Unit 7: New Conceptualism
Concept-art was established in the 1960s as a practice and label. It is ‘idea art’ - central to it are mental concepts, framings, which can be realised in various ways. (And thus the essence of framing itself always becomes a topic.) Think of the open form of Marcel Duchamp’s readymade, the infinite possibilities of performing John Cage’s silent piece 4:33, etc., all the way to today’s meme culture on the internet. Despite the media-nonspecificity that mental concepts first have, and the multi-mediality in which they are then implemented, conceptual art first became paradigmatic in the visual arts, while in music (as well as in theater and literature) only found its way extensively in the new millennium – the ‘new conceptualism’. The latter is due to the added possibilities of the digital. But if the conceptual now encompasses all the arts, everything actually becomes multimedia art. The question then arises as to what specifically still constitutes >music< or what can constitute it in the future. Conceptual thinking in the arts has posed and continues to pose exciting challenges.
With modernity came not only the (by now) classical modernisms such as abstraction in painting, atonality in music or poems without semantics, not only metreless dance, collages and new artistic media such as photography, cinema and electronic music (and many more) - conceptual art also arrived: idea art.
It started with Marcel Duchamp, who invented the “readymade” in 1913: any object can be placed on the pedestal, et voilà, it is a work of art. It is no longer the sensual effect that is in the foreground, but the aesthetics of the idea, the thought behind it. He called it “non-retinal art”. That was revolutionary, and Duchamp, having achieved that, basically stopped creating any more works of art. With the readymade, he must have realised, he had created something that generations to come would work on and continue to work with. Duchamp really did everything right, although his early paintings were also excellent and it’s almost a pity about that.
But it took several decades, however, for the greatness, scope and connectivity of the readymade to be recognised at all. It was not until the 1960s (but at least Duchamp was able to experience it) that this practice was suddenly taken up by many artists in the visual arts: Andy Warhol’s Pop Art, who transformed objects of mass culture into museum objects, the Fluxus generation, who, for example, staged little mind plays with the text scores, the Performance Art, which focused on a single idea in each work, and finally a label was also found for it: “conceptual art”, or “concept-art”, which anchored and established such. Artists like Sol LeWitt, Joseph Kossuth and John Baldessari created works that primarily consisted of the formulation of an idea, which was then physically realised in various ways. For example, instead of painting, LeWitt wrote ›scores‹, so to speak, instructions on how to execute a painting (we know this in music, of course), and assistants of the gallery or the museum then put it into practice, always directly on the wall – that is, after the end of the exhibition it is covered up again. Because what is at stake here is not the unique piece that the painter produces, but examples of the work of art, which can potentially have an infinite number of manifestations. “Manifestations” – here we are also at the title of this lecture and this series.
Likewise Joseph Kossuth, whose One and Three Chairs consists of the concept of putting together a physical object, a photograph of it and its verbal description. For example, a chair, so one (as a concept) and three variants then as an exhibit – but this is a different chair each time, there is no “original” here, and then any other object of appropriate texture and size goes too. All these different variants point to the ideational concept behind it.
This practice was established in the visual arts in the 1960s and has been an integral part and highly popular ever since. Stars of contemporary art, such as Ai Weiwei, Santiago Sierra or Damian Hirst, are clearly counted as conceptual artists; if you go to Documenta, you see heaps of conceptual art. And in pop culture, concepts that can be implemented in infinite variations are now also established – the so-called Memes, a funny idea that then appears in all possible variations, or people perform it: for example, the Harlem Shake, a bizarre surprising dance number, or false subtitles under a scene from the film The Downfall – a concept with potentially infinite variations that can be implemented relatively easily by people all over the world, and which is eagerly done.
Early conceptual music
But what about music here? There too, there were some conceptualist works early on – even Duchamp had already devised a ›piece of music‹ whose components were simply put together by pulling them loose from a hat.
John Cage then famously elevated the chance operation principle to his preferred method and mindset. Since the random throw of the dice is something completely different from Beethoven inventing a melody, we also have here a non-sensual part of the work, which is part of Cage’s philosophy and which must also be known in order to understand why there are, so to speak, nonsensical collections of notes here, which are only meant to be themselves without any further intention. It is not without reason that Cage himself was so immensely active as a performer and lecturer throughout his life, and exhibited scores. After all, all this was not at all self-evident.
And then there is this most famous of all pieces of modern music, 4:33, a piece that consists only of 4 minutes and 33 seconds silence. The piece was published in 1952, at a time when conceptualism was not yet in vogue, and one has to put it into perspective: a conceptual reading of the piece only developed over time and then finally became common with the internet. From Cage’s point of view, the idea of absence, silence and non-performance was not the decisive factor in the composition in the first place, but the intention to shift all the other noises of the concert hall, the ventilation system, the rustling of the audience etc. to musical events. So to show: There is no such thing as absolute silence, we always hear something, even if it is our own blood and nerves. And that is what he declared 4:33 to be an auditory experience, a piece of music.
Cage himself originally wrote the piece as a piano piece, which is of course almost absurd, because what is the point of an instrumental specification if no sound is to be played at all. In fact, Cage left it free to play the “piano piece” with any instrument, and so there are also orchestral realizations, for example. But it was only with the Internet that the piece became a meme, a piece of pop culture, where it was now interpreted in every conceivable way. And now here it becomes yet another aesthetic experience: you can’t listen to all that any more, nor should you, they are now all copies of the idea and as such they have an effect. The fact that the Internet strongly promotes the conceptualist reading is a thesis I will put forward more often in this lecture.
And from the free instrumentation of the piece to its existence as thousands and thousands of videos on YouTube, we see that the piece has become a piece of multimedia art.
Other examples from the history of music: since the 1960s, there have been isolated pieces that at least came into the world from a central idea, albeit with a more sensual intention than the radical conceptual works of visual art. One could mention Steve Reich’s Pendulum Music, which consists of the instruction to let several microphones swing over loudspeakers, always producing a feedback sound in the vicinity of the speakers. The composer has given almost all the details out of hand here: there is no score, the pitches are always different depending on the set-up; after the initial deflection, gravity alone does its job. Musically interesting are the patterns that result from the superimposition of periodic processes plus a constant decrease of energy. The principle is then feasible in many variations (in the meantime there is also the version by Aphex Twin with disco balls and lasers!).
Or the Poème symphonique for 100 metronomes by Ligeti, in which similarly the superimposition of many different tempos with a gradual slackening of the spring of each metronome produces manifold degrees of density and complex patterns.
Incidentally, there is now also a conceptualist take-up of this principle: Niklas Seidl and Paul Hübner have created a digital version of it, where instead of the respective spring force of the mechanical metronome, they collected YouTube videos of metronomes, which all last for different lengths and all have their own tempo, and with split-screen representation we then also experience this gradual reduction.
Or I myself have brought together different reading tempos that manifest themselves acoustically with the sound of the page turning.
Another cornerstone was reached when Alvin Lucier has taken anti-virtuosity to the extreme with Music for a solo performer; the soloist is given electrodes that measure his brain waves, and only if the brain remains in a state of rest, i.e. if possible nothing is done, nothing is thought, the brain frequencies that are then created are passed on to prepared loudspeakers and thus make sound. The difficult task that the soloist has is to do as little as possible. Difficult task!
Unlike Ligeti or Reich, it is clear here that the tonal result is really not of musical interest in the traditional sense. Nothing special happens except that more or less sound is created. What is interesting here is the performative concept, that we are witnessing an attempt by the soloist to do as little as possible, unlike usual on stage, and only then do we get something. The preparations of the loudspeakers are arbitrary, it should just sound something. It is not without reason that the application of the equipment itself is celebrated in such detail. They are not only a technical prerequisite for the player, but also an aesthetic prerequisite for the audience’s hearing.
Another example from history would be Stockhausen’s text pieces Aus den Sieben Tagen, which read, for example:
“Play a sound with the certainty that you have an infinite amount of time and space.” Or: “Think NOTHING. wait until it is absolutely still within you. when you have attained this, begin to play. As soon as you start to think, stop, and try to reattain the stat of NON-THINKING. Then continue to play.”
This of course has a parallel with Lucier, only this time not really technically attempted, but now as a wholly mental (or one could even say spiritual) performance.
There are recordings of these pieces, but first of all, in my opinion, knowledge of the concept, of this text, is essential here too (for the players anyway, these are their score, so to speak), but I think the following also applies to the listener: listen to the sound with the certainty that you have an infinite amount of time and space. And, I would like to say, it is perhaps again the subsequent, even more conceptual reading: after hearing the recording of Stockhausen’s own musicians, for example, I actually prefer reading these pieces; understanding them as a mind game, as a musical idea alone in my head, similar to a lot of fluxus text pieces which cannot be realized. This brings me to a circumstance that jumps to mind here anyway: When I earlier praised Sol LeWitt’s “scores” for paintings as an art-historical innovation, as a musician one must immediately think – yes, we’ve had that for a good thousand years! And it was on this level that in the time of the emerging conceptualism, i.e. in the 1960s, was recognised what was slumbering there. The notation of music is already a remarkable medial transformation of the sound into another medium, into the graphic, textual and quantitative, and thus also into the mind, and, with precursors back to the Renaissance, this dimension of music was also developed. Pieces like this are no longer playable at all, they are themselves aesthetic objects or, they refer to an imaginary music. I, too, have been active in this genre.
And this brings us to the heart of the matter: music itself is, as Manos Tsangaris puts it, the oldest multimedia art. We have just seen that music is not only sound, but also a graphic and textual practice in the form of notes. Text is also almost always present in music as the title of a piece, or a text is sung. Then the rendition of music is also a performative or even theatrical affair – after all, we don’t close our eyes at a concert, we also like to look at how music is being played. Then the instruments are also objects, an almost sculptural quality is inherent in them, whose aesthetics the artists take up in 2D and 3D. Then sound as a spatial arrangement can also be an exhibition piece, “sound art”, rhythms can be articulated not only with sound but also with light and video. And, there are abstracted ideas of sound, of music, of the listening, concepts that are actually always there in music, and which have now also become more and more of interest and relevance for composition.
Here you can see: if everything falls apart like this into the multimedia, what actually holds the thing together at all? It is the idea, the concept that can still define a work at all. Which is of course very dialectical, because as has already been shown, it is characteristic and constitutional for a concept that it can manifest itself in many different variants, indeed in different media forms of existence. Conceptual art is actually multimedia by definition, because there is the concept and then the possibility of manifold physical versions. So the genre of music is also up for discussion. Perhaps everything will now become media art. But more about that later.
What is conceptual music?
Going further in history and with a focus on music – compared to the triumphant advance of conceptual art in the visual arts, conceptual works in music have remained rare. But before I explain this in more detail, I need to clarify what I am talking about. I will now give a (short) definition of conceptual music based on the definition Sol LeWitt gave of conceptual art. This clarification is necessary, because again and again (in the meantime) people claim things as conceptual music that, in my opinion, they are not. There is always conceptual thinking somewhere in the music, but a veritable conceptual music is still something of its own.
LeWitt published Paragraphs on Conceptual Art and Sentences on Concept Art in 1967 and 1969 respectively, from which I quote:
“The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.”
So, it is the idea that generates everything else. Ligeti’s metronome piece fits this very well. Imagine Ligeti letting the metronomes run, but then stopping a metronome here and there, restarting it, changing its tempo, etc., in other words: composing details – it would be the destruction of the powerful independently running machine, the independent force that was set in motion here. Of course, an interesting piece of music could be created in this way, but it would no longer be a concept piece. T hat is to say: if the composer decides whether the next note should be C or C sharp, then it is not concept music – because the concept would have to make that decision.
“For each work of art that becomes physical there are many variations that do not.”
So here is the reference to the ideal core of a work; even if or precisely because there are many possible variations, the actual ›work‹ is the idea behind it.
“When an artist learns his craft too well he makes slick art.”
Just like too many expressive interventions in the conceptual machine, too much good craft also spoils the conceptual character – because then the sensual appearance dominates over the ideal core again. And this is where the music is very lacking!
Musical specifications and problems
I can see several reasons why conceptual art did not have a particularly wide resonance in music at first, unlike in the visual arts since the 1960s:
Music takes place in time, it is renditioned, as a listener you are trapped in your chair in the concert; you cannot, as in the exhibition, determine for yourself the time you give to a work. But since conceptual art is not so much about the sensual aspect, the unique manifestation, but about a transcendent idea, a defined duration for which one has to expose oneself to the thing is not so adequate.
Music, despite all modernity, has retained a tradition of sensuality, expressivity and emotionality, which stands in the way of conceptual understanding. Since the Second Viennese School, the connection to tradition has been assiduously emphasised. While the visual arts at the beginning of the 20th century not only abandoned representationalism and central perspective, but Marcel Duchamp was able to take the radical step of the readymade as early as 1913 and Kazimir Malevich hung his Black Square in 1915, in music alone the atonality was so much of the shock that its inventor Arnold Schönberg apologetically again swore his loyalty to the conservative forerunner Johannes Brahms – a birth defect of New Music, this incomplete cutting of the cord, which the visual arts did not commit.
Music, for all its modernity, has a technical quality requirement, in terms of performance, in terms of high-standard instruments, in terms of the acoustic quality of the hall, also in terms of the fullness of a concert (a concert has to last for about 1-2 hours), which gets in the way of conceptual perception. Art like that of Joseph Kossuth, Damian Hirst or Marina Abramovic would not be suitable here.
For a long time, music has remained very much to itself in terms of media; it is composed sound, organised and performed in time, unlike the immensely expansive visual arts, having become multi media much earlier. The step into atonality was so daring that few further steps followed. Thus, the possibility of further media that could insert the conceptual background was hardly given.
That was true until the beginning of the 2000s. If I quickly and roughly describe a few major currents in New Music between 1970 and 2000: New Simplicity (Neue Einfachheit), Musique Concrète Instrumentale, New Complexity, Spectralism etc.pp. – there are still very many missing here – but what was really almost non-existent is: conceptual music. (Anyway it was a phase of restoration after the post-war avant-garde decades.)
Conceptual music wasn’t completely non-existent, I mentioned a few examples, but I think that it remained quite marginal compared to the other currents I just mentioned. The term “concept music” did not exist in the 20th century. (Even in Ligeti’s own oeuvre, the metronome piece remained singular.)
But then something decisive happened: A media revolution. Digitisation and the internet came along, the possibilities of digital sound processing, of digital art. Suddenly there was software where cutting a sound file is practically the same operation as cutting a video. All of a sudden there was a stage that has much more the character of an exhibition – the platforms of the internet. All of a sudden everyone has a video camera. Suddenly it has become much easier and more common to use all kinds of technical devices (such as a video projector) in a music concert. And the artists make use of it, of course, and suddenly there is also a new way of listening, a new reception. I already briefly pointed out with the memes how the internet has fuelled a new culture of its own. And so it has now also helped conceptual music to gain a new presence.
Erik Carlson has collected a large number of recordings of the opening chords of the Eroica and compiled them chronologically. The result is not only an interesting and amusing historical walk through recording qualities, orchestral tunings and interpretation history, but also a kind of minimal music, an idiosyncratic rhythm and timbre melody on E-flat major.
As concepts go, they can be reapplied in many different ways, so the concept has also been applied to, for example, the iconic chords in Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps, to the bassoon solo at the very beginning of the piece, to all the “babys” in Britney Spears songs, to all the siren passages in the works of Edgard Varese, and so on. (Another nice concept of Carlson’s is to arrange Schubert’s Winterreise alphabetically, i.e. all words with A in a row, then all with B, etc.) The Eroica piece is hardly conceivable without the internet. It made use of its archives and is not a concert piece itself, but a typical, not too long internet video. Anyway, a typical form has become the “list style”, or as it is called in internet pop culture: ›compilations‹ or ›supercuts‹.
The concept of instrumentating voice recordings for piano, i.e. digitizing them so to speak, transferring them into the pitch system of the equal-tempered tuning of the 88 piano keys and thus musicalizing them to such a degree that it oscillates fascinatingly between speech and music – Peter Ablinger has implemented this concept in many variations, such as in the 100-part Voices and Piano cycle, or here with a player piano. (An internet hit, viewed over a million times!)
“Concatenative synthesis” is the term for arranging many small samples to create a completely different result. Media artist Cory Arcangel has reinterpreted Arnold Schoenberg’s Piano Pieces Op.11, music of early atonality, flickering expressionism, with snippets from YouTube videos of cats pawing over piano keys. A wonderfully ironic work about the cliché of atonal music as “cat music” (Katzenmusik) and the internet as big-data total-archive and the “postmodernisation of modernity” (Jean-François Lyotard).
Other examples of the same concept are his synthesis of the Goldberg Variations from electric guitar solos, or a Paganini Caprice, and someone even remounted Bach’s Badinerie from moans from porn films. The step into pop culture is a short one.
Anton Wassiljew has programmed the computer to read the text of Marx’s Capital, and the key terms ›capital‹ and ›labour‹ are filtered out and sound differently, of course put to left and right channel, thus making the frequency and dialectical relationship of labour and capital aesthetically experiential.
Again, a concept that can be implemented in many ways; Wassiljew himself also applied it to the Russian national anthem, or I made a version in which the subject-object problem was sonically extracted from Arthur Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Imagination.
In my piece Charts Music are many different variations on a concept, namely the sonification of stock prices, arranged into a formally cohesive piece. 2009 was the climax of the so-called “financial crisis” at the time, and stock prices had all been going steeply down for months. At the same time, Microsoft launched a children’s composition software called Songsmith. I transcribed the share prices into melodies and fed them into this software, which makes a happy sound out of every input. And then I applied that with all kinds of stock quotes, then also on the Iraq war and others.
Three things become particularly clear from this example:
As in the previous ones, algorithmic processing plays a leading role. The machine that produces the conceptual piece is now primarily the algorithm. (The composer Dylan Richards, for example, is specifically concerned with the recommendation algorithms of music on YouTube and Spotify).
Multimediaisation – anyway. The piece Charts Music was unfortunately also played over and over again on the radio, even though I specifically forbade it. You can’t play it on the radio, it doesn’t work, of course you absolutely have to see the video for it, the derivation of the melodies from the share prices, only then does it work aesthetically. And with all the other pieces just shown – Ablinger’s piece only works if there are subtitles, otherwise you don’t understand a word. You have to know the background concepts of Arcangel’s and Wassiljew’s, with the Eroica chord collection the interpretation credits are at least a nice addition. So, for this semantic additional information, an additional medium is also needed; video is of course a good choice here, but in a concert, it could also be a performance, a handout etc.
Politicisation. Conceptualisation is followed by contextualisation. We have also seen it with Wassiljew, Ablinger also repeatedly includes political aspects, and in some of my works this plays an essential role, as you have just seen in Charts Music, or in my piece Fremdarbeit received a commission for a new piece from the festival Klangwerkstatt Berlin, and I then delegated this commission to a Chinese composer and an Indian audio programmer, who were to produce stylistic copies of my own music, now for the composition commission. There are then two aspects to this: The question of authorship (who composed this?), and the question of the value of music, that is, politically, it’s about exploitation, because these assistants from China and India were much cheaper than the price I got for the commission. So the production of the score was relocated to low-wage countries, just as it happens with mobile phones, clothes, etc. Here, for example, at a performance of the piece, there is the role of the moderator (usually myself) who tells the conceptual background of the piece. You can’t just play the music here.
But I underline these points I want to bring another piece of mine a little closer here, my piece or the action product placements.
For years I worked a lot with sampling and collage in my music, and it became clear to me that this is not unproblematic from a legal point of view (copyright), and that GEMA records this kind of thing like this at the time (2008): There is the registration form for a new work, and there you are also supposed to indicate whether the work contains “foreign parts”. Phew, what is a foreign element in music? When I compose a piano piece, I use something I didn’t invent, the piano.
There’s a bit of space on the form, two lines, to write in that you’ve written a cover version, for example. But in the Internet age, completely different technical and thus aesthetic dimensions are possible, it is the nowadays Mash-Up culture happening. I took this to the extreme: I composed a short, 33-second electronic piece of music that contains 70200 foreign samples.
It took me about a day to compose the piece, I didn’t cut the samples by hand of course, I created it algorithmically. Whereas it took 6 weeks to then print out the necessary 70200 forms that were required to register the piece. Because in the footnotes of the form it says: : “Original title of folk tune or other works use must be listed here. The still widely believed notion that 8 or 4 bars may be used without permission is incorrect.” And then I registered the short piece of music with GEMA, as it were, as a piece of musical theatre in the public domain.
Besides the (again) political orientation of this work, we also see very well here: there is, at its core, a very short piece of music. Then there is a sculpture, the forms. There was the action, there was already a video piece with its announcement, I also wrote an essay on the whole thing, the magazine – Positionen had brought out a whole thematic issue for the occasion – and ultimately all the discussions around it are also part and aspect of the work. So it’s a very multimedia work, and all of this is based on the concept of “over-affirmation” or, to put it another way, “subversive affirmation” to highlight the bureaucratic dilemma of copyright in digital times in music.
A nice example of how I understand multimedia art, in contrast to such a paltry understanding of somehow colourful moving graphics like a screen saver, is for me also Georg Hajdu’s Beschreibung einer Oper „Der Sprung“, which is much more than a stage work or actually generally something other than that, on the website for it there are documents on the creation, recordings of conversations, scientific articles, software, graphics, etc., which are also available.
A recent example is the project Cryptosilence by Dmitry Kourliandsky, who offers silence for sale as a sound file in various formats as a non-fungibal token (NFT). Essentially a sound file, a piece of music if you will, but with a very specific idea that unfolds its effect in the economic space or as a concept, because there is actually nothing to hear here.
Similarly, Patrick Frank has declared a short piano song to be a progressively more expensive object for sale and thus conceptualised an increasing aesthetic quality.
Text scores are another project of media transformation. I mentioned them briefly earlier as a typical medium of the Fluxus artists; after the Fluxus period in the early 1960s, however, these little cards almost completely disappeared again from aesthetic practice until – the New Conceptualism emerged, for again it is the Internet that gives the multimedia constitution of conceptual music a stage again at all. And for the last 10 years there has been a predestined medium for the text score: Twitter. What used to be the small card with limited space is now Twitter with its limit of first 140, now 280 characters. And so, for example, for a year there was the project Textscoreaday by several composers who published a concept piece here every day.
Or Jennifer Walshe started a Twitter account presenting algorithmically created text scores via Markov Chains.
To add to the installative here, of striking topicality is Michele Spanghero’s Ad lib.: He has connected medical ventilators to organ pipes. How this work from 2016 has gained in significance, in conceptual surplus, since spring 2020, I don’t need to explain to anyone here.
In this example, as in Lucier’s Solo Performer, you can see that a very specific instrument, a special setup, was built and this is the ›piece of music‹, this embodies the concept. Again: the idea is a machine. This can be an algorithm, or, as here, really a machine – a respirator.
Another example of a conceptual sound installation (in contrast to the classic sound art being more defined as “sound is distributed in space rather than in time”) is Jens Brands G-Player. He took geographic altitude data from Google Earth and read it out as sound waves. So imagine the whole earth is a vinyl record and the player with the needle moves along all mountains and valleys and hence plays its sound.
“the earth is a disc”.
All these works, whether they take place primarily on the internet or not, are unthinkable without digitisation, be it in the need for their technology, be it in their form of presentation, be it in their documentary transmission, be it in their dramaturgical form.
And the character of art perception on the internet, which is more like that of an exhibition than a concert, has an effect on the establishment of innovative formats outside the net; for example, exhibition forms for concept music.
In 2012, two exhibitions caused a sensation: Sound Art at the ZKM in Karlsruhe and A House full of Music at the Mathildenhöhe Darmstadt. The latter was celebrated in all the major feuilletons and received the renowned Justus Bier Prize for curators. In Darmstadt in particular, the success was due to an ingenious technical solution of how to ›exhibit‹ music (in this case with a headphone system activated by Bluetooth reception in the respective radius of a work).
Today’s technology makes it possible, and there is more and more music for which such a form of presentation is more suitable than the concert hall. But it was also clear that the curators had decided to expose only short pieces (none lasted longer than ten minutes), so that it was still possible to walk through the whole exhibition in one afternoon – short works, but many of them together, a kind of “salon hanging”. Be that as it may, the result was great, and it set a precedent; in 2013, for example, there was the first exhibition of sound art at the MoMa New York with Soundings. Durational formats, i.e. concert installations, are also becoming more and more common; I’m thinking of Patrick Frank’s “theory opera” at the Donaueschinger Musiktage 2015 which lasted an entire day.
The conceptualisation of all the arts is also boosted by digitalisation, because computers are becoming more and more powerful. Today, everyone has Warhol’s Factory and the Cologne Studio at home, with the power of a normal laptop, which makes it all the more necessary to achieve what computers cannot achieve (at least not yet): originality.
At the same time, some theory on the subject was developed; 2009 saw the publication of In the Blink of an Ear – towards a non-cochlear sonic art by Seth Kim-Cohen. “Non-cochlear” of course refers to Duchamp’s “non-retinal art” – sound art that does not address the ear, the cochlea, but more directly the mind.
In 2012, Harry Lehmann’s The Digital Revolution of Music was published, and in it there is the chapter “Conceptual Music”: Lehmann explicitly focuses here on the conceptualisation of music as a consequence of digitalisation.
In 2013, Peter Osborne in his book anywhere or not at all. Philosophy of contemporary art, noted the “post-conceptual” status of art today; an unfortunate choice of words in my opinion, similar to ›post-internet‹, as if we were living in a “after” the internet or “after” conceptual art, which is not what is meant at all, but the “post” means a “since” the conceptual turn, “since” the internet. Anyway, Osborne says: “the medium-specific modernism of a plurality of arts is essentially a nineteenth-century tradition.” In other words: everything becomes conceptual media art that sometimes uses this medium, sometimes that medium.
Sentences on musical concept-art
And I wrote the book Sentences on Musical Concept-Art. From this book I will now present the title-giving ›Manifesto‹. Earlier I gave a short definition of conceptual music, now comes a comprehensive one: (My “sentences on musical concept-art” are, of course, refer to Sol LeWitt’s Sentences on Concept Art.)
A concept piece is entirely determined by one trenchant idea.
The idea is a machine that produces the work of art. The process should have required no intervention, it should take its own course. (LeWitt 1967)
The concept-machine today is above all the algorithm.
The processing-material of the machine today is the total archive.
Details, rhetorical means, and formal design are usually only suitable in the form of readymades or by means of chance generators.
For each work of art that is performed physically, there are many unperformed variants. (LeWitt 1967)
The sensual appearance is only one aspect of the work, to which more or less value can be granted.
Each piece of New Music has conceptual aspects. (Spahlinger 2009)
Not all ideas have to be implemented. (LeWitt 1967)
On the other hand, one can also compose a detailed form out of many different concept-variants or -pieces. Enrichment with jokes is also OK.
A banal idea cannot be rescued by a beautiful and expressive design. However, it is difficult to bungle a good idea. (LeWitt 1967)
A good idea can be bungled through a beautiful and expressive design.
Ideas are the most expressive and most beautiful of all.
Improvisation is rarely musical concept-art, least of all when the improvisation is good.
Musical conceptualism can be considered as a minimalism.
An idea is the “smallest possible whole”. (Musil 1916)
Music does not have to be self-explanatory. The composer does not need to shy away from intermedial ingredients (text, video, performance), indeed it makes perfect sense to articulate them (no hiding important information in the program notes).
Dare to make public/publish the even slightest idea if you believe there’s something in it. But give it a proportionate effort (no more than a small text for a small idea).
A piece of conceptual music does not have to be completely heard.
Music is only New Music when it raises the question: is this actually music? (Spahlinger 1992)
The more unmusical, the better.
Out of conceptualization emerges contextualization. (Weibel 1993)
No concept without conceptualism.
It’s already hard to go back to ~10 years ago when this was still quite controversial. I think no one will deny that conceptual music has increased significantly in the last decade. It was so distinctive precisely because, dialectically speaking, music had (until then) been such a non-conceptual medium. Until then, music was still comparable to oil painting in terms of media – and just look at how marginal painting in oil has become in the fine arts.
In conclusion, I come back to what I stated relatively early on today and again ties in with the aforementioned Peter Osborne: if music, which is already composed in a very multi-medial way, is increasingly amplified in this, conceptual background on the one hand and multi-medial realisation on the other – where does the “music” lie at all? Are the works shown here still ›music‹ at all?
Or does it not matter what you call it? Like Cage said, if it’s not music to you, then call it something else!
Well, I don’t think it doesn’t matter, at least not as long as there are still “music academies”, as long as there are specialist journals such as “MusikTexte”, “Neue Zeitschrift für Musik” etc., as long as the scene in which such things take place is called “New Music” and its festivals are called “Donaueschinger Musiktage”, “Darmstädter Ferienkurse für Neue Musik” etc.. That’s not something that can be renamed easily, Mr. Cage. Conceptual thinking in the arts has posed and continues to pose exciting challenges.
It almost seems like this, just as we still say “telephone” to the universal pocket computer for historical reasons, we still say “music” to some actually multimedia pieces and media art works or performative actions. 100 years ago, music was dissolved as a tonal practice, now it is dissolved as a specific medial practice. Music was no longer bound to the tonal centre of a key, now music is no longer bound to the medial centre of sound, it can be performance, video, graphic, installation, film, website, action, concept. (It’s a similar situation with the notion of “musical instrument”, which is being strained a lot today. Is a laptop a musical instrument? Is a circuit of controllers still categorically comparable to the unity and identity of a musical instrument like the oboe? And the players, are they still instrumentalists or ›performers‹)? The definition of music and its associated terms are under some definitional stress.
But I can make several offers here:
It is not without reason that the degree programme in Hamburg is called “multi media composition”, not “multi media music”. Harry Lehmann speaks of “relational music”, to which an extra-musical relation, a semantic information, for example as a video, is added.
We could speak of an “extended definition of music” (erweiterter Musikbegriff) in reference to Joseph Beuys’ “extended definition of art” (erweiterter Kunstbegriff). Or a “dissolved definition of music” (aufgelöster Musikbegriff), which still refers to music because it dissolves it. Then, however, the step is not far to simply call it “media art”. Nina Noeske has also made a beautiful suggestion that one could speak of the “aufgehobener Musikbegriff” (not translateable), in the Hegelian dialectical double meaning of annulled and, as it were, preserved.
We could also speak of music in these works, where a “conceptual listening” prevails, a listening that essentially also functions as an active knowledge of concepts that lie behind sound. This listening has in turn become much more relevant through postmodernism and through e.g. hashtagging on the internet. The tendency of musical material is that of conceptualisation.
Or one could say media art that addresses the field of listening, sound or the culture of music in a particularly quantitative and/or qualitative form, refering here to a specific expertise and tradition, or where music is used as a medium of media art: “media art with music” – that can then also be attributed to the realm of music. Again – the concept refers to music.
- LeWitt, S. “Paragraphs on Conceptul Art”. Artforum. June 1967.
- LeWitt, S. “Paragraphs on Concept-Art”. Art-Language. May 1969.
- Kim-Cohen, S. “In the blink of an ear. Toward a Non-Cochlear Sonic Art”. Bloomsbury. 2009.
- Lehmann, H. “Die digitale Revolution der Musik, Musikkonzepte”. Schott. 2012.
- Osborne, P. “Anywhere or not at all. Philosophy of contemporary art”. Verso. 2013.
- Kreidler, J. “Sätze über musikalische Konzeptkunst”. Wolke. 2018.
- Conceptual music
- Extended definition of music