Expanding the Moment
On its fourth session, Experimental Israel meets with its most senior composer to date and a notable figure in the international contemporary music scene, Dr. Amnon Wolman.
Wolman (1955) is a true child of the 70s, and as such gives us first hand impressions of an experimental scene in the making. Our conversation begins with his memories of a time where the concert series of an old dog such as the NY Philharmonic under its then musical director, Leonard Bernstein, could include orchestral improvisations (that were later even featured on a commercial recording). More so, Wolman reminds us of similar trends reaching our shores with the Israel Philharmonic and its life-long musical director, Zubin Mehta, who daringly performed Maxwell Davies’ piece of 1969, Eight Songs for a Mad King. Together we wondered regarding the current whereabouts of this initial impetus, and whilst we were reminded that large commissioning bodies and orchestras are no longer in the “business” of promoting experimental music, the experimental scene today already enjoys its own dedicated audiences comprising contemporary composers, musicians and improvisers, as well as artists from other, and supposedly unrelated, musical genres and disciplines.
In our mutual musings, Wolman and I again reach the topic of Cage and recognise his figure and artistic surroundings as the hotbed for the shift at the base of all things experimental. Aesthetics aside, there is something to be said for an artist such as Cage that was willing to admit the need for change in the way we conceive, perform, and listen to music. Wolman is quick to shed some realistic light on post war modernistic efforts such as those associated with Darmstadt, claiming that the focus there was first and foremost rekindling positive feelings towards German art (via American funding) rather than a true re-examination of the age-old paradigms regarding the conception, performance and consumption of music.
But what, according to Wolman, is Experimentalism? Well, we are confronted with this same trinity: writing music, performing music, and listening to music. Wolman presents a doctrine claiming that each of these, exclusively, can be dealt with in an experimental and non-experimental fashion. The crux of this divide lies with awareness. The composer can make a conscious decision to rethink his or her processes, and knowingly allow for scenarios that shuffle the norms of the trait. Wolman claims that in order to recognise such efforts we must first make sure not to be affected by stylistic judgements: “there is, by now, a sound that is identified with experimental music, which hails back to the music of Cage and Feldman, as well as the early minimalists. We mustn’t confuse such contemporary efforts with true experimental music! A sound or style can hardly be deemed experimental, but only a certain effort or mindset at the base of the compositional process”. As an example, Wolman brings up Sergei Prokofiev, whose music, even for its own time, we can only look back on as stylistically old-fashioned. However, a closer examination reveals a composer who truly rethinks the sphere from within which he works and thus, presents pieces that raise serious questions regarding style, era and the future vista of his trait.
Whereas Wolman almost skips the issue of experimental performance, noting that out of the three, this aspect is most evident (i.e. the shift from traditional performance to the many shades of contemporary performance, including improvisation etc.), it is the topic of experimental listening that we dwell on most considerably. Wolman mentions two notable examples: the first being the 1893/4 piece by Erik Satie – Vexations, and the second being Brian Eno’s 1978 album – Music for Airports. Wolman reminds us that although vehemently opposed to any kind of scored repetition (due to no exact repetitions existing in nature), it was actually Cage himself who staged the first performance of Satie’s 16-hour long piece, which asks the pianist to perform 840 odd repetitions of the short scored motif[i]. Here is an example of a piece that re-examines not only the way we listen to music, but the way we perceive narrative. Eno’s album, for instance, is not to be listened to in a fashion similar to that of narrative music with a specific drama in mind. Intentionally devoid of any highlights, Music for Airports, as well as Vexations can easily bore the most avid listener. It is in fact a compositional call for a new type of listening: perhaps a listening that allows interruptions, a listening allowing shared attention, or even a listening allowing a shifting or shifted state of consciousness.
It was at this point that I interjected the notion of how this description fits well with my understanding of meditation. I recounted to Wolman the welcome realisation in my personal life when I understood that there is no such thing as a “bad session”. At first I used to get very angry with myself for not having been able to fully reach that feeling of peace. It was only later on I realised that in shifting the focus from the reactive and somewhat automatic mind to the observing mind, I am in fact fulfilling the only true objective of the art. In taking a step back from the almost perverse identification one has with one’s own thoughts and by simply noticing them, one is in fact meditating. True, the nature of each occurring thought can differ from day to day or one hour to the next even, and still, it is the shift in awareness that is key.
This resonated well with Wolman, who continued and added that this is exactly what music such as Eno’s and Satie’s offers – it allows to expand the moment: even in his supposedly insignificant yet widely famous pieces, Trois Gymnopedie, Satie consciously avoids any perceived drama in order to accent an ambiance. Yet, how would a period listener perceive such a composition in a time where the narrative of European concert music at large had only one directive: follow me carefully, and I’ll take you on a dramatic journey with exciting and surprising highs and lows? In fact, one can notice odd enharmonic notational choices featured by Satie in his Vexations that act as a sort of conceptual calling to the performer, begging them to avoid, even in thought, any tonal affiliations, centres or focal points. Here is a composer asking us to listen in a different fashion: it isn’t tonal music, yet it isn’t a-tonal either, it simply presents us with a new type of narrative.
But how does one introduce these ideas to lay-audiences? Wolman’s simple and direct reply: there is no such thing. If a shift is required with listeners in similar fashion to composer and performer, then again the question of awareness is the key to the entire experimental process. But let us imagine an audience member listening to the complete performance of Vexations for the first time. And let us imagine that this same audience member is completely unaware as to the shift required in perspective – perhaps she can listen to a few of these repetitions and enjoy them; then she can go out for a drink; then she can return and perhaps now the same repetitions annoy her; perhaps at a certain stage she suddenly finds herself entranced! All of these stages are part of a listening process that could not have occurred otherwise, and it is exactly such an experience that prompts new or different awareness.
At a certain point I suggest to Wolman a future world where all such experiments have been integrated into the musical and artistic practice, so much so as to render experimentalism a relic of the past. Wolman immediately replies that this is impossible, as human nature is a safeguard from such a possibility. “However”, he continues, “I would like to hope that no matter how standardised things might get in the future, there will always be those artists challenging, or refusing to accept that that is the way things are”.
[i] An interesting addition was Cage’s idea of returning the entry fee to audience members in accordance with the amount of time they spent listening to the piece: on the spectrum of a complete refund for those undertaking the entire performance, to no refund for those leaving immediately. Wolman suggests that even with this supposedly simple act, Cage allows another shift in awareness from accepted paradigms, begging a question regarding what we see as given norms.