by Owen Davis
For the last four summers I have had the opportunity to stand in front of young musicians and talk about performing and composing music. These teachings have taken place in music camps or festivals usually in the form of a short class or workshop lasting between three and five days. As a composer and improvisor who painstakingly tries to learn as many sounds and thoughts on modernity as possible, it has always been important for me that any class of mine will feature experimental or New Music.
When given the task of teaching composition, history, and performance practices, I try to impart MANY styles and approaches to New Music. I refuse to teach a single approach as, in my experience, this can quickly devolve into an aesthetic and technical dogma. Now, admittedly there is an emphasis, and even privileging, of what I call “alternative” modes of music making or thought. This “alternative”, or “other”, is what we can describe as music making in some opposition or reaction to predominant, normative, and traditional practices. There is a tendency to present this as a potential “new normal” with the intention to, at the very least, provoke students to consider the work of Pauline Oliveros to be on the same level of importance as Johannes Brahms.
A subplot often emerges in these classes where I am not just a teacher disseminating information or techniques, but also an antagonist to these students’ quite new, yet somehow unshakable notions of what music is or should be. One strategy I use for communicating that these new (albeit quite old), sometimes radical, forms of music making are important and legitimate, is saturation. I present these forms with an immense amount of data and sounds from 1890 to 2017 in such a way that they can’t stop to say, “where is the music?” We do stop to discuss how and why all of these people were so inspired and worked over lifetimes to pursue these seemingly strange, oftentimes marginalized, practices.
It is from these experiences as an educator that I have been forced, or have forced myself, to create and piece together potential narratives around the development of this history that I am teaching. In the summer of 2016, I found myself drawing prototypes of timelines in dry erase markers for these students, plugging in major developments. Artistic movements began to make more sense as ideas flowed conveniently through time and bounced off one another. Earlier this summer, I randomly ran into a lovely art diagram in this article which inspired me to take the plunge into this seemingly impossible and futile endeavor of plotting out the development of this wild world of New Music.
With this diagram as a model, three weeks before classes began, I started deciding where these boxes would connect. In my workspace at home I felt happily lost for hours connecting Cage to Noise and Free Jazz to the AACM and then to a reified practice of Free Improvisation. Things were coming together and making sense for the most part. I still felt like I was nowhere near the end, as there were always additional ways to clarify my intended narratives. When I reached the point of all that I could put down from memory, I turned to a number of texts as reference points:
As I pondered for days how to begin tackling the past few decades, I pulled up articles, interviews, videos, and pieces. I knew that whichever box I constructed, in the living and breathing world of music-makers, would be problematic. These problems, however, did not stop me from posting a draft of it on Facebook with four major disclaimers to my intended readers and community. Those were:
1. It is by no means finished. Lots to do, but I feel it’s at a point where I can source feedback
2. I understand that I am stepping on some toes of historians and theorists. I am just trying to fill a gap in resources out there and provide a jumping off point in understanding all this. Please enlighten me!
3. Women and POC have historically been whitewashed out of music narratives and I have done my best to represent as much as I can, but it’s still hard using normal channels of research. Please provide me with more artists/movements to put in.
4. Especially for developments in the last 20 years – I know some of you personally. Please don’t take anything on here personally. There is only so much room and maybe that is an issue as well. I know that I have forgotten or have not yet been able to put everything/one in this strange narrative that I am weaving. I have had to clump things into categories that I have sometimes created – that’s always messy and problematic. Please take it easy on me in that regard.
In my mind I was really looking for general feedback on things that I had undoubtedly missed and especially thoughts on the last couple of decades. I knew that I was missing many arrows and points of connection. I knew that it was, on the whole, anglo-centric. After weeks of working alone, I was itching to get feedback and wanted to expedite the process instead of slowly taking the time to consult the musicologists, theorists, and historians I knew. In fact, hours before posting it, I did take the time to reach out (via Facebook chat) to a professional in the field of drawing connections in modern music history. I was both grateful and humbled by the amount of feedback and resources they quickly gave to me. If I could receive this type of insight in such an instantaneous manner, I thought, what would be the harm in sharing it in the instant realm of Facebook? In hindsight, I wouldn’t change my decision to post it, but would have posted a smaller portion with the aim of receiving more specific feedback from the New Music hive mind.
I posted a photo of the diagram with my disclaimers around midnight. When I arrived at work in the morning, a few comments were trickling in. By the time I got off in the late morning, the commenters had begun to critique not only the diagram itself, but why I had even attempted to create it. Soon the critiques were building and people were referencing each other in the process. At this exact moment I was entering a classroom with a handful of copies of this very diagram to pass out to the first (of three sections) of my 20th century music course. I made sure to preface the course with a caveat that these events and artists did, in fact, happen and exist, but the connections and narratives are my own and that, especially in the realm of art-making ideas, truth becomes hazy.
The original post was on June 26th and as recently as July 6th comments were still trickling in. In the heat of it, when comments and commenters seemed to be snowballing in, I felt both overwhelmed and gracious. It felt like masterclass day in grad school when we shared work and it was proverbially torn apart by peers and teachers alike. It almost felt like Grad School 2.0. People who I did and didn’t expect to hear from commented; people begged me to read more and even shared books and articles; others were messaging me in private with critique or even thanks for merely putting it out there. The comment section morphed throughout the days with traceable “shifts” from curious inquiry to serious criticism. All the while I felt like I was along for the ride, though sometimes too unstable to properly respond.
Despite the fact that I consider myself to be an active composer, performer, and improviser in this messy world of New Music that had just shared this very “insider” document, I felt for these few days like an outsider. I felt like the history that I had come to know (which is not at all entirely represented on this diagram) was somehow invalid or, at the very least, was being brought into question. Regardless of who you are, that in itself is a profoundly existentially shaking thing.
Early on, my good friend Shawn Lucas and I had this exchange in the thread:
Shawn: I appreciate your quest for knowledge. But reading this I wonder if Facebook is at all useful to develop a comprehensive critique for something like this… Seems like it would be a better solution to individually touch base with people and ask for opinions […]
Owen: Yeah, man. I like to jump right in. #yolo #cf […]
This felt like a short respite from everything happening where a friend to a friend could say, “Hey, why are you doing this to yourself”? I share this article here on Cacophony because I think it expresses everything—why I created it, why I shared it, and why I took all critique in stride. One of my most memorable grade school teachers taught me to learn from making mistakes and that resonated with me. It is the most painful and slowest way to learn, sure, but the results stick, like scars, and I love that. It’s an expression of not wanting to stop learning by taking out my insides and showing it to others. There is this quote that I found recently, I tweeted it, but I do not know the author, “…finding ways to find out things that I didn’t know.”
Now I am faced with the very overwhelming task of editing this diagram both in response to the insightful comments found in the thread and to represent my intention for it as a teaching tool and expression of a perceived history. I feel simultaneously doomed and inspired by this social media happening. Particularly halting and paradoxically motivating are the comments that express that this whole project is doomed to fail, a futile act that will only end up as a representation of a fallible, incomplete, and subjective pseudo-history. How will the next iteration of this diagram change? Do I scrape the 2D model and try to collaborate with a programmer to build a website? Will it be open source or a version of that? Do I add more details or focus my narratives and trim down the scope? In order to not privilege some in a narrative containing many, do I take away artist names all together? Should I give up on this idea and just make music? I am left with these important questions.
I’m an artist at the end of the day and I feel as though this whole experience is some deep metaphor about the negotiation between public and private work and how we have opportunities to grow and transform in the potential vacuums of both of these arenas. There are also questions for me about the communities that I have self-curated on social media and how to go about sharing work and, in this case in particular, work in progress. My main hope is that all of us in this vast, yet somehow small, community of experimental music makers (or however you identify) can keep learning and growing through constant work and sharing of it in all of the streams that we have available to us.
The Original Chart
This is the original diagram and there are many plans to revise.