No More Poodles (Dumitrescu/Avram: Rebirth of Avant Garde)
Kicking off our collectively composed music column, Ben Watson explodes the integrity of cookie-cutter modern music, dynamites the shameless posturing of other critics (Po-Mo or otherwise) and makes those who listen to Iancu Dumitrescu and Ana-Maria Avram without an open copy of Negative Dialectics in their lap look like utter, utter fools
Just when I thought ‘contemporary music' should be renamed ‘missed opportunity', I came across the music of Iancu Dumitrescu and Ana-Maria Avram, two composers from Bucharest in Romania. Despite support from the Romanian government, they've made little impact on the pusillanimous music scene in the UK, and it's been left to the usual malfunded outsiders to support them. Over the last few years, London Musicians Collective (as was) and Resonance FM have organised concerts for them at Conway Hall. The Avram and Dumitrescu CDs on their own Edition Minuit label are distributed by ReR Megacorp in Britain and in the rest of the world by the network of ‘avant' labels which drummer Chris Cutler has assiduously knitted together over the last three decades. The fact that Tim Hodgkinson (along with Cutler a member of Henry Cow in the early-'70s) is actively involved with Dumitrescu/Avram - playing bass clarinet in their ensemble, contributing his own pieces - shows that I'm not alone in considering their music as the ‘rebirth of avant garde'.
Image: extreme poodle
In the classical world, the one critic to champion the music of Iancu Dumitrescu and Ana-Maria Avram has been Harry Halbreich in Paris. His musicological championing hinges on the fact that the two composers are using Romanian scales to bring about the rebirth of a dried-up and moribund tradition: that of European score-writing. While what Halbreich says does not fly in the face of the evidence, it doesn't do enough to celebrate the dazzling importance of what they're doing, which is a rebirth of avant garde as total challenge to generic separations - and therefore the division of labour such separations pay tribute to.
But Halbreich has made one ground-breaking remark. He hears ‘a sort of nuclear fission' in the music written by Ana-Maria Avram and Iancu Dumitrescu. This music is explosive, and I can still recall the shock and pleasure of hearing the first CD. It's a bomb going off that doesn't stop going off. Not simply another sonic ‘experience' or ‘adventure', but something which shatters your previous concepts of music, idiom, genre and modernity. The music is correct in the way which polarises opinion and heats the blood. Like a flag raised above a battlefield, it incites a hotspot of enthusiasm which makes all the tepidness around it look like grey and soggy business-as-usual excuses. Timidity and cravenness. Ladies and gentlemen, this is the red-gold TRUTH which the sophisticates and sophists have been hiding beneath their dunghill of sorry irony!
When I read about today's scientists researching cosmology - research which unites study of subatomic particles with speculation about element formation in the first microseconds of our universe - I'm instantly reminded of Iancu's computer music: the sensation of a gigantic, unstoppable cosmic explosion which also has a place for the most minute transformations, also for randomness and indecision and the possibility that everything will close down and reverse and perhaps disappear at any moment. It's imperative that I listen, but I have no idea what might happen next. This sensation recalls every heightened time in our lives. In this, Iancu connects with other great forces in music - Edgard Varèse, Karl-Heinz Stockhausen, John Coltrane, Jimi Hendrix - who deal with objective structure, the physicality of sound, with such untrammelled curiosity and passion that the results are positively erotic. This is because, as Wilhelm Reich said, orgasm is ‘cosmic plasmatic sensation'. Albeit a sensation trivialised and degraded and commodified in this society as a standardised frisson, rather than appreciated for what it actually is: the very point of the universe.
To cross object and subject poles in this way is revolutionary, and begs every question under the sun - including why, in an advanced, technocratic, fullspeed society we still have beggars under the sun. When truth in music is unleashed with this amount of violence and gusto, the ‘social question' is no longer a moral conscience limping behind the gilded carriages of those attending the latest operatic divertissement, but a fighting demiurge which leaps out fully armed. What is this weak and tasteless gruel we've been surviving on for so long? How come we've tolerated so many boring concerts and meaningless experiments? This music refuses the repression introduced into music and theory since the failure of May 1968.
In November 2006, I was given the opportunity to take the above argument to the heartless heart of the postmodern beast: I was invited to contribute to a discussion of the Avram and Dumitrescu music in the Salon d'Or of Hotel de Béhague, the seat of the Romanian Embassy in Paris. What you've just read is based on what I wrote on the Eurostar whilst travelling to the conférence. Naturally, I worried that bringing avant garde and postmodern stars ‘down to earth' in this way may not seem appropriate in a Salon d'Or. Such arguments certainly offended Bernard Stiegler - director of Pierre Boulez's IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique), and genuflector before the usual postmodern icons - when I voiced them from the floor at a conference organised in London by the journal Radical Philosophy. In his paper, Stiegler seemed to think he could trump the outer reaches of radical thinking on music by reminding his captive audience of Aristotle's idea that listening to music makes you a morally-superior person; whereas all my experience of listening to fantastic music from the last hundred years is that it puts me out of sorts with society.
With the wheatfields of Northern France whipping past me, I sucked my Biro and wrote the following on a brown paper bag:
‘In putting back "society" into the picture - the move of every earthy, dun-faced dialectician faced with "cosmic" forces - I suppose I'm in danger of introducing the parochial concerns of an unemployable music critic from London. But that would be preferable to allowing the weak charade of what passes for "radical Paris" to carry on unmolested!'
Despite my efforts on the Eurostar, there was actually no opportunity to read this text at the conférence. Harry Halbreich's introductory remarks were so lengthy, it became obvious that he didn't really want to hear what anyone else had to say, especially some radio DJ from London who Avram and Dumitrescus had picked up on their travels. So I was forced to leap up and seize the microphone to voice my criticism of the way French philosophy, ever since Alexandre Kojève's lectures on Hegel (this was the man who hailed Stalin as ‘a new Napoleon'), has hobbled along with a flawed dialectic; Sartre, Althusser, Foucault, Deleuze, Bourdieu, Badiou ... they're compromised rubbish, and for very concrete reasons: France having had the most reactionary Communist Party on the planet; lack of an immanent, Marxist critique of the Soviet bloc; craven aspiration to bourgeois academic fame; the inability to think beyond the mind/body dualism of Descartes ... which dualism immediately manifested in the conférence as a stand-off between explanations of spectral music as a result of ‘nature' or ‘science'. Marx's observation that labour power is a natural force, which explodes the metaphysical separation of man and nature inscribed by Christianity, was badly needed here. It is in fact the philosophical equivalent of Dumitrescu's musical revolution! Of course, all the old ‘fellow-traveller' Stalinists of yore (Halbreich told me afterwards that he regretted the fall of official communism!) are now so thoroughly ‘postmodernised', they flee the podium at the mere mention of Marx. Which Halbreich did, calling Adorno (and by extension me) a ‘Nazi'. What Halbreich - like all those trained in post-68 French theory - detests is the revolutionary idea that subject/object relations might be transformed. André Breton and Guy Debord - somehow always missed off the reading lists - are Paris' sole moments of brightness. Come to think of it, perhaps it's the fact that those two can actually string a sentence together which makes them so repellent to the would be academics and bureaucrats whose prose endlessly plagiarises the proliferating margins (yawn) of Ferdinand Braudel.
I'd created a rift in the proceedings (something Ana-Maria graciously described to me later as the ‘motivating crisis' of my ‘composition'). Having interrupted Halbreich's monologue, I now attempted to create dialogue. I returned to my positive response to the Dumitrescus' music, our common ground at the conférence. Hear the next paragraph as a confessional, peculiarly personal and English.
When I first experienced the music of Ana-Maria Avram and Iancu Dumitrescu, it dawned on me how repressed and restrained and pallid and tight and downright petty was the British ‘radical' music (‘the New Complexity') I'd previously been supporting. These worthy composers just don't seem able to persuade their musicians to attack their instruments with this amount of reckless sensuality (‘gusto'). You'd have to go back to the early days of Free Improvisation (the Tony Oxley Sextet; Bailey & Bennink; Masayuki Takayanagi in Japan) for this kind of advanced instrumental extremism.
I believe this is the reason Tim Hodgkinson got involved, and why Edition Minuit CDs are distributed by ReR Megacorp, Forced Exposure and Metamkine: the power of Dumitrescu music transcends genre, or rather marketing niches, and can speak to listeners whose other listening could be, say, Rod Stewart or Masonna. I take it as axiomatic that the British composers worth taking seriously today would be Brian Ferneyhough, Michael Finnissy, James Dillon or Richard Barrett (today lumbered with the description the New Complexity, a label they all despise), rather than any of the busily promoted approaches to easy listening and film music who use postmodernist excuses about ‘after avant garde' (and a positivist concept of chronology) to justify their contrivances (Nyman, Bryars, Taverner, Martland etc.). I think perhaps the restraint of advanced music in Britain may be a reaction to the overwhelming popularity and visibility of British pop and rock - but something is getting in the way of making great music happen in London right now. Which is why I'm excited with Dumitrescu and Avram!
I'll finish with a brief word about genre. I agree with Ornette Coleman when he said in 1977 that ‘any person in today's music scene knows that rock, classical, folk and jazz are all yesterday's titles' (from the sleevenote to Dancing In Your Head, omitted in the CD reissue). It's not that I crave some all-embracing ‘polyvocal real' or thing-in-itself without conceptual distinctions (indeed, the influence of Gilles Deleuze's epistemological anarchism/neo-Kantianism on music criticism has been everywhere malign), it's that the real structuring tension in music is not between the competing identities of genre - that's something sold to people as consumers - but between the ‘Prolific' and the ‘Devouring', as William Blake put it in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, or between the working class and those who manage their productions, as Karl Marx put it. Of course, cultural goods are a special case; but when I look at how Ana and Iancu produce their music - detailed and challenging scores, certainly; but also with ears open to amazing, creative improvisors like Fernando Grillo and Tim Hodgkinson; ears open to the erotics of amplification and the unearthliness of computer-processed sound; their generosity in presenting programmes of music written by like-minds across the globe - I don't see what they are doing is so different from the actions of those who've produced great music in other, supposedly separate genres - like, say, Jelly Roll Morton or Charles Mingus or Frank Zappa or Muhal Richard Abrams or Simon H. Fell. As usual, if we look on the productive side - the progressive aspect of this system, one whose capapabilities and possibilities suggest a whole new social order - we glimpse a universal humanity repressed and denied by the hierarchical snobberies, sectarian narcissism and military spectacles of the consumer society. Peace!
But, as a responsible columnist rather than a soapbox orator, I should take a deep breath and try once again to explain why Dumitrescu/Avram are going to wake the guilty intellectuals from their collusive slumbers, drag militant sensuality onto the side of historical action, and save the world. Getting ‘beyond genre' was the task music set itself in the 1980s. John Zorn was patron saint of this brave new classless music world. Yet despite Zorn's brillaince as a bebop altoist, everything was thin and strained: he was to Frank Zappa what Prince was to Hendrix, the semblance but not the action, the concept but not the feeling. But Dumitrescu/Avram are doing it. Their music works through the CD-form, something the ‘classical' world - with their eyes on the ‘great-man' fetishism granted to the dead romantics, or on the spurious glamour sprayed on commercial product - has never been able to achieve. The ‘classical CD', with its ghastly colour photographs of grinning music-student jackasses with clean-pressed shirts and dowdy dresses and its weedy, far-from-the-mic sound quality, has always been a complete abomination.
The Dumitrescus work inside the ‘reference tone' (Beefheart), the ‘hear-stripe' (Adorno). Their music may be score-based, but it's heading towards the sonic, not the visual. Closemic'ing and computer electronics bring the acoustic world into discussion with your domestic hi-fi as authentically as Muddy Waters' amps or Sam C. Phillips' Sun Studio. When Iancu Dumitrescu last conducted at Conway Hall, his small audience clapped so long, he had to give them a short encore - he directed his musicians with gestures, got the flute player to lead, and created a new piece. In conducting scored pieces, one of his persistent gestures is to point to himself: ‘watch me! follow my timing! don't read the notes on paper mechanically ...'. This is what real music does when it needs to be realised: it smashes through the curtsies to tradition required of the dullards, and uses all means possible to realise pertinent sound. The Dumitrescus are doing this. When you inflict a CD of theirs on guests, they don't know what the fuck it is: it's sound writhing like a sculpted ameoba, protoplasm in the auricles. It strips music of its social-reference codes, its snob mobiles, its trappings, its exchange value: it breathes embarrassing ooky-nooky in your ear like Beethoven or Ray Charles. It's the real deal. The use-value of modern sound in polemical upsurge! And all the people - professionals, pundits, critics, taste-makers - who've been keeping it from you are ... full of shit.
But I don't want to end with shit. I want to end with shit's use in the biosystem, its necessary provision of nutrients to the bacterial and plant world. Dumitrescu music is the next stage in total thinking, so real you can taste it, so real that only those with minds blocked and stodged by taste and knowledge can't grasp it. It's the music written by someone who read V. I. Vernadsky on the biosphere, grasped the point, and wrote a minute description of the hormones released in their bloodstream by that elation. That tall. Really! See you next time, folks.
Ben Watson < info AT militantesthetix.co.uk > is a music writer (Frank Zappa: the Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play, Derek Bailey & the Story of Free Improvisation) who in 2005 decided to abandon his struggle with Wire magazine and raise children instead. He broadcasts a radio show ‘Late Lunch With Out To Lunch' at 2pm Wednesdays on www.resonancefm.com . You can hear past shows on www.archive.org, or send me an e-mail.
ReR Megacorp - http://www.rermegacorp.com
ResonanceFM - http://resonancefm.com