Sites of Formation 2020

Social or Mutual Aid Music

Nate Wooley

Sites of Formation (SoF) has been a recurring feature in Sound American since Issue 21 and was intended to provide an editorial framework upon which our contributors can propose topics that may not fit into that issue’s central theme. Each set of SoFs is generated by year multiples based on the issue number. For example, SA21 featured articles based on the years using multiples of 21 : 1921, 1942, 1963, 1984, and 2005. The writers can propose any topic related to the year, such as an important composition being premiered, a seminal recording being released, a musical figure’s birth or death, or, in the best circumstances, some completely odd idea that the year triggers in their mind. This concept, like many that I’ve come up with for SA since its inception, is shaggy and cumbersome, and I like it that way. Although it may mean some difficulty for myself and SA’s contributors to portion out the essays based on such an arbitrary system, I have found that it this kind of awkwardness has great potential for spawning wonderful new ideas.

This issue, SA24, is the first to mathematically push the SoF concept into the future/present, as one of its possible years is 2020, the year for which this issue is the first of three, creating a particularly awkward situation. How does one tease out a topic from the events of a year that has only just begun (three weeks in as of this writing). A lot has happened, so it is conceivable that an enterprising young writer could rely on those three weeks of information to come up with a fine bit of sartorial music writing. Unfortunately, no such writer stepped forward, so you get a semi-worn out and middle-aged editor in their place.

Instead of combing the events of early 2020 for inspiration or dwelling in the present and writing a state-of-the-music speech—a task I neither deserve nor want to do, I’ve decided to use the opportunity of Sites of Formation 2020 to look to the future and write a gentle manifesto of making music together. Time will tell whether I, or you, remain interested in the ideas presented below, but that’s what makes writing about the present so satisfying ; it is always true to its ideas at the time that they are written.

All art relies on a relationship to complexity. Confining ourselves to music, a composition or performance, an idea, or a musical personality is, at least partially, measured—positively or negatively—by our reaction to its complexity. A piece by Elliott Carter, Gérard Grisey, Pauline Oliveros, Roscoe Mitchell, Éliane Radigue can all be broken down and given a qualitative description based solely on how we encounter its intricacy, depth, or density. Carter’s music is one in which the complexity is explicit as an intricacy and density of architecture, notation, and sound. Grisey’s may move to the more implicit as a certain extra-musical knowledge of the physics of sound and depth of listening is presupposed. Oliveros’s music may vary by performance, but the weight of her concepts supplies a kind of indeterminacy as complexity. And, on the other side of that dialectic, Mitchell’s music is built somewhat off of an improvisation in the same way. Éliane Radigue’s music is often seen as simple or minimalist, a drone, but as those who have developed a deep relationship to the sound of her compositions can attest, the sheer weight of the micro-events occurring within a minimal amount of pitches is as intricate and dense as any Boulez work. 

The reader may disagree with any or all of these characterizations, but to do so they must engage on some level with complexity, which only solidifies the position. And, suffice it to say, all of the above examples contain valid ways of generating complex work. These forms of complexity will continue to be valid historically and will morph into new forms over time. However, I would like to make a case here for a deeper exploration of a less-used complexity that is based on human interaction, communication, and community. The way in which material is produced and articulated, either spontaneously or through pre-planning, is qualitatively different when it is produced by two or more people communicating with each other toward a common goal of making music that transcends their individual performance. 

That is an especially fiddly definition of what I’m after but for good reason, as the first thing that comes to most people’s minds when I bring up this idea of, what I call, “mutual aid” complexity or social music is that it already exists in jazz improvisation or in experimental music concepts of indeterminacy. However, there are some basic reasons why I believe this way of thinking to be something set apart from either of those two forms.

In jazz or freely improvised music, a language is presupposed and codified within each player’s history and aesthetic. In the best cases, this language can be molded to fit into a group sound, creating something more transcendent than a variation on the sound of single or multiple, simultaneous, soloists. More often than not, however, the end result is multiple individual languages being spoken at the same time ; not uninteresting, but a different quality of complexity.

Indeterminacy, on the other hand, asks the performers to subvert their personal language in order to take on the composer’s aesthetic and language by asking them to work within the pre-set parameters proposed by that composer or, as often is the case now, the legacy and cultural detritus set up around the memory of that composer. Again, valid and interesting as a way of building a kind of complexity, but producing an altogether different qualitative result.

Beyond improvisation and indeterminacy, I believe there are modes of working that emphasize the act of collective decision making over personal narrative or an imposed structure. Elements of both remain present, of course, as performers will always have a sense of musical self and material for any sort of compositional activity has to come from somewhere. But, by structuring a piece of music so that the material was structured to provoke conversation, process, and unity amongst the musicians by asking them to collectively choose what parts of their language is best suited to the creation of a mutually beneficial outcome, it creates a situation in which the profound complexity of the human to be celebrated in musical form.

In other words, improvisation and indeterminacy deal primarily with the vocabulary of either a performer or composer, and what I’m proposing is composition as a basic set of syntactical rules in order to allow musicians the flexibility to create collective poetry. This way of composing would allow musicians to access the full breadth of their musical history without defaulting to a bricolage of genres. A group of musicians and composers working on how they can, as a unit, produce phrases of music that combine jazz, new music, noise, and folk music into a new and organic whole would produce a musical composition made of complex relationships, causal chains, and combinatory effects that could only be traditionally notated by reverse engineering a score from the performance and could only be improvised by a group that was working with the same rigor as if they had a singular compositional vision. In other words, I’m proposing that we look toward creating music that represents the complex relationships of the everyday.

At the top of this essay, I specifically used the word manifesto. Manifesto presupposes a certain degree of wishful and utopian thinking, and the idea of a “mutual aid” complexity or social music is no different. While there are some using this approach already—Christian Wolff and Ryoko Akama’s music and a recent SA contribution by Lester St. Louis (in SA23 : The Alien Issue) come to mind—there are many questions still to be addressed. How do composers or performers communicate in a way that keeps the power balance equal ? At what point does the freedom and community implied by an attempt at this kind of complexity become a term describing an autocratic or anarchic pursuit rather than a way of making humanly complex music ? The idea is not perfect, and I’ve saved space that may have been spent on my concrete compositional approaches to the idea, but a manifesto is meant to be picked up by others, interpreted, and used to move things forward. I hope it will be and there will be an open exchange of ideas between composers and performers about how they have dealt with form, notation, decision making, and other performance practices in the future.

Finally, the question that should have begun this writing : Why? Why do I think it’s important that we take seriously this specifically social way of generating complexity as one of the ways we structure music moving forward? When we engage in making music, we are practicing a form of society. This way of music represents the kind of culture I want. As great as our continuing musical traditions are, the act of faithfully reproducing a composer’s score is monarchy at best, autocracy at worst, and when we freely improvise we are engaging in a kind of early pure democracy which only sometimes produce results that all involved are happy with. However, when we commit to a music that asks us to work together to make decisions that lift the group’s efforts up above the composer or the individual performer’s, we practice a kind of society in which the input of all is equally valued and the product is something that celebrates the best we have to offer. 

Social or Mutual Aid Music