"I have not made my mind up to admire everything new. I am trying to distinguish the good from the bad so that the energies liberated by the good should not be lost." — Guillaume Apollinaire
We have not yet begun to hear the 20th century. Arguably the most creative and colorful period in the history of human music-making, the previous century remains largely terra incognita. Despite all paeans to the universal cultural accessibility afforded by contemporary technology, the fact remains that the known universe of music is but a paltry sampling of reality. And we cannot begin to hear our own century until we open our ears to its predecessor, at once so immanent and so distant.
Music has become perhaps the single most concentrated field of repetition and reinforcement in all of human culture. This is as true of novelty-obsessed Top 40 radio as it is of jazz standards or classical music. In a culture ostensibly driven by techno-scientific progress and unceasing innovation, our musical habits show how little we want to know of difference and change—let alone to experience it.
Even the well-meaning advocates of “new music” bear some guilt in this respect, as textbook histories of the 20th century tend to reflexively canonize the same handful of composers and celebrate composed music at the expense of improvised, experimental, and para-musical phenomena (sound art, field recording, biomusic, and so on). It is difficult to speak of 20th-century music without falsifying its richness, without confusing a single one of its galaxies with the entire universe to which it belongs.
My purpose here is to chart these vast spaces, to map the connections spanning outwardly unrelated phenomena, to hear the diverse and cacophonous strains of musical experimentation as the distinct but harmonized voices of the cosmic symphony.
How to describe the music that I seek out for Acousmata? Anyone who has thought about it has realized the miserable inadequacy of genre labels in this domain. “Contemporary,” “new,” and “modern” music are all bloodless and nondescriptive. “Electronic music” is virtually meaningless, as it can connote anything from glossy techno to the most abrasive noise. (The technological provenance of music says very little about it aesthetically; “electronic music” is thus as vague a term as “acoustic music” would be.) “Experimental music,” which I admit to using often, is among the least problematic, but again says more about the method of production than it does about sound or structure. And all these terms tend to neglect important tendencies stemming from the more popular end of the musical spectrum, which have spawned phrases such as “post-rock,” “avant-rock,” and the like.
Thus, as much as possible, I simply avoid this question. Acousmata is a music blog, that is all. I don’t pretend to be interested in all forms of music, but nor do I consent to the ongoing ghettoization of music through absurd, hairsplitting neologisms of style and genre. “Music is music,” wrote Ferruccio Busoni, “in and for itself, and nothing else.”
In choosing a piece of music to feature (or a video, an image, a website, a quotation), I am guided above all by my own curatorial instinct. Every Acousmata post begins as a spark, a moment of revelation in my activities of listening, reading, searching. When I feel my ears stretching to receive new transmissions, when I breathe “air from another planet,” I know I am on the trail. (Despite possible appearances to the contrary, however, sheer obscurity or weirdness does not constitute a criterion of selection.) Although the music I present may lack a single common denominator, I do intend for there to be a certain ineffable coherence behind the idiosyncrasy.
In writing about music, I have a simple objective which is nonetheless difficult to describe. I hesitate to call it criticism, as that word suggests something both more laborious and more deliberate than what I am up to. I don’t want to write too much; enough to ease open the auditory canals, to prepare the way for what I call “sympathetic listening,” but no more. I don’t want to tell anyone the “meaning” of the music, but I do hope to provide context, atmosphere, orientation. The goal, in the words of Theodor Adorno, is nothing more than “to blast away the things that block our ears.”
Finally: I build on the humbling work of the musical archivists (UbuWeb, Continuo’s Weblog, The Avant-Garde Project, and many, many more) without whose sedulous labors Acousmata would be literally unthinkable. Solidarity and gratitude go to all those who work to erect the temple of music.
Philadelphia, March 2012
About the author
I am a writer, presenter, educator, and musician focusing on the music of the 20th and 21st centuries. I’ve studied at New College of Florida (BA, 2004), as a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Cologne in Germany (2005-2006), and at the University pf Pennsylvania (PhD, 2013). In addition to my work on Acousmata, I direct the event series Experimental Culture and am an associate curator at Bowerbird. More information is available at my personal website: www.thomaspatteson.com.
If you are the owner of the copyright for music shared on Acousmata, and you object to my providing free publicity for your intellectual property, please notify me in writing and I will promptly remove the material in question.
I spend a lot of time working on Acousmata and intend to make it one of the best and most adventurous music blogs on the web. I’m happy to hear suggestions for improvement and I welcome your comments and requests. You can also contact me via email.
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