In Response to Marek Polik’s Write-up about New Music (April, 2017)

April 5th, 2017

Recently a write-up about contemporary music by young composer Marek Polik, posted by the author himself on Facebook, has drawn certain attention within some circles of the contemporary music composition world.  Polik touches upon many vastly different issues within the recent contemporary music discourse in his writing, mostly about a certain school of composition today that attempts to de-genre-ize contemporary music and to question the concept of artistic “work.”  He also backdrop his many arguments on various topics upon a set of ideologies and absolute values purported by and prescribed to the contemporary music or classical music discipline by some scholars today, notably those from the studies of New Musicology, certain brands of ethnomusicology, and certain other sociological and theoretical studies that do not directly engage in the practice of music (especially contemporary music) in any capacity. Polik’s original text can be viewed at this link : https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B1Fmms6XkhwWcU15T3R3V25nUFU/view

I have in turn written a response text which has also been circulated and read on Facebook.  I now transfer my response text onto my website.  The response text in its mostly original form (except for two footnotes added later) is as follows.

 

In Response to Marek Poliks’s Write-up about New Music

by Mu-Xuan Lin

Disclaimer : the commentary was initially in the format of Facebook comments, so the language is brief and more casual comparing to an actual essay/critique.

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First off, I have to say that I agree with many things the author discusses in this text, many of which I myself have observed and pinpointed at one point and even talked about with some of you. Among these themes are the assessment of what he calls “new music v.2.0” coming into popularity in the recent ten years or so, mostly venerated within certain North American scenes and some major Germanic progressive scenes. The fact he mentions that there is a cultural tendency of (ethno-)national populism today is true, and I might add that this tendency is present not only in new music or art, but also in the actual civil politics as we all know. This tendency, in my opinion, imposes upon aesthetic tastes and inclinations political or even moral meanings or judgments. In this text the author did not expound upon this mentioning further toward the direction I leaned in just now; his mentioning of the ethno-/national populism is only to emphasize how unlikely it is for what he calls “new music v.1.0” to succeed in today’s cultural climate. He continued on to applaud New Music v.2.0 composers’ facility for breaking away from the endogenous negativism of New Music v.1.0 and for opening the resource supply field by making new music about new music itself, therefore an exogenous negativism. (I’m paraphrasing here using my own terms, but I believe that’s what he meant.)

The most interesting points he makes about New Music v.2.0, however, are, I think, the criticism of it, which I myself have talked and written about. He mentioned the protagonist of New Music v.2.0, which is a presumed “outsider” as well as an “intentional amateur” (nicely put) who identifies himself as being exempted from the capitalistic world. This “intentional amateur” exercises identity politics and politicizes everything (agree) even when he takes whatever he wants (the author’s word is “colonizing everything”) yet remains in an exclusive playground of new music which by itself is not inclusive (this I don’t completely agree but anyway…). Only against the exclusivity of the new music world this “intentional amateur” can exist and make claims. That’s the irony of it. The author of this text talks in great length about the issues with New Music v.2.0, which I won’t repeat here assuming you’ve already read the text. If I might sum up the problems from where I come from (these might not be completely the same as what the author of the text have), briefly speaking, I’d say that the issues – or the “symptoms” – consist of

1) The misuse of identity politics, which essentially is the victims’ politics, therefore should be applied very carefully. Because once a victim group (it’s always a group) is identified, the position of “the others” and the antagonization of it are also established. Except for some rare, genuine, and successful cases, a lot of the new music works that rely on identity politics either confuses the expressivity of a composer-performer with the narcissistic personality showcase (as if as long as the composer is onstage the piece is already justified), or antagonizes the existence of new music along with all the other creators and audiences of new music while itself presented as a new music piece on a venue that funds and presents new music. This is as problematic as if a fervent self-proclaimed feminist tells a male crowd that she alone understand what it means to be woman (she’s the only one who’s cool) and all the other women are just pathetic and unworthy.

2) The distrust of “work” and the immersion — both on the poïetic and esthetic sides — in the work. The distrust of the work as having its own agency. (This I have talked in great length with some of you already, I won’t say more here.)

3) The dependence on representational materials such as representational text (political write-outs and so on) and representational imageries, as well as contextual (source-recognition) of sound materials. Music, in this case, loses its power and agency, and can only exist as tools to accompany a representational, transparent, binary message. I saw this a lot at Darmstadt last year.

4) The uncritical and total embracement of technologies, no matter how banal they are.

5) The lack of resistance toward commodified lifestyles and behaviors, and the entrepreneur treatment of artistic creations. This I’ve also had talked a great deal about before, so I won’t further elaborate here. But an example : some composers/sound artists came out with a whole theory on how our perception today is a “distracted” one, therefore we as artists must adapt to this behavior. In short, someone is banking on and making use of such distracted, short-attention span phenomenon in our society today.

 

Coming back to the text, besides the author’s assessment of New Music v.2.0 and the “advices” he gives to his fellow composers some of which I agree with, there are many things in this text I consider highly problematic. I will now talk about few of them :

My biggest issue with this text is its language. The text is built upon political jargons many of which are taken for granted without difference, for example, the assessment of new music post-classical music as white, patriarchal, colonizing, sexist, and so on. He concludes by saying that new music as a genre is a product of “class elitism”, and that the new music community is a “class group.” [1]This assessment, of course, resonates with much of the intellectual discourse today in the US that emphasizes how “culturally elitist” new music is. This assessment by itself is, in my opinion, highly pretentious if not just a sweeping generalization. My criticisms are as follows —

  1. a) Traditionally speaking (and currently speaking), new music is characterized by, among other things, authorship and arthood[2]. While there is a long tradition of authorship and arthood in the western concert music canon since Beethoven, authorship and arthood do not only exist within this canon. There is authorship and arthood in literature, films, visual art, even science. Also, authorship and arthood is NOT a singularly white and masculine value or prestige. In fact, many East Asian cultures value authorship and arthood, and the idea of such has been respected across gender and genres. “High Art”[3] has been a long-standing concept in many East Asian cultures which led to people’s general respect towards individuals who contribute to the culture unique, personified, and unclassified works even though these artists might have starved, been laughed at, been executed, or died of suicide or alcoholism. The freedom such format of expression allows also explains why there have been so many East Asian musicians and composers flocking into the concert music industry since the mid-20th century, some, of course, chased after the “(economic) class elitism” mentioned so much here (Westernized lifestyle was for a while considered a prosperous lifestyle), but many of these people are doing this — especially composition — because they love the freedom and means with which they can create esthetic experiences that are personal, unusual, and exciting. They don’t have to constrain themselves in a “style”, or, in its worst, they can at least work with idioms they feel are closer to their own temperament without the pressure of the mainstream market.
  2. b) Let’s say even if one agrees to use the term “class/cultural elitism” to label new music and other “arts”, there still is the logical fallacy of naming the power given by such elitism as malice or at least being negative. Power does not automatically mean Malice. If “new music” makes its creators and listeners feel empowered, but NOT in the way the author of this text criticized which is that it might make people feel superior in terms of intellect, economy, race, and education, then why would such empowerment be something undesirable and bad? In fact, as with most often of the case of good “concert music”, it offers both the creator and the audience a fresh perspective of certain matter AND an emotional or logical subversive. Good concert music often is able to achieve this by allowing the interplay and shifting of the artistic and experiential distances. These kinds of esthetic experience empower not only the creators but also the audience, and to say that such experience is purely obnoxious and ungenuine is by itself obnoxious and insincere. In my opinion, the antagonization of “cultural elitism” (if such term is rightly put) is the most insincere form of social reactionary. It rejects the empowerment a specific cultural outlet (or many) can give to people in ways that are productive and non-violent, and allows for a populist propaganda to dictate people’s consumption of and behavior towards cultural products. (You might as well extend the attack on “cultural elitism” to other spheres and discourses as well. How about language and thought conducted by language? If “cultural elitism” is bad, then we should not eve have lucidly written/spoken critical writings/speeches such as the one the author is using in this text, since this creates the “distance” and rhetorics that allow a sophisticated and thoughtful idea to form which is the main characteristic of a “culturally elite” individual.)
  3. c) To say that this “class/cultural elitist” music automatically gives value to all of the content its field outputs is erroneous. The author of the text used the example of how people in the field (or enjoy being part of the field) “come away with more” after listening to the worst symphony ever written than after watching a popular (I personally don’t know this series) TV series to show the pretentiousness of the field and the false values such “class” automatically provides. This I certainly do not agree. While yes, in some cases some of the audience of certain music/art blindly identifies themselves with the values these certain music/arts imply, in many other cases this is not true. For instance, I love much of the classical music and I love Schubert, but once quite recently I heard a rarely performed Schubert chamber piece in a concert and I felt it was so boring and emotionally un-engaging that I decided to take a nap, and thought how I would rather listen to a Scandinavian folksong performed by a children’s choir instead. On the other hand, “new music” is not the only field worthy of being accused of creating a “class” for people to belong to. In fact, if one were to apply this logic, one might as well admit that many other music “genres” attract many of their audiences who chose to listen to them because they make them feel “fitting in” within certain social or cultural classes. Look at the opera subscribers! The “The Who” fans! The people who only listen to Bob Marley! The classical ballet audience! The lounge music people!…[4]
  4. d) To say that this “class elitism” has been the ONLY culprit of colonialism is erroneous. Talking about cultural and musical colonization, mainstream Pop Music (which the author of this text calls “music” at the end of his essay) has the most power and diligence in way of colonization than what we call “new music.” Pop music[5], an initially Anglo-Saxon product flourished under the great Western capitalism, is much more infiltrating and pervasive within communities across the globe than any other cultural outlets. There are more sonic and textual similarities between a pop song produced in Taiwan and that produced in the US than a similar comparison between an Indian classical music piece and a Balkan a cappella vocal piece, or between a composer A and a composer B in the “exclusive, class-defined” world of concert new music.

My another big issue with this text is the author’s polarization of “new music” and “other music.” First of all, it is by itself a myopic act to separate “new music” and “other music” as if the “other music” cannot be differentiated within itself. This is the same pretentiousness that thinks that all issues today are resulted in the opposition between “the West” and “the Others”, as if “the Others” — consisting of cultures and peoples who are vastly different and nuanced — can all be grouped together as one single victimhood. And of course this might not be what the author of the text means — at the end of the write-up we found out that what he meant by “other music” is actually Pop music, and what he meant by the “international community of music-makers” is inevitably, along this logic, pop music musicians. And he further advices his fellow composers to listen to not only new music but also, alas!, Pop music, and to learn its history because we will find “how small and narrow our world is” by doing so. Even in passages where he didn’t identify this “other music” as pop music, his assessment of this “the other music” as being all innocent, virtuous, and of the “people” is very dangerous. The reasons can be given as follows —

  1. a) Why is pop music — not other types of music — the polarized “opposition” of “new music”? If he thinks pop music is the representative of “people’s music” because most of his friends or people he knows in this society like listening to it, then it means his understanding of the world in relation to lifestyle and art is very limited. An example, I did not grow up listening to pop music. In fact I grew up listening to mostly Chinese theatrical music and choral music that has folk music characteristics. It’s not because I was pretentious or considered myself culturally more superior, it was simply because I liked and was emotionally affected by those musics. It was only when I was in highschool when I started to study composition that I thought I needed to educate myself on other musical genres — that’s when I tried to listen to pop music. I had no idea where to enter that I had to ask my friends to recommend pop music artists and albums for me to gain entry. It also took me some time to actually enjoy some of the pop music (I also tried Rap), because the sounds were so unfamiliar to me at first. I’ve also been curious about musics of different cultures, which led me to understand that there are so many different modes of musical expressions and musical functions that were enjoyed or consumed by individuals of vastly different tastes and lifestyles. (And do I consider these “other musics” less than what I do which is “new music”? No, I don’t. Except I admit that I personally find more freedom in the act of creating music under the poïetic axiom of concert music, and that’s why I do it and wish to share what I do with different people.) To ignore this fact and to place Pop music at the end of the other spectrum against “new music” would be a highly unaware, self-involved misjudgment and world view that fits right into the white, patriarchal, consumer class the author was trying to criticize. This attitude is far from being innocent or righteous in any case.
  2. b) If broadening the definition of “other music” to include REALLY other musics that were not “new music,” one still cannot assert “other musics”‘s innocence or absolute virtue. If put into context and origin, many musics exist because of various human reasons. Jazz, for example, in its early era, was a subversive dignification of the slave class. Under the tyrannic condition, Jazz musicians created Jazz by taking white, consumer class people’s tunes and recreating them in their improvisations and using them to make money. It’s a subversive act by turning servience into economic power and coded communication. In fact, its borrowing of other pre-existing tunes and materials is what makes it what it was, what defined and empowered it. The virtue here is certainly not the same one as what some populist surrogates would like to imagine — the kind of pure, immersive, emotionally sincere communication between the artists and the audience WHEN BOTH ARTISTS AND AUDIENCE ARE IN EQUAL SOCIAL CONDITION AND MUTUAL UNDERSTANDING. The background of the creation of this music is a lot more complex. Same with musics with specific functions, or one that have to serve to specific consumer markets. Needless to say, despite musical incidents we know or don’t know of that either reach beyond OR despite OR excel in their initial function or market purpose with their artistry and sincerity, we cannot ignore the fact that all musics cannot be judged and valued based on one single set of morality, and therefore cannot be victimized or accused of as such.

 

In short, while I think there are many points about the current trends/tendencies of new music created within certain scenes which he mentioned were correctly assessed and diagnosed, such as the discussion about what he called “new music v.2.0,” and some of his advices to fellow composers, many of which suggest that as artists we have to be truly open-minded which is a wise yet commonsensical principle in any artistic field rooting on the empathic transactions of human minds and hearts, I do think that his polarizations of “new music v.1.0” (the entire 100 years of global new music development?) and “new music v.2.0”, as well as that of “new music” and “the other music” troubling.

[1] I will narrow the “class elitism” here to refer to ONLY “cultural class” and not economic or social class. The reason is that while I might agree that some (certainly not all) composers today are able to enter and remain in the field of composition because of their economic privilege, I do not agree that by entering this field they gain in return more or better privilege that’d augment their economic stability or wealth. Undertaking composition as a career does not automatically give you economic or even social stability or wealth; on the contrary, as we all know, going into composition is a risk, if not a blank and socially considered foolish investment. This fact makes people who entered the field without secure economic and social backing seem even braver (or, “crazier”).
[2] “Authorship and arthood” are the two words directly taken from Polik’s text. Some have suggested that perhaps “arthood” is better replaced by “artistry.” While the debate on this is unresolved and I have yet to ponder further the use of this word, I decide to keep the term as is for the time being.
[3] Okay, I’m talking about East Asian culture here, so no need to police my language based on the Western liberal populist’s comment on how this term is not democratic enough based on current trend of renaming.
[4] I’d agree that besides those who love certain musics for those musics’ sake, there do exist in every genre/circle of music audiences/practitioners whose love for the genre/music is tainted heavily by the unessential, extra-musical surroundings of the music. Therefore, the generalizing and blanket rhetoric applied in Polik’s text which singles out the individuals who take part in the practice or appreciation of new music (or classical music in a traditional sense – the definition is fully blurred within his text) out of not truly genuine intention is unfair.
[5] There’s a debate on Facebook between Polik and I concerning my brief mentioning of “pop music.” While Polik did not identify and specify what he meant by “pop music,” the merits and importance of which (pop music) was hugely amplified in his text, I have taken a general understanding and definition of “pop music” to refer to the (commercially) popular music disseminated, circulated, and promoted by the major corporate record companies and the mainstream infotainment media and whose commercial successes are evident on a global level as supposedly what he meant.  During the debate, it turned out that the mainstream pop music as generally understood by the public was not what he referred to.  That said, the lack of specification and explanation hence left his arguments based on such shaky and blurred logical premise unsubstantiated.