a font as you please, the Thames could be twinkling turquoise beneath you but the precondition for getting people through those doors has to be a genuine desire on the part of a great many of them to come and see some avant garde visual art. Their reasons for wanting to do so may be open to doubt and debate, the levels of their comprehension and appreciation varying but what is beyond dispute is that the Tate is regularly crammed to the rafters because people haven’t just learned to tolerate the likes of Pollock, Rothko and De Kooning – they’re willing to give up their precious afternoons to come and behold their works. Sure, you will still find the odd, disgruntled voice of dissent in the letters pages of the Telegraph, the grandparent whose views on modern art are informed by 1970s Daily Mail articles fulminating against piles of bricks in galleries subsidised by the Arts Council, as well as the annual parade of huffing and snorting against some chap dressed as a bloody bear winning the Turner Prize. There are even The Stuckists, who with an eloquence and purpose not to be sniffed at, have set up their own, rearguard action against the non-figurative tendencies of modern art. However, the fact is that it is commonly understood that it is simply not done, when confronted with a piece of abstract expressionist art, to yelp, as did Tony Hancock in The Rebel, “Who’s gone raving mad here, then?”
Contemporary art is headline news. When Hugh Grant sold on his Andy Warhol portrait of Elizabeth Taylor in 1963 at a huge profit in 2007, it was all over the papers and TV for days. Granted, this was down, not least to the triple whammy of celebrities involved – Hugh, Andy, Liz. However, in May of 2007, there was a series of record breaking purchases of post war art. Francis Bacon’s portrait Study From Innocent X fetched $52.6m (£26.5m) at Sotheby’s in New York - almost double the previous record for a Bacon work. There followed a price of $72.8m (£36.7m) for Mark Rothko’s 1950 work White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose). That 15 artists saw new auction records set for their work, including Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose untitled work from 1981 fetched $14.6m (£7.4m), was almost three times his previous best, showed that for whatever reasons, recognition of the value of contemporary art has come a long way since 1916 when Hans Arp, one of the first abstract artists, was commissioned to paint the entrance to a girl’s school in Zurich. The principal was so appalled by the non-representative blobs of colour they offered, that he at once ordered for the offending frescoes to be painted over with a mercifully figurative work entitled “Mothers, Leading Children By The Hand”.
Today, modern art is accepted at all levels, from pavement to penthouse corporate. But what has become of its musical equivalent? Both music and the visual arts entered upon their eras of modernity in the first decade of the 20th century – modern art with Picasso’s Les Demoiselles D’Avignon, in which one of the female sitters’ faces looks to have been violently supplanted by some sort of African mask. Around the same time, Arnold Schoenberg is composing the very first of his “atonal” works, thereby bringing the whole, overarching harmonically developed structure of classical music theoretically crashing down. A few years later, Luigi Russolo writes his Art Of Noise Futurist manifesto, jazz’s birth pangs and development en route to its own “dissonance” become increasingly audible, Kandinsky and Schoenberg, via correspondence try to establish some sort of art/musical synaesthetic Gesamtkunstwerk.
And yet, today, their fates are very different. In his formidable survey of 20th century music The Rest Is Noise, New Yorker critic Alex Ross, touches on this. “While the splattered abstractions of Jackson Pollock sell on the art market for a hundred million dollars or more . . . the equivalent in music still sends ripples of unease through concert audiences and makes little discernible impact on the outside world.” The same people who flock from miles around to mill in the presence of abstract art run screaming, hands clasped to their ears like Munch females, from “abstract music”. Well, perhaps that’s to over-dramatise their response. More likely, on the rare and fleeting occasions on which they bump into such music, perhaps by accident on Resonance FM, they’ll dismiss it with a “what’s this racket? Turn it off!” Or calmly operate the switch themselves, turning towards some more temperate destination on the dial.
A measure of contrasting contemporary attitudes towards the twin avant gardes can be found in responses to the death of Karlheinz Stockhausen. The obituary writers gave him a respectable send-off, but Private Eye’s EJ Thribb offered the following, In Memoriam.
I hope I
Meanwhile, the Guardian obituary was followed up by a one line letter from one its correspondents suggesting that a fitting tribute to the late composer would be to stage one minute’s cacophony. All of this could be added to a pile of similarly wheezily labouring mirth, much of which is collected, in cartoon form, on Stockhausen’s own website. A 2004 cartoon in The Guardian shows a surgeon explaining to his patient on the operating table, “No, it’s not Stockhausen – we’ve just dropped a tray of surgical instruments.” One can only hope in all charity that there was some additional bit of context that might have made this even half-funny at the time. Another shows a piano tuner asking the owner of the Steinway. “When did you first notice that your Mozart sounded like Stockhausen?” The late Punch magazine added a couple of their own. A jogger’s curiously squiggly progress is explained by the fact that he is listening to Stockhausen on his Walkman. Another cartoon features upstairs neighbours po-going about randomly and smashing a ping pong ball hither and yon as their downstairs neighbours complain, “It sounds like those bloody idiots upstairs are playing their Stockhausen records again.”
Now, there is nothing wrong, in principle, with anyone taking an irreverent dig at the High Arts. It does little to abate the smirkers, it must be said, when the press release on Stockhausen’s demise contains the following sentiment, penned by one of his adorers; “On December 5th he ascended with JOY through HEAVEN’S DOOR, in order to continue to compose in PARADISE with COSMIC PULSES in eternal HARMONY, as he had always hoped to do.” However, the jokes I cite above I found offensive not as a lover of avant garde music but as a lover of comedy. They are feeble – but it is such a cultural given, a default setting, that Stockhausen be automatically derided, that no one apparently feels the need to work very hard at the quality of jokes at his expense. Stockhausen, you see, is a joke – or so goes the (un)thinking.
Modern art has long since ceased to be the common butt of such jibes. Sure, there have been hoaxers and pranksters over the years, from “Bruno Hat”, the 1929 modern art creation of Evelyn Waugh and a handful of his cohorts, and in more recent times, the “neo neos”, created by Spy magazine, who put on an exhibition of work akin to the “Infantile” school of art created by scriptwriters Ray Galton and Alan Simpson for their Tony Hancock film vehicle The Rebel. But when, in a 1980s episode of Minder, Arthur Daley converses with a crooked art dealer and espouses his own, unwittingly Stuckist theories of painting; “I like pigs, sheeps, goats – y’know, proper pictures,” the joke is clearly on Daley, the Sarf London apres garde philistine, not the art dealer.
Modern music feels decades away from such acceptance. Had Arthur Daley remarked that he liked “songs – you know, tunes, harmonies, that sort of thing – proper music,” he would be roundly applauded as a voice of common sanity in some quarters by a world supposedly dominated by the agenda of Radio 3 elitist atonalists, zealots deaf not just to what constitutes good music but to the wishes of ordinary people.
Stockhausen was indeed, as EJ Thribb laconically observes, a “famous modern composer” and the fact that he was able to enjoy a prolonged career and pack out concert halls indicates for some the triumph of contemporary music. Certainly, he owes his preeminence, not just to a sense of the dramatic when it came to promoting his ideas but also to the innate sense of drama, the symphonic sweep which elevates his masterpieces above the vast majority of musique concrète.
However, for many, Stockhausen is “the only one”, the sole household name signifier of 20th century experimental music, and therefore perceived as a lone eccentric, an aberrant, isolated figure orbiting the earth pointlessly like a rusty old Sputnik, a relic of futurisms past. That he is merely one prominent and lofty figure in a largely undersea mountainscape is hardly ever recognised. What of Pierre Schaeffer, Iannis Xenakis, Gyorgy Ligeti, Luc Ferrari, Herbert Eimert, Pierre Henry, Nicholas Schoffer, Henri Pousseur, Bruno Maderna, to name just a few in his own field? Spread out across other genres and it would be easy to make of these pages a giant directory, or index of activity, from Salvatore Sciarrino to William Basinski, from Sun Ra to Merzbow, from Sightings to Albert Ayler, from Pere Ubu, from AMM to Faust. To anyone with a subscription to the magazine The Wire, these are common enough names, However, to a disturbing number of people with culture and education bursting from their ears, they are utterly unknown. There are prominent figures in the world of contemporary art – it would be unfair to name names - who are known simply to have no idea what has been going in contemporary music, in the realms beyond rock and roll, pop and mainstream jazz and classical. Such ignorance is the equivalent of an experimental or avant garde musician whose tastes in art ran to framed depictions of dogs playing billiards and poker.
Furthermore, there isn’t much demonstration of will on the part of the major urban cathedrals to modern art to stress the links between the contemporary art they frame, and remotely comparative developments in contemporary music. The Tate Modern’s timeline makes no such allusions, feels no need to do so. They depict modern art’s trajectory against a backdrop of pophistorical and sociological trends. Meanwhile, a CD on sale at New York’s Guggenheim Museum entitled Raising The Standards, offers a companion in sound to the museum’s permanent collection of Kandinskys, Picassos, etc, consisting of smart jazz renditions from the late bebop era, with versions of the likes of “How High The Moon” played by the likes of Andre Previn, Kenny Burrell and Stan Getz. This feels more designed to evoke for consumers a halcyon era of 50s Manhattan midtown metropolitan smartness, when New York enjoyed its status as new centre of the modern art world, than to map any parallel developments in contemporary experimental music. (An honourable exception to all this is the Centre Pompidou, whose 2004 exhibition Sons Et Lumieres showed the ways in which modern art and modern music, in the early 20th century particularly, had cross-fertilised).
Of course, it is not the primary job of the visual art galleries to promote the cause of avant garde music, though given recent, post-Fluxus developments in sound art, for instance, you might expect them to be less oblivious to its very existence. But let’s have a look at another indicator – The South Bank Show, whose brief has always been to bring the arts to a more mainstream audience. Scrolling down a list of its weekly topics since its inception in 1978, let’s see how 20th century experimental art and 20th century experimental music fare in a head to head.
Given the Melvyn Bragg treatment have been The Surrealists, David Hockney (three times), Frank Auerbach, Graham Sutherland, Howard Hodgkin (twice), Soviet Art, Patrick Cauldfield, Marc Chagall, Francis Bacon, Patrick Heron, Arthur Boyd, Jackson Pollock, Wendy Taylor, Nicola Hicks, Roy Lichtenstein, Paula Rego, Jeff Koons, The Guggenheim Museum, Christian Boltanski, Claes Oldenburg, Andy Warhol, Picasso, Gilbert And George, Yoko Ono, Chuck Close, Marlene Dumas, Marc Quinn, Tracy Emin, Rachel Whiteread, Sophie Calle, Peter Blake, Grayson Perry.
This list excludes the likes of Maggi Hambling and Andrew Wyeth, both of whom are primarily figurative artists, a minority in 20th/21st century art, where those who lend at least equal priority to form and process as to content. Maybe Hockney can be excluded on this basis too.
Now let’s look at the roll call of 20th century experimental music covered by The South Bank Show lo these last 30 years.
Michael Tippett, Benjamin Britten, Alban Berg, Peter Maxwell Davies, Stravinsky, Miles Davis, Vaughan Williams, a one hour feature on “Electronic music”, Messaien’s Turangalila Symphony, Phillip Glass, Jimi Hendrix, Henze, Hindemith, John Adams, John Tavener, Steve Reich.
Not much of a haul. What’s more, “experimental” is rather a stretch with some of these selections, who largely represent the British, the palatable, or the minimalist, holy or otherwise. Minimalism is among the most favoured and commercially successful form of modern music – for all the theoretical seriousness of its protagonists, it has become a truism – when the new Eurostar station at St Pancras was unveiled in TV adverts, the soundtrack was inevitably, a bowdlerised take on minimalism, a latticed, oscillating orchestral arrangement which bespoke both high class and easy access for the listener.
Music as a whole is well represented on the South Bank Show over the years but far greater primacy is given to performers, particularly vocalists, whose repertoire is predominantly pre-20th century, rather than contemporary composers. They have the advantage of being alive, engaged in classical music but not inconveniently bound up solely with modernity. Pop and rock music are well represented – Sting, Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton, Annie Lennox, George Michael, as well as the likes of Andrew Lloyd Webber. Load in those, plus Bernie Taupin, Elton John’s lyrical collaborator, and “modern music”, in the sense of music made in, or musicians of modern times, feels pretty well catered for. However, the predominant, popular modes of modern music have confined themselves, for good, sound commercial reasons, to orthodox, strictly tonal contours. This is in contrast to the visual arts. The lonely, self-pitying figure of Jack Vettriano, he of the dancing butlers, can justly feel isolated in that he is one of the few prominent contemporary artistic figures to eschew avant garde methods – and is derided for his obdurate, trite, anti-modernity.
Still, at least he is represented. Where, by contrast, is Derek Bailey, a towering figure in the history of British free improvised music? One scrolls down the South Bank roll of honour in vain. David Bailey, yes and Derek Walcott, the following week in 1988, but no Derek Bailey. Bernie Taupin, yes, but Derek Bailey, no.
In fairness, such an oversight probably represents the commercial realities faced by the makers of the SBS. But the upshot is that, despite their overall strong emphasis on music, especially on classical performers, modern experimental music has never got beyond the thin end of the wedge. It is forced to flourish, like hyacinths, in the darkness, it’s practitioners, when fleetingly observed, imagined to be engaged in some sort of morbidly obscure madness. Writer and musician Clive Bell recalls a recent experience, watching David Toop’s Laptop Orchestra, a workshop project organised with students of his, whom he encourages in the practice of improvising on computer processed sounds.
“They were invited to play to an audience of psychoanalysts, down in South London,” recalls Bell. “They were from various disciplines – Jung, Lacan, Freud. I knew one of them, so I went down too. The idea was that the Laptop Orchestra would play, then there would be some discussion, then they would play again, so that they could talk about the interaction between the group and see if there was anything interesting happening from a psychological point of view. I think the event perhaps wasn’t very well set up because nobody explained at the beginning what the group did. And it soon became clear that this audience, this very nice, highly educated audience hadn’t got the foggiest idea what was going on. It was a double whammy of ignorance. Not only were they completely unfamiliar with the idea of free improvisation but they’d never seen anyone make music with a laptop. So they couldn’t grasp what might be going on there – which I agree is weird, because you can’t see what’s physically going on. They couldn’t get into it at all. And they started talking about it as if it was very freakish, very marginal behaviour they were witnessing. People were even talking in terms of insanity.”
It’s comical to think of these psychoanalysts fulminating uncomprehendingly, latter day versions of PG Wodehouse’s Sir Roderick Glossop, the Harley Street “nerve specialist” who when greeted with the alien high jinks of Bertie Wooster’s lively circle of young things, ascribes their behaviour to mental disorder. But sad, also, as it signals the lack of recognition afforded to a vast, legitimate, logical, continuing, creative but attention-starved sphere of human activity. The most recent victim is the London Musician’s Collective, who organise events and releases involving experimental musicians from all around the world. Despite the Arts Council having enjoyed a boost to its coffers, in 2007 they nonetheless announced a swingeing round of cuts. Among their victims was the LMC, but among the beneficiaries, by contrast, were the visual arts.
Although experimental art and experimental music do end up unwillingly “competing” for resources, they do not compete in any other sense. Any opposition implied in the title of this book is a false one – the two are not really at odds with each other. There are numerous artists who work in both disciplines – there is common ground, common sympathy, there are common problems common aesthetics. So why can the general public apparently not get enough of one avant garde and yet barely be aware of the existence of the other? Why the schism?
David Stubbs © 2008