The Last Generation of Experts
Experimental Israel celebrates its 30th installation, and a celebration it is, as our 30th guest is a person that has dedicated herself to experimentation in action and thought throughout her career – the composer Dganit Elyakim. Elyakim, a student of the late Prof. Arie Shapira in Israel, and later a graduate of The Hague Conservatory, can be easily attested to as a member of the avant-garde; in fact, her entire oeuvre exemplifies this fact. However, it is not too far into our interview, or should I say – her lecture, where Elyakim claims that today there is no, and cannot be an avant-garde!
As hinted to earlier, Elyakim comes prepared; a day prior to our interview, when we recorded Elyakim’s improv piece, 10 Thumbs 2 Left Hands, on the emaciated piano belonging to The Hall Project at the Digital Art Lab, she mentioned in passing that I should brace myself for an entire theory regarding experimentalism. Elyakim has followed our programs closely and was about to suggest her unique theory, which in abstract, at least, relates experimentalism to technological advancement.
Elyakim suggest a threefold division on the timeline of artistic history: a prehistoric age, an age of literacy and machine, and our own time – namely the technological era. In order to clarify the immediate dichotomy between the first two stages of artistic time, she plays for us and compares a vocal piece by Guillaume Du Fay and a piano sonata by Beethoven. Whereas the latter sounds intensely dramatic and full of narrative based change, the former seems almost of a meditative quality – or indeed as Gyorgy Ligeti suggested, music without time. Elyakim proposes that the force at the base of this huge change is the advent of instruments, or in context – of instruments that were able to lead rather than merely accompany. Whereas the voice historically took centre stage, it more often than not paraded its inherent cantabile quality. The instruments of the time, and indeed of music throughout history up to that moment, attempted merely to mimic the voice. However, the newly improved and sturdy instruments were able not only to overcome the voice, but suggested technical possibilities that would require singers later in history to become extremes experts to the point of contortion, and this now in attempt to mimic instrumental qualities and possibilities.
This is merely one example out of many technological advancements that allowed artists, if indeed in tune with the ideas of their times, to create experiments cum renegade art. As it were – art followed technology. But Elyakim doesn’t suffice with this notion, and suggest that literacy itself, and particularly musical literacy can be seen as perhaps the most substantial exchange between technological advances and experimentalism. In similar fashion to how written language allowed a substantial change in how we as a species use language, so did musical language create a similar revolution for music. Those in tune enough with the possibilities this new tool could offer, were, by default, the first experimenters in the field. Similarly, Elyakim hails someone such as J.S. Bach as a true experimenter, exemplified by his staunch stand in favour of equal temperament. Indeed, in the Well Tempered Clavier, Bach arranges the pieces in an ascending chromatic order, indicating that the old relation of scales (via 5ths and 4ths) is obsolete.
Moving into the age of the machine, the age of the experts, or indeed the age of literacy, we are confronted with an artistic boom related intrinsically to the almost fantastically swift technological changes. However, this age, which in part can be deemed humanistic, sees an odd societal shift from the tribal to the personal. Accordingly, this is an age of experts. Man and woman no longer linger on the remnants of a hunter-gatherer society, wherein a person needed several skills and traits in order to live or survive. Suddenly a person had one specialised trait in which s/he is trained, and this would be their life-long occupation.
In contrast, our current age is marked by one particular and enormously substantial technological advancement: the control of electrical currents. This, in Elyakim’s view, is seen as a reshuffling of the historical card deck, as it created de facto changes in the way we live and think. As far as art is concerned, the 20th century is marked with a shift towards electronic music, and more so, a music that is becoming more and more interactive, which, in a way, heralds a return to improvisatory practices, also a current mark of musical change. But the effects on music and art are only second, if not a consequence of the effects new technological advancements have had on society at large. Elyakim sees society as reverting to its traditional tribal role, and more so, she recognises a growing interactivity in all aspects of life. A simple example is given with social media, and the accessibility of knowledge over the Internet. Indeed, I have to agree that the Internet presents a paradigm shift that could potentially signal the dawn of a new era in the way we share information. However, Elyakim takes this thought process even further, claiming that we are, no doubt, the last generation of experts. The academies, guilds, and masters of the past are no longer necessary. One can acquire knowledge and indeed produce various products, physical as well as intellectual, without any external aid. Elyakim presents us with a generation of artists that cannot, by default, be deemed avant-garde, as the front line keeps advancing at a pace faster than our psyches can fathom. We, as artists, are merely attempting to keep up, which in turn sends us into subjective realms and indeed “scenes”. Elyakim continues and exclaims – this new technological world is suddenly interested not only in products, but also in processes. In some cases the process is of larger importance than the product, and in other cases the process is the product. Accordingly, Elyakim suggests that artists in this age are in the process of an “endless work in progress”, and indeed sees this trajectory continuing for an indefinite time.
It is at this point Elyakim and I go into a discussion regarding this analysis of our time and its supposed deterministic trajectory. The interactivity Elyakim points to, I see merely as yet another consumer related attribute, which could be taken back the Marcusean critique presented in his One Dimensional Man. Whereas there is, no doubt, a burst in daily use requiring interactive choice, it still does not quite feel as if this same interactivity allows more choice or indeed freedom on the personal level. If anything, it seems that interactivity manages to even further facilitate pacification by presenting a supposed new freedom. I continue and suggest that this poignantly exemplifies the dire need for experts and expertise more than ever before, and further points towards our need for a “filtration” system where knowledge and information are concerned. However, the point on which Elyakim and I completely agree is the current trajectory of art, which seems decentralized, in an ever-growing flirtation with chance, and seemingly preferring the question to the resounding exclamation mark. Elyakim present us with a recording of her piece 1×1.1 from her debut album, Failing Better (a paraphrase on Beckett: Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better). 1×1.1 is a form we have come to know and love in recent artistic time, namely a structured improvisation, in this case, for bass clarinet and live electronics. Very much in tow with the dedicated recording Elyakim presented us with for our broadcast (this time, a complete improvisation on piano frame (harp) and live electronics), there is an amalgamation of all her ideas in this piece. Whether her theories hold water, as is the case with theories, only time will tell. But Elyakim’s art, attempts not only to parade these theories, but also actually live by them. In a future project, Elyakim presents the idea of creating a web-based opera. The stage, claims Elyakim emphatically, has been but made obsolete by the advent of the Internet, and accordingly, an opera as an art form need no longer exist on stage, but in a non-temporal arena such as an HTML based page on the web. Like Shapira, her composition teacher before her, who wrote a radio-based opera, and Robert Ashley, whom Elyakim reveres in the utmost, who wrote his Perfect Lives for television, Elyakim wishes to join and continue this trajectory. It again raises the question – what’s next? And I personally believe that this has always been a good prompt to be made by art.