letter to Eddie Prévost

PO correspondence with EP about his book Minute Particulars, August 2005

Many thanks for your book, Eddie. 

For me, listening to as well as making music has always partly been about creating meaningful alternatives to what we hear around us. One of the things I like most about modern music is its potential to suggest an existence beyond any accepted order. And who could really want to be “in harmony” with a world as exploitative as ours? Suffice it to say that I agree with what you write about mass culture and the deadening effects it can have on our sensibilities. So as for your general question of originality and “progress”, I think lots of what you say makes it clear that as long as capitalism remains so adept at commodifying and neutralising artistic production, it will always be essential for some of us to try and reach out beyond any established practices in art, even currently progressive ones.

The parts of your book I find it harder to go along with are those dealing with electronics. What I do think is right, though, is to describe a lot of “electronica” as unresponsive in the dimension of dynamics, of which more below. I am inclined to make a partial exception for FURT and BARK! (among others) here though…

With my electronic instrument the computer memory becomes an extension of my memory (recording information for various kinds of use and appraisal later on); while drumsticks and drums extend the range, power, precision and audibility of your (otherwise pretty inaudible) arm movements. Both those “extensions of self”, at first, require leaps of the imagination – which is often overlooked when it comes to acoustic instruments.

So your argument about “unmusical” electronic instruments reminds me of the vehement denunciation by certain churchmen of the introduction of mechanical (“acoustic”) instruments into Western art (church) music after 1500, which had previously been produced almost exclusively by strictly biological (ie vocal) means. They regarded those mechanical (as opposed to vocal) sounds as being disconnected from the body/self and therefore inherently mechanistic, unmusical, soulless. But from our perspective now we can understand that what was found unmusical about those “infernal contraptions” was that they were originally clumsy, badly made, out-of-tune, and needed to be developed in both engineering and playing terms to bring their potential for expression closer to the “self” – not that they had alienated sound production from the body and soul, as was said, even though in some real sense that was actually true. Electronic instrumentalists are in that same situation today: wrestling with a deep change of musical practice.

What people use to make music is a “means of production” issue – and what really matters is who wields the means, as well as how those means develop. In the end, if people do bad things with computers – which they do, and stultifying music is perhaps one of the least worrying aspects of it – that is because of the nature of society, not because of the nature of computers. Gongs (say) also have a short-term memory, and “can be put in motion whilst their operators’ minds are elsewhere” too. But it is the responsibility of the player in either case to make sense of that.

I like your discussion of the problematic arbitrary loudness of amplification. But it is exactly one place where this musical responsibility (plus a certain amount of technical know-how) comes in. Your inspiring book is a “call to arms” for the ethical musician; surely we do then have to trust some of them with the volume knobs... But also, while it’s true that virtually no physical work is needed to make a deafeningly loud sound appear in a PA, that has also been true of church organs for hundreds of years. Isn’t this disconnection between “effort” and loudness – which dates back to the introduction of “acoustic” instruments in fact – really a matter of degree, which varies from instrument to instrument, and which amplification just takes to an extreme?

Then there is also the “democratisation” of means. Computers are one of the principal tools of everyday life/work nowadays, and using them for making art might be seen as standing in the proud tradition of co-opting whatever is around for artistic purposes, like spoons and washboards once were (although computers are of course a genuinely new phenomenon for music in other ways too). Most acoustic instruments are pieces of precision technology as well, and they are typically much more expensive than computers these days.

On sampling it seems we are bound to disagree for now. To me, the whole idea of the “ownership of sounds” is a suspiciously capitalist notion. (And so is copyright, in fact.) And sampling, and in particular processing, is now part of a sound’s history to me. The sum total of recorded sound in our world is enormous and growing, and we should try to take some responsibility for that too. And while I agree that the use of sampling can certainly be questionable, so can the sound of drumming! Ideas like yours should make it all more likely to go the right way. But in denouncing unprocessed samples as some kind of naked theft, while worrying about the denatured quality of processed ones, you seem to leave no room for the samplist to work in at all. That seems much too negative to me.

Philosophically, I think where I stray from your ideas is to do with how you emphasise the practice of playing but to my mind rather downplay the role of (audience) listening, which is surely a creative act too. So your story of the Young Woman of Kraków (who was shocked and disappointed to discover that music she thought had been composed and notated had in fact been freely improvised) for me shows that how music is made is in fact often obscured from the ears of a listener by the very nature of the music itself – and therefore for them will usually be a secondary consideration. So while I don’t think the “sound is all”, perhaps it is all that we can be sure we give to a listener – at which point they take over. That seems to be something of a brute fact to me, rather than immoral.

All the best, Paul

 

EP:

Thank you Paul for engaging with me on the issues raised in my book. It must be obvious to you that I have no problem with electronics from BARK! Or FURT. Or many other musicians. I played with two electronic musicians in trio just this weekend. As you rightly say, electronics and computers are means of production. Just as are “conventional” musical instruments. It seems to me to be totally appropriate that the new means of production should be part of the material that musicians use. I am not sure that I wrote (in Minute Particulars) about “unmusical” electronic instruments. I suppose it is reasonable to assume that I must have given that impression. But of course instruments themselves are strictly neither musical or otherwise. It is the musician than makes them carriers of musical expression.

However, I still have a niggling doubt about the use of sampling. I just find something rather unhealthy about the practice, especially when it is done without discussion with those who are being sampled. Much more to be said of this issue.

All in all, though, I find that most thoughtful people are themselves concerned about the use and abuse of power. All right, we might say, well it is only music. Thank goodness for that! However, the ease with which electricity enables a musician to dominate others does occur with (depressing) regularity. No matter the medium of social and creative discourse I have decided not to tolerate, encourage or leave unchallenged the overbearing nature of some kinds of social behaviour (including music making).

Best, Eddie

 

PO:

For what it’s worth, over the years R and I have inevitably dwelt on the nature of sampling in our music quite a bit and, without having really arrived at any ideological position on it, we have for some time now tended to process samples more and more, and “quote” raw sound sources less and less. We did indeed become increasingly uneasy about “lifting” musical sounds and gestures made by others. But we do not feel uneasy about sound processing, or about using non-musical sounds in the first place.

In other words, to relate to your concerns, we feel that the unprocessed quotation of musical sounds to be inherently more problematic than processing and/or contextualising original sound material more or less to the point of unrecognisability. Then you move into the realm of genuine production, as opposed to reproduction, I like to think.

Why use recordings at all rather than synthesised sounds then, you might well ask? One reason – as well as that important connection to our (shared) physical world – is that electronically synthesised sounds, for now, are simply unable to match the complexity, variety and abundance of the recorded sounds available to us.

As for the issue of “consent” from those being sampled: again, my experience is that people don’t mind being sampled at all as long as you convincingly turn the recording into something else.

All the best, P