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Jacques Attali, a French Marxist economist, wrote on the political economy of music in his book Noise. He outlines a path that music’s mode of production supposedly followed: starting in the primal Sacrificial stage; then to the stage of Representation, where music became not just spiritually, but economically and politically profitable; to the current stage of Repetition, spearheaded by the phonograph and characterized by vapid regurgitation of past forms; and finally looking to the future, Attali posits a Composition stage of contemporary classical music, which bears a striking resemblance to the manifestos of many European Free Improvisation artists.
Much of his book strikes me as an aficionado’s polemic, but his critique of the current stage of Repetition and his arguments for a push towards Composition bring up a number of points about the composer-(conductor)-musician dynamic. The most important of these is the most broad, and it concerns player autonomy.
It was only a relatively short time in Western music that improvisation was deemed “unworthy” to be high art. Improvised cadenzas and figured bass were lasting remnants of a long history of improvisation in the West, yet with the rise of Representation, the hands of the players were tied to the spectacle and prestige of the concert experience and not to the music. This culminated with the highly complex music of 1950s America, where notes are extraordinarily strict and highly controlled. Simultaneously, certainly influenced by musical undercurrents such as jazz, indeterminacy reintroduced improvisation — first on the page, and then on the stage.
As art is no longer bound by style and genre, we are no longer required to pick a side to be considered contemporary classical. But, as it is with far too many freedoms, we are now required to pick what parts we choose. And this leaves me in a serious conundrum. On the one hand is an aesthetic that appreciates non-reproducibility, on the other is one that requires more than a minimum of effort on the part of the composer. What good are notes on a page if they are not shaped by things like articulation, phrasing, and dynamics? What good are the performers if a recording would better suit the goals?
I’m fascinated by ways of controlling improvisation, such as John Zorn’s game pieces or Conduction. Yet when one is in the absence of the band playing the piece, these methods of control do not hold. To make universal understanding more difficult, there is no standard notation to control improvisation in a meaningful way.
Yet control of improvisation is only half the issue. How would one include improvisatory aspects into a largely written piece? Dynamics, especially in the realm of conducted music, should be left as they were in Classical and Baroque times: sparse. The conductor, certainly, and the players as well, should be able after a short time to “feel” the piece, giving it the ebbs and flows it needs. Not only will this provide ample room for a conductor’s, band leader’s, or musician’s artistry, but it will also reduce the repetitiousness of successive performances.
It is through the performers that composers exhibit their art. Yet it is not only from jazz, not only from the West, that improvisation stems. Futhermore, improvisation isn’t the only source of the breakdown of repetition in contemporary classical music, each aspect of music can be subverted, reinvented, and made to avoid the culture of repetition.