“A lot of what we call programme music is such because of its title alone,” composer, writer and film sound theorist Michel Chion tells Dan Warburton (Invisible Jukebox, page 22). “There’s that story of Penderecki’s piece for strings, which he originally called 8’36” or something until someone suggested he dedicate it to the victims of Hiroshima, which was much more catchy, with its associations of children and animals burnt and suffering… [On the other hand] a badly chosen title can harm the work.” The more fundamentalist fringe of the wind-scattered sonic cultures mapped by The Wire might beg to differ. The act of naming distances you from the essence of the thing named. Words lock down meaning, overdetermining perception/reception of the thing at hand.
Not that long ago, even talking about ‘music’ would have been far too proscriptive for the way it excluded natural, non-musical sound and noise. I’d say that the urges towards extremes of noise and silence that have recurred periodically in the post-war, post-Cage, post-Darmstadt, post-everything cultures of the last 60 years can be usefully read as the purges necessary to music’s renewal. But that would be to retroactively construct a reductive narrative arc through history at the expense of the infinitely messier and more complex lives it bulldozes to make way for a one-stop, air-conditioned shopping mall-cum-museum take on a living, breathing culture.
In his review of Franya J Berkman’s Alice Coltrane biography, Monument Eternal (Print Run, page 66), Tony Herrington questions whether reading the story of a life, no matter how well or fully told, really gets you any closer to the music. Alice’s case is especially problematic for jazz academics, he argues, because they’re uncomfortable with the way her music is inextricably bound up with her spiritual beliefs and her dedication to continuing the work of husband John. First encountering Alice through a devotional cassette during a yoga session, rather than through the part she played in John’s music,
Berkman “approaches Alice’s music unencumbered by the cliches of the kind of jazz ‘scholarship’ which imposes hierarchical Western fantasies of the individual male genius on a music that emerges as a consequence of normal social and human relations”. So far, so good. From there, however, she stops short of the imaginative leap into the void, unwilling to risk all in a freefall through the music in order to experience it unencumbered by ‘interdisciplinary ethnomusicologist’ training, which might be fine for labelling a thing but adds little to a universal understanding of it.
Returning to Chion’s declaration that a badly chosen title can harm a work, the minimalist/ reductionalist/functionalist artists for whom numbering or datestamping tracks is as far as they want to go in identifying them without overdetermining the way they should be heard extends to the practices of some field recordists, who have come to believe that the very act of recording distorts the true sound picture. Well, OK, but unless it is religious ritual, art is always already one stop away from artifice, no matter how realist it purports to be, and observing a human agent actively making artistic choices and decisions is far more engaging to these ears than sound windows simply opened onto the world by recordists as documentarists. On first hearing, Robot Records’ vinyl reissue of Christoph Heemann’s self-released The Rings Of Saturn sounds like a set of raw recordings barely touched by human hands. And you could argue that naming it after a WG Sebald novel immediately limits the listener to a narrow footpath through it. Yet Heemann’s artful editing and tweaking of his own field recordings from 1997–2008 is utterly in tune to the musicality of the novel’s layering and interweaving of narrative threads, melancholy digressions and historical meditations raised during a walk across a landscape scarred but now emptied of people. The record is enriched more than it is inhibited by its titular act of homage to the book. Chris Bohn
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