2013 - A New Manifesto for New Music - Adam Harper
We demand the future of music, and a musical future. This is to say we demand new and greater thought, communication, and representation in relation to sound, in relation to one another.
We can no longer accept every product in the iTunes music store, or every Top 40 in gold and platinum, or the great composers in marble, or centuries of the concert hall, or the record collectors’ most cherished numbers, or all the instruments in all the orchestras, or all the notes in all the scales and ready for the page, or all the sound in the world, as demarcating the horizon of our imaginations.
We have to find something further and deeper beyond these horizons. But our task is not to find the rules and formulas hidden deep within this idea we think we understand, music. Music is not waiting to be understood, its role is to modulate and reform understanding itself in ever newer ways. We can only keep its options in this ever more open. Our task is not to locate and manifest the one greatest musical work or locus of music, and plant it like a monument in human history.
Our task is now to smash rules and tastes carved in the stone age and rebuild them, and then smash them again. It is in the smashing and the rebuilding that human artistic activity lies, in that moment of energy and action, process and becoming, and not in its permanence. We are certain that there can be an increase in cultural capacity, information and possibility, in options, like this, but we are also certain that there will be losses too. Our task is also to truly savour both the new and the lost, even as it slips through our human fingers.
But why are we in need of new music? The horizons of our imaginations appear pretty broad, after all – broader, possibly, than ever before, although perhaps less possibly deeper than before. Herein lies the problem. This idea will lead us to suppose that we have largely finished composing new music, that the concert hall, the record store, the museum is built, and that all we need to do is fill it, buy from it and maintain it.
Global society suffers the same problem – the illusion of completeness, the permanence of the status quo, the end of history. It often appears that free-market capitalism is the only possible system and that it already contains or will contain all the riches the human race will ever have. It often appears that fossil fuels and increasing carbon in the atmosphere is the only way we can run a civilisation. It often appears that private must triumph over public, that the individual is the only meaningful composite unit of this civilisation, and that their passions and problems are theirs and theirs alone. It often appears that we can do nothing except sit back and enjoy the ride. It often appears that all we really need are our desert island discs, as we are washed up alone on our own private, burning, lifeless islands. Everything else is just contributing to the deficit.
It often appears that music is a form of entertainment, but it is one of our species’ most important modes of communication. In the way it sounds and the way it is performed, it represents us all, our feelings, identities and desires. Music is a vote that all too frequently goes uncounted. It is a thought passing along the neural net formed by our entire planet.
I repeat, the task of music is never completed or made permanent. There are further limitations and uneven distributions of musical possibility than are apparent. You might be aware, for example, that there are many ways to experience music other than to listen to it as an object. You can interact with it, you can make it yourself, however you like. You don’t have to wait for the professionals, or the gig, or the commercial release. Then there are subtleties, fusions and joys in musical language that we have not yet discovered, that lie beneath or beyond our current perception, as if in the time before you ever tried that cuisine, or added that colour to the rainbow.
One century ago futurist painter and composer Luigi Russolo published his famous manifesto ‘The Art of Noises. One hundred years later Gonzo (circus) magazine publishes a new manifesto by Adam Harper, author of ‘Infinite Music’. The manifesto comes with the special edition of Mind The Gap #100 with tracks by 13 musicians introducing some possible new futures of music. Read the tracklist here or order your copy of Gonzo (circus) #113 + Mind The Gap #100 here.
There is further to see, and more to come. Yet the first and only path to this future is that we don’t know what music will be in the future. We don’t even know what it is in the present, or the past, not fully. It is from this admission that we can adopt the only perspective that will genuinely prepare the space the future will occupy. All we know of the future is that the landscape of concepts through which we understand musical production today, and for the past hundreds and thousands of years even, will be different.
The further and more audaciously we go into the future, the more different this landscape will probably be. Following this realisation to its conclusion, we discover that there will be a hypothetically infinite number of concepts through which we understand musical production, which is perhaps also to say that there’ll be no musical concepts worth the name, or none that are absolute.
In this way music is a signal, but in reading the signal there is also noise. If there is one thing you can say about music history, it’s that the music of the future has always been noise. There are many definitions for this word, but the most generally applicable is ‘unwanted sound’. It’s not just the noisiness of twentieth-century musicians such as Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Varèse and Russolo that shows this principle, but that of every previous century too, those in which the noisiness is now so accepted that we can barely perceive it any more. The ratio of noise to signal (to music) is always decreasing, but there is absolutely no reason to think that the noise of tomorrow has been vanquished.
What effect might this difference, and this infinite difference, have on music as we (think we) know it? We could start with the concepts we (think we) used to understand musical production in the past, and in some layer of the present. Melody, harmony, rhythm, the work, performance, style, instrument, composers, audiences. For some of us, these concepts represent the divine laws of music, but the musicians of the future will tell us that they were blunt tools. These concepts will seem like Plato’s four elements do next to the periodic table of their future, or to go one step further, to the Standard Model of particle physics, whose impression was felt this year at CERN. There will be more beyond even that. Even the most progressive music-lover living today would regard the music of the future as noisy in ways that would break their heart.
Transported into the thirty-fifth century, you might find people listening to and sending each other tiny bursts of what sounds like nothing but noise, like brief electric shocks, and finding in these bursts all they need for a musical life they consider many times richer than any in human history. You would protest, and ask what had happened to Beethoven and Miles Davis and Michael Jackson, but they’d be left behind like flint knives or medicinal leeches. Yet the speed of your descendents’ brains is such that, on both a neural and cultural level, these bursts of noise have a richness you cannot process. Will you tell them they are wrong, that they have blasphemously destroyed what is good? Perhaps it is appropriate that you will probably be dead by then
Let’s smash, then, what is ‘good’ and proper to music. We can proceed, concept by concept, until there is nothing but complete noise, that is to say, complete music.
- The Melody
It is all melody, none of it is. To require that music have a melody is to require that atop every lady or gentleman’s head there should be an impeccably coiffured powdered wig. For decades, more and more of us have known that music needs no melody to fascinate us and to turn us into completely new people. A melody is merely one kind of structure of musical information.
We are no longer beholden to any idea about the traditional melody’s length, range, timbre, change over time, and use of musical parameters.
The music of the future will be broken down into structures of continuity and difference of some sort, and we will cherish those structures, but they will not be melodies as understood traditionally. Already there are entire cultural lifetimes of music dedicated to alternative structures like the groove, the riff, the loop, the sample, the drop, the texture, and it is only the most antiquated listeners that bemoan this. But watch: this pattern, this movement away from a traditional concept, will be repeated on greater, stranger and more fundamental scales in the music of the future.
Perhaps the first musical tool to have been sharpened by modernity, and many times in its history. To say there are no laws about which notes must go together and which must not is now to be at least 130 years old. It might be that there are only two truths about harmonic process: everything is harmonious and everything is discordant. There is simply temporary movement between the two. In the eighteenth century, parallel triads were a musical disaster. Now most listeners and even perhaps most musicians would need a little training to hear what makes them different from the rest of conventional harmony.
There are conjunctions in the music of the future that will have a quaint nostalgia for the name ‘harmony’, and its makers will have a deep plan for it we will not understand.
Another musical site that has already been expanded in capacity, the rhythms of the future could be so subtle that nobody today would perceive their shifts and workings, or so free and unimportant that the music eschews any relationship to time, depending on the chosen language. A rhythm need not limit itself to the scale of melody or loops, of course. Rhythm is the microsonic oscillation that appears to us as its own dimension, pitch, as well as the birth and winking out of stars and civilisations.
- The Work
Here we edge onto the concerns of the present. It might be that in the music of the future, the appeal of already-composed musical works and pieces within the totality of musical experience would be no more dominant than the appeal of re-runs of old events are to the constantly new excitements of sporting activity, or the appeal of a single photograph in comparison to a constantly changing landscape.
In the future we will wonder at how we came to believe music could only be such if it was distilled into an infinitely calculated chunk – a ‘piece’ – of essential thought that we honestly believed could ever be repeated. In the future there will not be musical works so much as more and more rooms for us to enter and return to, whose contents we and others will change, and whose windows will brighten and darken with the seasons.
- The Performance
The musicians of the future may remember a time when there were only a few stages for music, and only a few ways to use that stage. New musical venues are opening on the internet, in our eyes, in our minds, and in our living environments all the time. In fact, all these things are our living environments. We can expect the border between ‘the performance’ and ‘life itself’ to become a continuum, and then dissolve, as it already has in a number of cases. Certainly the formal and official nature of the performance will be broken down in a broader, more demonstrative repeat of the recent shift from black tie in concert dress to slightly more casual attire. One day, we might not even have to change our clothes for musical activity at all.
- The Style
This is one of the most heated debates in underground music, particularly, but there is little to say about it. Music will be as if occupying a style, or it will not be. It will repeat something from somewhere else, or it will not, as we like. We hope that no-one will declare war over this.
- The Instrument
Such will be the flexibility, we hope, of the world of the future that its musicians will no longer see a final distinction in kind between the instrument as we buy, sell and maintain them, and any other musical object we are dissolving today. They will say, ‘why was that pop song, that sonata, that record, that mp3 device, that multimedia game, not a musical instrument, given that, as you admit, you played them and thus created music’, and we, who have long decomposed, will not be able to answer.
- The Composer
Music created by a single human being, or even a designated group of human beings, is an old story about how the world was created. Already we are beginning see that music has been created by everyone whose ears have received it, that it was created by the Universe practically by accident. Upon visiting the future, we will notice music emanating from machines whose multiplicity of human and non-human components we cannot fathom, and it will frighten us like the flashlight frightens the pre-Neolithic man. The future will be relatively unmoved.
- The Audience
Surely we can’t smash the audience too!? In that there is a group of participants in the musical activity whose role is simply to witness the ‘audio’, we hope so. The music and the audience should not be on opposite sides of an exchange, but indistinguishable within a holistic, mutual music-making. There is still perception, but no longer should there be a removed and sonically subordinated audience.
We hope that the musical creativity of the future will be collective and readily accessed, as well as flexible in ways that contemporary electronic musics have only just begun to apply. With the stroke of a finger on a screen, or in the air, or in the mind, anyone with the slightest interest in doing so should be able to generate live or recorded music and modulate its characteristics infinitely and infinitesimally. This will not be a solipsistic activity only, but a part of a sublime musical project spanning thousands and thousands of participants, each a listener, a composer and an instrument in a single process. It will not be reducible to melodies, harmonies, rhythms, works, mere performances, or a single responsible composer, or a spectacle aimed towards an audience. It will be infinitely continuous, and yet also, at every moment, infinitesimal in the differences that give it its magnificence.
Finally of course, there is one more concept we will dethrone and dissolve: music itself. At the very least, its definition will be radically retranslated over the coming epochs. The ‘musicians’ of the future will probably disagree with us as to what it is they are making.
J.S. Bach will have stormed out of the Throbbing Gristle gig, and Throbbing Gristle will have stormed out of empty temples. Music and the world and life will leave their cages, the ear will return to the brain, and there will only be the movement of information in thought.