wait a moment

Ensemble Dal Niente Season Opener 9.18

by Tamas Vilaghy
photos by Jeff Kimmel

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The problem of curation has surfaced in new music circles over the past few years as a distinct phenomenon. The act of programming has of course entailed practical and aesthetic challenges for centuries, but it is only the institutional critique of 60s abstract art which problematized the presentation of art as integral to artistic practice. True to the era which birthed it, the radical decade of the New Left, a critical curatorial practice seeks to link a given work of art with the social conditions around it, in hopes of thereby critiquing both. In this sense, curation as meant today implies both aesthetic and political considerations, and this is how Chicago new music practitioners direct their curatorial efforts: as a way to push back against perceived sexism and racism in new music specifically, and society at large.

Michael Lewanski’s endearingly rambling speech on Sunday, which served as an introduction to Dal Niente’s ’16-’17 season, highlighted both aesthetic and political curation in a negative way. First, he mentioned that the evening’s program was “not carefully curated,” in the sense that the only conceptual framework tying the program together was the featured composers’ recent move to Chicago, and second, attempting to preempt criticism, he admitted that the composers are all men, and three of them white (and we should definitely talk about it later). An instability is readily perceived in Lewanski’s verbal somersaults: if we take aesthetics seriously –these four men are accomplished composers–, we do a disservice to our political ideals, but if we take politics seriously –these men implicitly reinforce existing exploitation–, we must discount their artistic worth. No wonder Lewanski denies both aesthetics and politics, then: there was no curation, and it wasn’t political anyway. This is an untenable position. What I will argue here is that there wasn’t a curatorial failure on the part of Dal Niente, but rather that curation as we understand it is an insufficient concept for dealing with the political concerns of our artistic community.

Lionel Shriver recently gave a controversial speech on “Fiction and Identity Politics,” in which she argued against accusations of cultural appropriation on the grounds that novelists can only inhabit other people, can only appropriate, lest they lose their position as novelists. At best, these writers become memoirists; at worst, mere navel-gazers. Her statements around this central point have been misconstrued and misquoted to horrifying lengths, but the core of her argument is the artist’s unique capacity (and responsibility!) to represent not only herself, but the world around her. Incidentally, even memoirists must understand their milieu, as artistic creation necessarily involves others: the personal idiom is what distinguishes the great artist, but the content of her work is social. For Shriver, the logical endpoint of anti-appropriation means she can only write about straight white women from North Carolina, a prospect she finds repulsive. Shriver would prefer difficult integration to impossible separatism, and believes in the capacity of novelists to create multi-faceted characters to represent a multi-faceted society.

I would argue that composers likewise do not gain artistic legitimacy by presenting only themselves in their work, but lose it. To put it another way, composition-as-memoir essentializes the categories it seeks to dismantle, and a curatorial approach focused on the representation of minorities reinforces this process, unconsciously or not.

Let’s set aside the logistical difficulties of finding a varied pool of composers to commission for each concert (despite an ensemble with Dal Niente’s stature finding it difficult), and imagine it were four women composers who kicked off the season: would their status as women foster greater aesthetic quality, intellectual critique, or political awareness? The answer ultimately depends on the women *as individuals* grappling with the complexities of their environment, not their gender. If, however, the mere fact of quota-like representation is *not* the issue, and we assume that artistic production by minorities is essentially different in terms of content, then we have pigeonholed them as representatives of their identity, and reinforced a sort of aesthetic segregation. I fear that curation-as-identity politics reduces individuals to a matter of branding (Latina/Black Women’s Night with Dal Niente, and so on), and stunts our understanding of artistic works.

Nor is the political dimension of curatorial practice quite so straightforward. Ensembles ostensibly hire a composer when they commission a work, though this connection is rarely thought of in these terms. Indeed, the current parlance of “working with” a composer or “collaborating with” an ensemble hides a certain employer/employee relationship lurking underneath it. To be sure, more women composers getting paid for their work is inherently a good thing, but this is akin to corporations hiring more minorities: it is a contradictory development, to say the least. What’s barely discussed is when ensembles aren’t the ones commissioning works; when both composer and performers receive institutional funding. All parties are happy to play the identity card in this case, being presented in a good light, but the underlying structure, the “umbilical cord of gold,” is left intact. New music is still woefully underfunded, and women and minorities suffer all the more for it.

I have highlighted a contradiction in the aesthetic and political goals of identity-based curation. This is not to say, however, that aesthetic and political curation is not worth pursuing, only that identity is not the lens through which to pursue aesthetic or political goals. Walter Benjamin wrote that “there has never been a document of culture which is not simultaneously one of barbarism,” meaning that we must think of art in dialectical terms, as recreating the barbarism of present conditions while pointing towards their overcoming. He continues: “And just as [the cultural object] is not free from barbarism, neither is it free from the process of transmission, in which it falls from one set of hands into another.” This process of transmission constitutes history, and all works of art encapsulate the historical forms preceding it.

Artists, therefore, cannot recede into the isolationist tendencies of identity politics. There is a dangerous tendency to discount the previous three centuries of composed music on the basis of the majority of that music being written by white men. The political counterpart to this notion is the observation that the Founding Fathers owned slaves, and so were not truly revolutionary. Yet this belies an ahistorical viewpoint: the deeper truth is that the revolution remains unfulfilled, just as free artistic production remains a dream. The entire history of composed music must be defended from revisionism, and affirmed as laying the groundwork for our current moment, in which women and minorities do participate. And above all, the participation of individuals from these groups must be interpreted not on the basis of token representation, but as persons with meaningful social contributions.

The first piece, a crowd of twisted things by Christopher Wendell Jones, is described as “a compact rumination on the slippery nature of memory.” The work can be interpreted on two levels: that of personal memory and that of collective memory, and its notion of ‘slippery’ history is not so much critical as symptomatic of our current moment.

The piece begins with staccato stutters held together in a shambling rhythm. Occasional loud bursts disrupt this static texture, the interruptions little snippets of mangled violin melodies which hint at “classical” classical music. Textural elements are added gradually, like continuous trills in the extreme treble of the piano, and the disruptions grow more and more obtrusive. The middle section peaks with tremendous bass stabs overpowering a wailing, distant melody, until the cluster chords relocate to the mid-range and the piece fades on a contemplative line from the violin. Though the work’s arch form of dynamics undermines the notion of a “disjointed, non-linear musical narrative,” it is true that the musical content of the piece repeats, reappears, and recedes in an unconscious fashion. This is to say that the work is self-contained, but it is also to say that the piece misrepresents memory.

More accurately, it only presents individual memory; the swirl of details inside a person’s head. These indeed appear to us as random yet recurring, but only when divorced from social memory: historical awareness. Wendell Jones takes his title from a poem by Eliot, whose understanding of history as an American royalist was indeed a crowd of twisted things, so this ahistorical outlook fits the piece. Eliot’s uneasy tension with both modernity and classical forms comes through in the melodic disruptions: in breaking up the background texture, the “classical” outbursts compartmentalize the noise and render it sensible. This is entirely different from how melody functions in classical music proper, where it is assumed to be in synthesis with the harmonic development. The fragmentary, non-linear nature of the work explicitly undermines this synthesis, presenting an irreconcilable distance between the melodic content and the structural framework. We have forgotten what was radical in Beethoven, and a crowd of twisted thing‘s artistic contribution is identifying the unavailability of social memory: the loss of historical consciousness.

Alex Mincek’s Flutter for solo cello does not conceptualize memory or history. The program notes give only some definitions of the title word. This locates the piece within the linguistic preoccupations of 20th century philosophy, but also earlier, within the realm of program music. Mincek does not depict a story, as Strauss does with Don Quixote, but depicts acts of fluttering, and it is an absence of narrative which gives Mincek’s piece a similarity to the preceding one. Wispy timbres reminiscent of butterflies and bats, as well as dissonant tone vibrations, are just some of the flutters the piece performs, but it does so without giving context. The adrenaline-inducing weightlessness of the performer’s hectic movements does not rise to the level of metaphor, but remains purely symbolic, in vacuo.

This form of symbolism has been conceptualized historically as feminine. I do not mean the symbolic content at play here (flight, butterflies, birds, etc.), but the act of representation itself; it would not be controversial to note the traditionally feminine (or “gentle,” to use older terminology) characterization of artistic production, and aesthetics in general. That artists have nevertheless traditionally been men is due to social conditions, and not this framework per se: the first modern novel was written by Madame de la Fayette in her château, just as Proust penned his opus while living off his mother. The framework is not entirely disingenuous either, in that the feminine aspect is recognized to exist in both men and women, and valorized as such.

What’s important here is that social conditions disadvantage women to the detriment of not just themselves, but the whole of society. The problem of inequality is better thought of as a challenge to the social whole. If Mincek’s piece is feminine in this Western art history sense, it is also a bourgeois “white male” piece attempting to understand society; yet if we deny the possibility that Mincek as a white male can inhabit others, the feminine quality of the piece is lost. What’s at stake is the freedom of the artist to represent society: even without the gendered ideology of “feminine” aesthetics vs. “masculine” science, the loss of our cultural faculties would surely hurt society at large. The answer seems to lie not in rejecting the white male, but in rejecting the concept as such, the “white male” as an embodiment of masculine capitalism. In 2016, as we know, there are black and female capitalists. Focusing on the male makeup of the composers (identity, in short) denies us the possibility of understanding our own culture.

Nor is the minority perspective any less opaque: identity politics would have my analysis of Zúñiga’s Vacas de Medio Luto center around the composer’s Costa Rican background, but there was virtually no content to the piece that suggested his specific heritage. The first section, mostly silence punctuated by short field recordings of airports and bustling streets –more harsh noise than atmosphere–, brought to mind both the banal and the sinister sides of international travel: tourism, refugees, business trips. Costa Ricans are surely involved in this constellation, but to posit this experience as unique to one heritage is precisely to deny its international character. Zúñiga’s unflinching portrayal of the contradictions of cosmopolitan life far surpasses a provincial perspective, and I applaud him for it: surely any facile cultural symbolism (European or not) must be rejected as failing to account for these complexities.

The second half of the piece basically turns the first half’s aggressive elements inside out: the slow, inhuman alternation of harsh noise and silence becomes the slow, measured space between a chord cycle spread among the instruments. Zúñiga explains that the work deals with “the opposition (or coexistence) of extremely contrasting sections put together, and with how these sections might be perceived as parts of one whole once they are joined together in time,” much like the feminine/masculine duality perceived in Mincek’s Flutter. The irony is that the “feminine” quiet section resembles none other than Feldman, while the “masculine” section thunders like Ustvolskaya! The gendered conception of aesthetics is indeed a rotting corpse, but it has become reified in the identity of the artists themselves as we struggle to understand our social conditions. Whereas before, both men and women had legitimacy to speak of a “human” experience, the prospect of social isolation has acquired a progressive character. It is only through identitarian separatism that we can manage the chaos the world has become.

And yet we applaud that chaos: Sam Pluta’s Hydra for violin, piano, and electronics, an unending stream of synthetic aggression, was easily the best-received piece of the night. I’d like to think it was because the intermission before the piece gave the crowd a final chance to intoxicate themselves, but I suspect the quasi-virtuosic antics of the instrumentalists mesmerized them. A shame, really: any acoustic sound in the space was overpowered by Pluta’s software manipulation, abrasive without direction, and ultimately rendered the human players into MIDI equivalents. Around the third time the poor pianist had to run down the keyboard with both palms, I had a masculine mental image indeed: a composer in front of a computer screen, joystick in hand. Taken as a solo performance by Pluta, the piece lacked the visceral energy of Masonna or the intelligence of Mark Fell; taken as a group performance, it lacked the subtlety of Helge Sten working with Supersilent. In short, the piece was little more than a solipsistic exercise, yet highly symptomatic; perhaps the perfect encapsulation of the pessimism which the analytic framework of this article was meant to highlight.

I could not help but laugh (so as to keep from crying) as I clapped along with the rest of the audience at the unbridled celebration of sonic violence. I remembered one of the two quiet moments in the piece, when the pianist reached to pluck a string inside the piano, as if picking a flower in the eye of a hurricane. It was an absurd gesture, and quickly engulfed by the digital storm, and I almost laughed then too, but I held my breath, waiting for a child to point out the emperor’s nudity. It never came. Perhaps this is the most politically significant occurrence in Dal Niente’s season opener.

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