14 November, 2011Issue 17.3Music

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Tom Astley

Infinite MusicAdam Harper
Infinite Music: Imagining the Next Millennium of Human Music-Making
Zero Books, 2011
234 Pages
ISBN 978-1846949241


The title of Adam Harper’s Infinite Music: Imagining the Next Millennium of Human Music-Making appears to promise a broadly positive work about the continuing relevance of modern music, so to be met on the first page by the dour assessment that “serialism has all but died out [and] faith in musical modernism has subsided” is somewhat disconcerting. However, it quickly becomes apparent that Harper does not wish to sound the death knell for serialism but to recontextualise it, to rescue it from obsolescence. The trap that many modernist “composers” (and the definition of the term is contested herein) fall into, Harper suggests, is one of treating modernism as a series of conventions and techniques. What they should really be doing, he argues, is using the spirit of such devices as a means of reinventing every aspect of music-making.

Harper writes of an “old modernism” for which the groundbreaking innovations that once made it so radical—such as the 12-tone technique—have now become like the conventions they sought to undermine. Modernism has become trapped, subjected to the preservationism—the insistence on performing and composing in the “correct” manner—that afflicts many musical styles, from popular to folk to classical. What is more, the conventionalisation of the erstwhile radical facets of this “old modernism” further serves to highlight the aspects of musical performance that have been left uncontested. This has resulted in many so-called modernist performances that claim to be “explorational” whilst often tacitly preserving many of the trappings of the traditional classical musical world. Most in need of radical overhaul, the main body of Infinite Music suggests, is the conservatism surrounding performance and composition. For the former is often presented in the recognisable manner of a classical concert in which the audience sits in silent reverence as the artists “explore”, while the latter still maintains its air of prestige and exclusivity. It is these two facets of music-making that Harper aims to revolutionise.

“Where do we draw a line around what musical variables composers observe and potentially serialise?” asks Harper. “We don’t. That was the old serialism, the old modernism”. Harper is searching for a more holistic musical egalitarianism, one that treats timbre, instrumentation, and performance conventions with the same levelling hand as serialism did pitch. “No restrictions whatsoever” is what Harper demands of this new modernism, and it is a cri de coeur that is as meticulously and thoroughly explained as it is inspiringly progressive.

But in this utopian desire to rid the modernist musical landscape of all restrictions, Harper hints at two caveats that need adding. The first is that the abnegation of restrictions must allow for aspects of conventional musical language to be incorporated into the resultant sound world. Melody, harmony, and most importantly, repetition and recapitulation of ideas must be included in this new modernism, for it is these devices that facilitate a sort of real-time dialogue between composer (or musician) and audience. The opportunity to second-guess the flow of the musical narrative, and to have those guesses either confirmed or contradicted, is where one finds delight in musical performance. Harper suggests as much in positioning the music created by modernism “somewhere between the old and familiar…it’s a relation between old and new”. This liminality affords the music a chance to comment upon all conventions of music making, whilst seeking avenues literally to modernise their usage. Truly modernist music “must also situate itself with respect to the familiar in some way, however small, and this link with or establishment of the familiar is what can facilitate appreciation”.

But this facilitation of appreciation is not simply a means of forcing modernist music out of the cloistered, elitist world Harper suggests it now inhabits. Nor is it to popularise and heighten the influence of the music in a manner that modernism in its old guise, Harper claims, singularly failed to do. What this endeavour attempts is to rupture perhaps the most pervasive convention of music-making: the idea that the audience is a passive receptor of the musical meanings of the composer/musician.

This leads to the second caveat, one that Harper touches upon in his egalitarian approach to the definition of the composer. In broadening the definition of this otherwise exclusive concept to include all those engaged in music making, proclaiming “we can all be composers, and we are all composers”, Harper alludes to Christopher Small’s concept of “musicking” (addressed in greater detail later in the book). Harper explores Small’s notion that everyone engaged in the process of music-making—even (or perhaps especially) the audience—is engaged in a process of “musicking” that makes them integral to the creation of meaning.

The necessity to include the audience in modernist music is evident from the above example. A dialogue that includes the old but challenges the new must be established, and the role of the audience in not only interpreting but creating the music must be recognised and celebrated by modernism, breaking once and for all that most recalcitrant of conventions: the schism between performer and audience.

If there is a danger that a manifesto such as Harper’s—one that propounds a more egalitarian musical world and seeks to imagine the future—should drift into idealism and daydream, or worse, into the very type of proscriptive demagoguery that it seeks to dispel, then Harper counteracts it by providing a framework for reassessing music-making that is practical and thorough, wide-ranging and speculative, yet honest and humble in its intentions. In seeking new definitions of what constitutes the “space” of the musical soundscape, and by suggesting potential extensions of this space, Harper does not purport to have “solved the problem” of old modernism by defining precisely and entirely the space of new modernism. Rather, Harper espouses a view of modernist music as infinite. He provides the reader with:

not just a single system [for the imagining of music] as was offered by serialism, but a system of systems, an infinite system allowing for the creation of subordinate musical systems or what will be called ‘musical objects’, describing how they interrelate and how they’re perceived (or not). It sees music as a complex system of variables relating primarily to the production of sound, and takes this idea to its infinitely variable conclusions.

It is from this honesty—from not professing to have the entire template (and at not being able to even comprehend or imagine the entire template)—that Harper’s ambition of imagining the future of music-making derives its power. This is a manifesto of possibility, of potential and of limitless imagination. “Why shouldn’t we try to imagine another thousand years of musical history?” asks Harper, defiantly. And in imagining a music with infinite possibility, Harper sees an inspiring, albeit tentative, precursor of this future.

Tom Astley is reading for a PhD in Ethnomusicology at Newcastle University.

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