by Jack Langdon
In early 2018, bassist Eli Namay wrote a text-score and zine titled “Sound Mass & its political orientation.” In its 8-pages, Eli discusses problems with individualist notions of artistic production and valuation, conservative bootstraps narratives in music, the limitations of a radical aesthetic in absurdist and deconstructive practices, and the outlining of an improvisatory practice of the sound mass. Through its multiple performed iterations, the defining feature of the score is the challenge of beginning, sustaining, and ending a musical drone collectively for 30-45 minutes. A particular emphasis is placed on entering and exiting the texture with a gentle, indistinct, and supportive demeanor, and the difficulty of this becomes apparent in the diversity of instrumental abilities and individual practices of the musicians having to so closely relate to each other. I have seen three iterations of this project so far, and despite the considerable social and physical challenges this piece demands, a fluid and ever-shifting stream of sound always emerges from the collective efforts of the ensemble. The varying levels of distinctness and homogeneity that result provide a telling indication of social interaction in each performance.
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When people decide to organize, rehearse, and present a performance, they have the opportunity—to lesser or greater extents—of effecting a change in the time/space of the performance event. To assemble the conditions for performance, the performers must contend with the multiple strata of forces—those that are produced and those which result—that necessarily interact with the performing event. When one talks of a “practice,” this is largely what they are referring to. In musical performance, particularly with composed musics, the understanding of practice is often that the productive forces are largely subjugated towards the goal of producing aesthetic expressivity. When one evaluates a piece of music in the common sense stereotype, they are most often evaluating what it sounds like and what formal characteristics it has. Other non-aesthetic forces are necessary for the performance to emerge, but exist often in the practicalities and limitations of its context. These include the material forces/design of musical instruments, social codes and traditions, shape and function of performing spaces, limitations of economic and social interaction, the historical context and traditions of practice, and the division of labor—among others.
While it is common to note these non-aesthetic forces as being of peripheral importance, or worse as inevitable practicalities, they are the backbone of what we have come to understand musical performance as and thus have very real consequences. Anyone who has been in an uncomfortable concert environment knows that these are real forces at play—regardless of if they are composed or not.
When discussing music with a political agenda, the inefficacy of a “radical” aesthetic often becomes apparent. Whether utilized for naive aspirations of emancipation through symbolic representation, or worse for attempts at cultural relevancy and alliances with capital, the goals of such works find themselves stunted by their largely abstract status and their often uncritical relationship to processes of commodification. These two limitations are not mutually exclusive, but reinforce each other.
The issue of music’s status as—or not as—a commodity is of central importance in discussing political music. Art philosopher Stewart Martin notes in his Critique of Relational Aesthetics:
“Art’s historic relation to the struggle of subjection to commodification has revolved around the issue of whether art is a commodity, and as such enables humanity’s subjection to capital; or whether art is not a commodity, and thereby resists this subjection. This underpins the polemic between ‘pure art’ and ‘anti-art’ that has riven aesthetics on the Left: whether art should be rejected as a commodity or affirmed because it is not; whether art is critical by virtue of its autonomy or due to its heteronomous determination by the social. This polemic has proved to be so intractable because the opposition of anti-art and pure art is a contradiction internal to the commodity form, especially within an increasingly commodified culture.” (p. 372/373)
Martin pits Theodor Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory against Nicolas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics as representing two oppositional conceptions of art’s relationship to the commodity form. Hastily paraphrasing, Adorno’s position can be summarized as the affirmation of art’s status as the “absolute commodity,” yet one that despite its extreme fetishization, instrumentalizes it’s autonomy against exchange value in the form of an immanent critique. By standing exterior to heavily socially-determined objects, art thus reveals its critical position. Bourriaud, on the other hand, precisely prioritizes the determination of social relations as the means of artistic criticality—often forcing topics exterior to the artwork into its expressive apparatus. Both, Martin argues, are inadequate critical responses to commodification in contemporary capitalism. Adorno’s contention affirms the possibility that the form of the artwork can become critical through self-evident means, but does not reflect on the ways in which the institutional context of pure art itself is an agglomerated denial of sociopolitical possibility. Bourriaud’s aesthetics certainly affirm the necessary broadening of the aforementioned social context of the artwork, but lacks the reflexive awareness on how these ostensibly ‘new’ potential social relationships are often the reproduction of extant social relationships under capitalism.
A political art that aspires to true social agency must contend with this dialectic of autonomous and heteronomous determination in the production of art.
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Sound Mass is oriented within the autonomous/heteronomous conflict in the form of an immanent critique of the social through aesthetic restriction. Eli has pinpointed a formal feature, especially of improvised musics, that necessarily rely on social cohesion: the usage of the drone. The scope of the drone that is called for in the score exists beyond the individual capabilities of most instruments found in the performances of this work—notable exceptions being electronic instruments and the usage of circular breathing in certain wind instruments. To continue a ceaseless sound requires the pooling of sonic resources to form a larger assemblage, giving rise to a resulting predominance of stasis and continuity. The critique in this situation lies in the complicated relationship between top-down and bottom-up social interaction. One can think of the autonomist view of artistic production being largely a top-down procedure—best exemplified by single authored works involving individual composition and materialization—while the heteronomist view would emphasize bottom-up production—seen in certain freely improvisatory musics and performance arts in the fluxus/happenings traditions.
Sound Mass strikes me as placing both dynamics in tension with each other inside the work. Its status as an individually composed work, specifying quite specific aesthetic limitations rely on top-down means of social interaction. Yet, while often times this type of interaction is compulsory, traditional, or pragmatic, in the case of Sound Mass, they are present as the catalyst for increasing the transparency of the work’s social determination by bottom-up collective interaction—highlighting the contingencies and artifacts that arise when individual musicians strive for sonic homogeneity in an improvised setting. Without the collective project of the drone limitation, the relationships between performers would become diffuse, mystified, and contingent.
This work has a clear social aim, in particular for those who are the participating performers. Eli’s background as an activist is not insignificant in this case—building political movements requires a deft usage of top-down and bottom-up organization to ensure its success. One could perhaps read this work in terms of a mild social vanguardism, noting importantly that Eli has always performed within the ensemble despite having the status of composing and organizing the work. One can see the similarities in this work to that of Pauline Oliveros’s— both having similar pursuits of achieving particular socialities through collective music making.
Music, just as any other form of creative activity, is the product of labor. Eli’s work is unabashedly in the business of reorienting the values of artistic activity, and does so in a humble and socially accommodating way. What I appreciate most about Eli’s approach, and what makes it so effective, is a dedication to transparency and contextual awareness. Sound Mass in several ways disarms the assumed values of labor in improvised musics—virtuosity, innovation, contrast—and reorients them towards the more subtle interactions that result from aesthetic restriction. This is not to say that the work is glorifying homogeneity—certainly the resulting performances don’t seem to indicate this even as a real possibility. Yet the materials that are used to produce this work are all well and familiar to those who play an instrument—long and unobtrusive playing has a foundational, elemental feeling that perhaps comes from the memory of our first attempts at producing sound when learning our instruments. This seems to be a fruitful ground for this type of music—a place of sonic vulnerability and openness familiar to all.
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The most recent iteration of Sound Mass was held at Cafe Mustache on a Wednesday evening in January 2019. The participating musicians were Jeff Kimmel and Emily Beisel on clarinet, Zach Good on basset horn, Keefe Jackson on contrabass clarinet, Garrit Hatcher and Wills McKenna on tenor sax, David Fletcher on trombone, Chris Kimmons on banjo, Billie Howard on violin, Kim Sutton and Ishmael Ali on cello, and Eli Namay, Anton Hatwich, and Jakob Heinemann on double bass. There was a warm audience of friends and family, a few strangers and interested onlookers; people at the bar, people on the floor, people along the wall. The sound mass began with a warm ensemble tone that, with the broad timbral resources of the ensemble, held a striking resemblance to the orchestral sound masses of the mid-20th century—a pleasant sonic experience to have in a bar, I thought. The gradual need for change and development lead the texture into something increasingly layered and nuanced, with tendrils of sul ponticello coming from Kim Sutton’s cello, slow and resonant pulses from Keefe Jackson’s contrabass clarinet, and metallic tones from Chris Kimmons’s bowed banjo. While these sounds all held in my memory as distinct and individual, the remainder of the ensemble was quick—most of the time—to accommodate and support these sounds—altering their texture to suit the continuity of the drone.
The space of the performance influences to a large extent the transport of each iteration. Each environment, I believe, imparts a sense of reciprocity between audience and performer—certain locations emphasize certain productive responsibilities more than others. In April 2018, Eli and I were asked to present for Katherine Young’s improvisation class at SAIC where we staged a workshop of our pieces with her students. In this setting there was no audience—only participants. It is remarkable how this altered the work—in particular how the obligation to mostly make sound suddenly disappeared. Performers could engage or disengage in a manner that suited the needs of the texture, keeping aware of the physical and sonic limitations of each instrument. I remember Katherine particularly remarking about how physically demanding playing a bassoon for 30-45 minutes would be, and how this could be a limitation to the success of the piece without the allowance of breaks. Something I paid attention to in the recent Cafe Mustache performance was the balance between sounding and not-sounding. Across each performance I have witnessed a different balance: SAIC with the most inactivity, Cafe Mustache with the most sounding, and the percussion-only performance at Comfort Station somewhere in the middle. While I am hesitant to say a correlation between spatial/economic factors and the performance are determined, I believe the relationship between the division of labor and contextual economic activity of the performance space does play a part in this.
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What does Sound Mass do? For me, it is a reminder that beneath the surface aesthetic of any artwork or performance are strata of social and material forces—these forces can be organized towards goals other than satisfying prevailing historical-material narratives, and that they can become the main focus of performance valuation itself. A music for social use—as a means of dialogue, play, and struggle—is what is arises from Eli’s score in its performance.
Sound Mass is a part of a tradition of works that seek to use performance towards social and political goals through community, openness, and solidarity. It does not seek to represent or aestheticize a politics external to its situation; it is a political intervention in the productive means of improvised musics. The scope the work does not strive to romantic ideals of transcendent truth, but nonetheless reminds us that the nature of our interaction in the music world—between musicians, audiences, and institutions—can and should be organized for the benefit of broader creative possibility for all people.
Jack Langdon (b. 1994, Madison, WI) is a Chicago-based composer/performer, media artist, and writer. His work utilizes instrumental performance, theater, new media, and installation in concert, site-specific, and digital contexts. His work is conceptually concerned with reflecting on and reorganizing musical production and creating environments for deeper social engagement in performance. As a performer, Langdon has premiered works for organ, piano, and guitar. His areas of focus include pieces involving long durations, sonic fragility, improvisation, and theater. As a writer, his work focuses on the political economy of music, social interaction in performance, institutional politics, aesthetics beyond capital, and expanded notions of musical practice. Langdon will be earning his Master of Arts in Digital Musics from Dartmouth College in Fall 2019 and has received his Bachelor of Music from St. Olaf College in Spring 2017.